Friday, 17 October 2014

Sergei Dovlatov, dissident sans idea

All but invisible in his home country, Sergei Dovlatov became something of a mythical figure among the Russian diaspora of New York. Indeed, Vladimir Yermakov compares the conundrum of Dovlatov's life as writer to the two hands simultaneously drawing one another in Escher's mysterious drawing.
In the Soviet Union I was not a dissident. (Being a drunk doesn't count.) All I did was write stories that were ideological strangers. And I had to leave. It was in America that I became a dissident.
Sergei Dovlatov


Central to the primary meaning of a work of art is the person of the artist, especially if the work contains autobiographical material. Sergei Dovlatov (1941-1990) is a special case in this respect. The writer Dovlatov, and his character Dovlatov, are as dependent on one another as the two hands simultaneously drawing one another in Maurits Cornelis Escher's mysterious drawing. This interdependence doesn't imply anything definite about their identity, however. Those who knew Dovlatov from his works merely imagined they knew the man. Those who knew him personally realized they didn't know him very well. The facts of his biography are all blurred, ambiguous, vague. This should be kept in mind when reading his books. Almost confessionary in form, their content is largely invented. As a great mystifier, he was able to unsettle his surroundings. In the field of gravitation surrounding Dovlatov, reality is distorted and loses its plausibility.

But before focusing on the man himself, we should decide on our criteria. The pathos typical of world literature can be seen as a defence of the human being. How do we evaluate a person? Every one of us has a scale according to which we weigh the social significance of a person. This scale runs between two generalizing definitions, namely "the great man" and "the small man". The megalomania inherent in Russian autocratic rule would acknowledge only statesmen-heroes as great men. Therefore Tsarist censorship was nettled by the entirely inappropriate respect shown for the person of Pushkin in his obituary: what value could there be in a poet, let alone one who, instead of praising absolute power, endorsed mercy toward the fallen? As for the place of the human being in Russian reality, government and society were far from seeing eye-to-eye. Russian literature turned its face from the mighty of this world and gave its heart to the poor, the luckless, penniless outsiders, whom it saw through the magic crystal of art. They were seen as true, genuine people, whereas the lords of life proved to be the charlatans of existence.

The central character in Sergei Dovlatov's prose, the author's alter ego, is a small person. A small man in a great country built by dwarfs. Here is the first confusing point: a great small person. It is a common view that the pathos at the root of Dovlatov's work is a tolerance for human weaknesses, but this is not exactly the case. It is more correct to see in the author a certain cruelty justified by his conclusions. Dovlatov's sarcasm scratches away at the encrustation of context, setting man free from the wretchedness of everyday life. But his all-engulfing satire shows none of an author's self-conceit. Basing his literary experiments on his own person, he cannot be blamed for snobbism.

The great small man is an oxymoron, a contradiction in terms, and indeed Dovlatov was something of an oxymoron himself, a huge walking contradiction. Physically big, but inside... not what he appeared to be. Uncertain of himself, yet full of himself. Arousing fierce opposition yet radiating a dour charm. Half Jewish, half Armenian by birth, Sergei Donatovich Dovlatov had more right to represent Russian literature at the level of global civil society than anyone else. And at this highest of levels he is unique. He is an independent thinker without a cause. A dissident without an idea. He managed to merge intellectualism with bohemianism, and life gave him a hard schooling – but he never learnt to live outside the sphere of literature. He was no macho, rather a bear; overwhelming physicality was an expression used by Joseph Brodsky to characterize him. In the bohemian literary circles of Leningrad, Dovlatov was a phenomenon. He also became one in the Russian diaspora of New York. His physical frame enthralled women, and in men his appearance aroused respect. His friendships were neither lasting nor dependable. His love affairs were mindless and unhappy. According to Valery Popov, a long-standing friend, he was touchy, suspicious, apprehensive – and cruel, deceitful and quarrelsome. A true intellectual, he was irresistible and unbearable all at once. Oh, for all those kind-hearted evil deeds that formed the canvas of his biography upon which his words wove literature... With its syncopated rhythm, his life's chronicle resembles a jazz composition. While valuing friendship, he was utterly merciless even to his nearest and dearest. He loved women, but his love stories were tragi-comic. He would marry when a relationship was beginning to fall apart, and women gave birth to children of his after totally breaking up with him.

Dovlatov came from a background of artists: his father Donat Mechik was a theatre director, his mother Nora Dovlatova an actress. Sergei was also an artist by nature, but took his time to choose his field. Nor did life give him a chance to do otherwise. He was born on 3 September 1941 in the town of Ufa, where the family had been evacuated at the beginning of the war. The years of his boyhood and youth were spent in Leningrad. At school he made no particular impression, apart from his physical stature and charm. Lacking both outstanding talent and a careerist intelligence, he chose the humanities for his field and enrolled at the Finnish department of the philological faculty of the Leningrad State University. It was during these years that he became familiar with the underground literature of Leningrad. A passionate interest in Hemingway and a close acquaintance with Brodsky were what decided his fate: he wanted to become a writer. After this, he lost interest in the foreign language he was studying and dropped out of university.

Dovlatov's reckless way of life might have landed him in prison, but instead, he found himself in the army. After three years' service he returned to Leningrad and set out to try to become a professional writer. He worked as a journalist and as an editor for several publishers. He wrote news reports and travel stories for various papers. But he failed to enter the privileged group of established authors. He was plagued by a feeling of helplessness and hopelessness. He set off to look for new opportunities in Estonia, a Soviet state of a slightly different character, hoping to find more freedom there. For anyone with a more ordinary view of life, this slightly less restricted existence might indeed have sufficed, but for a great author it remained painfully limited. In Tallinn, Dovlatov almost managed to publish a collection of short stories, but in the end, the chance came to nothing. The organs of state would not loosen their grasp of the rebel. Dovlatov returned to Leningrad, as to a familiar house where he'd already run his head against every wall looking for a way out. Losing every hope of finding a job in Soviet reality, he set out to be a tour guide at the Pushkin museum reserve at Mikhailovskoye.

The tale of Dovlatov's sufferings becomes an ironic chronicle of his times. Later, in America, the Ardis publishing house published his first book, aptly named Nevidimaya Kniga (1977), The Invisible Book (1979); in his own country, he had only been seen by those whose duty it was to see everything. The organs of state undertook to take care of his fate. After Solzhenitsyn and Brodsky, Dovlatov too was sentenced, but his vanity was wounded by the sentence being merely for hooliganism – an outrageous gesture, he felt. After the sentence, with reproaches and threats ringing in his ears, he decided to leave his home country.

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