Saturday, June 12, 2010

Finding Happiness in Zaionchkovskii’s Happiness

I’m happy I didn’t know much about Oleg Zaionchkovskii’s Счастье возможно: Роман нашего времени (Happiness Is Possible: A Novel of Our Time) before I bought it. Had I known this Big Book award finalist consists of loosely linked short stories, I might have skipped it. Several of you have recommended Zaionchkovskii to me but my stubborn love of long-haul fiction means twenty-four stories in three hundred pages with largish print doesn’t sound like my kind of happiness.

Had I known more about the book and not bought it, I would have missed out on a beautifully indescribable collection of pieces about, yes, happiness. And life in general (of course), death (of course), love (of course), and living with a dog named Phil (a new twist on the happiness theme). Zaionchkovskii’s stories describe everyday occurrences in the life of a divorced Russian writer who often visits with his ex-wife and her husband. (Ouch!) We learn about voices heard through kitchen vents, a fishing trip with rain and cows, a funeral, newlywed housing, and the smell of a sewage treatment plant. Each story has its own small-scale narrative arc but the stories combine to create a meta-arc that gives the book a conclusion.

I think it’s safe to say the Novel of Our Time portion of the book’s title alludes to Mikhail Lermontov’s Герой нашего времени (Hero of Our Time) (previous post), another novel-in-short-stories. Zaionchkovskii’s book is more unified than Lermontov’s, though, employing just one first-person narrator, a writer who occasionally incorporates his fictional characters into stories about his own life.

The air of metafiction is mercifully minimalist and muted in Happiness: though it’s clear the writer in the book is writing about himself (and perhaps even incorporating aspects of his creator’s life?), the narrative voice is so unpretentiously conversational and friendly that I never felt I was being pomo-ed to a pulp. And because the book creates such a detailed portrait of the narrator using colloquial language and humblingly mundane happenings, I almost felt he truly was talking to me, not some anonymous reader, when he reached out using the second person.

Zaionchkovskii handles the temporal aspect of of Our Time nicely, too: Happiness Is Possible depicts contemporary Russian life with a blend of dark and quiet humor, wistfulness, and a combination of involvement and detachment. Plenty of details from post-Soviet Russia are here: how people go to a funeral, a pricey-sounding SUV, sleeping with the realtor, and the coincidences of Одноклассники, Classmates, a Russian site like Facebook. There are even memorable minor characters, such as an escalator lady from the Moscow Metro (ah, memories!) and a vodka-drinking cow herder, plus an appearance by the ubiquitous Christmas tree air freshener.

The fun of Happiness Is Possible wasn’t that I sometimes finished reading stories with a smile on my face – though that happened more than once – but that I read an intimate picture of a character who continually adapts, usually with success, to the conditions around him, no matter how absurd they are. And then there’s the book’s tone, which avoids cynicism but has just enough of an edge to prevent the book and the happiness it depicts from sinking into sugar or cheese. The power of the calm, cautious optimism in Zaionchkovskii’s book is that it made me happy because it is neither overbearing nor empty.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: 2.5 or 3/5. Happiness Is Possible read very easily and enjoyably for me because it’s written in fairly conversational Russian, though readers without experience living in Russia may find some of the vocabulary difficult.

Up next: Fate has been sending me lots of short(er) fiction lately… Two short novels from Vladimir Sorokin: День опричника (A Day in the Life of an Oprichnik, as FSG is evidently calling the English-language translation), which I liked a lot and won’t attempt to summarize here, and Метель (The Blizzard), which I’m just starting. I’m also enjoying Moscow Noir, an anthology of English translations of Russian stories that Akashic Books sent to me after Book Expo America (previous post).


  1. Thanks for the recommendation! Although I'm getting a little tired of stories about careworn middle-aged Russian men finding satori, I do have Счастье возможно in my to-read pile. Sadly, it's a real pile spread out on the floor and waiting to be put onto shelves, so Zayonchkovskiy may have to wait for a while.

  2. I thought about an homage to Lermontov too because of the title :)

    I'm also not a big short story fan - although I like Geroy nashego vremeni and Chekhov's short stories - but this sounds like a must-read.

    And Moscow Metro escalator ladies. Happy memories indeed!!

  3. Thank you, Alex and cat, for your comments! I enjoyed the book very much and would certainly recommend it: I think Zaionchkovskii found the right balance with the length and tone. It's very low-key. I'll be interested in hearing from others about whether they think the book reads more like a novel or a short story collection.

    Happy reading -- it's always nice to hear from both of you!

  4. This book will be discussed at the And Other Stories Russian reading group on the 4th April at Pushkin House. If you are interested in being part of the publishing of an English translation of this book, please go to
    It will be fun!