I had already stopped translating, and we sat there silently, just watching the screen. I had a moment where it felt like an ordinary evening, like many we’d had in our life together, and we were just watching a trashy end-of-the-world movie with a slow-moving plot.

Vongozero, Jana Wagner

This little moment from Jana Wagner’s (so far excellent) first novel brought me back to September 11, 2001, in Krasnodar. I was an undergrad studying at Kuban State for a semester. I recall a bunch of us Americans piling into our professor’s apartment near KubSU, watching the horrifying events unfold on Russian state television.

Only a couple of us had good enough Russian to understand the quick speech of TV news, so we took turns translating for the others. It had exactly the surreal, cinematic quality that Wagner’s protagonist describes.

I highlighted the quote because it’s relatively uncommon for characters in these end-of-the-world novels and films to show any awareness that their situation recalls those of countless other zombie, natural disaster, and similar stories. I appreciated Anya’s moment of unreality in the midst of the epidemic.

Original text:

Я уже ничего не переводила, мы сидели молча и просто смотрели на экран, и на какое-то мгновение мне вдруг показалось, что это обычный вечер, каких уже было много в нашей жизни, и мы просто смотрим нудноватый фильм о конце света, в котором немного затянулась завязка сюжета.

«Вонгозеро», Яна Вагнер

Feeling something familiar in the situation and trying to get to the bottom of it, he remembered, completely inappropriately but with stunning clarity, the face of a young prostitute in black stockings, her shoulders bare, standing illuminated in a doorway off a dark alleyway in a nameless city. And ridiculous as it seemed, he imagined that this woman was her, that she had shown up now, wearing a decent dress, having lost her looks a little, as if she had washed off her rouge, but having become more approachable in the process. This was his first impression when he saw her, when he realized with surprise that he was talking to her. And he felt a little sad that she was not as pretty as she could have been, not as pretty as the strange signs scattered in his past suggested she could be.

The Luzhin Defense, Vladimir Nabokov

For context, this is a description of Luzhin meeting his future wife for the first time–and his first thought is of a prostitute!

Original text:

Стараясь уяснить себе это впечатление чего-то очень знакомого, он совершенно некстати, но с потрясающей ясностью вспомнил лицо молоденькой проститутки с голыми плечами, в черных чулках, стоявшей в освещенной пройме двери, в темном переулке, в безымянном городе. И нелепым образом ему показалось, что вот это – она, что вот, она явилась теперь, надев приличное платье, слегка подурнев, словно она смыла какие-то обольстительные румяна, но через это стала более доступной. Таково было первое впечатление, когда он увидел ее, когда заметил с удивлением, что с ней говорит. И ему было немного досадно, что она не совсем так хороша, как могла быть, как мерещилась по странным признакам, рассеянным в его прошлом.

«Защита Лужина», Владимир Набоков