Thursday, April 30, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Voinovich

Third up in “A to Я”: the Russian letter В, V in the Roman alphabet. This isn’t an especially high-volume letter for writers, but it does include one of my true favorites: Vladimir Voinovich. Hearing Voinovich read one night in Moscow made me enjoy his writing even more. I don’t remember what he read that evening but I remember how his authorial presence and voice filled the room. I hear that voice when I read his books.

Voinovich is best known for his novel Жизнь и необычайные приключения солдата Ивана Чонкина (The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin), an account of a rather simple soldier’s experiences guarding an airplane in a village. Voinovich calls Chonkin a “роман-анекдот,” a novel-joke, and it’s very, very funny, whether you want to call it absurd, satirical, or sardonic, the word Victor Terras uses in A History of Russian Literature.

Voinovich has written plenty of other books, including Претендент на престол (Pretender to the Throne), a Chonkin sequel that I’ve been saving for when I’m grumpy and need some guaranteed laughs, and Москва 2042 (Moscow 2042), a political satire that I enjoyed many years ago. I also liked much of the uneven Монументальная пропаганда (Monumental Propaganda), in which a woman brings a Stalin statue into her apartment. The long story Хочу быть честным (“I Want to Be Honest”) is a vague, sentimental memory that I barely recall because I read it so long ago: it was one of the first contemporary Russian stories that I read for fun.

Another sentimental favorite is Julia Voznesenskaya’s Женский декамерон (The Women’s Decameron), which I read and loved at least twice in Russian, once in English. Voznesenskaya shifts the structure of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron to a Soviet maternity hospital, where 10 women are quarantined for 10 days. The brevity of the episodes made the book a perfect way to ease into reading in Russian, and several of the stories and characters have stayed with me over the years. Unfortunately, the box with my copy of the book got lost between Moscow and Maine, along with The Brothers Karamazov, Lolita, and training manuals about evaluating government-funded projects… what a combination of reading!

The V-List for Future Reading: Beyond Pretender to the Throne, I will read Voinovich’s Шапка (The Fur Hat) one of these years. There’s another V-authored clothing story in my future: Boris Vakhtin’s Дублёнка (The Sheepskin Coat), which is in a Metropol book I recently bought. Vakhtin is the son of Vera Panova, another favorite, so I’m looking forward to reading his work.

One day I will also read Anastasia Verbitskaia’s Ключи счастья (Keys of Happiness) and take another look at Maksimilian Voloshin’s poetry… Please add comments with other recommendations. 

To finish, here’s a favorite song from actor, singer, and writer Vladimir Vysotskii: “Большой каретный (“Big Karetnyi”), named after a Moscow street: “Большой каретный

Voznesenskaya on Amazon

Voinovich on Amazon

Vakhtin on Amazon


  1. You're right, not a lot of V's -- the only other one that comes to mind is Voznesensky, whom I loved in college but who now seems to me a pale imitation of better poets I didn't know back then. Haven't read any Voinovich yet; I suppose I should one of these days.

    Oh, and there's Mikhail Veller; I haven't read him either, but I have A vot te shish.

  2. Languagehat, I think you'll enjoy Voinovich when you get to him. Chonkin is a lot of fun!

    I've read so little Voznesensky that I don't have much of an opinion of his work: about all I know is a few lyrics from Юнона и Авось! I've never read anything at all from Veller, though you mention an interesting title.

    For readers who don't know the word шиш (shish), which is in the Veller title, here's a Wikipedia page that illustrates it: ShishThe various words for this gesture are always challenging to translate into English! When I translated a story with a synonym, кукиш, the writer and I discussed quite a few options before settling on "an obscene gesture," which, though vague, doesn't conjure up middle fingers or go into long descriptions of hand motions.

  3. If you're going to read Veller, stick to his early short stories ("Легенды Невского Проспекта" or any other collection).

    His later (post-1990 or thereabouts) books mostly serve to promote his "Всеобщая теория всего", a kind of all-encompassing self-help theory that attempts to explain "the way life really works".

    Something like this: inexcusable garbage.

  4. Thanks for the tip, Alex!

    Yes, Всё о жизни certainly sounds like it fits your description of "all-encompassing self-help theory"!

  5. The amazing absurdist Alexander Vvedensky (Александр Введенский) must have a place here, I think. (I was prompted to look at your V selections by Languagehat's recent post on Elif Batuman)

    Pushkin's friends Wolf (Вульф) and Pyotr Vyazemsky were good poets and important members of the great poet's circle.

    Vsevolod Vishnevsky (Всеволод Вишневский) is an iconic Soviet playwright. His famous plays from 1920s 'Optimistic tragedy' (Оптимистическая трагедия) and 'We are from Kronstadt' have striking avant-garde features and were made into films that are an inseparable part of Soviet imagery. He is a curious literary personality too. A harsh critic of Bulgakov and Zoschenko, he supported exiled Mandelstam by sending him money.

    And of course the war writer Boris Vasilyev (Борис Васильев) should be mentioned. His 60s novel 'At Sunrise it's so quiet around here' ("А зори здесь тихие") is immensely popular as is the film with the famous banya nude scene.

  6. Thanks for the other suggestions, Alexander! I've read and enjoyed a bit of Vvedensky and remember liking Vyazemsky when I read him for a course many years ago. I have lots more of both of them on the shelf... I need to work more poetry into my regular reading.

    Vasil'ev won a special Big Book award last year... do you think А зори здесь тихие is the best place to start reading him?

    I haven't read Vishnevsky at all, though the titles sound familiar!

    Thank you for helping to turn these "А to Я" posts are turning into such comprehensive lists of Russian writers!

  7. I'll second Vasilyev.
    I'm a bit wary of the recent slew of his Ancient Russia historical novels, but both А зори здесь тихие and В списках не значился are fantastic.

  8. yes to Vasilyev's "А зори здесь тихие" and "В списках не значился". And like Alex, I am not sure about his later work.

  9. Thanks to both of you, Alexander and Alex, for the recommendations! I actually have Дом, который построил дед on my shelf, unread, though a friend borrowed and liked it. The World War 2 novels sound more interesting to me, so I may start with one of those.

  10. While commenting on languagehat's neverending post about Mandelstam, I remembered another important V writer: Vikenty Veresayev (Викентий Вересаев). He is on wikipedia and some of his work is on Moshkov's library. He is of Chekhov's generation, but lived a long life serving as an important bridging figure in Russian literary process. Bulgakov is said to have consulted him when writing Master and Margarita. He is a good writer in his own right, and the many quotes and excerpts from him are included in Russian textbooks to illustrate grammar or style. He started as a populist (народник) writer, welcomed the revolution, but with the advent of socialist realism retreated into translation. His versions of Homer are considered to be the best in Russian language. And his translation of Sappho's 'Equal to Gods' - "Богу равным по счастью" (made into a jazz-rock hit in 1975) is one of my favourite poems in Russian.

  11. Thank you for the informative addition, Alexander! It's funny: I just saw another reference to Veresayev recently, though of course I can't remember where.