Sunday, January 11, 2015

Marina Stepnova’s Doktor Ogarev: First, Do No Harm?

Some books are most interesting to write about long after I’ve read them: my impressions seem to sort themselves out, leaving a clearer picture of what truly felt most important. That’s particularly helpful when books are as flowlingly easy to read but tremendously, disarmingly complicated to describe—and filled with detail—as Marina Stepnova’s Безбожный переулок, which Stepnova’s literary agency is provisionally calling The Italian Lessons in English.

Even the novel’s title requires a bit of explanation: Bezbozhnyi pereulok refers to a Moscow street, the name of which implies, literally, Godless, not religious, antireligious, or even (if I synthesize a translation in the Oxford Russian Dictionary with definitions in the Ozhegov and Dyachenko dictionaries) outrageous in various ways that may be immoral. The street’s pre-Revolutionary name, Protopopovsky, was restored in 1992, according to Wikipedia. Simpler to translate since it’s just a surname, but hardly as interesting for a book title.

I’m not sure which title—the Russian original or the very different provisional English title—fits the book better but I’ll use the title as an entry to describing the novel’s plot. On a purely geographical level, something that’s important to the novel, I like the English title because the novel’s main character, Dr. Ivan Ogarev, is involved in two love triangles: the first between his wife Anya (also Antoshka) and his mistress Malya, the second between his native Russia, where he lives, and Italy, where he goes with Malya. The triangles themselves are remarkably similar because life with Antoshka, who’s the receptionist at the medical office where Ogarev works, is filled with Russian routine, but life with Malya, who lives off her wealthy father’s money, is filled with spontaneity and travel… to places including Italy. Malya might have studied in London but Ogarev, who’s a little older and grew up in the Soviet era, didn’t even know about passports for foreign travel. It is Malya, by the way, who lives on Bezbozhnyi pereulok.

Part of the fun of reading The Italian Lessons lay in observing how the novel differs from Stepnova’s previous book, The Women of Lazarus, (previous post), which will (here’s a shameless mention!) be out this fall, in my translation, from De Geus’s new World Editions imprint. I was glad to find Stepnova’s wonderful literary tics ticking away again: lots of quoting from and referring to classics, food preparations (walnuts are ground on the very first page) that never fail to make me hungry, and characters whose lives coincide with changes in Russian history. Ogarev comes of age during perestroika and the lives of the three main women in The Women of Lazarus reflect their times, too: the 1917 revolution and World War 2, the thaw era, and the socioeconomic difficulties of the 1990s. Stepnova also includes lots of one-word sentences, off-hand parenthetical comments, and even a budget from the nineties… in short, Stepnova is still the indescribable literary magpie I came to love more and more with each new draft of The Women of Lazarus. (And there were many drafts… the book is stylistically very complex…)

What’s different in The Italian Lessons is that Stepnova focuses on just one generation—Ogarev’s generation, with its Soviet-era childhood and post-Soviet adulthood—as the setting for a story that’s less about a doctor healing patients than about a doctor healing himself in a country that’s critically ill. Ogarev is a guy who’s angry with the world (he didn’t exactly have a happy childhood) and Stepnova writes early on that if he’d been born in the nineties, he probably would have been some sort of criminal. Instead, he’s a talented doctor who’s almost criminally unhappy. Here’s a brief paragraph about his Moscow life, from about two-thirds of the way through the book:

Три тысячи двести семь пациентов в базе данных. Простуженная жена. Пробки. Путин. Съёмная квартира. Системно чужой город. Системно чужая безрадостная страна.
Three thousand two hundred and seven patients in the database. Wife sick with cold. Traffic jams. Putin. Rented apartment. Consistently/systematically alien city. Consistently/systematically alien, joyless country.

That day is cold and dark, and Ogarev has fallen out of love with his native country (I purposely used “alien” to reflect Ogarev’s alienation), but it’s also a week after he met Malya, a patient, who brings him coffee. From Starbucks. True to the book’s provisional English title, though, The Italian Lessons ends in [spoiler alert!] Italy. Where Ogarev is described as a “свободный человек,” a “free person,” and reminds me of a modern-day Levin as he mows the lawn. A page of so later, there’s a run of words that includes July, Italy, sun, and, yes, even Tolstoy. And then Stepnova finishes the book a bit later with the word “человек,” meaning “person” or, perhaps better yet, “human being.” I won’t spoil anything else with more details—this book, which I liked very much (and would, of course, love to translate), is desperately difficult to write about without giving everything away—though I will say that Ogarev pays dearly for that freedom to become a human being.

Disclaimers. The usual. As mentioned, I translated Stepnova’s The Women of Lazarus. And I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Stepnova in Moscow last September. I’ve also worked on projects with Stepnova’s agency, Banke, Goumen & Smirnova.

Up Next. Another difficult-to-describe book: Evgeny Vodolzakin’s Solovyov and Larionov. And then Gleb Shulpyakov’s Museum Named After Dante, which I found mysteriously enjoyable. I’m still trudging along through Alexei Nikitin’s Victory Park, which sometimes seems to have too many backstories for its own good… though there’s something about the humor, which seems to be turning darker, that keeps me going. And the NOSE award at the end of the month, too…