Part of the herd or right on trend?

I have been listening to Book at Bedtime on Radio 4 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b006qtlx) with closer attention than usual this week.  It is a reading of a first novel ‘Snowdrops’ by AD Miller set in Moscow sometime in the last 10 years seen through the eyes of an expat lawyer approaching 40. I’ve not read the book and I’ve only heard 3 of the episodes so I’m only guessing how it’s going to end, but it has set me thinking.

It might be because I spent a couple of years as an expat in Moscow (in the 1990s), or because I’ve just completed the first draft of a novel set in Moscow seen through the eyes of an expat.  Is ‘Snowdrops’ a rival, or is it a sign of a developing publishing trend?

I’ve been listening closely to the style and content decisions made by the author, as I have faced many of the same.  How do you convey the Russian spoken fluently by the Russian characters and badly by the English ones?  Do you make everyone speak a stilted pidgin version of Russian, which because the novel is written in English are of necessity …in English?  Or do you drop in bits of real Russian which risks alienating an English speaking reader?

How much do you need to explain about everyday normalities of Moscow life for an English reader without labouring it and making the novel sound too much like a travelogue?

I recognise parts of the Moscow described in ‘Snowdrops’; I recognise the rather hapless hero too.  He reminds me of the type who, after a couple of ‘unfortunate incidents’, prompted one manager in my office to distribute a note to the effect ‘if you were only moderately attractive in your home country, passing through Russian immigration won’t have changed that.  If that beautiful young woman laying herself across your lap looks too good to be true, it’s because she is.’

So I can see similarities with my work; but I’m hoping the differences are greater.  ‘Snowdrops’ seems to be a story of decline, where I hope mine is one of redemption; it is a plot driven piece where I like to think mine, although I’ve worked hard on the plot, is more about character.

I’m not sure, either, that AD Miller is that interested in language, as otherwise it is difficult to understand some of his choices.   Bouncers at a restaurant are described as ‘Himalayan’.  Surely I’m not the only person who thought ‘I’ve never seen a Sherpa in Moscow’? A woman’s smile is ‘nice’.  Nice?  Hasn’t he read Writing 101? The city smells of ‘beer and revolution’. Er, no.

Or am I just jealous?

The actor reading the book for the radio has also had to handle the question of what accent he should use for each of the characters.  I was interested to see Lorelei King’s blog on the decisions she faced in a similar situation.   http://loreleiking.blogspot.com/2010/10/accent-uate-positive.html.

I’m not sure the actor reading this week has been as successful as Lorelei.  Even though the protagonist is described as speaking good Russian with a terrible accent, the actor is really over doing the terrible pronunciation.  Even the most cloth eared would know how to say the few Russian phrases he has been required to read.  It brought to mind former colleagues who described themselves as ‘nearly fluent’ when they could order a couple of beers, and say ‘hi’ and ‘thank you’; while the ones with degrees in Russian, who’d read ‘Anna Karenina’ in the original language, would say, that at best, they could ‘get by’.

But, oh, to have such problems……

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8 Comments

  1. Linda Holt

     /  January 7, 2011

    HI from the Canadian Rockies
    Interesting reading your Blog. Not something I have much experience with. I listened to part of the Snowdrop on the computer this Am .. Moscow must be a different place to visit.
    I have known your sister since we lived next door in 88/89 ..can not be sure we met on not. We love her little village.
    Good luck with your writing . May 2011 be good to you .
    Linda

    Reply
    • Linda
      Thank you so much for reading and for your good wishes. I’m just getting used to the idea of blogging, and that the ‘virtual world’ spreads so far and wide. I do hope you will ‘visit’ again.

      Reply
  2. Hi Rowena,
    We are distantly related. Your sister is my cousin’s wife so it is pretty distant.
    Just a quick comment on your musings on writing dialogue for non-English speakers. I dealt with this in part of my own trilogy which dealt with the break-up of Yugoslavia. If you have spent time in Moscow you will instintictively know how Russians speak English depending on their level of expertise. I guess it will be rather like my Serbs – often leaving out the definite or indefinite article and tending to speak in the present tense..
    How are you setting about looking for a publisher? I might have some suggestions but don’t particularly want to put my email up for the world to see. You could try asking Margaret for it!
    Good luck.
    Sylvie (Nickels)

    Reply
    • Hi Sylvie
      Wow, the internet really does create connections out of distant links, just like they say.
      Thank you for visiting the blog. How writers tackle the nuances of how to handle a foreign language and characters while rendering them realistic (and not irritating) is something I’d not really thought about until I tried to do it for myself, and found it so challenging. I will check out your trilogy with interest and will track you down!

      Reply
      • Yes, amazing isn’t it? You’ll find details on http://www.sylvienickels.com
        You might find it in the library or independent bookshop. I don’t deal with the big chaps who want too much discount. If all else fails let me know.
        From what I’ve heard so far, your project sounds interesting. How long and when were you in Moscow?
        Best, Sylvie

  3. I’ll have a look at your site. Thank you.
    I was in Moscow for just short of two and half years 1995 -97- it was quite a time.

    Reply
  4. How lovely to have been mentioned in such an intelligent and well-written blog! Thank you…

    x Lorelei

    Reply

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