Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York Magazine and the author of the novel Ground Up. In his last post, Michael wrote about the challenge of self-translation. Heâ€™ll be blogging all week for MyJewishLearning and the Jewish Book Council.
Russia is incredibly small. Yes, I know itâ€™s the worldâ€™s largest landmass. But the visible and audible Russia â€“ the Russia emitting the light and noise we call culture â€“ is tiny, comprised of a few thousand people in Moscow and St. Petersburg with occasional outposts in places like Perm and Krasnoyarsk. And even in Moscow, the chattering classes are small enough to fit into two or three smoke-filled bistros (where they, in fact, do spend most of their time).
This makes the processes of literary hype, as I recently found out, churn much faster than in the U.S. â€“ at an almost comic speed. The Russian translation of Ground Up â€“ now called Kofemolka (â€œThe Coffee Grinderâ€) â€“ came out in mid-November. The reception wasâ€¦ remarkable. It went from â€œWho is Michael Idov?â€ to â€œWho does Michael Idov think he is?â€ and back in the space of, roughly, two weeks. I am still feeling the double whiplash from being discovered, denounced and rediscovered all before Thanksgiving.
As Iâ€™ve mentioned in my previous post, I had been a little worried that the bookâ€™s very specific focus on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, its Jewish history and its most recent generation of hipster arrivistes would glaze any foreign readerâ€™s eyes. At best, I was hoping, the readers would follow my flailing characters like they would a couple of fish in a fishbowl â€“ amusing, pretty perhaps, completely unrelatable. I was completely wrong. Globalization, it seems, has created a phenomenon wherein every culture is foliated into very thin layers, but each layer has much more in common with its equivalents in other cultures than its neighbors above and below. As a blockbuster economic theory, this needs some work: itâ€™s a kind of Big Millefeuille of Long Tails. But Iâ€™ve watched it at work in Moscow.