Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Three on a Fuzzy Head -- Gazdanov, Kabakov, Ilf & Petrov

My head’s still pretty fuzzy from a cold but that feels perfect for writing up descriptions of three works I could describe, in one word each, as dreamy, nightmarish, and feverish. A bonus: the first two are available in English translation, and there’s something similar for the third…

Dreamy. Gaito Gazdanov’s Призрак Александра Вольфа (The Specter of Alexander Wolf) begins with the first-person narrator discussing his only murder. Events of the Russian Civil War connect with his later life in Paris in strange ways, resulting in a short novel that reads like Existentialism Lite and looks at life, death, duality, and fate.

The odd thing is that, despite philosophy that felt obvious to me, I thoroughly enjoyed Gazdanov’s clear, elegant writing and the places and states of mind he describes. He also includes strange little gifts of fate: a wind that carries a life-saving sound and a boxing match where the narrator meets his enigmatic girlfriend. I suspect that my impression of dreaminess may come in part from the fact that I usually read in Russian about Russia, not Paris.

Nightmarish. It was a bit of a shock to the system to follow the velvety writing of Alexander Wolf with Aleksandr Kabakov’s Невозвращенец (No Return), a gritty, chaotic 1988 novella that uses a researcher’s time travel to look at unrest in 1993 Moscow. I’m a sucker for dystopias, so I enjoyed some of the bits Kazakov throws in: I particularly liked a scene at a speakeasy of sorts that serves home brew made from Hungarian peas. (They must be Globus!) There are also repeated but failed attempts to blow up the Pushkin statue, strange goings-on in night Metro trains, and warnings about the intelligentsia being sick and in need of an operation. I thought the most telling lines of the piece, though, involved the narrator staying low to the ground in danger, sometimes crawling on all fours, like an animal. As dystopias go, I much prefer Makanin’s Лаз (Escape Hatch) (previous post) or Platonov’s Котлован (Foundation Pit), (previous post) but No Return made quite a splash when it was published, thanks to its visions of Russia’s future.

Feverish. When I finished Ilya Il’f and Evgenii Petrov’s 461-page Одноэтажная Америка (One-Storey America), my one nonfiction book for the year, I felt almost like I’d really ridden thousands miles around the U.S. in 1935-1936 with Il’f, Petrov, and their escorts, Mr. and Mrs. Adams (real name: Tron). The mysterious Becky Adams drives. So many places, people, and drugstore breakfasts! During the two-month trip, they take hitchhikers into their Ford and hear stories of hard-luck and hope. They witness incompetent bullfights in Mexico, visit American progressives, see segregation, speed down smooth roads, experience American service, and meet Henry Ford.

I loved certain passages of the book – I recognized New York, Sequoia Park, and White’s City, New Mexico, among other places – and found observations about Hollywood movies and the incuriousness of some Americans interesting. Other memorable sections describe American football, New York cafeterias, and a meeting with Russian milk drinkers in San Francisco.

The book left a strange sensation because it is, itself, like a house with multiple storeys of meaning. Though it reads like a travelogue, between the lines looms Soviet history, which had already included arrests and famine. I can’t, for example, read complaints about uninteresting but plentiful American food at face value.

Charles Malamuth’s English translation of the book, Little Golden America, is out-of-print, though partially available online here, where even the posters admit they’re infringing on the copyright. There is also Ilf and Petrov’s American Road Trip, translated by Anne O. Fisher, which contains English versions of I&P’s articles for Ogonek magazine; it appears to cover many of the topics in One-Storey America. The Road Trip book includes Ilf’s photos and was a 2007 Rossica Prize finalist. You can sample its words and images here.

No Return on Amazon
Ilf and Petrov's American Road Trip on Amazon
Gazdanov on Amazon


  1. "Gazdanov’s clear, elegant writing": yes, that's the way I remember it from my reading of Vecher u Kler many years ago (which also flashes back from Paris to the Civil War). I'll have to read more Gazdanov.

  2. There is the remake of "One-Storey America" on russian TV.

  3. get well for Christmas!

    Interesting you should mention your love of distopia (антиутопия) in the same post as Ilf&Petrov's American odyssey. Zamyatin is often credited as the creator of the genre (We/Mы). But, I think, the real credit should go to Vladimir Odoyevsky, a younger contemporary of Pushkin, for his short story "Город без имени" (Russian text here: which was inspired by a North American travelogue by Humboldt.

    "Одноэтажная Америка" has become a classic for Russian journalists working abroad. But early 20th century also gave non-fiction by Gorky, Mayakovsky and Boris Pilnyak. I especially recommend Pilnyak's 'Okay, an American novel'.

    It also struck me that the Russian-American travel writings have all but died with the end of the Soviet Union. Arthur Miller wrote 'In Russia' in the 60-s noting the similarities between the Russians (Soviets) and the Americans, Boris Strelnikov and Vassily Peskov wrote 'Земля за океаном' during the Brezhnev-Nixon detente. Hedrick Smith wrote 'The Russians' and 'The New Russians' roughly at the same time. But have we seen anything of the same caliber in the past 20 years? I admire Sheila Fitzpatrick's articles, but they are not the same as exploring the soul of a nation through travel?

  4. Thanks to all of you for the comments!

    @Languagehat: I'm glad to hear that Clair has a similar feel to it. I'll have to look for her!

    @Anonymous: Thank you for reminding me of this series!

    @Alexander: Thank you for the kind wishes. I am feeling much better, thank you, but would love to stop coughing!

    It's funny that you mention Pil'nyak's О'кей because I just saw it referred to somewhere else. It's one of the few pieces of his work that I don't have! I'll look into Odoevsky, too.

    As for journalist memoirs and accounts, probably the best-known in the last 20 years is David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb, which I thought was okay. I've seen reviews of other, more recent, books but haven't read any of them. I did, however, enjoy writer Ian Frazier's two lengthy articles for The New Yorker about a car trip in Siberia. I would love to read more if he decides to write a full-length book.

  5. I read Lenin's Tomb, but was a bit disappointed. I keep the book for references.

    Has Celestine Bohlen written a book on Russia? I remember her articles from way back and she is a second generation Russian hand, but only see news commentary by her now.

  6. I agree, Alexander, that Lenin's Tomb was disappointing, particularly for a Pulitzer Prize winner.

    And no, I don't believe that Celestine Bohlen has written a book about Russia.

  7. I highly recommend Andrew Meier's Black Earth (Norton, 2003); it's far, far better than Remnick. Meier lived in Russia for years, from back when it was the USSR, and traveled all over; he's a genuinely knowledgeable and sensitive observer, and writes well to boot.

  8. Thanks for adding that recommendation, Languagehat. I haven't read Meier's book but everything I've heard or read about it has been positive.

  9. " enjoyed Gazdanov’s clear, elegant writing and the places and states of mind he describes..."

    I can't but second that. I always liked Gazdanov, although his novels seem very uneven. "Ghost of A.W." is probably the first book by G. to recommend; I have also enjoyed some of his short stories a lot. One thing I find amazing is how complete an opposite of Nabokov he is: his fire is anything but pale, and he can get surprisingly far when actually describing things in detail, not hinting at impressions. I wonder how much of that could be preserved in translation...

  10. Thank you for the corroboration, Maxim! I haven't seen any translations of Gazdanov so don't know how they read. The last paragraph of this article discusses the difficulties of translating Gazdanov's language.

  11. Thanks for the link, Lisa! László Dienes apparently thinks that Gazdanov's style is firmly anchored in Russian language. I am not sure I can agree. I think his writing is mostly distinguished by clarity of impressions, which makes it possible to share the impressions by description, rather than by hint.

  12. You're welcome, Maxim! Alexander Wolf is the first piece of Gazdanov's writing that I've read... I think you and Dienes are both correct: I would say that the language and the impressions you mention are intertwined, that style and content are connected because the clarity of impressions depends so heavily on Gazdanov's stylistic elegance and economy. (I hope that makes sense!) For me, that combination is rather mysterious... Dienes uses the word "translucent." Either way, I see his point in saying asking for a poet to translate!

  13. I believe I can see the point in Dienes's requirement of poetic gift in translating Gazdanov: a part of that clarity is probably an illusion created by Gazdanov's unique diction, and would of course escape a literal translation. But that would be a difference between a merely good and a truly amazing translation. On the other hand, being "merely good" is already high praise in the hard trade that translation is.