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.


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