Saturday, July 5, 2014

Mamleyev’s The Sublimes

What can I say but “finally”?.. I admit I’ve been dreading, almost since I read its first pages, writing about Yuri Mamleyev’s Шатуны, a dark “metaphysical realist” novel known in Marian Schwartz’s translation as The Sublimes. In fact, I’d been dreading it so much I even considered combining two books in one post: The Sublimes and Danzig Baldaev and Sergei Vasiliev’s Soviets, which I wrote about in early May.

That combination isn’t quite as crazy as it might sound: Baldaev’s grotesque caricatures offer perspectives on the soul-sucking Soviet system and one of the main characters in Mamleyev’s novel, which was written in what Mamleyev calls the “deep underground” in 1960s Moscow, is Fyodor Sonnov, who seeks souls, a process that requires death and, thus, makes Fyodor a serial killer, albeit one with rather loftier-than-usual intentions. Sonnov starts killing early in the book, all very casually, not long after his stomach has been described as his second face and not long after he’s punched someone in the jaw for no apparent reason. Sonnov knifes his victim, checks his passport in the moonlight, and then starts chatting.

Юрий Мамлеев - ШатуныLike Mamleyev, Sonnov goes underground, too, both literally and figuratively, adding to a Dostoevskian mood that goes way beyond sharing a name with the writer. Sonnov stays with his sister Klava, who lives in a house near Moscow with some interesting characters: there’s Lidochka, a bug freak, and Petenka, who eats his own skin diseases. Meaning he eats himself. All of this feeds into myriad human and metaphysical mysteries related to themes like “Do I exist?” (I’ve only mentioned some of the marginally odd characters here, saving the most peculiar for readers to discover on their own. If you’re like me, you might wonder if you’re understanding things properly… Yes, you are. Some parts of this book may not be for the faint of heart...) The passages with the Sonnovs toward the beginning of the book felt almost like a mix of chernukha (dark, realistic fiction usually associated with the 2000s), surrealism, and something syntactical (I’m not quite sure what) that reminded me of Platonov, albeit without the heart-piercing beauty I find in Platonov. It’s Dostoevsky that rules, though: his portrait even appears in a reflection, complete with a firm and suffering gaze.

The Sublimes lost a lot of its energy for me when Mamleyev introduced a band of intellectuals: it felt like they sucked (oops, that was initially “fucked,” a nice little slip because of one of Sonnov’s capers…) the soul out of the book. I hasten to add that my problem with the band of intellectuals is but a symptom of my own biases: I’ve long had difficulty with philosophizing characters (cf. this previous post on Bykov’s The List) because they almost always feel heavy-handed and obvious to me. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy certain passages with some of Mamleyev’s chattier characters, particularly Anna, the “metaphysical courtesan”; there’s even a beer-drinking scene at a cemetery. Still, so much talk about the “я” (the “I”) and solipsism tends to drag almost any reading for me.

That said, The Sublimes got under my skin like one of Petenka’s afflictions, coming close to making me scratch until I bled. I think I have a sense of why some readers love it so much: beyond the fact that lots of people enjoy the philosophizing I find so tedious, I have to admit Mamleyev does a fantastic job creating a world that’s both familiar and alien, a place that feels like some strange circle in some strange Soviet hell. The Sublimes is loaded with oppositions—life/death, presence/absence uneducated/intellectual, I/other—and there is, crucially, I think, a lot of laughter toward the end. Both Mamleyev’s laughter, written into the book, and mine, written in the margins. I even wrote a big “Ha!!” when Fedya hopes to kill all the metaphysicals: he’s in Moscow, in a place that seems like the foothills of Hell and he’s breathing in the smells of извращение, which feels to me like all sorts of perversion and distortion. My “Ha!!” wasn’t just because I disliked the metaphysicals. It also came from something wonderfully, hmm, ironic and unreal and realistic and maybe sublime about Fedya, who even takes pleasure in the smell of that perversion/distortion as he inhales.

And so even if I didn’t always enjoy The Sublimes, I can’t help but appreciate Mamleyev’s vision and off-kilter humor, both of which I (obviously) find a little indescribable. That brings me to one last thought: I’m glad I dreaded writing about The Sublimes. As often happens, my thoughts and feelings about the book settled with time, helping me appreciate The Sublimes, a book that is, whether I like it or not, a modern classic. I’ve included some links below with other views and particularly recommend Grigory Ryzhakov’s concise description and analysis. Finally, I have a feeling Mamleyev is a writer—like Sorokin and Pelevin—I will grow to appreciate, perhaps even enjoy, far more as I read more of his books and delve further into his themes and unusual world(s).

Disclosures/Disclaimers: The usual.

Up Next: We’ll see!


  1. The Russian Wikipedia page says Шатуны was first published partially as The Sky above Hell in 1980, translated by H. W. Tjalsma. But on WorldCat The Sky above Hell seems to be a collection of short stories. Do you know if it's the same book?

  2. I'm glad you asked this question, Erik M.! According to Mamleyev's introduction to my edition of Шатуны, The Sky Above Hell contains a condensed version of Шатуны. (Kirkus mentions it in a 1980 review, here.)

  3. Oh, I see - the condensed version of Шатуны is one of the stories in The Sky above Hell, not the entire book. I don't know why I didn't think of that. Thanks!

    1. Correct! I probably wouldn't have thought of that option, either.