The back cover of my edition of Alexander Snegirev’s Вера—the title is Vera in Russian, Faith in English—describes the book as a “роман-метафора,” literally a “novel-metaphor.” Vera, which won the 2015 Russian Booker Prize, (when, yes, I really, truly shouted “Snegirev” after I read he’d won…), is a novel that feels both painfully real and a novel whose metaphors feel painful as well as surreal, all served up in Snegirev’s story of a young woman’s life, faith, and attempts at love. I can’t say that Vera’s particularly pleasant to read—there are unsavory characters, dense language, and painful situations that have the real-but-unreal sense I mentioned above—but I have tremendous respect for Snegirev for being able to pull off the novel. I’ve read several of his books now—I thoroughly enjoyed both Petroleum Venus (previous post) and Vanity (previous post)—as well as a number of his stories of varying length. They were all good but Vera is a big step forward for him as a writer. Respect is often worth a lot more than likability.
I think the big reason Vera succeeds is that Snegirev teaches his reader how to read the novel from the very start, establishing tone and atmosphere. On page three, for example, there’s this: “В начале самой страшной войны в истории человечества нелюбимого мужа Катерины призвали.” (“At the beginning of the most dreadful war in the history of mankind, Katerina’s unloved husband was called up [for military service].”) The characters are Vera’s grandparents and the war is World War 2. Vera is later referred to as “our heroine” and touches of conscious storytelling and myth set the book outside what I’d consider a real reality. Then there’s the matter of the language, language that some reviewers have compared to Andrei Platonov’s. Certainly the description of pizza (I’ll just offer a rough translation) as an Italian flour-based round/circle mounded with vegetables and meat, a concoction that’s quickly confirmed to be pizza, gives a sense of Snegirev’s play with language, language that’s so dense that I limited my readings to small chunks and (though I don’t remember her exact words) that one colleague, a native speaker of Russian, likened reading Vera to slogging through mud or mire. There is, however, a fair bit of dark humor.
But. But sometimes I like a good slog. And Snegirev’s novel-metaphor-slog creates a Vera who represents her time, a post-Soviet time in which Vera goes to political protests in search of men (one of my notes says “gussies self up for a protest”) and when baseball bats are used as weapons. What’s perhaps most important, though, is Vera’s body, and here I’m grateful to Sam Sacks’s “Fiction Chronicle” in the Wall Street Journal two weeks ago for putting into words something I’d sensed in Vera but hadn’t quite formulated for myself, despite having noticed it in other novels, too. In discussing Han Kang’s Human Acts (translated by Deborah Smith), Sacks refers to fiction that “frames the human body as a site of political violence and protest,” something Han does to tremendous effect in The Vegetarian, too. (Side note: I haven’t read Human Acts but I have read The Vegetarian, a Booker International winner which, like Vera, I can’t say I enjoyed but had to finish and have to respect, both as a novel and for Smith’s translation. Also: I’m reading Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, where the violence against the body isn’t exactly political but where the descriptions of pain, much of it self-inflicted, make me flinch and twinge and gasp. There’s a sense of concrete/abstract and harsh reality/metaphor there, too, that reminds me of Vera and The Vegetarian, despite how different the books seem.)
In Vera, Vera/Faith is attacked early on in a church and she attempts to defend (I’ll paraphrase again) what is usually called [her] honor. Things go from bad to worse over the years and Vera eventually loses, among other things, the ability to see all of herself in the mirror. It’s helpful here to remember that Vera isn’t just a novel, it’s a metaphor, too, particularly since Snegirev carries his metaphors further, to their logical conclusions, so there’s not much of Vera/Faith left at all, and Vera’s life is closely tied to both religion and faith, as well as changes in Russia during the post-Soviet era.
When I think back to reading Vera, which I finished some time ago, several things particularly stick with me: working my way through the dense language, details from Russian history and life that give Vera that “real” layer I mentioned at the start, and, more than anything else, Vera’s physical and psychological pain, which felt both real (that word again!) and metaphorical, as well as integrally and intensely related to Snegirev’s language and picture of Russia. I hadn’t read all of Vera when Snegirev won the Booker—I read about 15-20 pages, electronically, before deciding I needed to read Vera on paper—but now I feel all the happier that I shouted his name when he won. Not all good books are pleasant or cozy or easy to describe, but I have tremendous respect (that word again, too) for complex books that work thanks to consistent poetics. In the end, I find that respect a lot more pleasant than an easy, cozy book, particularly when it’s such a pleasure to watch Snegirev’s writing develop.
Also: I was sad to learn yesterday that actor John Hurt died. Among his many roles, Hurt played Raskolnikov in the BBC’s 1979 adaptation of Crime and Punishment, which I watched as a teenager, both at home and at school, where my English teacher showed it to my class when we were reading the novel. I still see Hurt’s face as Raskolnikov as I reread the book now.
Disclaimers: I’ve known Alexander Snegirev since we met at BookExpo America in 2012; he sent me an electronic edition of Vera.
Up Next: Paul Goldberg’s The Yid, covering my thoughts on the book, which I recommend highly, and his upcoming visit to Portland for the launch of book’s paperback edition. Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I’m still loving, more than 500 pages in…