Sunday, February 2, 2020

Death, Death, and More Death: Elizarov’s Earth

Well. Hm. Mikhail Elizarov’s Земля (Earth) really puts the “magnum” in “magnum opus” – Earth clocks in at 781 pages in length, 26 ounces in weight and took me a month or two to read. It’s hard to even know where or how to start since this first-person narrative has so many eccentricities: despite being thoroughly contemporary – among other factors, we have tons of мат (obscenities), sex, and a thoroughly post-Soviet set of characters – it’s also feels very classic to me, perhaps because it’s such a “large, loose, baggy monster.” (Thanks for the assist, Henry James!) With its long (and I do mean long) philosophical discussions, I sometimes wondered if I’d slipped through some weird cemetery wormhole into a Dostoevsky novel (not just his “Bobok,” which comes up in, of course, conversation and which I have yet to read). More than anything, though, I felt Bakhtin, Bakhtin, and more Bakhtin.

When I pulled out my Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, in Caryl Emerson’s translation, to visit the pages on carnivalization (with more decades-old underlining and notations than I’d remembered), I could see why. Long before Bakhtin warranted a mention on page 709, I’d been thinking of him thanks to the presence of numerous typical elements listed in PoDP: eccentricity, laughter, parody, (de)crowning, world turned upside down, and various dualisms, like, say, life and death. (There’s also lots of drinking and sex.) The gravediggers (clowns!) in Hamlet get a mention, too, BTW.

But I digress already, rather like Elizarov’s characters… So. Vladimir “Volodya” Krotyshev (“Krot” for short, it means “Mole”), a young man who’s recently finished his military service in a construction battalion where, yes, he dug, meaning shoveled, tells a bit about his childhood and a whole lot about the brief month or two after demob. Writer, scholar, and critic Andrei Astvatsaturov looks at Earth, in this review for Gorky, as describing various phases of Volodya’s initiation. That description seems very apt to me; the word “initiation” even comes up late in the book, when it’s mentioned during a (very long) conversation, in the context of Volodya’s military service, which, irony of ironies, essentially lacked hazing. Krotyshev learns of funerals in kindergarten when he and classmates dig graves for insects, he learns of family dysfunction through his parents’ split and his father’s habit of changing jobs when he feels offended, he learns of fealty when his (older and rather sketchy) half-brother Nikita hires him to go into the monument business, he learns about sex and love and lust with Nikita’s girlfriend Alina, he learns of philosophy and tattoos from Alina, who’s philosophically inked up (Astvatsaturov aptly, again, uses the word “surrealistic” in describing her)… I could go on and on because pretty much everything in the book involves Volodya, who’s something of a blank slate, being initiated into something. This helps explain why (after Alina and Nikita are done, Nikita skips town, and Volodya moves on to another part of the death industry) one of Volodya’s job interviews (with tour!) goes on for sixty or seventy pages; it’s almost a self-contained novella. I shouldn’t forget to mention that Volodya and Nikita both have “biological clocks” that their father set for them at birth: they’re to wind them regularly so they never stop. They faithfully carry them, always, except when they’re at summer camp or in prison, when their father watches the watches.

Despite the seriousness of death, initiations, and hardcore philosophy, Elizarov makes Earth very entertaining, often weird. I found the kindergarten bug funerals rather sweet and there’s lots of humor. One funeral industry office has a Freddie Mercury poster that reads “Who Wants to Live Forever.” Alina dreams of neo-Nazi musicals after seeing The Producers. There’s gross stuff, like Volodya barfing at the table after having too much to drink. This is shortly after he says he feels like he’s sitting on a still train and the train on the next track starts moving; I know that feeling all too well and it reminded me of Sartre for the simple fact of nausea and Nausea. Later on that page we come to a discussion of corpses, language, and semiotic dichotomies, where, (long story short!) the cemetery becomes a polyphonic text. (“A cemetery of dead languages,” says one character.) And was it puerile of me to mark that a suppository is used as a bookmark in a bathroom copy of In Search of Lost Time? I think Bakhtin would approve; talk about the high and the low!

Do I know what this all adds up to? No. Earth ends in a cliffhanger. And it’s so long and dense with philosophy and characters that it can be hard to keep track of, well, philosophies and characters. (My usual disclaimer: I know this is one of my readerly shortcomings, especially since I’m painfully unread in philosophy.) Some of the characters – and/or their beliefs and behaviors – wore on my nerves. But even at their very most annoying (I think one takes way too much pleasure and pride in his wordplay, hiring of call girls for his colleagues, and мат; he shows a more learned side toward the end of the book), not to mention unsavory and politically (often very) incorrect, Earth clearly has purpose. The philosophical conversations may run on too long for my taste and literary biases, but they’re juxtaposed nicely with humor, pop culture references, and plot turns, again making a fine high/low combination. And where else have I ever read of a character finding a shovel (“Masha”) that’s essentially a soulmate? Or an almost wistful description of a funeral hall after the funeral, with its red carpet runner, roses, wreathes, and a screen still showing the deceased’s face? There’s still a complex, telltale smell in the air that Volodya decides to call “трупный” (“cadaverous,” I suppose, though some elements are only circumstantially related to the corpse’s presence). There are lots of other lovely lines and scene setters. And then there are all my beloved carnival elements, things I’ve internalized so much over the years that I take them for granted. Watch out or I’ll start listing things from Bakhtin again… carnivalistic mésalliances, anyone? It’s all here.

Earth is big, entertaining, and educational, not to mention confounding in ways that make this post one of my biggest flails in ages. But now that I’m nearly finished, I’ll tell you a big reason why I’m flailing and don’t how Earth all piles up. Astvatsaturov says it’s only part of the story. Meaning that there is more to come. A sequel.

Disclaimers: I received a copy of Earth from BGS, Elizarov’s literary agency; I often collaborate with BGS. Thank you!

Up Next: English-language reading! Dmitry Zakharov’s Средняя Эдда (Middle Edda, I guess?)


  1. Thank you for this. Despite the bagginess and lack of PC (which I suspect goes with the territory when it comes to Elizarov, based on the one book of his i've read) I really hope it ends up in English one day (though it'll be a hell of a translation job for someone!!)

    1. I thought you'd check in on this! Yes, it's definitely an interesting book... I'm very curious to see what the second volume is like. It would, indeed, be a hell of a translation job! There's a ton of slang, not to mention all the philosophy. Plus, of course, the brute size of the tome!