Pushkin Hills

Pushkin HillsBy Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Katherine Dovlatov, Counterpoint Berkeley, @1983, translation@2013, 163 pages.

So it’s like this. I started reading this book a few months ago and it didn’t reach me. I wasn’t feeling it. I was about 50 pages in and not tremendously impressed. I wasn’t hearing Sergei’s voice in my head like the books that were translated by Anne Friedman, and I started to think maybe it was the new translator’s fault, Katherine, Sergei’s daughter. Maybe, well maybe, she just wasn’t capturing his voice. This depressed me. So I was already a little depressed, and this didn’t help—and my Russian, while it is good enough to get me food, shelter and a bus ticket, is not good enough to allow me to read Dovlatov in the original, though this is sort of an emerging goal.

Well, I was kind of giving myself a hard time about, well, was it Katherine’s translation, or maybe was it that I didn’t like Dovlatov as much as I thought? Was I possibly influenced by whomever it was who first gave me his name? Maybe my love of Dovlatov was a passing thing, you know, not real.

So I was just sitting around today, waiting for my rice to get done and not doing anything in particular but being stuck in the kitchen, and I picked up Pushkin Hills again. And there he was, Sergei, his voice, everything—and then he made me laugh—again and again and again. And I decided that I do really like him after all, and that Katherine did a fine job in translating him into English, and that it was just me. Just me being depressed and unreachable—before.

Lines like: “…I am simply horrified. You called Pushkin a crazed ape…”

and the story about Mitrofanov, p. 46, and what a complete genius he was and how he was completely lazy too. I hate to say it, but it reminded me of someone very close to me. “His tours were twice longer than the average. At times, tourists fainted from the strain.”

I also liked the story about Stasik Pototsky, the man who decided to become a writer of literary best sellers after reading 12. “A reliable armour of literary conventionality protected them from censorship.” And I started to think, hmmm, how far away is capitalism from communism?

Things changed when Pototsky left the provinces and went to Leningrad: “A complete absence of talent did not pay, while its presence made people nervous….What was forgiven in a provencial novice affronted in a cosmopolitan writer.” Well, anyway, Stasik came to a bad end. And knowing Dovlatov’s difficulties getting published in the USSR, you get why.

But best of all was this: “The more I got to know Pushkin, the less I felt like talking about him.” This is said by a Dovlatov’s character, as a tour guide at Pushkin Hills. And you get the significance of this if you understand how revered Pushkin is. And that’s when I knew. Yes, I do really like Sergei, and I’ve missed him.

Breakfast of Champions

Breakfast of Champions
Breakfast of Champions (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr, @ 1973, 295 pages.

So while I was supposed to be reading War and Peace, I started reading Vonnegut. There’s this whole Vonnegut/Dovlatov connection I keep trying to make, but to read more Dovlatov, I either have to wait until April for the release of Pushkin Hills in English OR I have to learn Russian. Ok, so I know some Russian. I know enough to eat and travel. And to get some quizzical looks. Rosetta Stone, BTW, is turning out to be great for Russian pronunciation.

Anyway, I read Breakfast of Champions a very long time ago. I’m reading it again because I remembered how intensely creative Vonnegut was with his structure and storytelling. On this read, Vonnegut pummels me over the head with foul language and imagery. Apparently, I used to be immune to this. Now, not so much.

Breakfast of Champions—wow—what to say about this book. It is all over the place and perfectly organized at the same time. It has characters you don’t want to get to know, and yet, like the train wrecks they all are, you can’t stop reading about them. Hmm.

And speaking of trains, I found Vonnegut’s ideas about machines to be very interesting. Vonnegut really develops this, but here is the kernel:

‘You are surrounded by loving machines, hating machines, greedy machines, unselfish machines, brave machines, cowardly machines, truthful machines, lying machines, funny machines, solemn machines,’ he read. ‘Their only purpose is to stir you up in every conceivable way, so the Creator of the Universe can watch your reactions. They can no more feel or reason than grandfather clocks.’

Breakfast of Champions is the kind of book that I think I want to read again, maybe in 20 years. Maybe then, I’ll be able to digest it fully. And Vonnegut, like Dovlatov, is one of those guys you wish was still around so you could say stuff like: hey, what do you think about the 2045 project? What do you think about immortality for humanity? Isn’t that a really bad idea?

I’d love to put those guys in a room, ohh and add in George Carlin, who is also now in the club, introduce the topic, and let them go. What I wouldn’t give to hear that conversation. I wonder if D wouldn’t be too polite for these two rambunctious Americans. Would he sit there with a thin smile on his lips, thinking how uncivilized George and Kurt were? Or, would he, after almost coming to blows on certain subjects finally let loose with some raucous laughter, teeter on his chair, and nearly fall over?

Some Notes on Dovlatov

Ball-and-stick model of the aspirin molecule, ...
Ball-and-stick model of the aspirin molecule, as found in the solid state. Single-crystal X-ray diffraction data from Kim, Y.; Machida, K.; Taga, T.; Osaki, K. (). “Structure Redetermination and Packing Analysis of Aspirin Crystal”. Chem. Pharm. Bull. 33 (7) : 2641-2647. ISSN 1347-5223. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have mentioned before that I reach for Dovlatov as I would for an aspirin. And since he is such an easy, interesting read, each time I buy one of his books, I finish it quickly. So, I started wondering today: what else is there? What’s left.

I got the following list from reading Wikipedia and Goodreads. The following quote is from Wikipedia:

Sergei Dovlatov published twelve books in the USA and Europe during his twelve years as an immigrant. In the Soviet Union, the writer was known from Samizdat and Radio Liberty. After his death and the fall of the Soviet Union, numerous collections of his short stories were finally published in Russia.

  1. Affiliate (Филиал) — New York: Слово — Word, 1990.*
  2. Армейские Письма к Отцу
  3. The Compromise (Компромисс) — New York: Серебряный век, 1981.*
  4. Craft: A Story in Two Parts (Ремесло: Повесть в двух частях) — Ann Arbor: Ардис, 1985.*
  5. Demarche of Enthusiasts (Демарш энтузиастов) (cowritten with Vagrich Bakhchanyan and N. Sagalovskij) — Paris: Синтаксис, 1985.*
  6. Эпистолярный роман с Игорем Ефимовым, 2001.
  7. A Foreign Woman (Иностранка) — New York: Russica Publishers, 1986.*
  8. Голос, 2005.
  9. The Invisible Book (Невидимая книга) — Аnn Arbor: Ardis, 1977.
  10. Компромисът. Куфарът, 2011.
  11. The March of the Single People (Марш одиноких) — Holyoke: New England Publishing Co, 1983.*
  12. Ours (Наши) — Ann Arbor: Ардис, 1983.*
  13. Малоизвестный Довлатов, 1996.
  14. Notebooks (Записные книжки) — New York: Слово — Word, 1990.*
  15. Not only Brodsky: Russian Culture in Portraits and Jokes (He только Бродский: Русская культура в портретах и в анекдотах) (cowritten with M. Volkova) — New York: Слово — Word, 1990.*
  16. The Performance (Представление) — New York: Russica Publishers, 1987.*
  17. Pushkin Hills, 2014.
  18. Рассказы, 1991.
  19. The Reserve (Заповедник) — Аnn Arbor: Эрмитаж, 1983.*
  20. Речь без повода… или Колонки редактора, 2006.
  21. Резерватът. Чужденката, 2005.
  22. Собрание сочинений в 4-х томах, 2004.
  23. Solo on Underwood: Notebooks (Соло на ундервуде: Записные книжки)— Paris: Третья волна, 1980.*
  24. Suitcase (Чемодан) — Tenafly: Эрмитаж, 1986.*
  25. Третий поворот налево (Белая серия), 2006.
  26. Жизнь коротка: Рассказы, 2006.
  27. Холодильник
  28. The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story (Зона: Записки надзирателя) — Ann Arbor: Эрмитаж, 1982.*

*Published during his lifetime
For anyone looking to find more “aspirin” but having a hard time, I found a cool Russian bookstore based out of New York called Russian Bookstore No. 21 and available online at: www.russianbookstore21.com

And, for a book I have not read but would like to, check out Dovlatov—My Dear Friend (2005) by L. Shtern.

The Suitcase

the suitcase dovlatovBy Sergei Dovlatov; Counterpoint Press; @ 1986; 129 pages.

The premise of The Suitcase is simple. Sergei Dovlatov finds the suitcase that he carried from the Soviet Union to the United States in the back of his closet in New York. Each chapter of the book tells the story behind each item he rediscovers inside.

I really like this structure. I’m trying to figure out how to “repurpose” it for my own needs. And, I really like Dovlatov. I’ll be reading along, interested enough to keep going, and then all of a sudden I’m laughing. It’s nice. It reminds me of Russia and the friends I met there, and makes me sorry I left and glad that I did at the same time.

I like how Dovlatov describes his relationship with his wife, Lena. He says the main things a wife should do for her husband are 1) feed him, 2) believe he is a genius, and 3) leave him alone. And she can’t just do one of these. She has to do all three. So I’m ticking off these things in my head. Am I doing my part? It was touching—for all his tough-guy rhetoric, you can tell he really loved his wife. The kind of love that is too real and painful to talk about.

Dovlatov died relatively young (Not suicide—but what was it? I don’t know.), and it makes me really sad. But he left behind several books that I haven’t read.

The New York Times said this about The Suitcase: “Readers will soar through the first two-thirds of this novel, then…stave off finishing it. The final chapters will be hoarded and cherished, doled out one at a time as a reward after a bad day.”

That’s exactly how I felt. I have a bad day, I reach for Dovlatov. That’s why I need to have enough on hand. Fed up with life? Lost your sense of humor? Take two Dovlatov’s and call me in the morning.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater or Pearls Before Swine

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. Delacorte Press @ 1965; 217 pages.

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater promises to be a satirical science fiction story about money. It’s ok; I wouldn’t race out to buy it or read it. Eliot Rosewater (our protagonist), heir to the vast Rosewater fortune, a man with total love for humanity and thus teetering on the verge of raving lunacy, has destroyed the word “love.”

One of the characters complains: “Eliot did to the word love what the Russians did to the word democracy. If Eliot is going to love everybody, no matter what they do, then those of us who love particular people for particular reasons had better find ourselves a new word.”

Kurt Vonnegut is very odd. Of course I knew this. I have read several of his books. Here is an excerpt I found interesting. Apparently, when people want to do something nice for Eliot Rosewater, they come by his office to help him get rid of flies. Vonnegut describes two methods for doing this. Here is the second:

The tumbler-and-soapsuds technique worked like this: A woman would look for a fly hanging upside down. She would then bring her tumbler of suds directly under the fly very slowly, taking advantage of the fact that an upside-down-fly, when approached by danger, will drop straight down two inches or more, in a free fall, before using his wings. Ideally, the fly would not sense danger until it [the tumbler] was directly below him, and he would obligingly drop into the suds to be caught, to work his way down through the bubbles, to drown.

Of this technique Eliot often said: ‘Nobody believes it until she tries it. Once she finds out it works, she never wants to quit.’”

But about money:

It’s still possible for an American to make a fortune on his own.

Sure—provided somebody tells him when he’s young enough that there is a Money River, that there’s nothing fair about it, that he had damn well better forget about hard work and the merit system and honesty and all that crap, and get to where the river is.

[Of course, this is not my view. I am merely relating the bitterness of Vonnegut, who himself worked hard and did pretty darn well.]

For me the story finally picks up with the tale of Fred Rosewater, the long lost relative of the Rosewater clan, who lives in poverty, not knowing that he is the heir to millions—the American dream.

He learns of this, just as he is about to be caught in the embarrassing act of killing himself.

I wasn’t sure what Pearls Before Swine meant, but after researching the phrase, it seems to have particular significance. Food for thought anyway.

Matthew 7:6 “Do not give what is holy to the dogs; nor cast your pearls before swine, lest they trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you in pieces.”

The Compromise

Cover of "The Compromise"
Cover of The Compromise

By Sergei Dovlatov; Academy Chicago Publishers; @1990, first copyright Alfred A Knopf, Inc @1981; 148 pages.

While reading about Kurt Vonnegut, I noticed this guy, Sergei Dovlatov. Apparently, Vonnegut said some nice things about Dovlatov, so that peaked my interest.

The story unfolds as Dovlatov, a Russian living in Estonia, takes a job writing satire for the newspaper, On Watch for the Motherland. Turns out he isn’t a party member—which I found odd; I thought you would have to be a party member to write for a Soviet newspaper and that basically everyone was a party member anyway, but apparently not. Also, his articles weren’t satirical. Hmm, or were they?

Each chapter opens with a short newspaper article that Sergei has written—and that must be written in a certain way or changed to satisfy his bosses—a compromise. Basically, the typical writer’s life. But in this case, it is a writer’s life under Soviet rule. And it seems, every aspect of Dovlatov’s life.

One amusing anecdote is about an article that is needed for Tallinn‘s liberation anniversary. Dovlatov is given the assignment to tell the story of the 400 thousandth inhabitant born to the city. This number isn’t accurate, or even close, but no matter; it makes for a good story. Dovlatov goes to the maternity ward of the hospital in Tallinn and waits for a male child to be born. The 400 thousandth child needs to be a boy because a boy is more symbolic for the occasion.

Dovlatov waits. The first child born that day is a boy, but he doesn’t meet all of the publicizable requirements; he is half Ethiopian. Then another boy is born—also unacceptable; he is Jewish. Dovlatov has to explain to the father that the paper is looking for a boy from a “worker-peasant family.” No intellectuals. Too bad, because the father has already written a poem for the occasion.

“This means that anti-Semitism really does exist, doesn’t it?”

“Looks like it.”

“How could it appear in our country? Here, in a country where it seems—”

I interrupted him. “In a country where the ‘founding corpse’ has still not been buried…”

(I can see why Vonnegut liked Dovlatov.)

A suitable boy is finally born, but now the newspaper, still seeking to tell a good story, wants Dovlatov to convince the father to name the child Lembit, a name out of Estonian folklore. They are willing to pay him. So for 25 rubles, a would-be Volodya becomes a Lembit.

Sergei Dovlatov is immediately engaging. He captures my attention by talking directly to me; I find out who he is as he’s telling the story and I feel sympathetic to him (I have to think more about why). I like his tongue-in-cheek style. He’s absurd, honest, and subtlely humorous.

I liked several of his lines, but especially this one: “Lying without hope of gain is not lying, it’s poetry.” Seems right, considering how much poetry pays.

So probably, there are some things I missed, references, etc. that I didn’t understand because I haven’t ever lived in the Soviet Union. But, overall, The Compromise, was a good read and makes the interesting distinction between the facts and the truth.

I found myself giggling through the last two compromises, high praise indeed.

Death and the Penguin

Death and the Penguin
Death and the Penguin (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By Andrey KurkovThe Harvill Press, London; @ 1996; 228 pages.

When the Kiev zoo gave its smaller animals away because it could no longer afford to feed them, Victor, a struggling writer, adopted a depressed penguin named Misha. The story unfolds with Victor and Misha living together in an apartment in Kiev. For both of them, it’s a rather unnatural environment.

This book did a great job of grabbing my attention early on. Page one and I was into the story.

Kurkov subtly examines the nature of choice. There is a tension that develops and a contrast that is set up when the main characters have different kinds of situations to deal with: ones they have freely chosen for themselves and ones they have happened into. I enjoyed the way Misha’s predicament mirrored Victor’s internal struggle. I also appreciated that Misha wasn’t turned into a cheesy kid’s character. Misha was always his own penguin. Enigmatic at times, but after all, he was a penguin.

I found Death and the Penguin to be very entertaining. And it ended exactly the way I wanted it to.

One question remained for Andrey Kurkov. On the last page, the last line is the date range: December 1995–February 1996. What is this? The time it took to write the book? Bragging?

[Thanks to the Internet, I was able to find out. Mr. Kurkov was very kind to answer my question and said that this was the time it took him to write the book, although he said that it took him two years to nail down the plot.]

There was something that happened to me while reading this book. Misha the Penguin had a health problem. The resolution to this health problem, when I read it, was like flipping a switch for me. I can’t explain it. I don’t really understand it, but it’s as though a weight was lifted. The shock. The laughter. The immediate understanding. It was all very personal. I’m not promising a cathartic experience for anyone who reads it, but for me, it helped. Sometimes the stars align with literature and this was the case for me.

Death and the Penguin is a quick, fun read.