Features / In Their Own Words

IN HIS OWN WORDS: Sergei Dovlatov


In Monday’s profile Sonya Chung identified Sergei Dovlatov as a writer whose healthy, playful, even wicked humor didn’t at all diminish the “earnestness and regret” that often underlied his work. As we see from the quotes below, it put those traits and others—Dovlatov’s clear-sightedness, political awareness and clear love of literature—in an even brighter light.



‘You want to write a great novel? Only one in a hundred million succeeds!’

‘So what? In the spiritual sense a failed attempt like that is equal to the greatest of books. Morally it’s even higher, if you will, since it excludes a reward…’” —Pushkin Hills


Bulgakov’s hero says: ‘Fame will never come to a man who writes bad poems.’ This sentence also works in reverse. Sooner or later everything will work out. Is it not a miracle that Bulgakov and Platonov, who had been among the literary extras in their lifetime, because the undisputed leaders of the new Russian prose? Everything was rediscovered, Platonov’s tiniest newspaper articles were unearthed, up to and including the letters to the editor of a Voronezh newspaper in 1924…” —from an unpublished letter to Naum Sagalovsky (reprinted in Jekaterina Young’s Sergei Dovlatov and His Narrative Masks)


“I mix truth and invention in such capricious combinations that there are times I myself can’t distinguish one from the other. But the presence of a lyric hero—‘I’—often saves me from piling up heavy-handed literary conventions, and I’m proud, for example, that not once in my life have I written such an odious sentence as ‘The heavy oak door scraped open.’ I’m prouder still when asked, ‘Did all that really happen?’ or when my friends and relatives try to add footnotes to my stories, to elaborate on certain facts as they recollect them—which means they take my inventions for the real thing.” —from a 1985 interview with Jane Bobko for the Threepenny Review


“I had three long conversations with Marusya over a cup of coffee. She told me her whole rather silly story. To some degree we became friends. I like people like that—doomed, dying, helpless and brazen. I always say, if you’re in trouble, you’re not sinning.” —A Foreign Woman (1991; trans. Antonia W. Bouis)


“I am sending you a story about my cousin. I swear to you that every last word of it is true. If he ever comes to America, you will like him. Although he is one of the most awful people in the world. That was just the task I set myself in the story—to write about an absolutely awful person, whom everybody likes. Simply—to depict a human character.” —from an unpublished letter to translator Anne Frydman (reprinted in Sergei Dovlatov and His Narrative Masks)


“I’m convinced that poverty and wealth are innate qualities, just like hair color or perfect pitch. One is born either poor or rich. Money has almost nothing to do with it. You can be a pauper with money. And, conversely, a prince without a cent.” —A Foreign Woman


“In this story, there are no angels or villains. There are no sinners or saints. And there aren’t any in life, either.” —The Compromise (1990; trans. Anne Frydman)


“You can divide the world into two kinds of people: those who ask, and those who answer. Those who pose questions, and those who frown in irritation in response.” —The Suitcase (1990; trans. Antonia W. Bouis)


“In journalism everyone is allowed to do one thing. Just in one aspect to violate the principles of the socialist moral. That is, one is allowed to drink. Another—to behave like a hooligan. A third guy—to tell political jokes. A fourth—to be Jewish. A fifth—not to belong to the party. A sixth to indulge in amoral conduct. And so forth. But each, I repeat, is allowed only one infraction. It is not permitted to be a Jew and a drunk at the same time. A hooligan and not a party member. . . . I was ruinously universal. That is, l allowed myself a little bit of everything.” —The Compromise (trans. Natalia Pakhomova)


“Yellowed pages. Ten years of lies and dissembling. And yet, some people stood behind them: conversations, feelings, things that actually happened. Not on the pages themselves, but beyond them.” —The Compromise


“I know that if my books are finding their way to my birthplace, they’re being passed gingerly and in secret from one person to the next until they turn to dust. If books had souls and tongues to speak, we’d know each dreams of such a fate.” —from Dovlatov’s interview with Jane Bobko


“I looked at the empty suitcase. On the bottom was Karl Marx. On the lid was Joseph Brodsky. And between them, my lost, precious, only life.” —The Suitcase


“In some sense any work of fiction is autobiographical, if for no other reason than that a writer’s own emotional life serves as his raw material, and his wildest fantasies rest upon personal experience. This is why not one of even the most brilliant writers has given us a convincing picture of heaven, whereas Dante’s or Joyce’s picture of hell makes a very deep impression. The latter had something on which to base their description.” —from Dovlatov’s interview with Jane Bobko


“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 fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.” —The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story

Click here to read Sonya Chung’s feature on Sergei Dovlatov


Bloom Post End

Homepage photo credit: Nina Alovert

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