Monday, July 13, 2009

Demons, Anyone? Orlov’s Violist Named Danilov

Vladimir Orlov’s Альтист Данилов (Danilov, the Violist) is, for this reader, dualistic on multiple levels. The short version: this novel about a violist who’s half-human, half-demon left me with mixed feelings. Though some sections drag, I understand why many people consider Danilov a cult novel: it is often hilarious, and it includes touches like a space-age duel that results in a bodily gravitational collapse. And how could I possibly dislike a good-natured book that stars a violist and contains lines like “Фу-ты, человеком пахнет! (Roughly “Phooey, smells like a human!”)

A brief but relevant interlude about the viola: I’ve always loved the deep, earthy sound of the viola but I remember from my violin-playing years that violists rarely get solos. Viola parts are sometimes rewritten as third violin, parts I’ve played… think third fiddle. Unfortunately the dearth of good viola parts is one reason there are many unflattering stereotypes and jokes, in many cultures, about violists. Violist and ethnomusicologist Carl Rahkonen’s “No Laughing Matter: The Viola Joke as Musician’s Folklore,” a paper presented at the 1994 National Meeting of the American Folklore Society and the Society for Ethnomusicology, provides perspective. (abstract here)

So! Orlov’s Danilov is a talented violist living in Brezhnev-era Moscow. He plays in orchestras and inspires a composer to write a piece just for him. Most of his life lacks in glamour: his ex-wife asks for favors, he forgets to retrieve his pants from the drycleaner, and he’s in debt. He is also falling in love. The mild-mannered Danilov lacks the flamboyance you might expect of a demon and doesn’t seem too unusual unless you know he enjoys bathing in lightning and can perform bits of magic that he sometimes regrets later.

Danilov’s love for music and dislike of wreaking havoc on earth mean trouble with his demonic handlers – he’s just too human. When Danilov travels through time and space to the Nine Layers (headquarters) for something resembling a trial, he is accused of being too helpful to earthlings. They know, for example, that he’s helped old ladies cross the street. One demon asks: “Какая пользя нам от этой старушки!” (“What use is that old lady to us!”) The clash of values between Danilov and the demons has a strongly allegorical feel. Though the demons don’t have ultimate power over humans, these growers of UFOs certainly aren’t do-gooders, and their reasoning and bureaucratic language are reminiscent of the Soviet government.

Reviews of Danilov often note similarities to Mikhail Bulgakov’s Мастер и Маргарита (Master and Margarita). Sure, there are common themes, such as parodying bureaucracy and showing struggles between earthly and otherworldly figures. Still, though both authors incorporate plenty of humor, the books left me with very different feels that seem to reflect their times. Master and Margarita leans toward darker philosophy and religion and is intellectually heftier. Danilov, with its everydayness and rational resolution, tilts toward cozier fantastical fiction about a musician I might have seen on the Moscow Metro.

Summary: I loved Danilov’s humor and magical touches. There are many more layers of characters, subplots, and themes I haven’t mentioned, including a blue bull, silencism, and people who claim to know the future. Unfortunately, these various and varying parts don’t always quite dovetail into a harmonious book. Still, Danilov is often an impressively imaginative novel, and I will look for Orlov’s more recent books -- Камергерский переулок (Kamergerskii Lane) was short-listed for the 2009 Big Book. I would particularly recommend Danilov to anyone predisposed to enjoy the combination of humor, music, and fantasy/science fiction.

Viola photo by surfbird, via Photo is called "My Viola1," and carries the note "No, it's not a violin, it's a viola."


  1. Some nitpicking:
    "Danilov" is actually Orlov's fourth novel, albeit arguably his first major work. His first three novels ("Соленый aрбуз", "После дождичка в четверг", "Происшествие в Никольском") are supposedly more conventional, categorized as "молодежная проза" or "бытовая драма". Never read them myself.

  2. Thanks, Alex,

    I always appreciate nitpicking... and those can labels get tricky and surprisingly subjective! I'll amend the main part of my post.

    The New York Times, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly, in their reviews of the English translation, called Danilov Orlov's first novel. Which makes me suspect that's how publicity materials and/or Orlov referred to it -- that would make sense (particularly in the '80s) if the previous full-length works are often considered young adult fiction.

    Have you read Danilov, Alex?


  3. I once dated a violist (who loved viola jokes) and gave her a copy of this novel (in translation). She was polite about it but I don't think it was really her thing. I enjoyed it, but have to confess not much sticks in my memory after over a decade.

  4. Not yet.
    I've been meaning to read it for quite some time, though.

    Currently a bit burnt out on demon stories after trying to get through Anatoliy Kim's obtuse mystical/philosophical novel "Онлирия" last week, so "Danilov" will have to wait a bit.

  5. Alex, it's funny that you say you're burnt out on demons: Danilov inspired me to move Sologub's Мелкий бес up on my reading list for a completely different take on demons. I loved it (in translation) many years back and am looking forward to reading it in Russian this time.

    Language Hat, I had a funny feeling you'd read Danilov. I asked two Russian friends about Danilov this weekend: one said almost exactly what you wrote; the other loved it, in large part because of the Moscow setting.

  6. I haven't read the novel but I think many USSR readers in the 80's would have thought of Shostakovich's Viola Sonata Op. 147, his last work (completed in the hospital) and by general consensus a very stark piece. He insisted this wasn't true but I've heard several versions and played it (the piano part) and it certainly isn't anybody's idea of playful or cheery.

  7. Thank you for mentioning the Shostakovich, rootlesscosmo. I didn't mention any viola concerti or other pieces... nor did I mention Yury Bashmet, a famous violist if ever there was one.

    Incidentally, if anyone's interested, the Shostakovich Viola Sonata is available on YouTube, beginning with Moderato. I definitely agree that it's stark and neither playful nor cheery, but I've (just now!) been finding it nice to listen to.

  8. Thanks for the links. I actually ordered the Bashmet disc of the Britten Double Concerto (not on Amazon US but available at Amazon UK and even cheaper at Crotchet.) Do you know who the performers are on that YouTube video? I liked them a lot--a very brisk tempo in the first movement, but I thought it worked. (Nobuko Imai takes almost 10 minutes, they took just over 8.)

    The Bartok Viola Concerto is also terrific. And the Brahms Sonatas, Kegelstatt Trio, Hindemith Sonatas--the repertoire isn't huge, but it sure has some good music in it.

  9. rootlesscosmo, I appreciate all your recommendations, thank you! As for the musicians performing the Shostakovich, here's a comment from the person who posted the clips: "James Creitz plays the viola and is accompanied by Mihail Sarbu on the piano." I liked their quick tempo, but this was also new music for me so I wasn't comparing tempi in my head.

  10. I have that Creitz/Sarbu version and like it--the violist with whom I played the piece recommended it.

    Further off-topic: if you get a chance, listen to the Shostakovich 24 Preludes & Fugues for piano, Op. 87. There are lots of recordings; I like Tatyana Nikolayeva's which sort of has the composer's official blessing.

  11. I'm glad for the off-topic comments, because I love Shostakovich and appreciate the recommendations.

  12. I also appreciate the musical recommendations, rootlesscosmo. I enjoyed the Shostakovich viola sonata very, very much and will certainly look up the preludes and fugues. I've only recently begun to warm to Shostakovich so it's been very nice to hear your suggestions!