“POLITICAL WORK OUGHT TO BE CONCRETE”: this is one of the rousing Soviet mottos recalled in Sergei Dovlatov’s novel, The Zone. Ironically, it is also what is said about good writing, and can one think of a more concrete contemporary writer than Dovlatov? Sentences compacted to aphoristic ingots: “One is born either poor or rich. Money has almost nothing to do with it.” Paradox, sharp wit, and swift one-liners: “Boris sober and Boris drunk are such different people, they’ve never even met.” Or: “What could I say to him? What do you say to a guard who uses after-shave only internally?” Fierce, precise snapshots, illuminated by absurdist flashes: “Cars streamed past us like submarines holding each other’s tails.” Dialogue almost Waugh-like in its tart comedy:
“You’ve just forgotten. The rudeness, the lies.” “If people are rude in Moscow, at least it’s in Russian.” “That’s the horrible part.”
And people, things, clothes, memories, stories—all seized and made instantly vivid:
Indistinct memories came to him. …A square in winter, tall rectangular buildings. A few school-boys surround Vova Mashbits, the class telltale. Vova’s expression is frightened, he wears a foolish hat, woollen drawers… Koka Dementiyev tears a grey sack out of his hand. Shakes a pair of galoshes out onto the snow. After which, faint with laughter, he urinates into the sack. The schoolboys grab Vova, hold him by the shoulders, shove his head into the darkened sack. The boy stops trying to break loose. It’s not actually painful…
Reading Dovlatov is a joyous, thrilling, usually hilarious experience, in large part because he has such a talent for making stories so concrete: he collects vignettes, loud portraits, bitter jokes, comic tales, absurd episodes, black anecdotes, and then delights in bringing them out of the ether of hearsay or memory and giving them new life in print. He captures, and he frees: his work bursts with this captured, freed life. There is the prisoner Makeyev, in The Zone, who climbs onto the roof of the prison camp to watch the woman he has fallen in love with, a schoolteacher named Isolda Shchukina. He is unable to make out her features or even her age. He knows only that she wears two dresses, a green one and a brown one: “Early in the morning, Makeyev would crawl onto the roof of the barracks. After some time, there would be a thunderous announcement: ‘Brown!’ This meant that Isolda had gone out to visit the toilet facilities.” There is the story, from The Suitcase, of the Lenin statue that went wrong. People gather for the unveiling of the new monument; a band plays, speeches are given. And as a drum rolls, the cloth is lifted—to reveal Lenin in familiar pose, his right arm pointing “the way to the future” and his left in the pocket of his open coat. The music stops, and suddenly someone laughs. “A minute later, the whole crowd was laughing… What had happened? The poor sculptor had given Lenin two caps, one on the leader’s head, the other one clutched in his fist.” In the same book, Dovlatov remembers being asked to play Old Grandfather Frost in a New Year’s show for a school. He is promised three days off and fifteen rubles. On stage, he appears in a beard, a white hat, and bearing a basket of gifts. “Hello, dear children! Do you recognize me?” And the yelled reply comes from the front rows: “Lenin! Lenin!”
There are the sparkling sketches, in A Foreign Woman, of Russian emigres in New York—like Fima Druker, a famous bibliophile when he lived in Leningrad, now running a publishing company called Russian Book, which struggles to survive in America, and which is eventually renamed Invisible Book (apparently now specializing in erotica); or Zaretsky, a journalist notorious in the Soviet Union for his “voluminous” work published in samizdat, Sex Under Totalitarianism, “which claimed that ninety per cent of Soviet women were frigid.” At one point in the novel, Zaretsky attempts to do some sex research on the novel’s heroine, an emigre named Marusya Tatarovich: one of his questions involves asking her if she lost her virginity “before or after the Hungarian events.”
Sergei Dovlatov was born in 1941, in Ufa, in the Republic of Bashkiria; his family had been evacuated there from Leningrad during the Second World War. His mother was Armenian, his father Jewish and a distinguished theater director. His intensely autobiographical work—warmly and casually mixing fiction and fact; often jocosely combining fiction with what postmodernism calls metafiction (that is, commentary on fiction-making)—offers the reader a vital picture of the usual bald biographical summary. In his writing, including this book, we learn about the many phases of his short life (he died in 1990, in New York City): about his parents and their work in the theater (the wonderful story, “Fernand Leger’s Jacket”); about the time he spent, in the early 1960s, as a prison guard in the Soviet camp system (The Zone); about his work as a journalist, in Leningrad and Estonia (The Suitcase and The Compromise); the summer he spent as an official guide at the Pushkin Preserve, south of Pskov (Pushkin Hills).
Dovlatov was not published in Russia during his lifetime. During the 1970s, he circulated his writing in samizdat and began to be published in European journals, an activity which brought about his expulsion from the Union of Soviet Journalists in 1976. He left the Soviet Union in 1978 and arrived in New York in 1979 to join his wife and daughter, part of the so-called “third wave” of Russian immigration (an anxious transit anticipated inPushkin Hills and more fully described in A Foreign Woman and the memoir, Ours, which traces the stories of four generations of his family). In New York, Dovlatov quickly became one of the most prominent and popular members of the Russian emigre community. He co-edited The New American, a liberal emigre newspaper, and worked for Radio Liberty. But mainly he wrote: twelve books in the last twelve years of his life.The Compromise appeared in 1981, The Zone a year later, Ours in 1983, A Foreign Womanin 1986, the same year that The Suitcase was published. These books were written in Russian and published by small presses, such as the Hermitage Press in Tenafly, New Jersey, or Russica, in New York. It was only in the mid-1980s, when Dovlatov was beginning to reach a wider audience (partly due to the publication of several of his stories in The New Yorker), that English-language publishers took an interest: The Zone was published in English translation in 1985 (Knopf) and The Suitcase in 1990 (Weidenfeld).
In Russia, history is too important to leave to the historians. Great novelists must show how people actually lived through events and reveal their moral significance. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn explained in his 1970 Nobel Prize lecture, literature transmits “condensed and irrefutable human experience” in a form that “defies distortion and falsehood. Thus literature . . . preserves and protects a nation’s soul.”
The latest Solzhenitsyn book to appear in English, March 1917, focuses on the great turning point of Russian, indeed world, history: the Russian Revolution.1 Just a century ago, that upheaval and the Bolshevik coup eight months later ushered in something entirely new and uniquely horrible. Totalitarianism, as invented by Lenin and developed by Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Pol Pot, and others, aspired to control every aspect of life, to redesign the earth and to remake the human soul. As a result, the environment suffered unequaled devastation and tens of millions of lives were lost in t…