All Dovlatov’s Children:Recent Soviet Emigré Literature

To say that Russians love the late Soviet writer Sergei Dovlatov is like saying they love breathing. Born in 1941, Dovlatov worked as a prison guard and journalist before starting to “publish” short ...

To say that Russians love the late Soviet writer Sergei Dovlatov is like saying they love breathing. Born in 1941, Dovlatov worked as a prison guard and journalist before starting to “publish” short stories in the 1970s, via samizdat, the only avenue open at the time for writers who wanted to serve up their fiction with a shot of truth. Dovlatov wasn’t the only writer of his generation to capture Soviet byt, that untranslatable term for the minutiae of daily life, but he did it like no one else. His wry narrative voice combines the spareness of Hemingway with the bittersweet humor of David Sedaris. Like a sociological lepidopterist, he pins each character with only a few sentences—the KGB agent who complains about his job to the people he’s interrogating, the poet who beats up policemen—until he’s created the entire taxonomy of human frailty à la russe.

In his homeland, Dovlatov isn’t so much a writer as a state of mind. Not so in the United States, where he emigrated in 1979. Soon after arriving, he co-founded the Russian-language weekly Novyi Amerikanets (The New American), which became the newspaper of record for Dovlatov’s fellow Soviet immigrants, then arriving by the tens of thousands. In 1980, he published the first of ten stories in the
New Yorker
, a feat that elicited an admiring letter from Kurt Vonnegut, and in 1984, he was featured prominently in a New York Times article on Russian émigré writers.1 But despite these critical successes, for the past three decades, Dovlatov’s status stateside has been akin to that of a character actor whose star is always just on the verge of rising.

Thanks to a recent, bravura translation of his novel Pushkin Hills (Zapovednik) by his daughter Katherine, however, Dovlatov may once again be in the ascendancy. Written in Queens in the early 1980s, Pushkin Hills captures the summer just a few years prior, when Dovlatov (or rather, his alter ego Boris Alikhanov) first grappled with the question of emigration while working as a tour guide on the former estate of the 19th-century poet Alexander Pushkin. His wife Lena is determined to pursue a better life abroad, but Boris can’t imagine leaving:

“I’m fed up with standing in lines for all sorts of junk. I’m fed up with wearing stockings with holes. I’m fed up of getting excited about beef sausages … What’s holding you back? The Hermitage, the Neva River, birch trees?”
“I couldn’t care less about birch trees.”
“Then what?”
“Language. In a foreign tongue we lose eighty percent of our personality. We lose our ability to joke, to be ironic. This alone terrifies me … Who needs my stories in Chicago?”

Since the release of the Pushkin Hills in March, Dovlatov has been the subject of two essays in the Paris Review2 and a long profile in the New York Review of Books;3 the novel’s afterword was excerpted in the New Yorker.4 Despite that critical flurry of approval, when the corner of 63rd Drive and 108th Street in Queens, where the writer’s widow and daughter still reside, was renamed Sergei Dovlatov Way in September, it was Russian broadcast media that turned out to cover the event. On the one hand, Dovlatov would doubtless have appreciated his now-iconic status in the country that refused to publish him until 1989, the year before his death. On the other, perhaps they never needed him in Chicago, after all.

Dovlatov’s personal universe expanded just as his Soviet audience of 260 million potential readers receded behind the Iron Curtain. Thanks to state censorship, few of them had actually read him; but these were the people about whom and for whom he wrote. But could the fundamentally new—the act of driving one’s own car (one’s own car!) through Harlem—be rendered in the same language as, say, the all-too-familiar argument with the all-too-familiar Soviet waitress who refuses to take your order? Dovlatov’s taxonomic abilities had relied upon the relentless predictability of the Soviet microcosm. But what was the term for mortgage in Russian? For skim milk? How to explain, to that hypothetical Soviet reader, the fundamental difference between a building super in Queens and a dvornik in Leningrad? As it turned out, Dovlatov’s challenge wasn’t to convey Leningrad to Chicago. That was easy enough. Rather, it was to convey Chicago to Leningrad.

If you were to create a Venn diagram of Soviet humor, Russian humor, Jewish humor, and Dovlatov humor, you’d end up with an inkblot. Hardly “Russian” at all (according to the categorizations of empire, that is: his mother was Armenian, his father Jewish), Dovlatov was just another homo sovieticus, that now-extinct hybrid. In this, he was far from alone—shake the most “Russian” family tree and a Moldovan grandmother will fall out. But if Dovlatov’s mixed heritage wasn’t unusual, the fact that he had a Jewish father was what facilitated his departure from the Soviet Union.

Since the 19th century, two diametrically opposed narratives of emigration have existed in the Russian consciousness, and they have tended to cleave neatly along what in Russian would be termed “national” lines. If you are “really” Russian (i.e., not a Jew), it is assumed that you will emigrate and miss your country (the Hermitage, the Neva River, birch trees) forever. If you are a Jew (i.e., not “really” Russian), you will emigrate, assimilate, and never look back. It is an accident of fate that Dovlatov died in 1990, a mere sixteen months before the Soviet Union collapsed, at which point he would doubtless have begun to set this binary opposition aflame, turning his singular talents to stories of immigrants who, if they missed the birch trees, could simply buy a plane ticket and visit them. He would have captured the glorious multiethnic mess of migration, immigration, emigration, expatriates, repatriates, diaspora, and diglossia that is the post-Soviet world. Instead, this task falls to his literary children, writers who, like Dovlatov, were born in the Soviet Union but emigrated early enough to adopt English as their literary language. Their challenge is the mirror image of his: Instead of translating an American reality into Russian, they each must find a way to render a Russian one into English.

In Anya Ulinich’s graphic novel Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel, the heroine, like the author, is a Moscow-born, Brooklyn-based writer, a former illegal immigrant, and a divorced mother of two. In Lara Vapnyar’s The Scent of Pine, the main character, also named Lena, is an unhappily married, professionally dissatisfied academic who, like her creator, moved to the United States in her early twenties. Vapnyar pursued a PhD to the dissertation stage before switching to focus on a writing career. In Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life, Slava Gelman, a frustrated young writer at the highbrow Century magazine, finds himself forging German government Holocaust restitution claims for elderly Soviet Jews. Fishman, who worked as a fact-checker at the New Yorker, helped his own grandmother, a survivor of the Minsk ghetto, file restitution claims.

Each of these works moves seamlessly between the American present and the Soviet past, offering a series of beautifully rendered vignettes that capture a lost world: Lena Finkle walking hand-in-hand through the streets of Moscow with her high school boyfriend Alik, reciting Pushkin; Lena’s introduction to the lambada dance craze that swept the Soviet Union in the late 1980s (“like salsa, only simpler and dirtier”); Slava’s childhood visit to Lenin’s tomb. Just as it is tempting, when reading Pushkin Hills, to treat Dovlatov and Alikhanov as one and the same, it’s all too easy to read these works as memoir rather than fiction.

Each of these writers must also confront the problem of language. While an American reader can probably parse a Junot Díaz character’s Spanglish, the code-mixing kitchen conversations of Brighton Beach will leave him or her bewildered. What, then, is a Russian-American writer intent upon capturing the richness of the Russian language to do? Use the closest available cultural idiom: Yiddish. Like Yiddish, Russian humor favors jokes that take an argument to its logical (i.e., absurd) conclusion, deadpan punch lines that invert their opening set-ups. Translated into English, Russian humor codes Jewish.

But a Russian-Jewish identity doesn’t necessarily look like its American counterpart, a realization that Ulinich’s irrepressible Lena Finkle makes shortly after arriving in the United States in 1991. A natural cultural ambassador, Lena offers her readers a primer on everything they need to know about life as a perestroika-era teenager but were afraid to ask. She then reflects on the difference between being Jewish in the Soviet Union and in America:

In Moscow, you didn’t have to try so hard to be a Jew. It was like gender—you were born with it. You looked a little different 
… Your name was sorta weird 
… Maybe you played piano a little …
… Or chess …
… It was likely that your parents never had vodka for breakfast …

For Lena, the Hasidic community that takes her family in when they arrive in Arizona are “real” Jews, a throwback to the shtetl life her ancestors escaped once upon a time: “America wasn’t supposed to be all about washing floors, praying to God, and having patience. What am I—my great-grandmother? What about college?” she thinks. Religious observance leaves her cold: “Some opiate of the masses! So dull … how much longer? … ” she wonders during services. And yet actually being Jewish is so fundamental to Lena’s identity that on her first date with an American who innocently assumes she’s Russian, she quickly corrects him—“I’m from Russia, but I’m a Jew”—before offering the following aside to the reader: “For the first few months in the U.S. I insist on making this distinction. It seems important until I realize that it makes no sense to anyone but fellow Soviets.”

In her fluid grasp of metafiction and her ability to showcase human foibles (not least her own) unflinchingly yet lovingly, Ulinich is Dovlatov’s most natural heir. In one flashback, she offers a hysterical, eminently Dovlatovian taxonomy of the student body of Arizona State University in 1992: “People with Winnie-the-Pooh tattoos—Very orange people from New Jersey—People who believe that AIDS doesn’t exist but is a government conspiracy.” In another, she describes every species populating the OKCupid dating pool:

I didn’t want to date a guy in a wet suit, or a guy scaling a cliff, or a guy posing with little, mercilessly objectified third world children … Or a guy offering the photographer a beer … or a cocktail … or a dead fish … I wouldn’t date a computer programmer posing in a loincloth on the Playa …

Like Dovlatov, Ulinich uses humor as the microscope through which she examines weighty issues: identity, belonging, the pursuit of happiness. In a refreshing twist, Lena Finkle’s guides on this journey are also women: her friends Eloise and Yvonne, who function as intellectual sparring partners. Here is Eloise talking to Lena:

“What you hate, Finkle, is ambiguity. You’re terrified of complexity. You’d rather slam the ‘love’ word, like a lid, on this thing … than pay attention to what you’re actually feeling. You’re an excellent survivor, but a willfully stunted thinker.”

When Lena and her friends talk about men, they are never simply talking about men. The novel takes the search for love as one of its main themes, but it passes the Bechdel test with flying colors.5

The pursuit of happiness is also central to Vapnyar’s The Scent of Pine. Lena, a struggling academic, meets the equally unhappily married Ben at a sparsely attended conference, and their subsequent affair allows each of them the chance to reflect on a life that hasn’t lived up to their expectations. The lovers’ extended pillow talk is interspersed with Lena’s memories of working as a camp counselor in the waning days of the Soviet Union, back when sex was as mysterious and elusive to her as happiness seems now. While sharing her life story with Ben, Lena inadvertently solves a mystery that has gnawed at her for the past twenty years. In the process, she comes closer to weaving her Soviet adolescence and American adulthood into a cohesive whole.

But as Vapnyar deftly demonstrates, it’s not emigration that has catapulted Lena into a life that doesn’t fit. That was a series of other, seemingly less momentous decisions. Lena is no tragic heroine longing for an inaccessible homeland. She and her fellow camp counselors of yesteryear now navigate borders as easily as they might hop on a cross-town bus. The degree to which her status as an immigrant is normalized, even banalized, is captured in a superficial exchange with Ben’s friend Marty:

“Russia! Did you like it there? But of course you did, that’s your home! How I wanted to go there. To Moscow and St. Petersburg. Such a great crazy country. So what do you think about Putin?”

“Putin? I don’t really think about Putin.”

Lena’s obsession isn’t with a geographic place but a time, a hunger she shares with the American-born Ben, who misses “the scent of pines, and snow, and ski varnish” of his childhood every bit as much as the tragic Russian émigré of yesteryear longed for his birch trees. Perhaps it’s not simply immigrants who are in exile, Vapnyar suggests, but all of us—from our own pasts.

In Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life, the past is less a locus of longing than a dimension to be fled. When Slava revisits the working-class immigrant enclave to which his family emigrated and where his grandfather still lives, he observes that:

These unlike people had been tossed together like salad by the cupidity of the Soviet government, and now, in America, they were forced to keep speaking Russian, their sole bond … The brethren who had remained in the old world had moved forward in history … but here in Brooklyn, they were stuck forever in Soviet times. They had gotten marooned on a new island …

As the demands of Slava’s community push him in one direction, he is pulled in another by a fledgling romance with his coworker Arianna, whose intellect and confidence compel him, even as he is alienated by her upper-middle-class entitlement. Once upon a time, in a different sort of novel or screenplay by a different sort of young Jewish man—here’s looking at you, Philip Roth and Neil Simon—Arianna would have been just another fetishized shiksa goddess (Arianna is to Aryan as Slava is to Slav). Here, in contrast, Arianna’s symbolic value to Slava in no way undercuts her humanity, nor does the assimilation she represents require him to shed his Jewishness. It might, however, require him to turn his back on his own people, whose moral code she finds wanting. When Arianna tells Slava the story of her parents, in an act of noblesse oblige, purchasing expensive synagogue seats for a newly arrived family of Soviet Jews, it’s a harbinger of greater misunderstandings to come:

“But we don’t see them—the Rubins, they were called. Instead, we see another family, also three—Americans. They get to chatting with my parents, it’s Friday-night services, everyone has a couple of shots. And they tell them this Russian family sold them the memberships. Sandra—you should have seen her face. After all the lifts, that face doesn’t really telegraph emotion, but at that moment she could have been in the opera … Harry just chuckled to himself. She wanted to call the police! And he said, ‘Just let them be. Think about what they’ve been through. Give it thirty years, then they’ll ask for it.’”

Arianna has an unsuspected rival in Vera, an old family friend whose life in the far reaches of Brooklyn is circumscribed, for better and for worse, by the very bonds Slava has sought to shed. Vera, whose name means truth even as she herself takes an instrumentalist approach to lying, hangs “in the back of his thoughts like a pale moon.” As her grandfather, Lazar, says:

“‘That girl … will stand behind you like a tank, Slava. And you need it, with your head in the clouds. She may not know who Sakharov was, but she knows life, loyalty. You get caught doing what you’re doing? She would take the fall for you … You name me one American person who will do that for you, and I will end this conversation.’”

Unlike Ulinich and Vapnyar, whose heroines form bonds based on natural affinity rather than birthplace or ethnic identity, Fishman suggests that the gulf between the native-born and the immigrant isn’t so easily crossed.

It is worth noting that two of these three writers aren’t just Dovlatov’s literary children, but his literary daughters. Much has been written about the discrepancy in the critical reception of male and female writers in the United States—see the most recent VIDA count6 or recall the Franzenfreude epidemic of 20107—and hypocritical as this conversation seems at times, at least it’s taking place. Russia, like the United States, tends to reserve its adulation for male writers. In Russia, however, it’s not just Nabokov who’s a household name, but his wife Vera, who typed his manuscripts; not just Tolstoy, but Sophia, who edited War and Peace seven times; not just Bulgakov, but Tatiana, who spent her nights boiling hot water to warm her husband’s hands while he wrote The White Guards. In the United States, only the First Lady receives this level of attention for her husband’s accomplishments. The photographer Jill Krementz is not stopped on the street for having been married to Vonnegut. Sergei Dovlatov’s widow Elena is.

Given the conflicting messages any Russian female writer faces—if you are a man, be a writer; if you are a woman, be a writer’s amanuensis—it’s no wonder that Ulinich peppers her work with references to Mandelstam, Bulgakov, and most especially Tolstoy—at one point the young Lena Finkle shouts at the popular girls at school, “You are not complete human beings until you read Tolstoy!” But Ulinich reserves her heroine’s most important literary encounter for a hilarious fever dream sequence with none other than Roth, who scolds her for saying she can relate to his characters:

“First, you’re a woman, and not even a pretty one! Second, you’re an immigrant! ‘This Land is Your Land’ makes you tear up! Every time you go outside after the rain, you’re thinking, ‘Smells like Moscow!’ You’ve only been to a psychiatrist once … You’re a perverse hybrid of Alexander Portnoy and his mother! An ugly creature, Finkle!”

If Ulinich doesn’t insist on staking her own literary claims, she seems to be asking us, who will?

VIDA might have something to say about the relative receptions of Lena Finkle’s Magic Barrel and A Replacement Life, both of which were reviewed twice in the New York Times. So far, so good. But whereas Ulinich is primarily likened to her contemporaries—Soviet-born writers Gary Shteyngart, David Bezmozgis, and Keith Gessen—Fishman has enjoyed breathless comparisons to Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Roth. The two works, of course, have as many formal and structural differences as they do temperamental ones. But it is a review of Fishman’s novel that begins with the question, “Is there room in American fiction for another brilliant young émigré writer?” The answer, of course, is yes. American fiction already has several of them. Dovlatov’s children are here to stay. Chicago most definitely needs their stories. icon

  1. Seth Mydans, “Writing Without Roots,” New York Times, September 23, 1984.
  2. Valerie Stivers, “Translating Pushkin Hills: An Interview with Katherine Dovlatov,” Paris Review, March 26, 2014, and Daniel Genis, “Dovlatov’s Way,” Paris Review Daily, September 4, 2014.
  3. Masha Gessen, “The Songs of Sergei Dovlatov,” New York Review of Books, May 22, 2014.
  4. James Wood, “Sergei Dovlatov and the Hearsay of Memory,” New Yorker, April 7, 2014.
  5. Soraya Nadia McDonald, “Alison Bechdel Just Won a MacArthur Foundation ‘Genius’ Grant. She’s Already Changed the Way We Talk about Film.” Washington Post, September 17, 2014.
  6. Amy King, “Lie by Omission: The Rallying Few, The Rallying Masses,” VIDA, February 24, 2014.
  7. Katha Pollitt, “Franzenfreude, Continued,” Nation, September 15, 2010.
Featured image: Sergei Dovlatov. Photograph by Nina Alovert, courtesy of Counterpoint Press