by Sonya Chung
In response to being dubbed “troubadour of honed banality,” Sergei Dovlatov wrote, in 1982, to his friend and publisher Igor Yefimov: “I am not offended. For truisms are in unusually short supply these days.” Of his childhood, he claimed, “I didn’t collect stamps, didn’t operate on earthworms and didn’t build model airplanes. What’s more, I didn’t even particularly like to read. I liked going to the movies and loafing.” On the relationship between body and soul, he wrote: “It seems to me that it is precisely the physically healthy who are most often spiritually blind. . . I myself was a very healthy person, and don’t I know about spiritual weakness!”
It is typical of Dovlatov to riff on his all-around underachievement. In a chapter in his novel The Suitcase called “The Finnish Crêpe Socks,” about his student years in Leningrad, he wrote, “The university campus was in the old part of town. The combination of water and stone creates a special, majestic atmosphere there. It’s hard to be a slacker under those circumstances, but I managed.” In relation to Soviet bureaucracy, he affected a remedial disconnect from reality: “No point in arguing. But of course I argued.’’ Time and again throughout his nonfictional fiction, Dovlatov’s stand-ins deprecate the writer’s path: “As for me, it’s never been clear, exactly, just what my occupation is”; “I gave [my books] out to my friends, along with my so-called archives”; “Generally speaking one should avoid the artistic professions.” And in the family-life realm, he describes his relationship with his wife thus: “We were both chronic failures, both at odds with reality” and “We didn’t raise our daughter, we merely loved her.”
This last comment is perhaps most revealing of Dovlatov’s modus operandi: the “merely” is both superciliously ironic and earnestly regretful. A few years ago, when I first starting reading and writing about Dovlatov, I focused on the wickedly humorous side of Dovlatov’s deadpan—“a Russian David Sedaris,” as David Bezmozgis put it. But a few years later, and a few more books into his body of work, I find myself more interested in that earnestness and regret—in Dovlatov the evolving man and artist, who crafted and, yes, honed a version of himself in his fiction that was just distorted enough to be true. And truth—moral, spiritual, artistic—was in the end for Dovlatov no laughing matter. As easily as he mocked the writer’s profession, for example, writing for him was both a matter of compulsion and survival, born—as we learn in The Zone, his autobiographical novel about working as a prison guard in a Soviet camp—out of near-despair:
Awful things happened around me. People reverted to an animal state. We lost our human aspect—being hungry, humiliated, tortured by fear.
My physical constitution became weak. But my consciousness remained undisturbed. This was evidently a defence mechanism. Otherwise I would have died of fright.
When a camp thief was strangled before my eyes outside of Ropcha, my consciousness did not fail to record every detail. . .
If I faced a cruel ordeal, my consciousness quietly rejoiced. New material would now be at its disposal . . .
In fact, I was already writing. My writing became a complement to life. A complement without which life would have been completely obscene.
With the release this month of the first English translation of Dovlatov’s 1983 novel Pushkin Hills, it seems especially important to have read The Zone—to retain a sense of Dovlatov’s more direct tone, uninflected by irony or absurdism, in one’s “consciousness,” to use his own word. “Like everything Dovlatov wrote,” James Wood writes in the Afterword to the new translation, “Pushkin Hills is funny on every page.” This is certainly true of Pushkin Hills, but The Zone, I would argue, is an exception. The absurdity of life in a Soviet prison camp is reported via Dovlatov’s signature sharp eye and ear but is markedly absent the levity. Constructed as a metafiction in which Dovlatov the author, now an émigré in New York City, delivers the novel to the publisher Igor Yefimov piecemeal, as a result of censorship (“a few courageous French women. . . were able to smuggle my work through customs borders”)—The Zone alternates between camp narratives and personal letters to Igor; and in it, we find a level of existential seriousness unmatched in his other work. In a letter to Igor about halfway through the book, he declares:
. . . I am sure now that evil and good are arbitrary. The same people can display an equal ability for virtue or villainy. . .
For this reason, any categorical moral position seems ridiculous to me. . .
Man is to man—how shall I put it best?—a tabula rasa. To put it another way—anything you please, depending on the conjunction of circumstances.
For this reason, may God give us steadfastness and courage and, even better—circumstances of time and place that are disposed to the good.
In the most chilling, and in my opinion most personally revealing of the narratives in The Zone, or any of his work for that matter, Dovlatov (the character is called “Bob” by the other guards) encounters a prisoner named Kuptsov, a tough-guy drifter. Dovlatov is both enraged by and drawn to Kuptsov:
“You’re going to work, or you’ll perish in the isolator. You’re going to work, I give you my word. Otherwise, you’ll croak.”
The zek looked at me as though I were a thing, a foreign car parked across from the Hermitage. He followed the line from the radiator to the exhaust pipe. Then he said distinctly, “I like to please myself.” And that instant: a mirage of a ship’s bridge above the waves.
“You’re one man against everyone. Which means you’re wrong.”
Kuptsov said slowly, distinctly and severely: “One is always right”
And suddenly I understood that this zek who wanted to kill me made me glad, that I was constantly thinking of him, that I couldn’t live without Kuptsov. . . that he was dear and necessary to me, that he was dearer to me than the camaraderies of the soldiers which had swallowed the last pitiful crumbs of my idealism, that we were one. Because the only person you could hate that much was yourself.
And I also felt how tired he was.
The story ends with Dovlatov encountering an emaciated Kuptsov yet again, squatting by a campfire, not working. By then, Kuptsov has been in extended solitary confinement. Dovlatov browbeats him again about working, then forces him to hold an axe and swing at a tree trunk. Instead:
Kuptsov stepped to the side. Then he slowly got down on his knees beside a tree stump, set his left hand on the rough, gleaming yellow cut wood, then raised the axe and let it fall in one swift blow.
The story ends with a prisoner shouting at Dovlatov: “What are you standing there for, you dickwad? You win—call the medic!” Dovlatov is stunned at his own capacity for sadism as well as Kuptsov’s purity of conviction, “one man against everyone.” Who is prisoner, who is guard? Who is protector, who is criminal? In a letter to Igor, he writes, “Anyhow, I don’t write about prison and zeks. What I wanted to write about was life and people.” Ridiculous things do happen in prison camp, but in The Zone, Dovlatov is more interested in the poignancy of that absurdity than the humor.
All this is crucial background to Dovlatov’s more humorous work. In the story “The Driving Gloves,” Dovlatov is recruited by a second-rate Swedish journalist to perform the role of Tsar Peter the Great in a satirical underground film. At the film studio, the props guy turns out to be someone who remembers Dovlatov from the camps.
“Remember the isolation cell in Ropcha?”
“Remember the convict who strung himself up on his belt?”
“That was me. They pumped me for two hours, the bastards. “
The former prisoner furnishes Dovlatov with a kitschy Tsar outfit, and then as they part ways, he says, “When I was inside, I wanted out. But now, if I have a few drinks, I start missing the camp. What people! Lefty, One-Eye, Diesel!” Out of context, it’s a quirky one-liner delivered by a ridiculous minor character, but as readers of The Zone, we feel the chilly implications: what is freedom, anyway? The film intends to take up the same question, its climax showing Peter the Great melodramatically dismayed by modern Leningrad: “What have I done? . . . Why did I ever build this whorish city?” And Dovlatov himself is contending with his own post-prison imprisonment: his agreeing to the role in the first place has to do with his aimless ways, his alcoholism, and his wife’s perpetual disapproval.
Dovlatov’s darker experiences and depths also help us to understand his “bloomer” journey. If his comfortable childhood made him a loafer, and his years as a prison guard woke him up to his writer’s call, then the years following unfolded as a period of delays and false starts as he struggled to make good on that calling. These were years characterized by heavy drinking and lack of money, piles of unpublished writing, and eventually “intense harassment” by Soviet authorities. Finally, at age 40, reunited in Queens, NY, with his wife and daughter who had emigrated without him, The Compromise was published in the US, by a small Russian émigré press. In the mid-1980s, the New Yorker ran several of his stories in English, and English translations of his books began appearing, including A Foreign Woman, Ours :A Russian Family Album, and The Suitcase. None of his work was published in Russia until after his death in 1990 (after the fall of the Soviet Union).
But I don’t mean to be a killjoy. The “sparkling” humor that Wood references, “jokes, repartee, and this writer’s special savage levity,” are what excited me about Dovlatov’s work in the first place. Indeed, hilarity—in the form of both drunken and sober dialogue, along with deadpan one-liners—splashes every scene in Pushkin Hills. I only want to alert readers to the additional dimensions of Dovlatov’s oeuvre, numerous and equally rewarding. There are, for example, his powers of physical description—most often in the form of short, clipped sentences, wry and sharp. But then every so often we get a feast of Dovlatovian observation:
He had taken a seat in the way police officers, provocateurs and midnight guests do, with his side to the table.
The lad looked strong.
A brick-brown face towered over a wall of shoulders. Its dome was crowned with a brittle and dusty patch of last year’s grass. The stucco arches of his ears were swallowed up by the semi-darkness. The bastion of his wide solid forehead was missing embrasures. The gaping lips gloomed like a ravine. The flickering small swamps of his eyes, veiled by an icy cloud, questioned. The bottomless, cavernous mouth nurtured a threat.
The cousin got up and extended his left hand like a battleship.
There is also his fine attention to the natural world—the ways in which nature both enacts and reflects human fate, simply, directly—which I noticed especially in Pushkin Hills:
Morning. Milk with a bluish skin. Dogs barking, buckets jangling…
Jackdaws flew through the clear skies. Fog spread over the marsh, at the foot of the mountain. Sheep reposed in grey clumps on the green grass. . . . Yellow sand stuck to my boots, wet from the morning dew. The air from the grove carried chill and smoke.
Last but not least: the more you read Dovlatov, the more you appreciate his particular romanticism—most frequently expressed in his obsession with his wife Lena (pronounced “Yenna”). In Pushkin Hills, the Dovlatov persona, Boris Alikhanov, has become confused about both his family life and his writer’s vocation. He drinks too much and his debts have piled up, so he escapes to the Pushkin Hills Preserve, where he works as a tour guide, paying (humorously false) homage to the great poet Alexander Pushkin for the benefit of pilgrimaging tourists. The place is a sort of island of misfits, replete with memorably eccentric characters (including a depressive tour guide whose storytelling is so robust that “tourists fainted from the strain”), and Boris begins to settle in nicely. But just as he begins to return to his writing, own up to his creditors, and detox from vodka… his wife (technically former wife, but it matters little), named Tatyana in this version of events, shows up.
By “this version of events,” I refer to Dovlatov’s notable revisiting and revising, through his metafictions, of the story of how he met his wife; how they came to be married; and the ways in which her almost supernaturally unflappable temperament, and their life together, perplex him utterly. Pushkin Hills offers yet another version of their relationship—two others appear in “The Colonel Says I Love You” (from Ours) and “A Poplin Shirt” (from The Suitcase)—in which they meet at an artist’s party. Here’s how Boris tells it:
Tatyana rose over my life like the dawn’s morning light. That is, calmly, beautifully, without encouraging excessive emotions. Excessive was only her indifference. Her limitless indifference was comparable to a natural phenomenon.
They leave the party together, she invites him up to her apartment, they talk, she serves wine.
There was a pause, which in a situation like this could be fatal…
As strange as it may seem, I was feeling something like love.
Where did it come from? From what pile of garbage? From what depths of this wretched, miserable life? In what empty, barren soil do these exotic flowers bloom? Under the rays of which sun?
Some art studios full of junk, vulgarly dressed young ladies… Guitar, vodka, pathetic dissidence. . . . And suddenly—dear God!—love.
Tatyana suggests they “just talk.” Boris says, “In theory, it’s possible. In practice—not really.” And then, we get:
Then it was cramped, and there were words that were painful to think about in the morning. . . . And that’s how it all began. And lasted ten years.
In “A Poplin Shirt,” Lena appears on his doorstep as an election canvasser. He invites her in for tea, then they go to the movies (neither feels like voting), and then off to meet some writers and eat dinner.
Elena Borisovna astonished me by her docility. Or not docility, exactly—more a kind of indifference to the realities of life. . . . Deciding that Mother was asleep by now, I turned home. I didn’t even say, “Come with me,” to Elena Borisovna. I didn’t even take her by the hand. We simply found ourselves at home. That was twenty years ago.
And finally, in “The Colonel Says I Love You,” Lena appears in his life almost magically. He wakes up in the middle of the night after a drunken evening and finds someone sleeping on his couch:
“Suppose it’s Lena.”
As it turns out, one of Dovlatov’s buddies had brought her to the communal apartment and then forgot about her. Dovlatov showers, Lena gets dressed, they have breakfast. Lena leaves, but first she says, “I’ll be here around six.” She returns that evening; and she never leaves.
In all three versions, his wife’s “limitless indifference” (also referred to as “extreme imperturbability”) puzzles him to the point of exasperation and sometimes rage. But then there are moments, mysterious and ecstatic, like the “dear God!” revelation above, or in “A Poplin Shirt,” when he finds a picture of himself in her photo album:
I suddenly realized the seriousness of everything. If I was only now feeling this for the first time, then how much love had been lost over the long years?
I didn’t have the strength to think it through. I never knew that love could be so strong and so sharp.
There is just one instance, a real-life event that is also repeatedly revisited in Dovlatov’s work, when his wife sheds her indifference: she decides that she and their daughter must emigrate to America. In Pushkin Hills, when Tanya announces this to Boris, it undoes him. Boris drinks alone in his locked room for 11 days. He begins to hallucinate; then runs out of money and booze; then pulls the blankets up over his head. Finally Lena calls, from Austria, saying they are fine. Boris asks if they will see each other again, to which she replies, “Yes… if you love us…”
Dovlatov ended “The Colonel Says I Love You” with essentially the same exchange. And in both endings, both stories, the same rejoinder from Dovlatov: “What has love got to do with it? Love is for the young. . . It’s beyond love. It’s fate. . .”
Lena remains mysterious to both Dovlatov and to the reader. And yet the reiterations and re-explorations of her presence in his life speak to something as real as a jackdaw in the sky, an exotic flower, or even yellow sand stuck to a boot. Lena keeps Dovlatov both honest and on his toes:
“You can’t be an artist at the expense of another human being . . . These are just words. Never-ending, beautiful words. . . . I’ve had enough.” (Pushkin Hills)
Lena was not interested in my stories. I’m not even sure she had a clear idea of where I worked. . . . My wife would just pick up the nearest book and read from wherever it opened. That used to anger me. Then I realized that she always ended up reading good books. . . (“A Poplin Shirt”)
“To love publicly is obscene!” Dovlatov shouts at his colleague on the Preserve, who is needling him to explain why he loves Pushkin. And while Dovlatov does not attempt to “explain” love, his efforts to understand it—not to mention the novel’s epigraph, To my wife, who was right—evidence a singular and permanent homage to Lena.
Comparisons to Hemingway are not unfounded: Dovlatov was a big, burly man, dark-haired and mustachioed. He was physically driven (a boxer in his younger years), a heavy drinker, a journalist. Both served in the army and saw unimaginable violence. “With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least…” Tanya says to Boris in their last argument before he heads for Pushkin Hills. Boris claims to disdain Hemingway’s writing, and yet, among his very few possessions is “a picture of Hemingway.”
But the differences are marked: to my mind, those years in the prison camp—where he confronted (and eventually recorded) the humanity he found in the darkest corners of existence, including his own—along with his lifelong union with the imperturbable Lena, set him apart from the more unmoored Hemingway. By the time he produced the work that brought him critical acclaim, Dovlatov’s moral center—that is, his way of seeing and rendering human failure—was fully developed: he knew what he was capable of, and he knew his limitations. He had a closeknit community in Russian American New York, and a family he did love. Perhaps, like Boris, he wrestled with spectres of “unrecognized genius,” but he was also able to poke fun at the idea of genius itself, along with the rest of life’s disappointments and absurdities. Hemingway grew darker and more tormented in later life; Dovlatov died young, of heart failure, but he wrote 12 books in the last 12 years of his life.
A more apt comparison would be Chekhov, from whom some critics say the clarity and detachment of his narrative voice was descended. If Chekhov believed that “Man will become better when you show him what he is like,” Dovlatov was perhaps murkier on what “better” meant or looked like. Yet still he observed and rendered his fellow man with the same unflinching equanimity: whoever you are, whatever you’ve done or will do, you are worth my attention, my consciousness, on the deepest spiritual level.
And what has love got to do with it? In an interview with Dovlatov’s daughter Katherine—“Katya,” who beautifully translated Pushkin Hills—she reveals:
It had to be perfect. And my English is nowhere near my father’s use of the Russian. He honed his craft. He wrote slowly and painstakingly . . . It was a huge responsibility. I did not want to let Dad down.
As for Lena, her mystique remains intact. When asked what her mother thought of the translation, Katherine says: “She tells me she liked it. She thought it read well and was funny.” You can just see Lena’s face: in Dovlatov’s words, “untroubled as a dam,” serenely holding back the flood of lives lived.
Sonya Chung is Founding Editor of Bloom. She is the author of the novel Long for This World, a staff writer for The Millions, and teaches fiction writing at Skidmore College.