From the opening page of “Pushkin Hills,” Sergei Dovlatov’s witty observations and descriptive brilliance are a delight. Readers first meet Boris, an alcoholic, unpublished author, on his way to work as a tour guide in the old family estates of the poet Alexander Pushkin.
The setting is autobiographical. The writer Dovlatov worked summers as a guide in and around Mikhailovskoe, south of Pskov. The area is one of Russia’s many, charming Zapovedniki(museum reserves) and the novel’s Russian title “Zapovednik” has been made more specific as “Pushkin Hills.”
Dovlatov’s writing deserves to be better known among foreigners. His daughter, Katherine, has helped that process by creating a wonderful translation of “Zapovednik,” the first ever in English. In the acknowledgements, she thanks her father “for leaving behind an amazing gift that allows us to continue a dialogue.”
2013 is the 30th anniversary of the novel’s original publication in New York.
“Pushkin Hills” is rich in bittersweet comedy, including rural encounters (“From Leningrad.” “Ah, yeah, I heard of it...”) and questions from tourists: “What was the duel between Pushkin and Lermontov about?” He observes that pictures of famous people like to emphasize one large feature: Marx’s beard, Lenin’s forehead or Pushkin’s sideburns.
In some ways, Boris is a classic example of the Russian “superfluous man,” a very un-Soviet figure. Dovlatov’s tour-guide-hero has a drinking problem like Erofeev’s train-travelling Venya, has as much trouble with women as the heroes of Lermontov or Turgenev, and describes himself as “an almost dissident.” He satirizes one of his fellow guides, whose books are “banal, ideologically sound and dull.”
Dovlatov was born in 1941; his mother was an Armenian actress-turned-proofreader and his father a Jewish theater director. He grew up in Leningrad, studied Finnish and worked as a prison guard before he became a journalist. The Journalists’ Union expelled him for secretly publishing his early stories abroad, the KGB destroyed the letterpresses for his first book, and in 1978 he emigrated, following his family to New York the following year. Dovlatov died in New York in 1990, but in the intervening decade he published what would become some of the best-loved Russian novels of the late twentieth century.