Monday, June 13, 2011

The National Bestseller

Dave and I left St. Petersburg yesterday and flew to Copenhagen via Stockholm. Right now we're traveling across Denmark, from Copenhagen to a small town in the middle of Jutland, Herning. Tonight, Roger Waters is playing in the large music arena there, and we not only get a chance to see The Wall show in its European version, but also to step off the tourist path for a little while.

The last week of my stay in St. Petersburg was particularly hectic. Dave arrived on Sunday, and the days flew by in a whirl of visits with family and friends--and some sightseeing. Looking back, I think the most interesting event I attended that I didn't get a chance to write about was a literary award ceremony last Sunday. I got a pass to attend this ceremony because the people who run the event, Viktor Toporov and Vadim Levental, are also the chief editor and the associate editor of Limbus press, the press that published my second Russian-language collection in the fall of last year. The event was scheduled last Sunday afternoon, exactly when Dave was due to arrive from the US via Stockholm. My parents picked Dave up from the airport, while I sat among the "press" (according to the pass I'd been given) and observed the local writers and critics.

The award is called "National Bestseller," and when Viktor Toporov invented it 11 years ago, he gave it a slogan: "Wake up famous." The American term "bestseller" here doesn't signify that the book has been a popular choice of the reading crowd, vice versa -- the award is given by a jury of annually selected critics (literary, film, cultural) and fellow creative types. The idea is, I suppose, that (to use a Russian term) an "elite" book would receive a press moment and would then climb higher in the bestseller charts. The prize amounts to $10,000. However, a week prior to this ceremony, there was another ceremony called "Super Bestseller" -- staged in Moscow, the competition was among the ten previous winners of the "National Bestseller" who were competing for the title of the decade and the monetary reward of $100,000. (The award has very wealthy sponsors).

This was the second literary award ceremony that I've had the privilege to attend in my life. A little over a year ago, I was in the audience when the Northern California Book Award in the general non-fiction category was given to Tamim Ansary, the beloved leader of San Francisco Writers Workshop. That ceremony was held in the main lecture hall, the Koret Auditorium, of San Francisco's Public Library. The event was freely open to the public and the people who received the awards got a chance to read a few pages from their books. I remember finding the event very interesting, in large part because I was exposed to the work of the writers I hadn't heard of before.

The award ceremony of "National Bestseller" took place in the Winter Hall of a luxury downtown hotel in St. Petersburg, "Astoria." (During the Soviet Era, this hotel housed exclusively foreign visitors to the country). In the foyer the guests were served drinks (wine, champagne). Many photographers with large cameras were taking pictures of the illustrious crowd, creating the atmosphere of a "high class" event. I mingled with a few people I knew socially until the doors to the hall were opened, then found a seat in the back of the room. The two MCs, Artemij Troitskii and Julia Aug, introduced first the organizers of the prize, Viktor Toporov and Vadim Levental, then the books and the members of the jury. Troitskii (who is a well-known media personality) was playing the "comic" to Aug's "straight man," except Aug seemed very nervous and sometimes got confused about the order of things. Victor Toporov didn't help much by yelling out corrections from his seat to the side of the stage.

Toporov made an introductory speech, in which he characterized the authors of all six books up for the prize as "romantic characters." This is actually something that I've been thinking a lot about lately--contemporary Russian fiction largely seems to answer Northrop Frye's definition of romance. As Toporov pointed out, five of the six novels have fantastical elements to them -- realism as a genre is not particularly popular with the contemporary Russian authors. Part of this is probably a reaction to the official Soviet genre of "socialist realism," part of it is escapism, and part something else that I can't quite define at the moment. In a very romantic pose, two of the writers didn't show up for the event, the third excused himself claiming a broken leg, and the fourth was present in the audience but didn't want to reveal her real name.

As an aside, of six novels up for the prize, five were penned by men and sixth came under a gender-neutral pseudonym, Figl-Migl (the English-language equivalent would be roughly "Hurdy-Gurdy"). In the course of the evening, it was revealed that the person hiding behind this pseudonym is a woman who wished to leave her true identity private. She, they said, was present at the ceremony, but incognito. The ratio of men and women was matched in the jury: one woman among six jurors. The jury had one extra member, the seventh -- the "honored juror," called to resolve ties. She, in this case, was also a woman, a notorious personality: Ksenia Sobchak. Ksenia Sobchak is the daughter of St. Petersburg's first mayor, Anatoliy Sobchak. The man was considered a hero during the Perestroika era, but then his reputation became muddied in the later Yeltsin years. He died young--too young--and whether he died on his own or if he had some assistance remains unknown. His daughter Ksenia, a public personality from a very young age, went through a very rough Lindsey Lohan-type period that included starring in some horrible Moscow-based reality shows. Now and then she appears on talk shows or in the press, and everything she says is immediately noticed and carries a tinge of scandal. In any case, her speech at the National Bestseller ceremony was very tasteful -- in general, she spoke as a professional, delivering her points in a calm and self-assured way, very aware of the impact her words might carry. She expressed some surprise at being invited to judge a literary contest, and then plainly stated her opinion about the two top books. The one thing I found odd about her speech was that she kept referring to herself in the third person: "Ksenia Sobchak thinks..." This created an impression that she treated herself as a brand, as a project, rather than as a human being, as an individual with an opinion.

I'd read or started reading four of the six books up for the award, but not enough to really form an opinion. The book that won the prize, Dmitriy Bykov's "Ostromov, or a magician's assistant," was one of the two that I didn't get a chance to read. Dmitriy Bykov is one of Russia's most prominent contemporary writers. (In fact, I heard that he was invited to lecture at UC Berkeley this coming fall). He's already won National Bestseller award once, and it's somewhat unlikely that winning this award the second time will bring him any more fame. Ksenia Sobchak giving her deciding vote for his novel, talked about it as a "good novel," the kind that has a well-developed plot. Nobody said very much more to recommend the novel. None of the writers (the two of them in attendance) had a chance to read from their books, and so indeed my general impression was that the competition wasn't so much about the books but about the writers themselves and their different poses and gestures, the romance of it all.

Meantime, Dave is blogging about our adventures in Denmark:

1 comment:

  1. Perhaps Ksenia spoke of herself in the third person because somebody wrote the speech for her and she couldn't figure out how to change the perspective.