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Today in International Lit

By David Varno

Tolstoy Film to Appear this Week

2010 marks the centenary of Tolstoy's death at a provincial train station in Russia. This Friday, in New York and Los Angeles, a film about the author's last days will be in limited release. But The Last Station, directed by Michael Hoffman and adapted from the Jay Parini novel of same name, was shot in eastern Germany rather than Tolstoy's native Russia, a fact that the Guardian's Luke Harding suggests might reflect the country's uncertainty towards Tolstoy's legacy.

There seems to be more to account for Russia's lukewarm reception than Tolstoy's "unwieldy syntax" and poor relationship with the church, army, and state; it may be "connected to its own troubled existential journey," as the film's co-producer Andrei Deryabin points out to Harding: "We have been searching for [a national idea] for a long time. In fact, the answer is the one given by Tolstoy: the task before humanity is to be happy now." The author's great-great grandson, Vladimir Ilyich Tolstoy, who transformed the family's estate in Yasnaya Polyana into a popular tourist destination, concedes that the 20th century had a more Dostoevskyan tone. "I hope the 21st century is Tolstoyan," he says.

The Guardian also published a survey of contemporary writers on their thoughts about Tolstoy's significance.


A New Yorker Survey on the Arabic Novel

"What do you know about how people live in Cairo or Beirut or Riyadh?" Claudia Roth Pierpont asks us in this week's New Yorker.  Her essay, "Found in Translation," tracks the history of the Arabic novel and presents a survey of what is happening with it today. While we have continuous streams of information on current troubles and historical battles, according to Pierpont we are largely overlooking the essential: "The ways that people think and work and suffer and fall in love and makes enemies and sometimes make revolutions is the stuff of novels."

Pierpont begins with acclaimed late Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz, who represented the Arab world's inheritance of French influence, following the forms of Balzac and Zola. But the central focus, moving through the emergence of the Iraqi prison novel with Mahmoud Saeed and Sinan Antoon and the humanist legacy Elias Khoury drew from Palestinian writer Ghasan Kanafani, is on the potential for shared stories between the Arab world and the West. The benefit of exchange outweighs the risk of watering down Arab literature, Pierpont argues, addressing the fear held by some in the Arab world that writers will conform to a translation market.

Never mind the sucess of Rajaa Alsanea's Sex and the City knockoff Girls of Riyadh; let's hope that Arab writers will one day have both the freedom to write what they really want, and an audience that is ready for it.


Basque Author Unai Elorriaga: Two Readings This Week

Elorriaga is touring the United States this month to support his novel of four interconnected stories, Plants Don't Drink Coffee, published by Archipelago. Check

January 15, 7 p.m. Friday, January 15, 7 p.m. KGB Bar 85 East 4th Street 212.505.3360

<a 01="" 100118crbo_books_pierpont="" 18="" 2010="" a="href" http:"="" after="" and="" arts="" books="" critics="" events="" for="" friday:="" has="" him="" href="http: id=" _cke_saved_href="http: id=" in="" new="" reno="" the="" this="" thursday="" two="" which="""""">Also see an </a><a href="" _cke_saved_href="">excerpt</a> from the book, downloadable from Archipelago's website.</p>

Published Jan 12, 2010   Copyright 2010 David Varno

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