Sunday, July 23, 2017

Two Books in English: Expats, Love, Life, Literature, and Moscow

On the surface, two novels set in Moscow that I read this spring and summer—Charlotte Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist and Guillermo Erades’s Back to Moscow—have a lot in common. Both feature young expats who come to Moscow at tumultuous times, both include lots of literary references, and both end rather sadly, with departures that fit their times. Both novels also mention the dangers of falling ic(icl)e(s) in spring. The differences, of course, are greater the similarities; I’ll try to summarize…

Hobson’s The Vanishing Futurist begins in 1914, when Gerty Freely moves from England to Moscow, to work as a governess for the Kobelev family. What struck me most at the beginning of the book was Gerty’s appreciation of Moscow, where she and I both love walking. Here’s the beginning of a paragraph early in the novel:

Moscow is a city that insinuates itself cunningly into one’s affections. At first it fascinated and slightly repelled me, as some vast medieval fair might. I was still ignorant of politics, yet as a Chapel girl I couldn’t help but be shocked by the contrast between the golden domes and palaces and the crowds of beggars at their doors.

My favorite part of the novel begins after the Kobelev family decamps for Yalta, thanks to unrest after the coup/revolution of 1917, leaving the house in the care of servants and family friend/lodger Nikita Slavkin, a futurist and inventor whose ideas include things like “unbreakable rubber crockery sets that you could fold together and use as a pillow [and] a portable shower bath.” As time passes, Gerty and Nikita become involved (somewhat) romantically, some of the Kobelevs return, the house becomes a commune for young members who share things as intimate as underwear, and there are mentions of real-life futurists. Beyond the fact that I’ve always been fascinated by early Soviet communal living experiments—there’s even a daily timetable here for comrades’ activities and there are jealousies, too—and any book that quotes Velimir Khlebnikov’s “Incantation by Laughter” (in Gary Kern’s translation in the book) wins lots of bonus points, particularly since Gerty notes, “read aloud, [it] always reduced us to helpless snorting heaps.”

Hobson wrote The Vanishing Futurist in the first-person, from Gerty’s perspective as she’s going through old papers and looking for a way to tell her daughter about her past. I particularly admire Hobson’s ability to combine the light—crushes, humor, whimsical inventions—with political and historical realities of the time, which are, of course, linked to Slavkin’s disappearance. Hobson also has a light touch with bits of Russian she includes, mentioning, for example, “using the polite “Vy” or noting that millet porridge was called blondinka, something I hadn’t known, perhaps because I’d do just about anything to avoid the stuff. Whether my kasha of choice is grechka or blondinka, Peter Pomerantsev’s blurb on the back of my book is very apt: “That rare case of a profound book being unputdownable.” That made The Vanishing Futurist perfect reading when I was painfully busy and particularly valued an enjoyable, smart novel with a good sense of plot and history.

The operative cover blurb for Erades’s debut novel, Back to Moscow, comes from Publishers Weekly: “Russia’s capital is the most dynamic character in Erades’s boozy bildungsroman.” Russian literature grad student Martin comes to turn-of-the-century Moscow with surprisingly low proficiency in either Russian or literature, and seems to spend more of his time studying The eXile and going to bars (some of which I remember from the 1990s, too) to drink and meet women. The biggest problem with Martin as a character is that he’s kind of a jerk, a fairly unpleasant first-person narrator whose attitudes toward women make him a literary character that I at least hoped would become a prime candidate for redemption. What felt oddest to me is that when I think back to The eXile of the 1990s, Martin seems like almost a milquetoast and/or a wannabe by comparison; I wonder if that might have been among Erades’s intentions. In any case, his treatment of his girlfriends can be awfully callous and he does some truly dumbass things, but his defense of a tutor early in the book establishes that at least part of his heart is kind. Making him redeemable.

Beyond his (nearly) main occupation of boozing and womanizing, Martin spends a lot of his time reading Russian novels, analyzing and discussing female characters (here we have life and literature!) in a way that felt a bit Cliff Note-like to me, doing occasional work with a Russian businessman friend, and, yes, enjoying Moscow itself. I can’t say that Back to Moscow is my ideal novel—it feels a bit too disjointed, obvious, laden with gratuitous uses of words like “elitny” and “interesno,” and rather predictable twists, though I suppose that’s typical of the genre—but Erades, like Hobson, too, manages to conjure up the feeling of being an expat exploring Moscow. Of course it helps that Erades gifts Martin with a nice apartment by Pushkin Square, making it all the easier, for example, to go to the Stanislavsky Theater to see Heart of a Dog, a Bulgakov adaptation I loved back in the day, too… And I give a nice plus to Martin’s tutor for talking with him about superfluous men.

What’s odd about the combination of these two books, which I read in fairly rapid succession, is that I enjoyed The Vanishing Futurist far more during my reading but came to appreciate Back to Moscow nearly as much after finishing. I suppose that’s partially because of an observation in Erades’s very brief, very last chapter, and partially (to suppose again) because Martin comes to Moscow around the time I left and his account of his girlfriends’ sadness about current events (among other things) felt so familiar. Though they’re not my own, I found plenty of sadness and exhilaration to identify with in Gerty’s world and in Martin’s world. Finally, I have to say I was pleased to see that at least two Goodreaders said Back to Moscow made them more interested in Russian classical literature. I hope The Vanishing Futurist helps bring Khelbnikov, as well as Vladimir Mayakovsky and Alexander Blok, who also get mentions, to some new readers, too.

For more: Max Liu,, on Back to Moscow (he also mentions the superfluous man discussion) and Anna Aslanyan, on The Vanishing Futurist.

Disclaimers: Thank you to Faber & Faber for the copy of The Vanishing Futurist and to Picador for the copy of Back to Moscow!

Up Next: Aleksei Slapovsky’s rather uneven but easy-reading Неизвестность, which I suppose I’ll call Uncertainty.


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