Category Archives: Sergei Dovlatov

Random Russian Reading List

Russian reading listLeonid Andreev, The Abyss (1902)
Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967)
Anna Akhmatova, Requiem (1963)
Vasily Aksenov, Generations of Winter (1994)

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (written between 1928 and 1940; published in 1967)
Andrei Bitov, Pushkin House (1978)
Boris Bugayev, Andrey Bely (1880),  The Silver Dove (1910)
Ivan Bunin, The Village (1909)

Anton Chekhov, Ward No 6 (1892)
Anton Chekhov, The Darling (1899)
Anton Chekhov, Duel (1892)
Anton Chekhov, My Life (1896)
Anton Chekhov, Peasants (1897)
Anton Chekhov, In the Ravine (1900)
Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog (1899)

Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment (1866)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Double (1846)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Idiot (1869)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground (1864)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Possessed (1872)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights (1848)
Sergei Dovlatov, Affiliate (1990)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Compromise (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Craft: A Story in Two Parts (1985)
Sergei Dovlatov, Demarche of Enthusiasts (1985)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Foreign Branch (1989)
Sergei Dovlatov, A Foreign Woman (1986)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Invisible Book (1977)
Sergei Dovlatov, March of the Single People (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Notebooks (1990)
Sergei Dovlatov, Ours: A Russian Family Album (1989)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Performance (1987)
Sergei Dovlatov, Pushkin Hills (2014)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Reserve (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Solo on Underwood: Notebooks (1980)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Suitcase (1986)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Zone:A Prison Camp Guard’s Story (1982)

Vsevolod Garsin, Red Flower (1883)
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls (1842)
Nikolai Gogol, The Night Before Christmas (1832)
Nikolai Gogol, The Nose (1836)
Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat (1842)
Nikolai Gogol, Taras Bulba (1842)
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov (1859)
Ivan Goncharov, Same Old Story (1847)

Aleksander Herzen, Whose Fault (1846)

Vladislav Khodasevich, Heavy Lyre (1922)
Vladislav Khodasevich, European Night (1927)
Vladimir Korolenko, Makar’s Dream (1885)
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Quadraturin (1926)
Andrei Kurkov, Death and the Penguin (1996)

Ivan Lazhechnikov, The Ice Palace (1835)
Leonid Leonov, Russian Forest (1953)
Leonid Leonov, The Thief (1927)
Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time (1841)
Nikolai Leskov, The Enchanted Wanderer (1873)
Nikolai Leskov, The Cathedral Folk (1872)
Nikolai Leskov, The Sealed Angel
Kotik Letayev, The Memoirs of a Crank (1923)

Vladimir Nabokov, Glory (1832)
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)

Vladimir Odoevskij, Russian Nights (1844)
Yuri Olesha, Envy (1927)

Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1957)
Liudmila Petrushevskaia, The Time: Night (1994)
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (2009)
Aleksei Pisemsky, One Thousand Souls (1858)
Andrei Platonov, Foundation Pit (1951)
Andrei Platonov, Chevengur (1951)
Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin (1825)
Aleksander Pushkin, The Queen of Spades (1834)

Valentin Rasputin, Final Term (1971)

Aleksei Remizov, Pond (1903)
Aleksei Remizov, Olja (1927)

Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Gospoda Golovlevy/ The Golovlyov Family (1876)
Mikhail Sholokhov, Quiet Flows the Don (1934)
Vasily Sleptsov, Hard Times (1865)
Sasha Sokolov, School for Fools (1977)
Sasha Sokolov, Palisandriia/ Astrophobia (1985)
Sasha Sokolov, Between Dog and Wolf (1980)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (1968)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
Vladimir Sorokin, The Queue (1985)
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic (1971)

Aleksei Tolstoj, Peter the First (1945)
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1877)
Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)
Leo Tolstoy, Kreitserova Sonata (1890)
Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection (1899)
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869)

Ivan Turgenev, Fathers and Sons (1862)
Ivan Turgenev, Home of the Gentry (1859)
Ivan Turgenev, On the Eve (1860)
Yuri Trifonov, Time and Place (1981)

Lyudmila Ulitskaya, The Kukotsky Case (2001)
Lyudmila Ulitskaya, Little Sonya (1995)

Aleksander Veltman, Wanderer (1832)
Aleksander Veltman, The Deathless (1832)
Vladimir Voinovich, The Life and Extraordinary Adventures of Private Ivan Chonkin (1975)

Evgeny Zamyatin, We (1924)

 

Random Interesting Quotes:

Evgeny Grishkovets: “I insist that what I write is literature based not on observation, but on emotional experience.”

Eduard Limonov: “These are reports from a hot spot – my life.”

Victor Pelevin: “Reality is any hallucination you believe in one hundred percent.”

 

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.

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.

Ours: A Russian Family Album

By Sergei Dovlatov; translated by Anne Frydman; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York; @1983; 135 pages.

537

I went online searching for videos of Dovlatov. There don’t seem to be any from when he was young. The ones I found show him as a hulking man, not really the writer type, more the heavy weight boxer type. Very masculine. And as I ponder that for a while, I realized the striking difference that I found between Russian and American culture. In Russian culture, men were very masculine and women were very feminine. I’m sure there were exceptions. But there, the difference between the sexes seemed to be celebrated and rigidly defined. In America, there seems to me to be some blurring. So that for me a man who seems to really own his manhood, who makes a point that there is a very clear distinction between the sexes, like Dovlatov, almost seems scary. I’m not sure I would be wrong in saying it was a very sexist culture and much of what Dovlatov says in his books seems sexist.

For some reason, like so many things Russian, I find that forgivable—there, although I would never stand for it here. Confused? Me too.

But, to the book. So I found one more thing to like D for. In the end, when his whole family left the USSR for the United States, he also took his dog, Glasha. In fact, Glasha has her own chapter in the book. He says that she was a very Russian dog and never quite adapted to America. This was the funniest chapter in the book for me.

With each passing year she looked more like a human being. (I can’t say as much for most of my friends.) I felt embarrassed changing my clothes in front of her. My friend Sevostyanov used to say, ‘She’s the only normal member of your family.’”

Glasha was such a cool dog that one of Dovlatov’s friends tried to steal her. He had to go get her back. Glasha even saved a family’s life and for this was awarded 400 grams of tenderloin—“the first time in the history of the Party that exclusive privileges were awarded to someone worthy of them.”

Dovlatov tried to arrange some “marriages” for Glasha, but none of them worked out. He explains in hilarious detail why each of them failed.

“Alas, Glasha did not become an American. What is the main quality of Americans? I immediately decided it was their optimism….My dog had a different psychological makeup….She didn’t even wag her tail very often. If a stranger moved to pet her, she snarled….In brief, Glasha had little talent for democracy. She was short on kindheartedness and loaded with neuroses. The sexual revolution never touched her. A typical middle-aged woman émigré from Russia.”

That wasn’t my personal experience, but I accept that much was lost in translation.

 

The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story

The ZoneBy Sergei Dovlatov; Translated by Anne Frydman; Russian edition @1982; English edition @1984; My edition @2011; Counterpoint Press; 182 pages.

Perhaps Dovlatov is the Soviet version of George Carlin, sans the vulgar tirades and the four letter words.

Here is the introductory statement by the author:

The names, events, and dates given here are all real. I invented only those details that were not essential.

Therefore, any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious. And all the fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.

Dovlatov always had an excellent structure for his books. In The Compromise, it was a series of increasingly absurd compromises. In The Suitcase, the chapters were organized by what he found in his suitcase and the relevance of each item to his life.

In this book, Dovlatov has come to America. He has written the book, The Zone, while still in the USSR, but couldn’t risk taking it with him when he left. As a result, several of his friends have smuggled small parts of the book out while traveling to various places in the free world. Dovlatov is now trying to reassemble his book. The serious content of The Zone is tempered by Dovlatov’s letters to his editor talking about his current life in the U.S. and commenting on the manuscript he is now submitting in parts.

As one might imagine, being a prison guard was pretty horrible not to mention shocking at times.

Awful things happened around me. People reverted to an animal state. We lost our human aspect—being hungry, humiliated, tortured by fear.

young dovlatovThis is the darkest of Dovlatov’s books. But while dark, it still contains his philosophical bent which I enjoy so much. I thought his strategy for dealing with his job was very interesting:

I felt better than could have been expected. I began to have a divided personality. Life was transformed into literary material…I began to think of myself in the third person.

Dovlatov says he doesn’t agree with the ancients—that a sound body means a sound mind. Instead, he says that people who are physically healthy are most often spiritually blind and morally apathetic.

He says he was very healthy.

Since the time of Aristotle, the human brain has not changed. What is more, human consciousness has not changed.

Dovlatov rails against not being able to get his work published in the Soviet Union, but really, what did he expect when he said things like this:

… a prison camp is a pretty accurate representation of a country in miniature, the Soviet state in particular. Within a camp, you have a dictatorship of the proletariat (which is to say, the camp administration), the people (the prisoners), and the police (guards).

Dovlatov says that literature has historically portrayed the prisoner/guard relationship in one of two ways. Either the prisoners are to be pitied or the guards are. To him, both views are wrong:

Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard. Almost any guard deserved a prison term.

For anyone wanting to read Dovlatov, I wouldn’t start with this book. Even though I really liked the book and appreciated what Dovlatov had to say and his characteristic humor, I’m not sure I would have been so compelled to keep reading him if I had started here. (The order I suggest? The Compromise, The Suitcase, A Foreign Woman, The Zone.)

So has the spell been broken? (Will I be rushing out to buy more D?)

Well, as I finish this book, I think about how jaded and disillusioned a person might become after having similar experiences. Here is a man who didn’t graduate from university. He trained as a heavyweight boxer. He saw horrific things and experienced ongoing fear.

Yet, through it all, (not having had everything given to him, not having had a pampered existence and the best education, freedom for travel throughout his life, money, etc.) through it all, he retained his humanity. He retained his capacity for mercy and compassion. How did he do this? Do these kinds of circumstances breed empathy and emotional maturity?

It makes you think, especially on days like today with all the crazy news stories—the Boston Marathon bombing, an NPR story about a company you can hire to get the kidnapping experience, and other more horrific things I don’t want to get into.

(This post is also available on my portfolio blog.)

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.

A Foreign Woman

English: Looking south from Top of the Rock, N...

Looking south from Top of the Rock, New York City | (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.

Huh?

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.

Anyway.

I like Dovlatov because he expressed the view that there are things more important than justice.

What specifically?

Mercy.

 

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.