Sunday, May 15, 2011

Ah, Vanity! Ah, Spring (Cleaning)!

Today’s spring cleaning included clearing out a blog-oriented corner of my head… I read Aleksandr Snegirev’s Тщеславие (Vanity) last month but, thanks to lots of awards news, hadn’t gotten around to finishing sweeping impressions out of my brain and into a blog post.

Vanity is a light novel, a vividly told satirical morality tale about an unemployed guy, Dimka, whose friends enter “his” writing into the Golden Letter contest for writers, hoping he will win the monetary prize and, perhaps, rewin his girlfriend. I write “his” writing because Dimka’s friends – the narrator and a guy called Piglet – pull together chunks of Dimka’s incomplete work, adding, editing, and even writing stories for him. They give him a pseudonym, Mikhail Pushker, that has distinct shades of someone else…

Dimka, of course, ends up a finalist for a prize suspiciously similar (so “they” say) to the real-life Debut, which Snegirev won for short prose in 2005. Golden Letter finalists from all over Russia are bused to a дом отдыха (rest house) outside Moscow where they spend days together discussing writing. For me, much of the book’s humor came from the setting: I remember the bad food, odd smells, strange habits, uncomfortable beds, and forced jollity of gatherings at rest houses and similar places. Some of Snegirev’s details – like a stairway that resembles холодец (basically meat Jell-o) and waitresses carrying huge stacks of glasses – induced flashbacks.

During his time with other Golden Letter finalists, Dimka realizes that his competitors are (also) liars: one is older than the maximum age for the prize, another doesn’t have the life experiences he says he does, and so on. Of course the established writers at the workshops have their own neuroses and deceptions. I thought one writer’s advice on how Westerners read Russian literature was telling: an experienced writer tells Dimka to give Westerners the mysterious Russian soul they want so he can be considered a new Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Pasternak. It’s also helpful, he says, to add a drop of Chechnya to keep Russian authorities uncomfortable and give the West some of the Russian barbarity it wants. *sigh*

Perhaps most interesting is that Dimka doesn’t narrate Vanity, one of his friends does, relating intimate stories of what happens to Dimka at the rest house. Thus the stories, allegedly Dimka’s experiences, are filtered through Dimka’s memory and his friend’s imagination, removing the stories further and further from what “really” happened and reinforcing the novel’s themes of lying and narrator reliability.

Like Snegirev’s Petroleum Venus (previous post), Vanity is generally well-paced, human(e) mainstream fiction with lots of observations about contemporary Russian society. There are many more scenes in Vanity that I could mention – some are rather madcap – such as Dimka’s meeting with a favorite childhood writer, the effect of the world financial crisis on the prize, the reputed ghost of Arsenii Tarkovskii, a variety show with a World War 2 theme, and an established writer declaring he doesn’t like contemporary fiction. Ah, vanity!

Level for Non-Native Readers of Russian: 2.5-3.0/5. Includes some slang, but the story is straightforward, well-balanced, and easy to follow, making Vanity easy to read.

Up next: Mikhail Shishkin’s Венерин волос (Maidenhair), which I just finished. Maidenhair took over my head, in a very good way, for several weeks. Then Vsevolod Benigsen’s ГенАцид (GenAcide), which one of you recommended.

Disclosures: Aleksandr Snegirev is a friend on Facebook but we’ve never met in real life.


  1. Thanks for the review, Lisa! Based on your post, I don't think I will be adding "Тщеславие" to my reading list.

    A couple of thoughts:

    I have to agree with the writer from the book who suggests that Westerners associate Russian literature with the "mysterious Russian soul". I am reading a bad French book "Элегантность ежика" by Muriel Barbery, which got various literary prizes God knows for what. So, one of the main characters in this book also (with understated pride) claims: "Главное мое пристрастие — русская словесность до 1910 года". Annoying!

    I am slightly intrigued by the stairway that resembles холодец. Is it the smell? Or is the stairway that shaky?

    Look forward to your next posts!

  2. Dolgormaa, thank you for your comment, it is always nice to see you and hear from you!

    I'm glad you liked the observation about the mysterious Russian soul. Here's what it says in the book, I'm typing it letter-for-letter: "На Западе отлично идёт zagodochniy russkiy dusha." I haven't read Hedgehog but certainly appreciate that line -- I have heard so many similar comments! (I wonder if it's 1910 because that's when Tolstoy died?) Your mention of Hedgehog reminded me of how Chad Post, of the Open Letter Books, has mentioned that book (link).

    As for the холодец. I love the idea of the stairs smelling or shaking like the stuff but Snegirev wrote about looks: "Бетонные ступени с мраморной крошкой напоминали бруски холодца с разномастными кусочками мяса." I have seen those stairs!

    Венерин волос will be next... I'm already trying to figure out how I'll write about it...