Thursday, August 30, 2007

St. Petersburg Review

The inaugural issue of St. Petersburg Review bridges the gap between contemporary English and Russian literature. The word “gap” here might make some raise their eyebrows. “What gap?” you might say. Contemporary English literature certainly makes its way over to Russia. The works of Bret Easton Ellis, Paul Auster, Margaret Atwood, etc can be found in most large bookstores in Russia. Abroad Victor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin, and Ludmila Ulitskaya are discussed on university campuses, and I don’t just mean in the classroom. No really, last spring I was sitting in a student union and overheard a boy and a girl discussing the plot of Hermit and Six Toes (a short story from Pelevin’s first book The Blue Lantern). Also, publishers like Northwestern University, Ugly Duckling, and Zephyr are translating new and important work. So, gap? No, there is a bridge. Maybe it is a very small bridge, but it’s still a bridge. But small does not mean insignificant. If we for instance consider the Panamanian Land Bridge, we see that this small bit of land (namely Panama) greatly altered the ecosystems of the Americas. The huge "terror birds" that were the top predators in South America were suddenly out competed by North American lions, tigers, and bears. From the south, North America inherited such critters as the opossum, armadillo, and porcupine.

But this is supposed to be a review of the inaugural issue of St. Petersburg Review –a review of a review. The reason I mention the Panamanian Land Bridge and the tigers, bears, and armadillos is because I see an analogy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, or just prior to the official fall, the Berlin Wall fell. When the Berlin Wall fell a bridge was made –two cultural islands were suddenly no longer islands. And so now, 16 years after the official crumbling of the Soviet Union the two former islands have begun swapping porcupines and lions. Now, if we consider New York City (where the St. Petersburg Review is published) and St. Petersburg (the city after which the review is named) we can make the unabashed analogy: North America: New York City :: South America: St. Petersburg. By this I mean most of the top predators (Steven King, Tom Clancy, etc.) are coming from the west side of the Atlantic. But this should not either surprise or perturb us.

The world of literary magazines, and especially the world of poetry, is not composed of lions and bears, but of armadillos and the opossums, and the St. Petersburg Review has found some of the best working in Russia today. From the more traditional poetry Sergei Gandlevsky to the conceptualist poetry of Dmitry Prigov (to whose memory the issue is dedicated) the material represents a vast array of approaches to the page. The inaugural issue also has a bilingual section entitled: “Poetry and Fiction by Women of the Gulag”. The translations in this section are a bit choppy, but they manage to resonate the most important aspect of the prisoner experience: suffering and hope. When this combination carries through, when it isn’t imbued with Spielberg violins, sheer beauty is the result. This section is not just literature it is an important historical testament –a part of our global cultural memory.

The issue also includes work by prominent American opossums such as Eugene Ostashevsky, Padgett Powell (who has a great story entitled “Yeltsin”), Liz Rosenberg, George Saunders, and Matvei Yankelevich.

It’s been 16 years since the fall. American culture has swept through the former Soviet Union like rats off a ship. Now it is time for Russia to return the favor. There are some great rats coming off this ship! As Dan Wickett writes: “If this is the type of product they'll continue to publish, you should subscribe now!”

Monday, August 20, 2007


One of the most important literary projects in Russia today is the creation of LitKarta or The Literary Map of Russia. LitKarta is the brainchild of Dmitry Kuzmin (one of the most productive curators of contemporary Russian literature). Kuzmin’s idea was to create a site that would help Russian authors from different regions be aware of each others’ work. The idea is now a reality, and the project is huge!

Russia is made up of eighty-five regions (some of which are larger than Texas), and each region has its own capital. Because of Russia’s enormous size it is often easier to focus on Moscow and St. Petersburg than to search the provinces for the next Velimir Khlebnikov.

Russia may have officially abandoned the centralized system, but in reality both economically and artistically Moscow and St. Petersburg are pretty much the only game in town. People like Dmitry Kuzmin are attempting to change this –LitKarta is such an attempt. It will level the playing field by putting cities like Samara on par with Moscow. Each region and capital will be allotted its own space, and the authors in each region will be given the same opportunities.

The project is ambitious. The site will contain: authors’ bios, samples of written work and spoken word, a calendar of literary events, a social network of blogs, a list of literary projects, and so forth. If successful LitKarta will be the first of its kind, and may even serve as a model for future projects in other countries. Just imagine such a project in Europe, or the United States.

We will have to see. For now LitKarta is just beginning to blossom. As the project develops it will be interesting to observe how the Russian literary community responds. If successful there is talk of an English version! That way not only Russians, but English speakers will be able to participate in Russia’s vibrant literary scene.