Monday, September 5, 2011

Labor Day 2011 Potpourri: Dovlatov & Two Abandoned Books

Saturday, September 3 was the 70th anniversary of the birth of Sergei Dovlatov, author of The Compromise (previous post), one of my very favorite twentieth-century Russian books. There have been lots of celebrations of Dovlatov’s very short life this year, including awarding the Dovlatov prize on Saturday to Eduard Kochergin, for the story collection Ангелова кукла (Angel's Doll) and Крещенные крестами (Baptized with Crosses), which also won the National Bestseller award last year (previous post). New Yorkers can look forward to a Dovlatov event on October 30, 2011, “A Life Is Too Short,” described as “an evening of literature, music, and documentary images dedicated to Sergei Dovlatov.” I wish New York were closer!

Meanwhile, Dovlatov had a cameo appearance in a book I recently attempted to read but abandoned, Anatolii Naiman’s Каблуков (Kablukov), a novel about a screen writer. Joseph Brodsky also showed up. I’ve probably mentioned before that I have a personal (and perhaps inconsistent) dislike of mentions of writers and other historical figures in fiction… unless they’ve been dead for at least a couple of generations. The namedroppy resurrections of Dovlatov and Brodsky weren’t the primary reason I gave up on Naiman’s book, though: shifts in narrative point of view, heavy shapelessness, and lack of momentum or arc were far more fatal.

Lest I miss out on anything, I checked a couple reviews before putting Kablukov back on the shelf. I found that Time Out called it “не самый увлекательный роман на свете” (“not the most absorbing book in the world”) then learned that Lev Danilkin wrote that it lacks “raison d’Ptre” (hmm, a [sic] might be in order…), comparing it to Panikovsky sawing at a weight in The Golden Calf, looking for gold. Indeed. The first 60 pages of Kablukov contained some interesting material about Soviet-era life and the legacy of the Stalin-era repression, plus lots of allusions, but the text felt so dense and, for me, swampily aimless, that there was no reward for all the heavy lifting. I should add that there was a big fuss in 2005 when Kablukov did not win the Russian Booker.

By comparison, the first 60 or 70 pages of Leonid Girshovich’s peculiar Вий, вокальный цикл Шуберта на слова Гоголя (a title I’ve seen translated as “Viy,” Schubert’s Songs to Gogol’s Words) drew me right in. Girshovich’s novel about collaborators in occupied Kiev is thoroughly literary, too—unusually lively notes in the back explain numerous references—but Girshovich creates sharp, weird scenes, situations, and characters that give the book plenty of raison d’ être. This is a book that works despite my painful reference/subtext deficiencies; I haven’t read Bulgakov’s White Guard, Nabokov’s Gift, or Mann’s Magic Mountain, though at least I’ve read “Viy” and listened to lots of Schubert. Maybe this winter I’ll finally just force myself to read White Guard: I’ve already tried at least three or four times, not counting my attempts at the play version, Days of the Turbins, which I tried and failed to read when it was on my grad school reading list. Maybe this will finally be my year. Hope dies last!

Speaking of abandoned books, I also dumped Aleksei Slapovskii’s Большая книга перемен (The Big Book of Changes). The Big Book is on the short list for the 2011 Big Book award but I think its title is its only hope for winning. Though The Big Book of Changes is far easier reading than the Naiman and Girshovich books, Slapovskii’s portrayal of middle-age friends from high school and a family with some businessmen just didn’t hold my interest, even during a lazy day with Tropical Storm Irene. As with Slapovskii’s They (previous post), the characters and situations felt stereotypically typical and shoulder-shruggingly minor rather than archetypically typical and painfully emblematic because Slapovskii doesn’t portray them from new or unique perspectives. As many Russian reviewers have noted, Slapovskii is also a screenwriter, and the book reads more like the basis for a TV series than a novel. At 640 pages and 585 grams (according to Ozon) The Big Book of Changes certainly is a big book in size, but, based on the first 200 or so pages that I read, Slapovskii missed out, big time, on a big chance to transform a wordy chunk of writing into a big and important social novel. Cutting lots of back story and detail would have been a great start. I’m glad I read electronically.

Up Next: I still need to write about I(rina) Grekova’s Кафедра (The Faculty); the Girshovich book will be along next. (Based on all this recent experience, I should write “if I finish.”) Then I’ll return to Big Book shortlisters: I still have Buida, Bykov, Kuznetsov, and Soloukh to read. A reminder: all the books are online in various formats, here.


  1. Thanks, Marie, I do like to keep myself entertained!

  2. Hi Lisa, thanks a lot for picking up on Dovlatov's birthday (and, incidentally, posting the link to the Big Book shortlist page). I'm in St Petersburg and this morning I'm planning to do two Dovlatov-themed things: go to the brand-new Dovlatov exhibition at the Akhmatova Museum, and spend all of 400 rubles on a three-volume complete Dovlatov in my favourite bookshop on Liteinyi Prospekt. I hope they're still there - I shouldn't have hesitated yesterday!

  3. I'm so envious (good envious!) of your day, Russian Dinosaur! I hope you had a wonderful time at the Akhmatova Museum (it's one of my favorite St. Petersburg places) and that the Dovlatov books were still in the store for you. Enjoy!

  4. I want a transporter device, so I can pop over to NYC and SPb in the blink of an eye!

    By the way, there's something weird going on here that you might want to fix:

    I found that Time Out called it “не самый увлекательный роман на свете” (“not the most(hmm, a [sic] might be in order…), comparing it to Panikovsky sawing at a weight in The Goldenabsorbing book in the world”) then learned that Lev Danilkin wrote that it lacks “raison d’Ptre” Calf, looking for gold.

  5. Thank you very much, Languagehat, for mentioning that odd editing problem: everything was still in the right order in the original document, so I have no idea how that sentence got so mixed up!

    I, too, would love to get a ticket for that transporter.

  6. I hate to be the continual bearer of bad tidings, but your "previously" link doesn't go where it should -- the URL should be

  7. Thank you again, Languagehat! I must have really been slacking off yesterday... the holiday, you know... though at least I know exactly how that mistake came into being!