Olga Zilberbourg is the author of LIKE WATER & OTHER STORIES (WTAW Press) and three Russian-language collections of stories. Her fiction and essays have appeared in Lit Hub, Electric Literature, Scoundrel Time, World Literature Today, Tin House Online, Narrative Magazine, and elsewhere. She serves as a co-facilitator of the San Francisco Writers Workshop.
Translator and blogger Lisa C. Hayden is one of the most attentive readers of contemporary Russian literature I know. As soon as I had galleys, I sent her a copy of my book, more of a fan’s gesture than anything else. It’s wonderful to see that my book did resonate with her. As always, Lisa is an attentive and thoughtful in her analysis, and I love the company my book gets to keep on her blog–she reviewed it alongside two English-language books that sound like must-reads.
This sort of inexplicable success, often in stories that initially feel unremarkable, is one of my favorite sensations when reading. (I have a special affection for fiction that initially feels unremarkable but then finds something tranformingly transcendent.) Most of all, I don’t want to know how Olga does this. One thing I do know, though, is that she has lots of inexplicable successes in Like Water, both at capturing cultural and linguistic differences, and at capturing idiosyncrasies in ways that, taken together, not only broaden language but broaden our views of humanity.
Listening to the new recording of Johannes Brahms’s Clarinet Sonatas and Trio by Marie Ross, Petra Somlai, and Claire-Lise Démettre, I recalled a recent conversation with a friend who recounted a first date. The CD opens with the sonatas for the two instruments, clarinet and piano. From the first bars, I was transported into the intimate space created by the two. The piano issues an invitation, a gesture of welcome, and the clarinet launches into her story, sounding so vulnerable it made me blush; the tension between the two felt that palpable. As soon as the clarinet starts telling her story, she fears that she has revealed too much, and it is only with the piano’s support that she can continue speaking. The piano prods, asks clarifying questions, restates what she’s heard, exclaims in surprise, and generally acts as a friend who is, herself, invested in the story. The lived experiences—the subject of the conversation—take shape as a result of the conversation. The dialogue between the two instruments shapes the story; the piano’s strong backing and insistence on drawing out the clarinet’s sound embolden the clarinet, allow it to express itself with greater confidence and wider range of emotion. The vulnerability is still there, but as the movements progress, reflection on the past experiences gives way to inhabiting the present moment, the space that the clarinet is sharing with the piano.
The relationship between past experiences and the present moment is clearly a subject of investigation for the musicians who are performing on historical instruments. All three pieces are a part of standard repertoire, and multitudes of versions of this music is available online. This recording stands out as much for its philosophical underpinnings as for the quality of its execution. In a mini-series of podcasts that accompany the recording, clarinetist Marie Ross suggests that music performance has undergone tremendous change in the XXth century as a result of recording technology itself—and the music we’re used to hearing has become standardized, composers’ scores treated in much more prescriptive terms than they had been meant to. The return to historical instruments implies rediscovering the way these instruments had been played in the past by the musicians who first performed this music.
Brahms wrote these pieces for Richard Mühlfeld, a clarinetist with whom he had developed a profound friendship at the end of his life. He and Mühlfeld premiered these pieces together in Vienna in 1895, and the trio was premiered a few years earlier in Berlin, with another friend, Robert Hausmann playing the cello. No recordings exist of these musicians, and it is only through listening to the recordings of their students and studying the scores, reviews, letters, biographies that musicians can attempt to reconstruct the sound of the era. Ross has carefully researched the differences, and two that she mentions in line notes have contributed to my listening experience. First, tempo elasticity: “It would have been standard to speed up with the crescendo and slow down with the diminuendo, and both together (the ‘hairpin’) was especially meaningful,” Ross writes. This notion of elasticity has helped to smooth over the contrasts between the quiet and the exuberant passages in the music, to connect them in a way that feels organic. The climaxes, when they come, feel as a natural peak of the emotional development that precedes them, and instead of abrupt and sudden endings, we are allowed moments of closure. The drama of these moments resonates all the deeper because of the space it’s given to develop. The second difference that Ross brings to our attention is the idea of dislocation: “not playing together for expressive purposes.” Strict simultaneity is another value that has entered classical music with the advent of the recording industry, and that’s simply not the Brahms expected his music to sound. “The instruments sometimes purposely play before or after each other, to heighten the expression and meaning.” As pianists, who were trained to separate their left and the right hands, chamber ensembles expected this of musicians playing together. It is uncommon today to hear three instruments that are not perfectly in sync with one another, and the effect is significant. Listening to the music, I heard three individual voices, each with their own distinct personalities and ideas, communicating to one another. To me, it was a rare chance to hear, on a recording, music as a conversation between the musicians and their instruments, between the musicians and the composer, and between the musicians themselves. Both the moments of dislocation and of unison become wonderfully meaningful. The complexity of this music is as layered with meaning as it is with joy and deep connection.
In the CD notes, Ross notes with pride that the instruments we hear on this recording are original instruments, not modern copies of period pieces. A lot of thought went into the selection and modification of the instruments for the recording. New York Steinway piano was the instrument that Brahms always requested on his concert tours, and Petra Somlai uses 1875 model of it. On the accompanying podcast series, Ross talks about the clarinets she chose, and cellist Claire-Lise Démettre explains how she modified her 1929 instrument for this recording. An interesting effect is created when XXIst century musicians play on XIXth and early XXth century instruments. The instruments themselves have wizened, have acquired age marks. Many of the imperfections that the modern musicians try to smooth over become features of the historic performance. The difference, to my ear, was most readily apparent in the sound of the cello. Démettre used gut strings on her cello, instead of the modern steel, giving her instrument an incomparable deep, rich voice. The clarinet, too, sounded noticeably different from its modern cousins: as a note lingers, its shading changes ever so slightly, as though giving shape to the texture of the instrument’s wood. The expressiveness of this music felt effortless, undoubtedly due to the experience and the capability of the musicians.
It is also clear that in the process of studying their instruments, the musicians have acquired an uncommon depth of knowledge and expertise about the composer and his era. All three pieces included in this recording are a product of Brahms’s meeting with Mühlfeld. What did the friendship mean to these men? The photographs of the two musicians I find online show two stout and wildly bearded men with high foreheads and intense gazes, Mühlfeld holding his instrument not unlike one would hold a cigar. Yet the Internet is also full of wonder about the feminine nicknames Brahms had for Mühlfeld: “Fräulein Klarinette,” “Meine Prima donna,” “The nightingale of the orchestra.” He clearly was of the highest opinion of Mühlfeld’s skill, writing to Clara Schumann, “Nobody can blow the clarinet more beautifully than Herr Mühlfeld,” but the nicknames go beyond professional admiration in attesting a friendship.
Brahms’s relationship with Mühlfeld cannot be reproduced, but clearly, in studying the history of performance of the pieces, the musicians have given it a lot of thought. They make educated guesses not only about the technical composition of the pieces, but also about the underlying emotions that the music gives shapes to. The contemporary performance becomes a conversation about what the music could’ve meant for Brahms and his close friends, as well as a conversation about the musicians’ own experiences with the music in the present moment. This gives each note, each transition extra weight of meaning, and for the listener, it’s an invitation to enter the world of the music and to feel it and to think about it alongside the musicians.
I found all three pieces powerful and thought-provoking, and the addition of the cello in the third piece on the CD—the trio—particularly satisfying. The cello on the trio sounds darker and somehow more world-weary to the questioning, fanciful clarinet, and the firm, self-confident piano. In the movements of the trio, it is as though they go through telling each other of a lifetime’s worth of experiences, and as they trade of bits of melody, I felt like this was the most ultimately rewarding conversation, in which each participant takes time to reflect what they’ve heard before introducing a variation or a different thread of thought. I was captivated by every idea, by every emotion of this music, and felt nurtured by it and a little better prepared to listen to the pauses of my quiet friend.
A conference of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs is coming up in March, hosted this year at the Convention Center in San Antonio, Texas. I have three events as a part of this conference:
Thursday, March 5, 10:35 am
Room 211, Henry B. González Convention Center, Meeting Room Level
A Panel, High Style and Misdemeanors: The Virtues and Vices of Elevated Prose. (Lauren Alwan, Anita Felicelli, Olga Zilberbourg, Lillian Howan, Aatif Rashid) The hallmarks of high style—elevated voice, obsession with the pictorial, self-consciousness, and poetic devices—are rooted in Flaubert and European realism. Can writers whose work concerns immigration and displacement embrace a stylistic approach that has historically been disengaged and apolitical? Authors of fiction that centers on immigration, intergenerational stories, and belonging, read their work and discuss the intersection of elevated prose and socially and politically engaged work.
Thursday, March 5, 6 pm
Jokesters 22 Pub n Grub, 713 S. Alamo St.
A Reading, WTAW Press and Friends: Join WTAW Press & Friends for readings from Angela Mitchell, Anita Felicelli, Annie Kim, Lillian Howan, Olga Zilberbourg & Sarah Stone. Peg Alford Pursell will emcee.
The impetus for creating this post came from a recent Twitter discussion. We at Punctured Lines decided to accept a dare and came up with a list of notable Russian titles available in English translation from the last decade. This has been an opportunity to take stock of the years 2009-2019, both to remember the books we’ve read and to look back at those that we might have missed.
In this task, we relied heavily on Lisa Hayden’s blog, Lizok’s Bookshelf, where Lisa keeps chronological track of the English translations – our deep gratitude for creating and maintaining this resource. Our methodology for choosing among all those works was based on several factors. Rather obviously, for our purposes we only considered works by women. We also wanted to highlight writers whose names may not be very familiar to English-speaking readers but whose work we feel deserves wider exposure…
I’m deeply grateful to Jen Hinst-White of The Common for this thoughtful review of LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES:
The story drops an idea on the table and leaves the reader with something to puzzle out. It’s an example of Zilberbourg’s skill with brevity; even the longer pieces in this collection are just ten or twelve pages, stories to eat quickly and digest slowly. Some, like “Email” and “One’s Share,” are no longer than a paragraph. (This feels appropriate, given all the childrearing themes here. For parents of small children, sometimes an entire meal consists of small, stolen bites, chewed while doing something else. The same can be true for our reading and writing lives.)
The stories in this collection are so interrelated that questions provoked by one story are sometimes given context by another.
I’m delighted and grateful to Linda Kinstler and Los Angeles Review of Books for reviewing my book in a thoughtful piece that places it side by side with the book by my comrade and compatriot Olga Livshin.
What should one tell one’s children of a former life? How much should be passed down? How much can be? These questions also animate Olga Zilberbourg’s new book of short fiction, Like Water and Other Stories, her first collection published in the United States. …
One of Zilberbourg’s heroines, newly graduated from college and desiring to learn more about her heritage, goes to live with an elderly Russian woman in a nearby town. When that experience does not suffice, she goes to St. Petersburg, where she catches the flu, gets groped, and feels alienated and stonewalled by the city’s bureaucracy. “I was back in the United States within a month,” our heroine admits. She discovers that the city of her parents owes her nothing, that it is not required to open itself up to those who were deflected from its path.
Here’s a podcast interview I gave about LIKE WATER AND OTHER STORIES to Jennifer Eremeeva for the New Books Network. Listen to the audio below or go to Jennifer’s website or download the interview through searching for New Books Network on your favorite podcasting app!
A new generation of Russian emigres is blessed — or cursed — with the ease of long-haul flights and frequent flyer miles, Skype and FaceTime, Google translate, and regulations that seem anyway to be more forgiving about former citizens traveling to and fro. For them, the border has become far more porous than it ever was, and the choices are now more nuanced. However, there are still plenty of cultural minefields to navigate. To this generation that includes writers as disparate as Gary Shteyngart and Irina Reyn comes Olga Zilberbourg with a new collection of short stories, “Like Water and Other Stories.”
A short story from my book is up on Ravishly today. It’s a quick read, and I hope, an entertaining one. This story is from the book’s middle, a lighter one, and also deeply connected with the other pieces from the collection. Both new motherhood and the relationships between grown children and parents are major threads.
I brought my mother to therapy with me today. Mother butted shoulders with me to march into the therapist’s office a step ahead. “I have to tell you right away, I don’t see why my daughter needs therapy,” she said, stopping in the middle of the room, halfway to the couch. “She’s a little anxious and disorganized, but who isn’t? Frankly, I don’t believe in therapy.”
I’m so grateful to Odette Heideman for her deep engagement with my work — she’d published a story of mine, The Green Light of Dawn, in Epiphany literary magazine some years ago, and we’ve stayed in touch since then. She asked thoughtful questions that were fun to respond to. Huge thanks to Kendra Allenby for the portrait!
Like Water is not a traditional novel, but it reads like a novel in a way, with the immigrant condition as a sort of blanketing narrative. Looking at Like Water as a whole, the immigrant-in-a-new-world is an archetypal character—male, female, young, old—all encompassed in one larger character. Did you sort through stories you had to find the ones that feel this connection? How did it come together?
Thank you for characterizing the book as a non-traditional novel! This is precisely the effect I was going for. My training is in comparative literature, and I’ve done some work in narrative theory. As a reader, I am always conscious about the way I look beyond the characters and the narrators of a book, searching for the consciousness of the implied author to guide my reading experience. Who is that person structuring the information on the page? What can I tell about her politics, about her ethical values, about the strengths and the limitations of her factual knowledge? These questions inform my analysis and appreciation of the text.