“Klotsvog is a story of everyday darkness told by the ultimate unreliable narrator… As Maya vibrates on a frequency between ruthless self-determination and charming narcissism, Klotsvog infects its audience with a compulsion to determine which dominates.”
August is Women in Translation Month, and today we’re celebrating the release of Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog, which tells the life story of Maya, a Ukranian Jewish woman living in the Soviet Union in the wake of World War II, who is a strikingly vain narrator, concerned with chronicling the petty dramas and personal demons that have driven her life. In today’s guest post, translator Lisa C. Hayden considers why Klotsvog, filled with historical trauma and the weight of the past, might be a surprisingly good candidate for a beach read.
Remember to enter this week’s drawing for your chance to win a copy of this unexpected beach read.
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Reading at the beach is one of my favorite parts of living on the Maine coast. I always have a beach chair, towel, and book of Pushkin prose in my trunk, for just in case. Pushkin is probably a dead giveaway that I don’t see “beach read” the way some blurbers do, though I think Pushkin’s short stories are wonderful page-turners. Then again, I do most of my beach reading at off-peak times, not when the sun is high.
Some of my fondest oceanside reading memories involve Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s slender One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, where the frenetic brick-laying sequence was perfect for a 2008 fall day that verged on frosty. Mikhail Gigolashvili’s brick-thick The Devil’s Wheel is stuffed with so much humor, post-Soviet angst, newly independent Georgia, and Dostoevsky that it was a perfect late-afternoon distraction (standing in the water!) during a horrible 2010 heatwave. Then there was Alexander Pelevin’s Omon Ra, a bizarre novel about training for the Soviet space program that I read on an equally bizarre day in March 2012 that was unseasonably warm and sunny.
Despite all that, I’d never really pondered why certain books – Pushkin stories? – make for such perfect beach reading until I saw this summertime tweet a few weeks ago, from Christine Dunbar, who edited my translation of Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog for the Russian Library:
A colleague came by to say that he had finished KLOTSVOG and now understands why I got that look on my face when he said he was reading it on the beach. But I love that about this novel: the prose trips along while the horror accretes oh so slowly https://t.co/6dCUxwDXrg
— Christine Dunbar (@cad_pub) July 26, 2019
Christine’s tweet wouldn’t leave me alone and that’s not because I felt flattered that someone from the press was spending time away from work (at the beach, no less) reading my translation. What I really wanted to figure out was why I thought Klotsvog, with its post-war trauma, difficult personalities (to put things mildly), and cramped Soviet-era living situations sounded like an ideal book to read while lying on a towel on Brighton Beach.
Some odd free association reminded me of what Vladimir Nabokov wrote about Gogol’s “The Overcoat” in Nikolai Gogol. Gogol, writes Nabokov, “really let himself go and pottered happily on the brink of his private abyss.” Margarita Khemlin and Nikolai Gogol had more in common than the potential dangers of literary pottering: both were born in Ukraine and wrote in Russian, often setting their work in Ukraine. Margarita certainly knew how to let herself go, too, successfully pottering away (perhaps even happily, I’m not sure) as she created her characters’ voices and situations on genuine private territory – some of her characters are rooted in family – as well as in the broader landscape of ingrained Soviet pain and emotional trauma after World War II. Many characters and their relatives in Klotsvog fought in the war. Though Margarita’s first-person narrator, Maya Klotsvog, was in evacuation at the time, the war’s aftereffects and the burdens Maya feels in being Jewish – after the Holocaust and during a time of pervasive antisemitism – don’t just touch her life, they weigh heavily on nearly everything she does, giving her no peace.
“Margarita certainly knew how to let herself go, too, successfully pottering away (perhaps even happily, I’m not sure) as she created her characters’ voices and situations on genuine private territory…”
Maya’s difficulties fitting in and getting along are the sorts of things that run through the back of my mind when I survey the beach. I determine which way the tides are moving, observe duck families swimming back and forth (summer 2019 brought record numbers of ducklings, several dozen), and watch children build sand castles that won’t last a day. It’s not (just) the curative effect that nature’s cycles offer to readers of heavy subject matter that makes me want to tell you to put Klotsvog in your beach bag, though. It’s how Margarita tells her story, how she does her pottering as she carefully spins a slow story that builds momentum both as an in-depth character study and, to borrow from Christine, as a horror story that brings Maya, her family, and her readers to some kind of private brink, too, as they sort through their feelings about Maya’s behavior, which is often pretty execrable. And then there are the numerous historical, personal, and political forces that shape who she is. It’s a harrowing story that’s not just about Maya.
To get technical for a moment, Margarita wrote Klotsvog using skaz, a term for mimicking oral speech, and she gave Maya a very distinctive, very immediate, and very Soviet-era voice. Maya makes odd mistakes, tries to sound lofty, and sometimes gets a little schmaltzy. But she’s a real storyteller, one who stretches the truth. My translation attempts to find an English-language equivalent that will suck readers in the same way the Russian does, pulling them along for Maya’s (mis)adventures with her husbands, children, and mother as she tries to find literal and metaphorical places for herself. What Margarita does is risky because the reader has to buy into the voice and the story from the first page, believing that Maya could speak in this voice.
“What Margarita does is risky because the reader has to buy into the voice and the story from the first page, believing that Maya could speak in this voice.”
Maya’s voice drew me in as soon as I opened the book: I immediately wanted to know all about her, her family, and her hometown. I don’t remember how long it took me to read Klotsvog but I remember turning pages and not being able to put it down. The horror that Christine mentions intensifies as the story circles around and around with new men, new living spaces, and new challenges. And Maya keeps doing unforgivable things, forcing the reader over and over again to wonder how to perceive her. Sure, there’s melodrama, but that’s not what would make Klotsvog ideal beach reading: it’s Margarita’s skaz behind Maya’s voice that turns Maya into a gossipy narrator who might as well be on the next towel talking, obsessively, about every little thing. You might turn to watch the seagulls eat someone’s sandwich but you won’t tell her to stop. And then there’s the chill I felt each time I reread the book, thinking not only about Maya’s misdeeds but also her environment and Soviet history. It may not be easy reading for the nerves and the emotions, but that’s what the waves, the soft sand, the sun, and the ducklings are for. To soothe.
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P.S. Since it’s Women in Translation Month, I’ll mention two other Russian Library books that kept me reading even when I wasn’t in a comfortable spot with a cup of coffee in my hand and a cat on my lap. Nora Seligman Favorov’s translation of Sofia Khvoshchinskaya’s City Folk and Country Folk is a fun and funny look at rural Russia in the nineteenth century. It kept me happily plodding on the treadmill. And Marian Schwartz’s translation of Olga Slavnikova’s The Man Who Couldn’t Die, which takes a wonderfully cutting look at post-Soviet Russia, made the stress of airport delays and indignity of cramped planes melt away.