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. He’ll be blog­ging all week for MyJew­ish­Learn­ing and the Jew­ish Book Council.

Rus­sia is incred­i­bly small. Yes, I know it’s the world’s largest land­mass. But the vis­i­ble and audi­ble Rus­sia – the Rus­sia emit­ting the light and noise we call cul­ture – 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. – at an almost com­ic speed. The Russ­ian trans­la­tion of Ground Up – now called Kofemol­ka (“The Cof­fee Grinder”) – came out in mid-Novem­ber. The recep­tion was… remark­able. It went from Who is Michael Idov?” to Who does Michael Idov think he is?” 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 I’ve men­tioned in my pre­vi­ous post, I had been a lit­tle wor­ried that the book’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 reader’s eyes. At best, I was hop­ing, the read­ers would fol­low my flail­ing char­ac­ters like they would a cou­ple of fish in a fish­bowl – 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: it’s a kind of Big Mille­feuille of Long Tails. But I’ve watched it at work in Moscow.

Michael Idov, pho­to­graph by Misha Friedman

My first read­ers seemed to over­lap with the audi­ence of Afisha Mag­a­zine, a youth-ori­ent­ed biweek­ly that takes its trend­set­ting respon­si­bil­i­ties seri­ous­ly: its first slo­gan was As we say, so it will be.” They got every tini­est ref­er­ence, be it a par­o­dy of the Antifolk musi­cian scene at the Side­walk Café or a pass­ing men­tion of a 2006 – 2007 Williams­burg vogue for lum­ber­jack beards. This was their world – much more so than the real­i­ty out­side. These were the peo­ple that read Gawk­er at work and ordered Chi­nese deliv­ery at home; each lived in his or her own pri­vate Man­hat­tan, just like the hip youth of Amer­i­ca used to live in their own pri­vate Paris. They had been starved, like most of us peren­ni­al­ly are, for a book about them­selves – and, para­dox­i­cal­ly, found it in a sto­ry of two hap­less New York yup­pies. I’ve had two Q&As with read­ers in Moscow – one at a very Amer­i­can­ized cof­fee­house called Cof­fee Bean and anoth­er at a great inde­pen­dent book shop called Dodo (the name both quot­ing Lewis Car­roll and hint­ing at the enterprise’s endan­gered sta­tus). About 30 per­cent of the ques­tions were about the book. The rest were about the fin­er points of New York nightlife, fash­ion, eti­quette, renu­mer­a­tion for cer­tain trades, etc. I have unwit­ting­ly found myself a tour guide.

Then (in a week or so) the back­lash came. Even the head of the pub­lish­ing house that put out the book referred to it in an inter­view as Afisha’s favorite toy.” By the time news­pa­per reviews rolled around, they were almost entire­ly react­ing to the blog hype. My name caused fur­ther con­fu­sion: was I an Amer­i­can writer or a Russ­ian one? The sto­ry of the book informed every judge­ment: one crit­ic wrote that my lan­guage, pre­served” by liv­ing in exile,” was clean­er than the aver­age Russ­ian novelist’s; anoth­er – that I had for­got­ten it. One of our best nov­els this year has been orig­i­nal­ly writ­ten in Eng­lish,” mar­veled one. Anoth­er looked up the original’s mea­ger sales rank on the Barnes&Noble site as proof that the king was naked – the book wasn’t a block­buster State­side, so why should we care about it? We’re being duped, people!

In the end, though, I came back to New York exhil­a­rat­ed with the Moscow trip. It felt fan­tas­tic to be a Con­tro­ver­sial Nov­el­ist for a week, one whose very sta­tus as a part of the cul­ture was sub­ject to media debate. The Rus­sians still take all things lit­er­ary with utmost seri­ous­ness. At times I remind myself of Hol­ly Mar­tins, the main char­ac­ter of The Third Man – a writer of breezy West­erns who meets with his read­ers in Vien­na expect­ing an auto­graph ses­sion, only to get hit by a vol­ley of wheedling psy­cho­an­a­lyt­i­cal ques­tions. In my case, the ques­tions I was not ready to answer were about iden­ti­ty. I have no idea whetherKofemol­ka is a Russ­ian nov­el” or not. I’m just glad some­one cares enough to claim or dis­own it.

Check back all week to read more of Michael Idovs blogs. He is the author (and the Russ­ian trans­la­tor) of Ground Up.