Sunday, February 7, 2010

Genre and Gender: Platova’s Metro Station Stalingrad & Grekova’s Hairdresser

Gender and genre labels for fiction can be tricky. I remember my irritation when a long-time Russian acquaintance dismissively called Liudmila Ulitskaya’s writing “дамские романы” (“women’s novels”). I acknowledged that some of Ulitskaya’s work – Sonechka, for example – probably appeals more to women, but it didn’t interest him much that she’d won the Big Book and Russian Booker prizes.

Now that we’ve established that gender-based genre labels make me nervous, I want to use one: I think Viktoriya Platova’s Stalingrad, станция метро (Metro Station Stalingrad) is a Russian chick lit novel, albeit with strong coming-of-age motifs. As you’ll find out below, at least one Russian male reviewer recommended Stalingrad...

For reference, here are some snippets from a discussion of chick lit at “mainly written by women for women,” “a confiding, personal tone,” and covering “usual life issues, such as love, marriage, dating, relationships, friendships, roommates, corporate environments, weight issues, addiction, and much more.” Topics like grieving may appear in chick lit, but humor is mentioned as “a strong point,” too.

So. At twenty, Platova’s heroine, Elizaveta, is a youngish chick lit character who is concerned about her weight – she never forgets being called a толстая жаба (fat toad), and that point is always emphasized with bold. Her lack of friends contributes to self-esteem problems. Elizaveta and her German-born, accordion-playing father, whom she calls Karlusha, adore each other but Elizaveta’s high-flying mother rejects her. Elizaveta wants to look like Catherine Zeta-Jones and she plots how to meet her favorite singer.

I almost abandoned the book about a third in, but when I picked it up a couple months later for treadmill reading, I found myself enjoying some passages. Though Stalingrad almost drowns in its own cuteness, quirkiness, wordiness, and pop culture references, Elizaveta’s career choice -- caring for elderly and terminally ill people -- saves the novel. Her friendship with an AIDS patient is the highlight of the book, and his inevitable death scene was very touching. I can’t say I’d want to read lots more books like it but I give Platova lots of credit for writing a book that accentuates heart, soul, and позитив, the positive in life. [Edit: I do want to try the Booker finalist Берег (The Shore), written by another Vika Platova. (see comment from Alex, below)]

After Stalingrad, I walked with Irina Grekova’s 65-page Дамский мастер, translated into English as The LadiesHairdresser. The novella focuses on a female professor’s friendship with her young, male hairdresser. Grekova’s conversational first-person narrator covers some of the “usual life issues” listed by the chick lit site, but Hairdresser touches enough on Soviet realities that it feels more like thaw literature.

Men, please understand: finding and keeping a good hairdresser can be a special challenge for women. Having just lost my own haircutter, I particularly enjoyed looking in on Mar’ya Vladimirovna’s rather maternal relationship with the orphaned Vitalii, feeling happy that she finds a good “master” to style her hair but also knowing that something would interfere. I was surprised – though I shouldn’t have been, given that Hairdresser is dated 1962 – when bureaucracy, not egos or dissatisfaction, were the cause.

Though I don’t think The Hairdresser holds together as well as Grekova’s Вдовий пароход (The Ship of Widows) (previous post), it’s still an interesting and almost voyeuristic piece of psychological fiction. The language is fairly simple, making it a good way for advanced students of Russian, both male and female, to read fiction that combines personal concerns, like, yes, the importance of hair to an intelligent woman, with painfully Soviet ways of life.

Getting back to genre, gender, and that review: I should add that TimeOut Moscow’s male reviewer of Stalingrad called the book “женский роман” or even “девичий роман” – a novel for women or girls. But he adds that older women and even men shouldn’t be ashamed to read it. That reminded me of an American friend who lived in Moscow when I did: he loved reading Russian Cosmo because it improved his understanding of Russian and women.

Photo of Stalingrad Metro station, Paris, from Angryxpeh, via Wikipedia Commons


  1. Warning! Warning!
    The Booker nominee Platova is not Platova the chick-lit author! That Victorya Platova is a nom-de-plume for Viktoriya Belomlinskaya, a lesser known (and better!) author. Here's a memorial site put up by her daughter, cointaining most (if not all) of her prose works:

  2. Thank you for the correction, Alex! (I like your "Warning! Warning!")

    I'm actually glad to hear this because I have a story collection (unread, for now) by the Vika Platova who was a Booker finalist. I admit that I'd kind of wondered how one writer could make so many genre changes... but far, far stranger things have happened in the writing world, and writer bios have never been my forte.