Sunday, August 14, 2011

“Horizontal Position, Sleep”: Danilov’s Diary-as-Novel, Horizontal Position

Dmitrii Danilov’s Горизонтальное положение (Horizontal Position), which I read in the abridged journal version published in Novyi mir, was a pleasant surprise: the beginning of the book looked completely unprepossessing to me when I first scanned through it online, with many of the very short sentences in the book’s first diary entry containing little more than street names and information about travel on public transportation.

But Danilov won me over. I’m sure it helps that his narrator and I are both corporate writers and have visited many of the same places, from Mytishchi to Arkhangel’sk to Russian Bookstore No. 21 in New York City. Far more important, though, was Danilov’s ability to fill—and connect—the diary entries with everyday material about the narrator’s work, travels, and downtime. Horizontal Position is a rare case of a book where brand names don’t irritate me. Danilov makes them feel almost anthropological: the narrator mentions Live Journal, Flickr, a Yankee cap, and even a Hummus Place restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan (“вай-фай, ура!” – “wifi, hurray!”), pinpointing time and place with tremendously spare, repetitive language.

So what happens in Horizontal Position? An apparently single guy who turns 40 during the course of the book writes diary entries about life and his corporate work, much of it for the oil and gas industry. He travels for work, discusses taking a course in religion, and mentions literary pursuits. He rarely reveals much if something rattles or pleases him—he seems restrained, almost inert, at least in the text—even when he has an unhappy client. There’s some dry humor: I particularly enjoyed the passage when a client asks him to make a corporate text more artistic and lyrical. He tells us he plays an online fantasy (?) soccer game. He tells us what he does before he gets into a horizontal position to go to sleep, sometimes in uncomfortable beds. Countless entries end with “Горизонтальное положение. Сон.” – “Horizontal Position. Sleep.”

The key to Horizontal Position is the epigraph, from Iurii Mamleev’s “Серые дни” (“Gray Days”): “Но в общем все осталось по-прежнему и ничего не изменилось, хотя как будто и произошли события.” – “But for the most part everything remained as it had been and nothing had changed, though apparently some things had happened.” Sure, I know Danilov’s narrator reads Crime and Punishment and Sergei Samsonov’s Аномалия Камлаева (The Kamlaev Anomaly), listens to Splin, and eats a lot of hummus in New York because of the free Wifi. I even know, in excruciating detail, his Moscow travel routes.

Despite all those details, though, I don’t know much about the man’s ambitions. And you can probably tell that I don’t remember if he has a name or not… I could swear something gave me the idea he was a Dmitrii, like his creator, but now I can’t remember/find where I got that sense. But it suits me if the narrator is anonymous—or reveals but doesn’t want me to remember his name—since he stands in for all our days, weeks, months, and years that feel like we’re living in what a college friend thought of as personal human Habitrails, shuttling ourselves from place to place to do whatever we must. Meaning: I know nothing but everything about this guy. Blogger Заметил просто, who also doesn’t use a name for the narrator, refers to the guy’s limited choices, like taking one bus instead of another. (Hmm, this reminds me of something else…) And no matter where you are, at home, on a train, or in your сингл-рум (single room) on the Upper West Side, you’re likely to end up in a horizontal position at the end of the day unless, of course, you’re on a plane.

I should add that Horizontal Position is a 2011 Big Book Award finalist; I’ve now read four of the 10 books (Danilov, Slavnikova, Sorokin, and Shishkin) and abandoned one (Arabov). Horizontal Position is my favorite so far in terms of sheer readability. The diary form makes it easy to read one more entry, then another, and I enjoyed the narrator’s sneaky humor, even if I thought Danilov shouldn’t have let him spend so much time in New York. I forgave him when the narrator staged a minor rebellion toward the end, exhausted from all his travel and record-keeping.

Reading Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: 2/5, relatively easy. With its simple, repetitive, and often practical language, I think Horizontal Position would be a very, very fun book to teach. Horizontal Position is also an ideal book to read on an electronic reader.

Up Next: Кафедра (The Faculty) by I(rina) Grekova. I picked up Grekova after a disastrous attempt to read Leonid Andreev’s Sashka Zhegulev, which Stephen Hutchings called “singularly and significantly unsuccessful” in A semiotic analysis of the short stories of Leonid Andreev, 1900-1909. I wondered why Hutchings wasn’t more specific but then read the first 100 or so pages of the book and found such a stylistic and thematic morass that I’m at a loss to explain, too.

Image credit: Brainloc, via


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