The Songs of Sergei Dovlatov

In a less punishing country than Russia, Sergei Dovlatov would have been a popular writer whose revolutionary approach to writing would have been obscured by the lightness of tone, brevity, and apparent simplicity of most of his work. The public would have loved him, but most critics would have been disdainful of the vulgarity of his characters’ language and the apparently autobiographical nature of most of his writing. But Dovlatov lived in the Soviet Union, where his fiction could not be published, so he was denied the popularity he deserved. As for the critics, he often drank with them, and they still found occasion to dismiss him. If Dovlatov lore is to be believed, one of them once praised a story he had been shown by saying, “I dislike this one less than the others.”
Dovlatov was born in 1941 and grew up in Leningrad. By his mid-thirties he had succeeded in having a grand total of two short stories published in Soviet magazines. He worked for a series of obscure newspapers, writing news stories he preferred to sign with a variety of pen names. His first book was finally published by a Russian-language house in the United States in 1977. Having a book published abroad was, from the writer’s point of view, an admission of defeat—he was giving up hope of ever seeing a book or even so much as another short story printed in the USSR—and, from the point of view of the Soviet state, a declaration of war.
A couple of years later, Dovlatov moved to New York, where he had a quick and spectacular success. He launched a weekly newspaper, Novyi amerikanets (The New American), short-lived but popular and influential among Soviet émigrés, tens of thousands of whom landed in the US in the late 1970s. He had roughly a book a year published by the Russian-language émigré presses. But what set him apart from all Soviet émigré writers, except his friend and fellow Leningrad exile Joseph Brodsky, was that Dovlatov was also published extensively, and well, in translation. The New Yorker printed ten of his short stories in the 1980s, and most of his books were translated into English.
Back in the USSR, Dovlatov’s fiction could not be published until the late 1980s, when perestroika and glasnost opened the door to printing both for émigré writers and for writers who did not follow the socialist realist line. The critic who had praised Dovlatov so sparingly, a former classmate and now an editor at a leading literary journal, then published his short stories. Dovlatov’s books started coming out, on gray pulpy paper that frayed at the touch, but with press runs in the hundreds of thousands at first and then in the millions. Just as his work was reaching Russian audiences, in August 1990, he died of a heart attack in New York, ten days before his forty-ninth birthday and one year before the Soviet regime came to an end.
During the following decade Dovlatov’s literary reputation in Russia rose higher and higher: he went from being a writer known to very few to a household name and, finally, to the status of a classic. Dovlatov is to Russian vernacular what Casablanca and Mark Twain are to American speech: many unattributed and unidentified literary allusions and quotes come from his work, while he is often credited with aphorisms he never uttered.


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