Sunday, April 4, 2010

Representations of Reality: A Time of Women and The Yeltyshevs

How do you prefer your fictional reality? I’ve been thinking about writers’ methods for creating fictional realities after reading two 2009 Booker Prize finalists: Elena Chizhova’s Время женщин (A Time of Women), about women in a communal apartment in the early ‘60s raising a girl who doesn’t speak, and Roman Senchin’s Елтышевы (The Yeltyshevs), about a failing family that moves from city to village in the 21st century.

Chizhova, who won the Booker for A Time of Women, uses chunks of first-person narration that jump from character to character, capturing verbal tics and grammar mistakes. Her characters’ dialogue, inner thoughts, and descriptions sometimes feel like a mush up of skaz technique and the “verbatim” method of using actual utterances in literary and cinematic texts. Chizhova was quoted in a New York Times article as saying she eavesdropped on her mother and great-grandmother as a child, making me wonder if their speech patterns inspired her use of the vernacular in A Time of Women.

Chizhova’s situations and characters – three old women with old-fashioned names, a young female factory worker dying of cancer, and the young woman’s co-workers – feel authentic, gritty, and very specific, though the novel’s language and structure is also so choppy and jumpy that it was difficult to engage with the book. At least I’m not alone: Anna Narinskaia’s review in Kommersant (here) mentions the relief of passages in which the young woman’s daughter tells of her life in more direct language. The reviewer also mentions the frequency of diminutive forms in the book. Yes, they become grating.

What frustrated me more about A Time of Women was that I felt I’d already covered so many of its themes with other writers: voices, the apartment question, the young woman’s hassles at work over her personal life and choices, the parallel of a rotten system and cancer, illegitimate children, memories of World War Two… I don’t mean to sound immune to the power of those important and very sad themes that examine totalitarianism and the Soviet past but they had an unfortunate recycled feel, despite the way Chizhova expresses them. It’s just not my book.

To be fair, I should add that I read A Time of Women from a printout I made from the literary journal Zvezda’s Web site; I don’t particularly like reading printouts. A Russian-language book (print run: 4,000) is evidently on the way but I have seen no mentions of an English-language translation.

Which brings me to Senchin. And television, the ultimate medium for pseudo-reality. (Disclosure: I don’t have a TV.) Both Chizhova and Senchin use televisions in their books: Chizhova’s young mother manages to buy one, and it becomes a view into other lives that look happy to the characters. In Senchin, TV reflects the Yeltyshevs’ degradation. Living in the village, the family’s humanness and their television, a connection to the rest of the world, die. The family sinks into alcoholism and violence, and the TV reception fades. When they lived in town, Mr. Yeltyshev was a cop, his wife was a librarian. He fails to keep the peace, and she doesn’t seem to read much. One son can’t hold down a job, the other is in jail. Ouch.

The reader knows from the start that Senchin’s characters are doomed: Mr. Yeltyshev loses his job at the drunk tank after a critical lapse of judgment, lending the book the feel of a dark, dark parable. Senchin’s matter-of-fact narrative voice drew me in from the first sentence, and his characters, locations, and situations are so vivid that I felt like I was on location with the narrator. Senchin doesn’t include extra details, and his mentions of changes of season reinforce the atmosphere and inevitability of the Yeltyshevs’ worsening situation. Yeltyshev himself, formerly part of the rotten system, becomes rottener. I felt queasy but I couldn’t stop reading. The Russian friend who bought the book for me in Moscow read it before handing it off: she couldn’t put it down, either.

Some critics grumbled when Senchin didn’t win the Booker – I also think it or Leonid Yuzefovich’s Cranes and Dwarfs (previous post) would have been a better choice than A Time for Women – but The Yeltyshevs has been criticized by some readers who think it’s too depressing. Yes, it’s chernukha, that dark naturalism I mentioned a few posts ago. Yes, it’s horribly depressing, particularly because the Yeltyshevs are always waiting for someone, something, anything miraculous to save them from themselves and their poor decisions. The Yeltyshevs is one of the saddest, darkest, and most achingly real books I’ve read in a long time. But for my taste, it’s also one of the best because it provides such a terrifying and detailed psychological portrait of intertwined economic, social, professional, and moral failures that could, with a few changes, easily take place in another family or another country. There’s lots more I’d love to write about both these books, but I’ll stop by saying that the universality of The Yeltyshevs is, for me, an important part of what realistic fiction should be.

Level for non-native readers of Russian: A Time of Women: 4/5, rather difficult, for its vernacular plus a twitchy narrative that can be difficult to follow. The Yeltyshevs: 2/5, moderately easy thanks to simple vocabulary and a smooth writing style that builds suspense despite an obvious outcome.


  1. The text of The Yeltyshevs at the link you supplied ends with (Окончание следует). Could you suggest where the rest might be found?

  2. Here you go, Alex: окончание

    I'd be curious to hear what you think of the book.

  3. Finally read Елтышевы. I have to agree with you, Lisa - I couldn't put the book down. The book is so depressing, so it must be Senchin's writing - very simple, unremarkable, but it flows so well, so you can't stop reading.

  4. Thank you for your comment, Dolly! I'm glad to hear you thought the book is good. I agree with you that the simple writing make the story work. There is no fuss, just that well-paced flow that you mention.

  5. I have read Eltyshevi....yeah, very depressing but at the same time captivating...

    1. Thank you for your comment, charumati Ramdas. Yes, it's a very, very good book. I'm glad you appreciated it! (To say "enjoyed" doesn't feel quite right.)

  6. I recently read the Yeltyshevs and found it quite powerful. Every time I was about to start reading it I felt quite apprehensive--it really affected me. I really appreciated your comment about the novel being universal. It was funny to read a Goodreads reviewer exclaiming why stuff like that did not happen in American villages. Of course, it does, all the time. I know someone from Upper Peninsula Michigan who recently lost a sister to alcoholism. I believe the novel is also very relevant for people who live more successful lives. It's so much about the relationships between children and parents, about the expectations on both sides, and also about the routine and old age changing us, getting the better of us.
    After I finished "the Yeltyshevs", I read Senchin's "Minus", and now reading "Nubuk". "The Yeltyshevs" are definitely much stronger than those earlier books. It's such a .... (I'm looking for the English for цельный) seamless? book. Can you say that a novel has integrity?

    1. Yulia B., it's great to hear your reactions to The Yeltyshevs: I couldn't agree more about the power of the book and the similarity to many American stories. During the worst of the recent recession, I read numerous news stories about families that fell apart after the loss of jobs. I also find it odd that many readers think the book is so uniquely Russian!

      I haven't read Senchin's Minus but I did read Nubuk and agree that it's not nearly as strong as The Yeltyshevs. I'm looking forward to Senchin's latest book, which is a Big Book finalist. I'll be reading it soon.

      And yes, цельный is a difficult word to translate! (Especially in novels!) I think seamless works very well here: I've often said that the book is composed beautifully, by which I mean it holds together well and is, well, seamless.))

    2. A Russian friend of mine thinks that the specificity of Russian stories of the Yeltyshevs kind is that they have a sense of mystical doom, like you're devoured by a bottomless bog. She compared the feeling the book creates to the movie "Yuriev day". I have just started watching it.
      Also, I just finished "Nubuk", and I have to say that reading it felt like a waste of time. I think "Minus" is much better, although it's also not the most exciting read. "Nubuk" lacks the kind of literary qualities that make a book relevant to readers' lives. There were certain themes and images in "Minus" that made me go back to my youth. (I was born the same year as Senchin, and my family also moved away from a former Soviet republic). "Nubuk" left me wondering what Senchin wanted to share with us, besides this one particular guy's story--the story that lacked events and insights. What do you think?

    3. I've heard similar comments on чернуха... the best чернухa, like The Yeltyshevs, can build an odd form of suspense and get under the reader's skin, making the reader feel doomed (just glimpsing the pit is horrifying) and lucky at the same time (phew, I'm not in the pit). At least that's how I felt reading The Yeltyshevs: it was obvious things would go bad, I wanted to know how and why, and I wanted to feel/hope it couldn't happen to me.

      I read Nubuk years ago, before I started the blog, and it wasn't nearly as memorable. I think the aspect that interested me most was the description of how business was done at the time. But I agree with you about relevance, plus Nubuk just isn't a цельный роман on the level of The Yeltyshevs!