The underappreciated Sergei Dovlatov

Like PEN America contributor Amitava Kumar, I knew nothing of Sergei Dovlatov (pictured right, with one-time Vice President of PEN Kurt Vonnegut, who has the lighter of the two mustaches) before I heard this New Yorker fiction podcast with David Bezmozgis (who has a novel excerpt in The New Yorker this week; he’s on their “20 under 40” list). I loved Bezmozgis’s story “Natasha,” published a few years ago in Harpers, and so was particularly curious to hear what past New Yorker contributor he would choose to read and discuss with Deborah Treisman, the magazine’s fiction editor.

He did not disappoint. Dovlatov’s “The Colonel Says I Love You” is witty and wise; it demonstrates what Joseph Brodsky once said about Dovlatov (as I would later learn, thanks to Amitava): “The decisive thing is his tone, which every member of a democratic society can recognize: the individual who won’t let himself be cast in the role of a victim, who is not obsessed with what makes him different.” Dovlatov writes direct but surprising stories that draw heavily from his life; Bezmozgis aptly compares him to David Sedaris, though Dovlatov’s humor is less broad, and his circumstances—living and writing in communist Russia—give his stories a kind of moral weight, even if he handles it lightly.

So why isn’t he read more in the United States? Soon after the podcast, Sonya Chung pointed out on The Millions how hard it has become to get copies of his books in English, though they were all translated and published once upon a time (he died in 1990). “Why is Dovlatov so little known or read in the West today?" she asked, repeating a question Triesman had asked Bezmozgis. His answer: “I have no idea. It’s hard to understand these things.” As Chung notes, “Dovlatov couldn’t have said it better himself.” (Responding to Chung’s piece, the blogger languagehat, who reads Russian, said: “Dovlatov is one of the funniest and most likable writers I know, and I’m sure Americans would love him if he were properly introduced.”)

So when we were putting together PEN America 12, we decided we would re-publish one of Dovlatov’s stories. Happily, one of his translators, Antonina W. Bouis, is a generous member of PEN; I still have her copy of The Suitcase (though I’ll be returning it soon, promise!), from which we selected “A Poplin Shirt.”
When I was a child, my nanny, Luiza Genrikhovna, did everything distractedly. Once she dressed me in shorts and shoved both legs into one opening. I walked around like that all day. I was four. I knew that I had been dressed wrong, but I kept quiet. I didn’t want to change. I still don’t.
So the narrator tells us near the beginning of the story; he goes on to recount his first outing with his future wife (she speaks first in this bit):
“You can be trusted. I understood that immediately, as soon as I saw Solzhenitsyn’s portrait.”

“That’s Dostoyevsky. But I respect Solzhenitsyn, too.” We had a modest breakfast. Mother gave us a piece of halvah after all.

Then we went outside. The houses were decorated with bunting. Candy wrappers lay in the snow. Our janitor, Grisha, was showing off his ratiné coat.

....We went to the movies to see Ivan’s Childhood. The film was good enough for me to patronize. In that period I liked only detective movies, because they let me relax. But Tarkovsky’s movies I praised, patronizingly—and with a hint that Tarkovsky had been waiting for almost six years for a screenplay from me.
Near the end, the narrator reflects on the life he and his wife have lived:
Are we alike, then? I at least have a stimulus, a goal, an illusion, a hope. What does she have? Only our daughter, and indifference. We have twenty-five years of marriage behind us—twenty-five years of mutual isolation and indifference to real life. In those twenty-five years, our friends fell in love, married, and divorced. They wrote poems and novels about it all. They moved from one republic to another; they changed jobs, convictions, habits, became dissidents and alcoholics, tried to kill others or themselves. Marvelous, mysterious worlds arose and collapsed with a roar all around us. Like taut strings, human relations snapped. Our friends were reborn and died in the search for happiness.

And we? We faced all the temptations and horrors of life with our only gift—indifference. What is more solid than a castle built on sand? What is more durable and dependable in family life than mutual lack of character? What could be stabler than two hostile states each incapable of defending itself?
To read the rest, pick up PEN America 12: Correspondences, or try to find a copy of The Suitcase at your local used bookstore. And then maybe blog about it. Eventually someone will get the point and start publishing Dovlatov’s books in the U.S. again.


Lisa Hayden Espenschade said...

It's great to see your interest in Dovlatov -- I hope the piece in PEN America will inspire readers to follow your advice and look for more of his work.

I enjoyed The Suitcase but my personal favorite (so far) from Dovlatov is The Compromise, which is also available in translation. (I wrote about it on my blog here.) Few books have made me laugh out loud so much: I love Dovlatov's sense of the absurd.

Language said...

I too am very pleased to see Dovlatov getting some love. May more translations follow!

--Steve Dodson (languagehat)

Sonya said...

Bravo, PEN America. It's wonderful to witness this Dovlatov revival.

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Katya said...

Dovlatov's The Suitcase has been re-released in English in March of this year. The Zone is scheduled to come out around Christmas. Both translations have been re-edited.