By Sergei Dovlatov; Grove Weidenfeld, New York; @ 1986; 113 pages.
There is something about Sergei Dovlatov that fascinates me. His writing is so compelling, so honest, so informative.
He is a personality that I wish I knew, that is sorely lacking from my life. And, of course, I never will know him, since he passed away in 1990. But how is he able to speak to me directly? How can he reach me? He is Russian. I am not. He is Jewish. I am not. His American identity rests in New York. Mine in Texas. Or, possibly in Oregon.
Most probably, it is because Dovlatov is so honestly human. He is able to tap into what unites us. He recognizes his flaws (our flaws) and doesn’t shy away from them, but manages to bring them to our attention and make us laugh. Here is an excerpt from the first pages of the book:
For us the native residents are like foreigners. If we hear English spoken, we grow wary. Sometimes we insist, “Speak Russian!” As a result, certain local individuals have started speaking our language. The Chinese counterman at the coffee shop greets me, “Good morning, Solzhenitsyn!” (It comes out “Solozenisa.”)
We are ambivalent about Americans. I don’t even know what we feel most—condescension or idolatry. We pity them for being irrational, feckless children. Yet our constant refrain is, “An American told me…” We use that phrase as the decisive, killer argument—as in, “An American told me that nicotine is harmful to your health.”
Dovlatov drops opinions that I instantly relate to. He says that some people are born to be rich or poor—no matter what the circumstances—it just comes to them naturally.
Or, people who have had a happy childhood should think often of retribution. How will they have to pay for it? Peace of mind? Health? Looks?
Or—“Dima was a good man. His vices were the absence of defects.”
Or—“Of course, there are not many people who realize that it is a disaster when things start well. That means they can only end in misery.”
And from one of his characters—“Getting drunk is voluntary madness.”
Or, on the maddening male/female relationship:
Marusya: You used to love me as a woman before.
Tsekhnovitsev: Now I respect you as a person.
This guy Dovlatov. Man, he was paying attention.
Russians are always suffering and complaining, but Americans are different. Most of them are optimists by nature.
I’m starting to question my identity.
This is an interesting book. Just what was going on here? How much was fiction? How much was memoir? It’s always an interesting question. Not always so easy to answer.
I find myself inexplicably jealous when Dovlatov describes himself to Marusya as a stray dog. I’ve heard that it’s an essential trait of art to elicit emotion. It doesn’t matter what kind. So here I am angry at a dead man. I’ve obviously been reading too much.
Marusya is our protagonist in this book. She is “the foreign woman,” a Russian who has immigrated to America. She isn’t Jewish but she has married a Jewish man so she could leave Russia. He went to Israel, and she went to her cousins in New York.
New York was an event for Marusya, a concert, a spectacle. It became a city only after a month or two. Gradually the chaos revealed figures, colors, sounds. The noisy marketing intersection suddenly fell apart into its constituent units: a grocery store, a cafeteria, an insurance agency, and a delicatessen. The line of cars on the boulevard turned into a taxi stand. The smell of hot bread was inseparable from the colorful “Bakery” sign. A connection was established between a crowd of kids and the two-story brick schoolhouse.
Why did she leave Russia? I’m not sure. She’s not sure. She came from privilege, but life wasn’t working out. After two failed marriages and with a third arranged for convenience, Marusya wanted to try something new. When asked, she said she was in a bad mood. She felt that everything had already happened. In a way, Marusya reminds me of my mother, but my mother never left (Texas, that is). Maybe she should have.
Of course, leaving has its cost. There is that adjustment period in the new place. The time it takes to transition from tourist to resident.
Dovlatov liked Marusya for her striking combination of uncertainty and aplomb.
I like people like that—doomed, dying, helpless, and brazen. I always say, if you’re in trouble, you’re not sinning.
I have to admit that I wasn’t as taken with Marusya as Dovlatov seemed to be. I have met women like Marusya, and they irritate me. I actually don’t like the combination of uncertainty and aplomb. I prefer the combination of certainty and substance. But hey, I didn’t see her. I also didn’t get the impression that people were all that rude in Moscow. Maybe that’s the beauty of travel. A lot of that stuff gets lost in translation. Thankfully.
I like Dovlatov because he expressed the view that there are things more important than justice.