“The bright side of the planet moves toward darkness and the cities are falling asleep, each in its hour, and for me, now as then, it is too much. There is too much world,” wrote Czesław Miłosz in The Separate Notebooks. As we welcome the new year with an uncertain turning of the page, Miłosz’s surrendering to the overwhelming flood of the world’s cosmic hugeness feels apt, consoling even, for our times. Across Eastern Europe, political, environmental, and social futures appear obscure; its literature, however, remains engaged, unsettled, illuminating, and resistant to the forces that threaten the erosion of complexity and nuance. The world is too much, but Miłosz is not calling for resignation; he is saying we must go towards it.
Where better than the fresh pages of this year’s best new books to ponder these questions? In 2022, there are old works newly translated in the form of Konstantin Paustovsky’s Soviet epic The Story of a Life and New Hull, and an inventive cycle of poems by Russia’s first openly gay writer, Mikhail Kuzmin. Across the Caucasus, Georgian poet Diana Anphimiadi’s Why I No Longer Write Poems stretches the limits of the form, while Yelena Moskovich experiments with the novel in A Door Behind a Door. Mikolaj Grynberg explores Jewish legacies in contemporary Poland, and Yevgenia Belorusets gives voice to marginalised women in Ukraine’s Donbas region. What unites these books is a similarly voracious inspection of form and a stubborn refusal of orthodox structures – impulses that feel timely, necessary and, above all, generative to imagining new futures.
This new translation of Soviet writer Konstantin Paustovsky’s (1892-1968) long-neglected, Tolstoyan-length memoir introduces the first three volumes of his epic autobiography: detailing his life growing up in Ukraine, working as a paramedic during the First World War, and the Soviet takeover of power. Paustovsky is neither sanguine, nor scathing about communist life, while his prose is highly observational, free from argumentation or theoretical prattle. Instead, he details the emergence of his individual consciousness, dedicated to writing, his country, and the cultivation of a rich inner life, which, set against the developments of early 20th century Ukraine and Russia, makes for a compelling ground-level work of historical testimony.
Comprising 31 short, first-person vignettes, I’d Like to Say Sorry, But There’s No One to Say Sorry to is the fictional debut of contemporary Polish photographer, psychologist and writer Mikołaj Grynberg. The stories are based on real testimony from Polish Jews, and Grynberg finds both range and rhyme between the voices which provide a panorama of Jewish legacies in contemporary Poland. Beneath the rippling surface of Grynberg’s humorous and acerbic prose lie deeper, darker currents, best formulated by leading Polish author Olga Tokarczuk: “If the diagnosis they present is right, then we have a great problem in Poland.”
War is a narrative frequently monopolised by men, but it is the women of Yevgenia Belorusets’ collection of stories Lucky Breaks that tell tales of survival, loss, and insurgency in the war-torn Ukrainian region of Donbas. Belorusets — a writer, journalist, and photographer who represented Ukraine at the 56th Venice Biennale — draws us into the lives of women on the margins of society: horoscope readers, the unemployed, caregivers and mystics. In Belorusets’ prose — which braids together the real with the phantasmagorical — we find inflections of a common humanity in the smallest of details.
As with her previous novels, Virtuoso and The Natashas, Yelena Moskovich’s latest work A Door Behind a Door explores exile, legacies of the past, and the homes we create for ourselves: in places, in people, and in language. The setting is Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and in her characteristically Lynchian fashion, Moskovich stitches familiar tropes of thriller fiction into a full-blooded human story. Formally, it is her most experimental work, written in short, broken paragraphs that suggest a disjointedness, fragmentation. It is a structure that chimes with how Moskovich conceives the idea of home, a place she has referred to as a “pocket with a hole”. Moskovich is perhaps unrivaled in her interplay between form and subject, experimenting with how the two can be woven together, merged, and often, ecstatically confused. Read our interview with her on this novel here.
How to give form to the formlessness of trauma? Bulgarian author Nataliya Deleva tackles this question in her novel Arrival, which follows her 2017 work Four Minutes — named Bulgaria’s Best Debut Novel at the 2018 Peroto Literary Awards. Arrival tells the story of a young woman in flight, both from her home country and from the violence she suffered at the hands of her alcoholic father. Deleva’s story is not told in neatly packaged chapters, but shards of flashbacks, memories, and observations, in prose that is languid and inquiring.
Polina Barskova is a Russian author, poet, academic, and a leading scholar on the Leningrad Siege. Living Pictures – a genre-bending story featuring memoir, art criticism, and the story of two lovers stuck in the Hermitage during the blockade – fuses archival material with experimental prose, and won Russia’s oldest independent literary prize, the Andrei Bely Prize, in 2015. The author of 12 collections of poems and two prose works, Barskova edited Written in the Dark: Five Poets in the Siege of Leningrad (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016), a restitutive anthology of five authors whose siege poetry was long repressed by state authorities. With the translation of Living Pictures in 2022 (which will accompany Air Raid, a collection of Barskova’s poems translated by Valzhyna Mort), the writer’s inquiring analysis of post-Siege mourning and memory will deservedly reach wider audiences.
Zagreb-born Daša Drndić was one of the most significant voices of Balkan literature. Her weighty, elegiac novels — which include Trieste, Belladonna, E.E.G., and Leica Format — are first and foremost about the frayed nature of memory, books often referred to as documentary fictions for their inclusion of archive materials and referential texts in the style of German author W.G. Sebald. In Canzone di Guerra — originally published in 1998, and now translated into English — the narrator pieces together fragments of her past through autofiction, documentary material, and culinary recipes. Together they knit together the themes of exile, conflict, and identity — an essential thematic trinity in Drndić’s work.
Russia’s literary provocateur-in-chief, Vladimir Sorokin, returns with his latest novel Telluria. Set in a warring, fragmented future, Telluria is narrated by a carnivalesque cast of characters which includes partisans and princes, peasants and party leaders, a harem of phalluses, and a dog-headed poet. Sorokin — whose work was once banned in the Soviet Union, and was later accused of “promoting cannibalism” by pro-Kremlin activists for his work Nastya — won the Andrei Bely award for his contributions to Russian literature in 2001. In searing, effervescent prose, Sorokin builds paranormal worlds in which, disquietingly, we find illuminating rhymes with our own.
Why I No Longer Write Poems is Tbilisi-based writer Diana Anphimiadi’s first full-length Georgian-English poetry collection, and her fifth book in all. Her previous volumes — which include Chocolate and Trajectory of the Short-Sighted — have earned her prestigious awards, including first prize in the 2008 Tsero (Crane Award), and the Saba Prize for the best first collection in 2009. Demonstrating formal range and subversiveness, Anphimiadi blends classical images and myths with contemporary techniques, dilating the boundaries of the poetic form. Prayers, recipes, dance lessons, definitions — this accumulation of the unspoken everyday comprises the collection of raw materials in Anphimiadi’s poetic bricolage.
“Kuzmin brought dissident songs from the Volga shores,” wrote Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, describing the poetry of Mikhail Kuzmin, Russia’s first openly gay poet, in 1922. As well as penning his two most famous works – his novel Wings and poem cycle The Trout Breaks the Ice – Yaroslav-born Kuzmin translated Shakespeare into Russian, and was an important influence on the Acmeist poetry movement, spearheaded by Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, among others. In his cycle New Hull, Kuzmin responds to Fritz Lang’s four and a half hour-long silent film Dr. Mabuse, the Gambler, playing with the contested boundary between subject and object, spectator and viewer.