Sunday, July 15, 2018

"Who Are You?": Novellas from Vladimir Makanin and Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina

I’ve always loved medium-length fiction—long stories, novellas, and short novels, though I may be too loose with the labels—and hold a special affection for Russian books containing works of fiction of varying lengths. I read novellas from two such collections this summer and was interested to find some basic plot and thematic similarities—man leaves city of residence, ends up in other place, has relationship(s) with woman, numerous questions about society and identity arise—that pushed me to write about the two novellas in one post. They are Vladimir Makanin’s На первом дыхании (At First Breath) and Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina’s Развилка (The Fork in the Road).


At First Breath has been adapted for film and the main contours of the plot summary on Wikipedia are just close enough to the novella that I won’t bother rehashing beyond saying that a man, Oleg, returns to Moscow to win back his beloved, who’s now married another man. Book-Oleg, however, isn’t really wanted anywhere so he spends his nights all over the place, including at Kursk train station, a favorite spot in Venedikt Yerofeev’s Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line, in H. William Tjalsma’s translation), plus, I hasten to add, Oleg not only rents out his relatives’ apartment to gypsies, he sells their possessions, too.

At First Breath’s plot feels relatively familiar, quite probably because I’ve read a fair number of Makanin’s other books, including his (much, much longer) Underground or A Hero of Our Time (previous post), in which another first-person narrator wanders from place to place raising questions about identity and society. Oleg wonders as he wanders, too, since he’s in a world where he feels nobody needs him, some amorphous “they” is/are always to blame, and he tells Galya, his beloved, that he’s going to save the world. Her response is, “Знаю. Знаю.” (“I know. I know.”) In a paragraph I labeled “love,” Oleg says he knows nothing about tacky/banal luxury (that being “пошлая роскошь”) but is accustomed to finding freedom in the steppes, a sense of Time on trains, and at least a bathroom in Moscow. What, really, does a person need? That’s what I almost always seem to love about Makanin’s earlier works: a sense of wondering, wandering, tragedy, and comedy about an individual that rises to something larger, something more universal. At First Breath feels like it might have even been a sketch of sorts for Underground; I checked Wikipedia and found that they came out 1995 and 1998, respectively.

Alexandrova-Zorina’s more recent Fork in the Road offers up a reverse scenario: Bagramov, a Muscovite, is driving to a distant town on business and gets stuck, literally, psychologically, and metaphysically, in a blizzard, and the last sign he sees says “Яма” (“Pit”), something he sees as a bad omen. Indeed! He ends up in the pits. This novella reads like the result of Vladimir Propp’s work morphing into Fairy Tale Transformations for Failure, where there’s never any chance of anything resembling a happy ending.

Nothing goes well for Bagramov. Our anti-hero loves telling the hapless people around him that he’s got plenty of money to get himself out of the mess he’s driven into but nobody knows their location (!) so when he calls Moscow he doesn’t know where to ask the operator to send help. His housing with Vasilisa (this is a very marked name but she’s not a beautiful fairytale princess) is infested with mice (there are some grisly scenes), another woman in town claims her husband is in Moscow but he’s dead, and there are even (OMG) shades of the Log Lady. Fork in the Road is filled with the familiar tropes of drinking, the decay of infrastructure, and societal breakdown, and Bagramov is thwarted, even violently, each time he attempts to climb out of the pit. The ending, with a sort of search party, is pretty predictable but it fits the novella perfectly by allowing an additional and literal examination of identity—questions of “who are you/am I?” have been sounding since the beginning—as well as reinforcements of opposites like city/rural, rich/poor, and cultured/uncultured. This is dark, sad stuff but several things differentiate Fork in the Road from the чернуха (dark realism) that was so (un?)popular five or ten years ago: a peculiar sense of suspense (I initially rooted for Bagramov to get the hell out of town even if he had to walk, though I knew the story wouldn’t go anywhere if he did), the feeling of a dark fairytale or at least a morality story, and a fitting absurdity that arises from those first two factors. Maybe ignorance really is bliss? I don’t know how many times I said “this is so strange” as I read Fork in the Road, and that’s a “strange” that covers a lot of meanings and emotions.

Disclaimers: The usual. I once translated a story by Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina for Чтение.

Up next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m still waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And Vladimir Danikhnov’s weird Lullaby, a Booker finalist about serial killings that has shades of Platonov. And Grigory Sluzhitel’s Дни Савелия, literally Savely’s Days, a novel about a cat that feels especially lovely after these novellas and Lullaby. After Savely, I’ll need to pounce (finally!) on my Big Book reading.

Wednesday, July 4, 2018

Head-Melting Heat Wave Edition: Short Takes on Short Stories

It seems like it’s getting hotter by the minute here in New England so I’m glad the beach is close, we bought a fairly quiet air conditioner, and I’ve taken a few days off. I think that sets the muddled scene for a post with some (relatively) brief comments about some of the brief stories I’ve read in recent months. Yes, I still prefer novels, preferably long novels with sturdy structures, but I often find there’s nothing better than a good short story for restoring my faith in contemporary literature. My mystical and malleable combination for success is an opening that gives me no choice but to keep reading, brevity, solid internal logic that ties the story’s form to its content, and an emotional kick. On another note, it’s interesting that the two cycles of stories in this post are based on real-life families and I enjoyed them very much, though I often have misgivings about memoirs and, perhaps even more so, fiction that’s obviously based on real lives. That’s because I frequently find that the balance between fact and literary devices (and even thin fictionalization itself for autobiographical fiction) feels uneasy to me, skewing the text’s internal logic. These cycles from Anna Berdichevskaya and Sergei Dovlatov, however, make balance look easy.

Anna Berdichevskaya’s Молёное дитятко (uh-oh, the first word feels like it combines the meanings of “blessed” and “wanted/desired” and the second is a word for “child,” albeit a word that various dictionaries mark as affectionate, regional, and conversational) is a collection of stories about Berdichevskaya’s life, beginning when she’s in utero during the era of the mustached one, continuing to the present, and organized according to the chronological order of her life rather than when they were composed. I only read the first of five sections/cycles in the book—six stories, about ninety pages—because the first story in the second section, set in another phase of life, felt so different to me that I decided to set the book aside to read that cycle separately.

The first cycle carries the collective title “Якубова, на выход!” (fairly literally “Yakubova, to the door!”) and covers notable events like the night of Berdichevskaya’s mother’s arrest—she’s reading Tom Thumb to Berdichevskaya’s brother—as well as her trial, time in the camps, and eventual release, after which Berdichevskaya asks her mother if she’ll always be old now. (Ouch; she feels ashamed for asking.) There’s lots of detail about life as a political prisoner, particularly in one of my favorite stories, “Аккордеон” (“The Accordion”), a love story of sorts that shows female prisoners walking to the men’s part of the “zone” for bath day (every other Sunday), detailing how the women primp by using beets and coal as improvised makeup, and telling how the men watch them even though they aren’t supposed to. I wrote “lovely” (underlined twice) about the story for lots of reasons: the mention of distant mountains and, places that have nothing to do with Leninism, Stalinism, criminalism, or people at all; Berdichevskaya’s ease at slipping in prison camp slang, and the correspondence (via air mail, letters flying over fences) between Berdichevskaya’s mother and a certain Boris. And then there’s the gift of an accordion. I have no idea how much is embroidered or embellished in Berdichevskaya’s stories, though that doesn’t matter to me because I loved reading them for how they feel true in the sense of real, meaning based on events that actually happened and had an impact on Berdichevskaya’s life, as well as true in the sense of artistically right. I got so caught up in them that they inhabited me in a nearly physical way, making them feel more like an experience than simple reading. That doesn’t happen very often. A bonus: one story gets tagged for having “Red Moscow” perfume in its title. It’s popular stuff.

I generally enjoy reading Sergei Dovlatov but his Наши (Ours: A Russian Family Album, in Anne Frydman’s translation) was a pleasant surprise even so. I read it for voice reasons (related to my work translating Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope), choosing this particular collection simply because it was the next set of unread stories in one of my Dovlatov volumes. Ours begins with a great-grandfather in the Russian Far East and ends with Dovlatov’s eventual emigration to the United States, serving up portraits of all kinds of other family members in between. My favorite may well be Aunt Mara, who becomes an editor; Tynyanov, Zoshchenko, Forsh, and Alexei Tolstoy (whom she once inadvertently headbutted in the stomach) were among her authors and Dovlatov includes some little literary anecdotes. I also couldn’t resist the stories about a dog named Glasha, a cousin with theater and criminal careers who only functions well in borderline situations, or the story of how Dovlatov meets his wife, Elena, whom he finds in his apartment the morning after a party because the man she’d arrived with got drunk and left her there. Best of all, though, was reading about the birth of their daughter, Katya, whom I know slightly from literary events, on her actual birthday. Ours contains everything I enjoy about Dovlatov: lots of humor (many pages warranted “ha ha” in the margins), plenty of absurd and tragic tinges, and a distinctive easy rhythm in the writing. I highly recommend Dovlatov to non-native readers of Russian since his language is relatively simple in a way that maximizes the meaning and impact of recognizable words, and he creates an intimate, chatty voice that doesn’t talk down to the reader.

Finally, I also enjoyed Sergei Nosov’s “Белые ленточки” (“White Ribbons”), which starts off with a tick bite during a camping trip—“Ксюшу укусил клещ,” a very k-sounding “A tick bit Ksyusha”—and, thanks to Ksyusha’s concern about encephalitis (who could blame her?), evolves into a story about a trip to find medical help in a not-exactly-nearby town where Ksyusha and her companion learn about mysterious white ribbons that have nothing to do with real-life political demonstrations that came up after the story was written. I find the oddities of Nosov’s stories especially interesting, even charming, because he somehow manages to stay in control (just barely!) of his material even when he wanders a fair bit, sometimes veering into slightly occult—in the “hidden” sense for medicine or metaphor—regions. Given the growth of the tick population in my own sweltering Maine and the existence of a tick jar in our house (it even came in handy for a recent dinner guest who wasn’t sure she’d seen a tick), there’s a lot to be said for a wandering story where a tick bite triggers so much action.

Disclaimers: The usual. I received a copy of the Berdichevskaya book from the organizers of the Russian stand at the Frankfurt Book Fair, thank you! Sergei Nosov gave me a copy of the story collection with the tick story, thank you again!

Up Next: More from the heavy “write about” shelf: Sergei Kuznetsov’s Teacher Dymov, Janet Fitch’s The Revolution of Marina M. (I’m still waiting for the sequel!), and Vladimir Sharov’s The Rehearsals in Oliver Ready’s translation. And then there’s a Vladimir Makanin novella, a long story by Elizaveta Alexandrova-Zorina, and Vladimir Danikhnov’s weird Lullaby, a Booker finalist about serial killings that has shades of Platonov.