Sunday, October 21, 2012

Marina Stepnova’s Lazar Lindt and All His Women

Marina Stepnova’s Женщины Лазаря (Lazar’s Women) is one of “those” books: in this case, “those” books are the ones that compel me just a touch more than they repel me. Oddly, for this reader, “those” books have a tendency to be novels where form and content are absolutely inseparable (a big plus) and books that inexplicably leave me with painfully unforgettable scenes and atmospheres (an even bigger plus).

Moving on to the specifics…

Lazar’s Women, which is billed as a family saga, begins in the early twentieth century and continues to the present. And, yes, it truly is a family saga: each of the women—Marusya, Galina Petrovna, and Lidochka—that the title encompasses occupies, with some overlap, a specific historical period, and each (sort of) has her own place in the life of one Lazar Lindt. In my reading, Lindt is almost an incidental character, first feeling unrequited love for Marusya (his mentor’s wife) because of her welcoming home, then marrying the all-too-young Galina Petrovna and cosseting her in Soviet-era ways, and finally serving as a mythical figure in the life of his granddaughter, Lidochka, whose mother drowns in the book’s first chapter, leaving her to be raised by Galina Petrovna, now a rather cold widow.

The plot summary sounds pretty typical and trite, even (or particularly?) when you add in Lazar’s role as a mathematician who works on a bomb—Lazar is a creator and a destroyer all rolled into one, living in a remote scientist city with the mathematical-sounding name Ensk—so it’s Stepnova’s treatment of her material that gives the book its interest. I read the first hundred or so pages of Lazar’s Women thinking (as I still do) the novel is overwritten, overloaded, and overwrought… but then I grasped the book’s logic and began reading it as an allegorical, abstract representation of history, love, nonlove, and the effects of Soviet life on the psyche that demands all Stepnova’s literary “stuff.”

In her review for Izvestia, Liza Novikova likened Lazar’s Women to books by Liudmila Ulitskaya and Dina Rubina—and I completely agree with Novikova, who cites themes and devices that Stepnova handles differently, almost rebuking her schoolmarmish elders—but I found myself thinking even more of Vasily Aksyonov’s trilogy that’s known as Generations of Winter in English and Московская сага (Moscow Saga) in Russian. I disliked, almost intensely, the trilogy but couldn’t put it down. And I still can’t forget Aksyonov’s portrayals of the Soviet era’s perversion of life and love. Lazar’s Women had a similar effect on me, partly because it also dissects various types of perversion, but I think Stepnova’s book is better composed—compiled might be an even better word—than Aksyonov’s. For one thing, Stepnova uses her magpie techniques to offer all manner of tchotchkes, emotions, and accessories but Aksyonov uses his in what I consider a cheaper way, stuffing in cameo roles for historical figures, including Stalin. Stepnova’s book is also far more affecting in its affectedness: the book is even something of a tearjerker in spots. I fogged up more than once, and one male reader told me he cried.

I think critic Viktor Toporov’s description of Lazar’s Women as высокое чтиво is perfect: my English-language version of that would be “high-class pulp” because I read Lazar’s Women as a piece of very readable postmodernism that offers traditional alongside trashy. Stepnova combines elements and specifics like high class Soviet-era privileges, low-class words related to the body, a bathroom scene involving a smoking ballerina, the flexible saga genre, and a first-person narrator with an identity and a very distinctive voice but only (apparently) a cryptically tangential presence to the actual story.

Early in the book, though, that narrator tells doubting readers to check Yandex, a Russian search engine, if s/he doesn’t believe the facts in one part of the novel. Zakhar Prilepin criticizes the mention of Yandex in his review (which I read in Prilepin’s Книгочет), but I think he’s reading too literally and missing the point. Prilepin says (in my translation), “People write books about what Yandex doesn’t know and will never know,” adding that it doesn’t matter if we believe (my italics) what’s in a book or not. Okay, sure, fiction addresses mysteries of life that a search engine’s algorithms can’t grasp. I found the Yandex advice a bit puzzling at first but the further I read Lazar’s Women, the more I read the mention of Yandex as a a mysterious narrator’s reminder of the hierarchies and interdependencies of fact and fiction… that isn’t so far off from the novel’s portrayals of hierarchies within Soviet and post-Soviet society, which Stepnova inserts into a work of fiction that manages to feel simultaneously historical and anti-historical.

So, yes, Lazar’s Women irritated the hell out of me with its diminutives, barfing, and ballet. And, no, it’s not a gentle or genteel family saga. But that’s probably why the book works so well, why it feels a little unusual and important, and why it’s been shortlisted for this year’s NatsBest, Yasnaya Polyana, Big Book, and Russian Booker awards. It didn’t win the first two, and I haven’t read all the Big Book and Booker finalists, but Lazar’s Women is a very good book, a book I can’t help but respect—IMHO, respect > liking, when it comes to books—so I’d be more than happy if Stepnova won either award.

Up Next: Trip report from the American Literary Translators Association conference, Serhij Zhadan’s Voroshilovgrad, and Andrei Dmitriev’s The Peasant and the Teenager, which I’m enjoying very much, though it’s a bit of a shock to the system after the historical abstraction and brutal dreaminess of, respectively, Lazar and Voroshilovgrad.

Disclaimers: The usual.


  1. "Ensk" reminds me of Следствие ведут колобки. I think the characters also live in Энск and make appointments for энцать часов. Bonus: starring the voice of Леонид Броневой!

    I'm working my way through Zhadan in the original. Reading Russian swears in the Ukrainian dialog is a weirdly surreal experience.

    1. Thanks for this comment, Alex! I watched the beginning of Следствие (more later, when I deserve a break!) and recognized the distinctive style, then saw it was Татарский.

      That's very interesting on Zhadan's use of Russian swear words in the Ukrainian dialogue. I'm planning to ask the translator about peculiarities in the text so am glad to know that before asking. For me, reading the Russian translation, the whole book felt surreal but also very realistic... which made the whole experience feel all the more surreal. And realistic.

  2. Yes, it's one of Tatarsky's earliest (and best). The profanity is probably an idiosyncrasy of my own Ukrainian: I grew up speaking Russian with family members and peers. Ukrainian was for literary reading and cultural programming on TV channel 2. So the idea of any profanity, period, is a little jarring. On the other hand, I do find interesting the fact that all (?) Ukrainian profanity is just Russian profanity, an interesting vestige of Russian cultural dominance. I don't really know what ardent Ukrainian nationalists substitute for it.

    I don't know how up you are on Soviet-era animation, but the Лелик and Болик of the novel refer to characters from a series of Polish animated shorts.

    1. Alex, thank you for mentioning how you read/receive Ukrainian -- that's very interesting! I am not very up on animation from any period or country so was also glad to see Lelik and Bolik... they look oddly familiar (or maybe generic, I'm not sure which). I often recognize cartoon, movie, and TV characters but have no idea who they are or what their relevance is, probably from being in so many situations where a TV was on in the background!