Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Sergei Dovlatov's Novel, Ours

I'm a bit schizophrenic about Sergei Dovlatov.  I was thrilled with his memoir about his time as a prison guard, The Zone, which I found to be both insightful and painfully observant, but disliked his short novel, Pushkin Hills, which I seemed somewhat affected to me.  To resolve my uncertainty about the Dovlatov's literary quality, I'm resolved to work my way through his other works.  Today, I'll discuss his short book of biographical sketches about the members of his family.  Like The Zone, the memoir of family remembrances, Ours, seems to be both trenchant and acutely attentive to the traits and characteristics that make each of his family members unique.  It also gives the reader an overall portrait of the experience of a twentieth-century Russian family.  Dovlatov's family is not perhaps an ordinary one.  The family are firmly entrenched in the Russian intelligentsia and much generally very literary and/or artistic. Some were editors, others were actors or directors.  Most interestingly, Dovlatov shows us that members of the same Soviet family were capable of both embracing and rejecting Stalinism (and Soviet norms in general) at various times.  Indeed, often the same family member wavered in his support of the regime.  Witness the story of Dovlatov's uncle, who worshiped a long series of Soviet leaders, only to privately admit to his nephew (but only when he thought he was on his deathbed) that Soviet communism was a scam. Overall, Ours reinforces my impression that Dovlatov had a particular talent for non-fiction writing.  The individual tales are short, but profound, and often hilarious. And the form of his memoir is incredibly inventive. Somehow, reading a series of character sketches about the author's family members simultaneously gives one a sense of each individual family member, the collective family, the author's unique psyche, and, in some ways, the U.S.S.R. as a whole.

Favorite quotations from Ours 

Grandpa did not like disorder.  For that reason, he held a negative view of the Revolution.

"Begler Formich is a good man.  It's just a pity he waters his wine."

Perhaps the universe, such as it was, did not suit him.  I wonder, did it not suit him in its entirety, or just in certain details?

Tall and straight, he headed toward the market.  If anyone greeted him, he did not respond.

I was insulted very rarely, by the way, maybe three times in my entire life.  All three times were by my  uncle. 

"They say that marriages on the brink of divorce are the ones that last the longest."

"What an awful country!  I've been to America, to Israel.  I've been everywhere in Europe, but I would never got to Russia.  It's good for chess and ballet, but that's it. That and police action."

"Show me one good idea that exists outside of communism!"

A small portrait of Solzhenitsyn hung near the head of his bed.  He took it down whenever guests came. 

"I'm sick of living.  I don't believe communism can  be built in one country.  I've slid into the swamp of Trotskyism."

My father, on the one hand, felt great esteem for the Leader, though he was the one who had good reason to hate Stalin, especially since his father had been shot.

My mother and I lived in a revolting communal apartment.  The long, gloomy corridor led, metaphysically, to the toilet.  The wallpaper by the telephone was covered with doodles, leaving a depressing chronicle of the communal unconscious. 

As everyone knows, the only truth in our newspapers is in the misprints. 

He was an alcoholic journalist and, like many lushes, a man of blinding nobility of character.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal's The Tragic Menagerie

Lydia Zinovieva-Annibal's had an enormous impact on the pre-war Russian cultural elite.  However, it's relatively difficult to find anything she wrote in the English language.  We have her diary, but not all that much more.  Fortunately, her novel, The Tragic Menagerie, translated by Jane Costlow, is enough to demonstrate her genius. Published in 1907, the exquisite novel describes the coming of age of a young girl who, like most young people perhaps, is both saint and sinner.  Zinovieva-Annibal's book deserves acclaim for many different reasons.  First, the novel is broken down into chapters that independently read like perfectly conceived and executed short stories.  That is to say, although all the chapters are logically related to one another, and the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts, each individual chapter can be appreciated on their own merits as a perfectly executed explanation of some particular aspect of the protagonist's moral or aesthetic development.  Second, the novel makes use of the girl's brilliantly empathetic encounters with animals to illuminate her evaluation of consciousness.  While sometimes cruel, the girl is always deeply engaged with the animal world, and this engagement helps readers to enumerate the milestones on her journey toward adolescence.  Third, the author allows her protagonist all of the complexity of an adult, or more.  The book's protagonist is as complicated and conflicted as any Hamlet or King Lear;  indeed, she's wrestling with God and the Devil, good and evil, sexuality, nature, beauty, and mortality.  And somehow, the author presents us with a protagonist who both confronts these issues as a young, privileged girl, and as a more general manifestation of human consciousness, in a way that prefigures Beckett, Faulkner, Gardner, and so many other modernists.

I. Grekova's The Ship of Widows

"I'd have gone far if only I'd had known arithmetic."

"Eh, you women are a watery lot, however heroic you are."

I. Grekova's The Ship of Widows is a tale of a group of Russian widows living in a communal apartment with a share kitchen.  In some ways it reminds me of Jhumpa Lahiri's book, The Namesake, since both books beautifully express the speed with which lives are lived.  We are born, we live, we suffer, we die.  The book is unusual in that its subjects are almost all relatively ordinary women who have suffered the vicissitudes of twentieth century Russia.  One of the widows is a religious woman who supports the Soviet government but wonders why its leaders suppressed religion and converted so many churches into warehouses.  Another of the widows is a former opera singer, forever having affairs, trading gossip, and searching for romantic love.  Another widow thinks in nothing other than cliches.  The book's chief protagonist is a music teacher.  Her particular story captures much of the tragedy of her times.  Her mother and child were killed by German bombs in World War II.  She was wounded, and remained disabled throughout her life.  The final heroine of the story is a hard-working champion of an unappreciative son she bore out of wedlock.  None of the widows are classical heroines.  They are too flawed to be considered traditional heroes.  They fight, gossip, sin, commit acts of petty selfishness, judge others, and complain.  They have few talents.  Most are self-effacing, demure.  Even the pianist says that she lacks inspiration. Even so, they are survivors, and, by and large, they look out for one another.  And perhaps the point:  individually, the women aren't heroes, but representatives of a gender and generation, and members of a collective, their ability to survive deserves commendation. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2019

Sergei Dovlatov's Pushkin Hills

Having just read and loved Sergei Dovlatov's prison guard memoir, The Zone, I thought I would certainly also love his famous first-person novel, Pushkin Hills.  Alas, I found Pushkin Hills to be somewhat underwhelming--a pale, late-Soviet version of richer, more insightful American novels about alienation by Kerouac, Salinger, or Bukowski.  While Pushkin Hill's narrator is clever, he's not unusually clever.  (However, the narrator is certainly a member of the intelligentsia, and consistently invokes Russia's literary tradition in order to make sense of his life).  Nor does the narrator have a particularly strong ethical or aesthetic point of view.  It's clear that he loves Pushkin, and despises socialist realist classics, but readers don't read much more about the protagonist's artistic sensibilities than that.

In fact, if the Pushkin Hills narrator has anything to recommend him, it's his modesty.  He makes almost no claim to having a unique point of view, or unique insights into the characters who surround him.  The book as a whole is an interesting artifact of its time.  The protagonist is, after all, generally at odds with the political and cultural establishment.  However, the tension between the protagonist and society doesn't seem particularly sharp.  American Beats would seem more alienated by the government than  Dovlatov is by his government.  Perhaps that's the lesson to be learned by the novel.  Intellectuals and artists could be alienated enough by the Communist regime to think about emigrating, but they didn't necessarily find themselves in open revolt against the system.  Indeed, most people just kept living, and of course drinking.

Below are a few of my favorite quotations from the book

Mitrofanov grew into a fantastic sloth, if one can call lazy a man who had read ten thousand books.

Friends tried to get him a job at the Lenfilm Studios.  What's more, a special position was created just for him:  Consultant on All Matters.

He was diagnosed with a rare clinical condition--aboulia, or total atrophy of will. 

He decided to become a writer of best-sellers.

His tours were twice longer than the average.  At times, tourists fainted from the strain. 

A reliable armour of literary conventionality protected them from censorship.

"Potosky, your appearance disturbs the harmony of these parts."

His speech was not unlike classical music, abstract art or the song of a goldfinch.  Emotions clearly prevailed over meaning. 

"I'll say it one more time, colour is ideological in aspect!"

She scoffed at me.  "Your mug alone demands punitive action..."

There are dozens of books written about the harmful effects of alcohol.  And not even a single brochure on the benefits.