Saturday, March 13, 2021

Opening the Windows: Buksha’s Advent

Not long after the turn of the century, when I still wanted to be a fiction writer, I attended the Stonecoast Writers’ Conference, where one of my teachers, Michael White, liked to say something like “Open the window” when he thought we, his students, should somehow expand the material in our stories. I couldn’t help but think of Michael White’s advice when I sat down to write about Ksenia Buksha’s Адвент (Advent).

Buksha incorporates literal and figurative advent calendars into her novel about a young family – mathematician Kostya, music writer Anya, and their daughter Stesha – that is celebrating the holidays. Stesha opens little advent calendar windows but her parents open mental windows into accounts of past experiences, many of which were rather unpleasant for them. Their reminiscences include old friends, family members, and schoolmates.

Buksha varies her writing significantly in these two layers of her novel, writing about the present (which feels pretty much like our current present, given a mention of Zooming and repetition of the word “hipster”) in usual paragraphs, with sentences and punctuation, but writing about the windowed past in a form that looks a lot like poetry and contains minimalist punctuation. Buksha plays a lot with her words in these excursions into the past, often including laughter (for better or worse, I got so caught up in other aspects of the book that I didn’t think enough about the laughter, other than constantly recalling Khlebnikov’s “Incantation by/of Laughter”, perhaps just for the very fact of laughterness) and generally creating a nice run-on effect. I can’t say the past is always easy to read in Advent, particularly compared to the simple, spare prose of the other halves of Buksha’s chapters, but it left me thinking of spoken word and stream of consciousness. Bullying, suicide, and smoking too many cigars in one go are among the topics that surface from the past. These stylized accounts make for a perfect window-opening device, showing Kostya and Anya at various stages of their lives.

I particularly enjoyed scenes with Stesha, though. Particularly descriptions of Anya taking Stesha to kindergarten. The bus ride (people want to give Stesha a seat, though she’d rather stand), Stesha’s ritual tears upon parting, the teacher scolding Anya… it all felt very real to me, though I suppose that could be because I don’t have children. The whole book, by the way, feels both real and not-real, rather like Buksha’s Churov and Churbanov (previous post). Phantasmagoria wafts in and out of both books; both make good use of the feel of St. Petersburg. Advent mentions specific streets and places, including Piskaryovskoe Cemetery, frozen canals (since we’re in winter), and the Pribaltiyskaya Hotel (now a Radisson!), making the novel feel especially atmospheric. There are also small details linking Advent and Ch and Ch.

I confess that I doubted Advent a bit in the middle: there wasn’t quite a muddle there, though it felt like the book was losing energy. A couple chapters felt a tiny bit forced and I wondered if (cliché alert) the book might end up feeling less than the sum of its very decent individual parts: the dual/dueling stylistics, the laughter, the advent device, the characters. Fortunately, the succession of vignettes again begins to meld into something resembling a story arc and Buksha’s final chapters wrap things up nicely, using a formal difference plus the holiday calendar to signal a shift toward the future.

I suppose what counted most for me in Advent was Buksha’s ability to sum up life’s sadness, absurdity, and/or horrors in a few piercing sentences. As when Stesha recalls her kindergarten teachers’ story about children at Treblinka, prodding her to consider human evils and, perhaps more mundanely, reflect on daily routine and the passage of time, eventually leading, of course, to death. I reread that brief passage many times, wondering about the teacher, the child, and a lot of other things like the expectation of death. And could/would a teacher really tell such small children a story like that? And does the “really” matter when we’re reading fiction? Stesha’s reaction links with the advent theme and structure, too, not just because of the routines of opening the little and big windows but also through the expectation of things to come, be they a savior, a birth, or death. Even if Advent didn’t work quite as well for me as Churov and Churbanov, I appreciate Advent as an example of what I think of as everyday existentialism, here in the form of a novel that reads easily but contains many brief and memorable sections, such as this one, that dare look directly at life and death, with their joys and horrors. Advent is one of the unusual books that has grown on me since I finished reading.

Disclaimers and disclosures: Just the usual.

Up Next: Vodolazkin’s History of Island. And then, hm. (I’m feeling a little restless with my other reading, where vignette-like chapters don’t always accumulate and find story arcs this successfully.)