Vladimir Makanin: On writing as chess play
We found Makanin at his quiet family home, his second residence, outside Rostov-on-Don. The country house is complete with newly created garden, swings and a cozy veranda, the perfect spot to discuss literature.
Rossiyskaya Gazeta: You are a mathematician. Does the ability to think methodically help a writer?
VM: Mathematics is beautiful, perfection even, although for me it is also a little cold. I was a diligent and distinguished pupil, but the subject still didn’t touch my heart. My personality was not formed by university, but during my school days and in those warlike games of chess I used to play with grown-ups when I was just a fifth grader.
Close to the moment I had beaten my opponents, they’d start to sweat, wriggle in their chairs and smoke (which was allowed at competitions in those days). Meanwhile, the boy who sat quietly opposite them-me-enjoyed the game and that unique sense of meeting a challenge, which has served me so well in life. Mostly I mean here the demands of writing a text, and its casual, almost playful striving to defeat me.
No longer a boy, now I am the one sweating, wriggling and smoking.
RG: Your first works raced out like new comets, yet you seem to write with such ease. Does this apparent ease belie the process of writing?
VM: Again back to chess: “The victor is he who wins while playing blacks.” To win with whites is to write like other people do, and rack up fast points. But to write a novella or novel on uncharted territory with new types of characters is a game played with blacks.
RG: Do you write your stories from beginning to end?
VM: No, I write in sections. I write key scenes randomly and sometimes I start from the end. It’s a bit like being in the kitchen. In order to fry something, you need a couple of good pieces of meat.
RG: Did you read a lot in your youth?
VM: There were not as many books around when I was young. I was lucky though, because my mother was a schoolteacher. When I was in the tenth or eleventh grade she gave me three authors to read who had dropped out of school: Ivan Bunin, Alexander Kuprin and Leonid Andreyev.
Reading was not a stream but rather a river for me. Remarque’s “Three Comrades” was a massive hit at university. I read the works of Shakespeare, bound in a wonderful edition, but it was stolen and probably flew straight down to the second-hand bookshop - half-starved students and all that, what can you do? I’m not sad about it any longer, of course, but I would love to see that book once more as it contained so many of my old notes.
RG: Your novels generate a lot of discussion. Is it possible to predict a book’s success?
VM: There are two processes: creation and consumption. An author is only responsible for the first. He can write a novel, a drama, but has no say in how it will be received. It is beyond his influence. Society consumes what you produce and it can regale you tomorrow and trample you a month later. Or give you recognition only after your death, or never. But again, that is not down to you, your job is to create.
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