Sergei Nosov’s Член общества, или Голодное время (literally something like A Member of the Society, or a Hungry Time) begins with a loaded action: our faithful first-person narrator, Oleg Zhiltsov, sells his Collected Works of F.M. Dostoevsky (thirty volumes, thirty-three books) after reading the whole damn set in three days and three nights. Yes, he’d been taking speed-reading courses in (ahem!) the spring of 1991, and all that Dostoevsky was a final project of sorts, though Oleg says he would have lost his mind had he read more. After finishing, he sleeps. Then he drinks. And a month or so later he sells the books.
Selling the Dostoevsky may pay a creditor, but a failed sale at the bookstore also proves fateful for Oleg: the unsold book is a vegetarian cookbook, Я никого не ем (literally, I Don’t Eat Anyone), that a stranger on a trolleybus (the number eight) notices. Fascinated by a stamp on the title page, he asks to borrow it. It turns out the man, one Dolmat Fomich Lunocharov, from a booklover society, says he’s into sphragistics (also known as sigillography), which, in his terms, means he loves looking at stamps in the margins of books.
Clearly, things are building here thanks to a combination of, among other things, Dostoevsky, 1991 (the year of the GKChP and, later, the dissolution of the USSR), food in a time of shortages, books, meeting a strange stranger on public transportation, marginalia (both social and bookish), and a Petersburg setting. There are even mentions of Anatolii Sobchak, whom I once took for a (brief) walk around Freeport, Maine. Perhaps what’s most important, though, is that Nosov writes like he’s in his element because he is in his element: he says in this interview that he lived much of his life near Sennaya Square, a place that both Dostoevsky and his characters often passed through and that appears in A Member of the Society. In that same interview, Nosov also notes that Oleg’s problems begin when he sells his Dostoevsky, books Nosov refers to as Oleg’s “наследие/nasledie.” (The Oxford Russian dictionary offers “heritage” and “legacy,” and I might add that there are lots of related words, too, like наследство/nasledstvo, which is “inheritance.)
Oleg may have sold his nasledie during a transitional time but Nosov sure works all his personal and literary nasledia well, incorporating housing on Sennaya Square, thoughts of axe murder, writing careers, and lots of taboos, including one that sure seems to show that pretty much everything really is permitted. Along the way, there are lots more fun, often peculiar, details: lavish dinner parties though many foods are only available by ration coupons, Oleg’s food columns, with recipes, for a publication that doesn’t really seem to exist though it does pay, a politician named Skotorezov (roots: livestock and slaughter), mention of a horrible pool player named Sergei Nosov, a secret passageway, and Oleg saying that something within him has sounded polyphonic ever since he turned in his Dostoevsky.
Lists are about all my melted, confused, and aching head can muster on this ninety-plus-degree day! I could compile many, many more of them but I’ll just conclude by saying that I found A Member of the Society a thoroughly entertaining novel with a linear plot, blend of genres (love story, a bit of picaresque, and the mystery of odd characters), Dostoevsky, and, for my taste, an ideal blend of nineties sadness and humor, something I know all too well. I’m looking forward to giving Nosov’s Curly Brackets, winner of this year’s NatsBest, a try, too.
Up Next: More books: Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov, which I’ll start translating soon, Elena Minkina-Taycher’s The Rebinder Effect, an episodic novel about several families, and the first book in my Big Book Award finalist marathon, Guzel’ Iakhina’s wonderful debut novel Zuleikha Opens Her Eyes.