Sunday, November 14, 2010

Ilichevskii’s Matisse: Novel as Cut Out?

No, I haven’t changed my focus to art history… And Aleksandr Ilichevskii’s Booker-winning novel Матисс (Matisse) has little to do with Henri Matisse, at least at first glimpse. Describing Matisse is unusually challenging because it’s an ambitious, lumpy novel that uses complex, often poetic imagery and language to present social, existential, and metaphysical angles on post-Soviet Russia.

Ilichevskii focuses much of his attention on Leonid Korolev (korol’=king), an orphan who didn’t have a proper home until adulthood. He becomes a physicist: Korolev likes logic and hangs out at a linear accelerator. He was born in 1970, placing him in the generation that came of age during perestroika. He sees fear everywhere and has claustrophobia.

Matisse begins, however, by showing two Moscow homeless people, Vadya and Nadya. Ilichevskii ambles through a fair bit of biographical and geographical territory with them before we learn much about Korolev, who knows Vadya and Nadya because they sleep in the stairwell of his apartment building. Biography, Ilichevskii tells us, is a homeless person’s only property, and truth is a relative concept.

About halfway through Matisse, Korolev decides to free himself of his responsibilities, job, and boss, an old friend who’s also helped Korolev buy an apartment. Korolev tosses his keys in a river after preparing himself to live hungry and on the run as a hobo. A fair bit of philosophizing is behind Korolev’s decision, and it hardly seemed to matter whether it’s convincing or not: despite Matisse’s social content, with a focus on imagery and an almost cubist feel, Matisse is less a look in the mirror than a stylized impression of reality.

I think the best passages in Matisse take place underground, where Korolev really does become a king, wandering through subway tunnels and discovering hidden routes and stations. He loves the underground silence, piercing it by screaming when he enters new places. In one chilling scene, Korolev comes face to face with a passenger on a train; he also turns up civil defense sites and a model of the Kremlin.

Many elements in Matisse reminded me of other books. Vladimir Makanin’s Андеграунд (Underground) also focuses on an “intelligent” who lacks a permanent home or job. (This previous post shows other parallels, plus predecessors.) Makanin’s later Иsпуг (Fear), which I didn’t finish, covers similar territory and, like Matisse, includes an account of the October Events of 1993. The main characters in both Makanin books work as watchmen, as does Korolev for a short time.

I had high hopes for Matisse but found it difficult to enjoy because I didn’t think it quite jelled: Matisse contains many, many beautiful, touching, and metaphysically frightening passages, but Ilichevskii’s pace feels a bit too leisurely and his path too random as he describes the lives of Korolev, Vadya, and Nadya, who end up wandering together. Many episodes, especially Nadya’s love for the Moscow zoo and Korolev’s discoveries underground, are memorable, but Matisse’s chunks of reality and metaphor or allegory didn’t quite fit together for me, even if I regard the book – and the most colorful episodes in Korolev’s life – as a novel with a form that resembles Matisse’s cut out “The Snail.”

Level for non-native readers of English: Difficult language and syntax, with many dense passages, 4/5. I didn’t find the rewards of, say, Slavnikova’s 2017, which was as difficult to read as Matisse but presented a more compelling view of a world.

Up next: Dovlatov’s underwhelming Zone and Danzig Baldaev’s important Drawings from the Gulag. Then Voinovich’s Moscow 2042.


  1. When I read your review, it reminded me of a Belorusian film I saw years ago, called Ladoni - similar metaphors of homeless people wandering a city, and I got from the film a sense of disorientation, confusion because it didn't gel together, at least not for me.

    Perhaps I can find an extract from the book somewhere to try it...

    How cool that you will be reviewing Moscow 2042 - it's one of the first books I read entirely in Russian! I adored it at the time and still have the copy I tracked down in Moscow in 1994. Look forward to your impressions of it.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Cat, and for reminding me that I forgot to post the links to the journal version of Матисс!

    The beginning is here and the end is here. Matisse left me with strange impressions, so I'd love to hear what other readers think of it. It's interesting that the Belarusian film gave you similar feelings. Makanin's Underground also has a disorienting feel, but somehow it worked for me.

    Moscow 2042 is, of course, something entirely different! I read it years ago in translation and am enjoying rereading it, particularly because so many of the names are very funny.

  3. Great review...this looks really good. I'm in the mood for something meandering....

  4. Thanks, Amy... I wish this one were already translated for you! Have you read Slavnikova's 2017? It's not as meandering but it's also a dense book that won the Russian Booker prize.