Saturday, August 7, 2021

Ah, Sweet Mysteries of Life: Repina’s Lev: A Life

Natalia Repina’s Жизнеописание Льва (which I guess I’ll call Lev: A Life rather than something with “biography”) is a moderately mysterious short novel about a rather mysterious person named, of course, Lev. Repina lives up to her title, describing Lev’s life in 221 not-so-large pages that she splits into three parts. Lev is a somewhat unusual, awkward, and sensitive person. At one point, as a child, he’s described with a sentence that sounds painfully familiar: “He sometimes feels like an antenna that picks up on the conditions of others.” (“Он иногда чувствует себя антенной, которая ловит чужие состояния.”) I’ve written “others” because Lev is also a child who saves the worms he finds on mushrooms. In the second part of the novel, as an adult, he says (I’ll paraphrase/translate) he doesn’t eat killed animals or use leather things, nor does he give cut flowers or kill flies and cockroaches. He also sniffs books. Something I’ve done, too.

I suppose the mysteriousness of the novel for me is connected to the fact that some books make me feel like an antenna, too. I read and read and read Lev, understanding the words, taking in the emotions, settings, situations, and moods, but wasn’t always quite sure what to do with the words and descriptions. I don’t write that to cast blame on Repina, in fact I like the sort of book when I read and read and read, then finish one day with a pile of feelings about what I read. And often, as with Lev, those feelings include a sadness that the book ended because I’d grown accustomed to characters like Lev. Books like this flummox me, though, when I try to describe them, particularly when they’re life stories that are driven more by the passage of time than a plot with lots of action. Yes, there are relationships, though Lev has some uncomfortable dating situations. Yes, there’s a deception (to help someone keep an apartment) that even involves literature. Yes, the first part of the book is set at a Peredelkino dacha, where Lev goes with his mother (an accompanist at a music school) and grandmother; he plays with the neighbor kids. Yes, there are various intrigues among the dachafolk. And the last part of the book involves searches for Lev during the part of his life when he particularly resembles the “contemporary holy fool” (“современный юродовый”) Evgeny Vodolazkin describes him as in a blurb on the book’s cover.

I wonder if one of the reasons I find Lev so difficult to describe is that Repina did such a nice job writing the book (another blurb, from Marina Stepnova praises her voice) from multiple perspectives, drawing (and drawing out) characters and creating atmosphere. She lets Lev e-nun-ci-ate certain words and allows the final narrator’s panic to come through loud and clear on this reader’s antenna. And, unusually, the book moved along quickly for me even though I was immersing myself in its atmosphere more than following a plot: I sometimes consciously felt that I didn’t want to put the book down, lest I break Repina’s spell or leave the places she describes.

Another factor is (and here I’ll borrow from a third blurber, critic Natalia Lomykina) that Repina’s book is nostalgic in its depictions of the former intelligentsia (Lev even thinks of long-time dacha people with the word “formers,” using the Soviet-era word “бывшие”) as well as lost values from another time. All these elements accumulate into a strange sense of coming of age not just for Lev (who dies at age fifty-nine) but for Peredelkino, Russia, and Lev’s generation, as well as social constraints and the values Lomykina mentions. I’m so used to this thematic line in contemporary Russian novels that I often don’t even think about it, taking it for granted, though here Lev’s use of the word “formers,” which feels very marked to me, made it stand out.

I don’t have much plot to outline – despite the deception, which involves literature and draws in Lev since he’s a librarian who happened to study Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks – but when I look back at my notes, they return me to the book’s atmosphere and, well, the life and lives Repina describes so completely and concisely. Early on, for example, she mentions how the ear grows accustomed to background noises like distant trains or planes gaining altitude. (Perhaps this got me because we hear distant trains at our house and they never fail to remind me of Platonov’s heartbreaking “Immortality,” which Robert Chandler and I translated?) Later there’s discussion of individuals’ public and private selves; still later Lev’s observation that elderly people look dead when they sleep (!!) and the feeling that when a dacha is torn down, childhoods go with it. I guess the most relevant question I can ask about Lev is, Why does this book tug at me so much? If I’m honest, I don’t even have to ask myself the question. I already know it’s because of the tragic fragility of individuals who can get lost, societies that can change, and life itself, which inevitably ends. I suppose what I mean to say is that Lev is about life, living life, and what happens when a life is no longer lived. On the simplest level, it’s about what happens when we go from Point A to Point B, just like the two taxi rides that frame Repina’s wonderfully mysterious novel about Lev’s life.

A special note to subscribers: With the recent demise of FeedBurner, I’ve transferred my blog feed to follow.it. I think (hope! cross my fingers!) that I’ve done everything properly and all subscribers will now receive posts with the help of follow.it. I subscribe to posts via email and an RSS reader and will make adjustments if anything fails to work properly after this post goes up. A special thanks to subscribers for letting my posts invade your inbox or RSS reader! 

Up Next: Svetlana Kuznetsova’s The Anatomy of the Moon, which I was going to blog about today but decided against because that will be a more involved post and I was distracted this afternoon by the squash vine borers that are ending our zucchini season. (Lev would not be happy with me: I dissected the stems to inspect the damage and destroy the larvae, lest they overwinter and hatch next year.) And then Marina and Sergei Dyachenko’s The Ritual.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. I’ve translated books by two of the three blurbers mentioned in this post and I know the third, Natalia Lomykina, through Facebook. You can view the blurbs and read the beginning of the novel on Labirint, where I bought my book.

9 comments:

  1. Lisa, as a subscriber I received an e-mail asking for confirmation. It worked! Thank you so much for all your posts!

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    1. Thank you very, very much for letting me know you received the confirmation note and this post, jkdenne, I appreciate it!

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  2. Sounds like an interesting writer! Her 2019 novel Пролог seems worth investigating too...

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    1. This book was definitely interesting, particularly, I suppose, since I can't figure out why it was interesting!

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  3. I also want to confirm that I got the email, and confirmed subscription. These tech exchanges are often so difficult. And thank you for this wonderful review! Always insightful.

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  4. Thank you for confirming, Olga! Yes, these tech exchanges can be so fraught so it's great to know that people are receiving the messages about confirmation. I'm glad you enjoyed this post; I think I'm getting more and more, hm, impressionistic about my reading and blogging! I also think you might especially enjoy this book))

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  5. When your review of Evgeny Vodolaskin's "History of Island"?

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    1. This is a good question, Denisa, a question I've been asking myself! I very recently translated a short sample of the book (as well as an essay that touches on themes from it) and now need to get back to finishing my second reading. I want to do that very soon -- Island is very, very good but I want to let my head clear a little bit more after the intense work on the translations.

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    2. P.S. Denisa, I've already reread about 3/4 of the book. :)

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