Monday, May 25, 2009

Catching Up: Two Novellas, One Novel

Leonid Leonov’s Конец мелкого человека (The End of a Petty Man) has a heck of a first line:

Поздним вечером одной зимы, когда, после долгих и бесплодных поисков какой-нибудь пищи, тащился он домой бесцельно, встречен был им неожиданный человек с лошадиной головой под мышкой.

Late in the evening one winter, when he was dragging himself home aimlessly after long and fruitless searches for some kind of food, he ran across an unexpected person with a horse head under his arm.

Of course it’s the horse head that got me. As an optimist, I thought the unexpected person was leading a horse in a strange way, but The End is a novella about the early 1920s in the USSR, when food and firewood were scarce. Horse heads end up on the table – food for transitional epochs, one character says – and kind guests bring firewood when they visit. Fedor Andreich, the story’s main character, by the way, scares the horse head right out from under the other man’s arm then takes it.

Fedor Andreich is a professor writing about the Mesozoic Era… leading to all sorts of mentions of caves, ice, and even dinosaurs. Of course Fedor Andreich is something of a soon-to-be-extinct dinosaur himself, a superfluous man for his time who’s so unpleasant he even forgets his dying sister.

The End of a Petty Man is a strange, almost hallucinatory story that also includes an alter ego of sorts, a “ферт (fert) that visits Fedor Andreich. “Fert” can mean either the name of the Russian letter Ф (f) or a fop. Or both, I think: Fedor begins with F, after all, and he is rather vain. The story conjures up images and themes from an almost endless stream of predecessors, including 19th-century fiction with doubles, devils, and mental health, as well as more contemporaneous stories, notably Evgenii Zamiatin’s “Пещера” (“The Cave”). There are also Biblical references, including that apocalyptic horse’s head, the Ten Commandments, and a doctor’s office referred to as something of a “sodom,” a chaotic place.

I don’t know if The End of a Petty Man has been translated but I do know it is easier to find Leonov’s work in English translation than in Russian originals. Leonov’s short story “Бродяга” (“The Tramp”) is available online, in English translation, on Sovlit, and there are translated novels for sale on Amazon. If I had to describe in one word what little I’ve read of Leonov’s early work, I’d probably chose “intriguing” or maybe “edgy,” thanks to the feeling I was reading a strange cross between, maybe, Dostoevsky and Platonov or Pilniak. The End was alternately suspenseful and enjoyable, with occasional tedious moments.

“Tedious” describes Филиал (The Foreign Branch), Sergei Dovlatov’s novella about a radio station reporter attending a conference in Los Angeles about the future of Russia. Though some of the flashbacks to the narrator’s (“Dalmatov’s”) early and obsessive love for the treacherous Taisiia feel fairly true, there are too many of them to achieve a good balance with the present-day observations, which lack the acidity of, say, The Compromise. (Previous post: The Compromise) The title’s foreign branch, by the way, refers to the United States, which is seen as a foreign branch for the future Russia. I think Dovlatov writes best – meaning with the sharpest absurdity and humor – about the USSR, not the USA, but that’s a personal preference.

It took months of on-and-off reading to get through Источник счастья (The Source of Happiness), Polina Dashkova’s attempt to cram the Russian revolution, a parasite that gives eternal life (!), a superwealthy Russian businessman, and a pile of family history into one book. I’ve read and enjoyed several Dashkova detective novels but Happiness tries too hard to address too many Big Questions. The attempt to address history and eternity lured Dashkova away from what she writes best: crime novels about the post-Soviet period that describe frayed social fabric and the heroism of ordinary women. These are the books that keep me up at night.

In Russian Pulp, a detailed study of Russian detective novels, Anthony Olcott compares Dashkova with her peers and concludes, “Perhaps the most eloquent explorations of the collapse of the Russian state, however, come in the novels of Polina Dashkova.” Some of Dashkova’s books have been translated into German: look for Polina Daschkowa.

Leonid Leonov on Amazon
Sergei Dovlatov on Amazon
Polina Dashkova on Amazon
Russian Pulp on Amazon


  1. Leonov sounds really interesting; I'll have to look for his stuff. (I wonder why Moshkow only has one of his books?)

  2. Languagehat, he is very interesting, and I also don't get why there's almost nothing available online. Even academic libraries don't have much selection of his books, particuarly in Russian!

  3. Languagehat, if you're still there... I found, quite by chance, a 1946 volume of Leonov повести, plays, the novel Соть, and some articles at Russian Bookstore No. 21 in Manhattan. It's old and close to getting ready to fall apart but most definitely worth the $5 I paid! I also bought a used edition of Terts with Голос из хора. There's no autograph but it was still quite a day for book finds!

  4. Fantastic, I'm jealous! Where is "Russian Bookstore No. 21," and how did I manage to spend 23 years in NYC without knowing about it?

  5. Russian Bookstore No. 21 is at 174 Fifth Avenue, almost directly across from where Viktor Kamkin used to be. It has only been in existence for five or six years; I only learned about it on Friday. It's a very nice store with a quirky selection, and there are comfortable chairs. I never got much beyond the fiction, which isn't a huge part of the store, though it took plenty of time because the selection was so interesting.

    Russian Bookstore No. 21

  6. That's great, although it's sad to see that new Russian books now cost as much as American ones -- a few years ago you could get the latest Bykov or Akunin for $8 or so. Or are these Manhattan prices? Do you frequent the Brighton Beach stores like my old standby Sankt Peterburg?

  7. Languagehat, I've definitely noticed that Russian book prices have been edging up everywhere. When I've compared prices, it's always seemed that no one site/store seems consistently cheaper. At No. 21, I bought 11 books for $127, with prices ranging from $5 to $25.

    I've been to Sankt Peterburg once and wish I could frequent it more in person, particularly if the visit includes eating at Gina's Cafe! I visit the ruskniga site almost daily, though. I've found good sale items lately but notice that some sale books sell out very quickly.

    Do you ever shop at Petropol? Sankt Peterburg has been my standby for several years, too, so I've never been to Petropol despite its relative proximity!

  8. I don't think I know Petropol, but I've been out of the city since 2004 (sob). I think Black Sea was the one I went to besides SPb. And yeah, the food in Brighton is terrific -- there is (or was) a wonderful Uzbek place on Coney Island Ave. just off Brighton Beach Ave. Many years ago I had a birthday celebration in one of the fancy eateries on the main drag -- Primorsky? -- where we stayed till all hours gobbling zakuski and guzzling vodka and I got carried around on a chair to the Russopop of a cheesy band... I miss the city!

  9. Sorry, Languagehat, I should have mentioned that Petropol is in Brookline, Mass.

    That sounds like quite a birthday!