Some readers loathe books about unpleasant people but I seem to be one of the oddballs who love them. Perhaps my subconscious tells me that all pleasant characters are alike but all unpleasant characters are unpleasant in their own ways? I don’t know. But here’s what I do know: I found in Margarita Khemlin’s Клоцвог (Klotsvog), a short novel narrated by a vain and immature person, Maya Klotsvog, a fascinating character study.
Maya tells the story of her life in very simple language, often throwing in Sovieticisms, often referring to herself as a pedagogue. Though Maya spends little of her life actually teaching math, she maintains a “once a teacher, always a teacher” attitude. Unfortunately, she uses her pedagogical talents primarily to manipulate and irritate family members and (oh, irony!) teachers. Maya is from Oster, Ukraine, which she says was an important Jewish center when she was born in 1930, but she says she spent part of World War 2 in evacuation in Kazakhstan. Maya and her mother worked there in a train repair factory.
Remnants of World War 2 loom over Klotsvog, and the trauma runs deep. Maya’s father died during the war, and Maya’s first husband was at the front; his wife and children died during the occupation. Maya’s mother’s second husband was a partisan. Maya’s third husband lost his parents to the war. Jewish heritage is a thick thread that runs through the book, too: Maya’s son learns Yiddish words in Oster when he lives with his grandmother, and Maya’s daughter loathes her Jewish heritage.
Given her propensity for demonstrating her pedagogical skills, Maya has difficulty getting along with other people. She has few friends but several husbands, and her relationships with her relatives are strained at best. Maya’s mother sees through her and (spoiler alert!) even keels over in the middle of a conversation, when Maya tries to pump her for information; Maya seems most upset that she’ll never got her answers. To be fair, Maya shows surprising fairness at times: she allows her first husband, who has a breakdown while eating cake in Kiev, and his new wife to live in a house she owns.
Klotsvog may not sound very exciting, but the book sucked me in from the first page thanks to Maya’s nonpretty language, calculated behavior, and matter-of-fact descriptions of Soviet-era life. Maya’s present-day narration carries an air of soap opera, something I think Maya cultivates. About 25 pages in she says: “Сейчас много бразильских и других сериалов, и у всех есть знания, как бывает в жизни.” (“Now there are lots of Brazilian and other TV series, and everybody has knowledge of what happens in life.”)
Of course Klotsvog is a literary novel, not a prime-time melodrama – it’s turned up on the long lists for this year’s Big Book, Russian Booker, and NOS(E) prizes – thanks to Khemlin’s ability to integrate the historical and the personal. Her emphasis on physical and emotional survival, and Jewish heritage elevates Klotsvog, too. But there’s something else about Khemlin’s writing that I like even more, probably because it feels a little mysterious as it holds the book together: her use of skaz techniques, which enable her to maintain Maya’s voice and wring so much life and emotion out of simple words.
I should mention that I enjoy Margarita Khemlin’s writing so much that I translated one of her short stories from Живая очередь (The Living Line) (previous post).
Reading level for non-native readers of Russian: fairly simple language, 2/5.
Up next: I set aside Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Перс (The Persian) for now, in favor of Sviatoslav Loginov’s Свет в окошке (The Light in the Window), a fantasy-ish book about life after death that three people with very differing tastes recommended…