In 1983, Sergei Dovlatov told an interviewer that the literary situation in the Soviet Union was worse than ever. ‘If under Stalin talented writers were at first published, subsequently vilified in the press, and finally executed or destroyed in camps,’ he said, ‘it’s now the case that no one is executed, almost no one is put in prison – and no one is published.’ He spoke from experience: in nearly two decades as a writer in the Soviet Union, he’d published just one story and one novella, and the novella was propaganda – a compromise he regretted nearly as soon as he’d written it.
Dovlatov was born in 1941, the only child of a theatre director and an actress, and began writing just as Khrushchev’s thaw ended and censorship tightened once again. Editors praised his fiction, but couldn’t publish it; he earned money mostly as a journalist. His autobiographical novel The Compromise documents the gap between life as it was lived and life as it was described in print, chronicling the struggles of Soviet writers to find anything they could get past the censors. In one episode, a journalist goes on a wild goose chase for an ‘Interesting Person’; every person she meets, however interesting, is ideologically unfit for print. (One of her candidates is a Dovlatov lookalike, ‘a sort of dissident’ who cuts their interview short to beg booze money from the neighbours.) She settles on an inventor of mobile homes, only to learn that he’s both talentless and mad; when he discovers that the story about him won’t run, he attacks her with a tyre iron. Another journalist runs into trouble after writing a profile of a tailor – whose previous job, it turns out, was as an executioner.
In the early 1970s, Dovlatov spent several years working as a journalist in Tallinn, where it was easier to get work into print. An Estonian publisher put a book of his stories into proof but then the KGB arrested one of his acquaintances and found some of Dovlatov’s manuscripts while searching the acquaintance’s flat. Guilty by association, Dovlatov lost his newspaper job and publication of his book was cancelled. In 1976, his friend Lev Loseff emigrated to the US with microfilm containing almost all of Dovlatov’s work. Publication abroad was flattering, but it increased persecution: Dovlatov was beaten, briefly jailed and pressured to leave the Soviet Union. In 1977 he and his mother moved to Queens, where his ex-wife and daughter were already living. He soon noticed that writers had a much lower social status in the US than at home, and America didn’t live up to the image he’d formed during years of reading Hemingway and Dos Passos. He was disgusted by pressure from anti-Soviet groups to exaggerate his suffering in Russia, and disinclined to become a professional émigré dissident.
But in New York his career took off. A kind-hearted Slavicist volunteered to translate him; his old friend Joseph Brodsky recommended him to the New Yorker, which soon published a number of his stories; Andrew Wylie took him on as a client; Knopf published his books. But what he longed for was publication in Russia. Appearing in the New Yorker didn’t mean much to him, though he understood it was prestigious. Unlike Brodsky, he never started writing in English, and never assimilated into American culture. In Ours, his memoir of his family, he wrote that he still didn’t have any qualities his daughter Katherine could admire. A long-time alcoholic, he died in 1990 at the age of 48 at Coney Island Hospital.
‘Was Christ published?’ a friend asks one of Dovlatov’s alter egos in The Invisible Book, another autobiographical novel. Small comfort. The frustration of writing either for the regime or for the drawer led many Soviet writers to the bottle. Drunkenness became a form of protest. In the novel Pushkin Hills, a hack writer says: ‘My entire life is a fight against censorship … Censorship sparks an alcoholic protest in me! Let’s drink to the end of censorship!’ A KGB officer, shot glass in hand, argues that vodka, not samizdat, will bring the end of Soviet rule, because society is too drunk to continue functioning. In Ours, another KGB agent says: ‘What is all this nonsense about human rights? A Russian needs only one right: the right to get over his hangover!’ Even those who weren’t dead drunk seemed to be rotting alive: the Politburo was full of old men, and people joked about getting season tickets for political funerals. In the 1980s, Leningrad ‘necrorealists’ made films showing heroes of Socialist Realism as the walking dead, decomposing onscreen.
‘They only know how to love the dead,’ Pushkin once wrote. By the 1970s Pushkin himself had come to stand for the Soviet Union’s necrophilic approach to literature. He was canonised in Stalin’s 1937 Pushkin jubilee and subsequently trundled out for any occasion, better embalmed than Lenin. The repeated claim ‘Pushkin is our everything’ confirmed that he could stand for anything at all. He became the hero of countless jokes, many of them obscene. One would say ‘Pushkin did it’ when referring to a guilty party closer at hand. The poet Dmitri Prigov, a contemporary of Dovlatov’s, wrote unpublishable obituaries announcing the deaths of 19th-century Russian writers in the style of a Soviet newspaper. The obituary of ‘Comrade Pushkin’ consisted of bland praise followed by a description of the poet as ‘a playboy, boozer, womaniser and mischief-maker’, an accurate description but a blasphemy at the time. This sort of teasing wasn’t new – in 1917 the Russian Futurists proposed that Pushkin, among others, be thrown out of the ‘ship of modernity’ and in the 1930s Daniil Kharms wrote ‘Anecdotes from the Life of Pushkin’, a mockery of the national obsession, full of the kinds of vulgar joke the real Pushkin adored.
Pushkin Hills, Dovlatov’s attack on the Pushkin cult, has recently been translated by his daughter Katherine, who found something to admire about her father after all. In Russian the novel is called Zapovednik, literally ‘The Sanctuary’, a reference to a Pushkin theme park built on the poet’s estate. Pushkinland is a grotesque microcosm of the Soviet Union. The unpublishable, alcoholic writer Boris Alikhanov takes a job there as a tour guide. Garbled Pushkin quotations waft through the air and one guide weeps over Pushkin’s grave every day, on cue. Half the people Alikhanov meets are drinking themselves to death, cursing like sailors – or rather, since this is Russia, like professional thieves. One of Alikhanov’s fellow guides is a talentless writer who’s more than happy to conform to Soviet standards: ‘I’m a fuckin’ writer,’ he says, ‘sort of like Chekhov.’ A touchy, bleached-blonde tour guide calls somebody a prick and then adds: ‘It’s a good thing Pushkin isn’t here to see this.’ The tourists, referred to as ‘pilgrims’, are shockingly ignorant, asking questions like ‘What was the duel between Pushkin and Lermontov about?’ A tour group doesn’t notice when Alikhanov substitutes the verses of Yesenin, an early 20th-century poet beloved of gangsters and drunks, for those of Pushkin. Everyone obsesses over Pushkin’s supposed possessions, even though they’re fakes. ‘First they drive the man into the ground and then begin looking for his personal effects,’ Alikhanov says. He’s appalled by the way objects are revered and words ignored: ‘A word is turned upside down. Its contents fall out. Or rather, it turns out it didn’t have any. Words piled intangibly, like the shadow of an empty bottle.’ Drinking binges are the only way to break the monotony. Meanwhile in Leningrad, Alikhanov’s ex-wife is making plans to emigrate to America with their daughter. She makes a convincing argument for him to join them, but he’s reluctant. ‘He who lives in the world of words does not get along with things,’ he says. In America, so obviously a world of things, what will happen to his words?
Though censorship made literature into a mausoleum, the Soviet Union saw plenty of linguistic invention. Dovlatov’s style, especially his humour, depends on the ways Russian cane to be used in the Soviet Union after decades of repression, deprivation and ritualised government jargon. For Dovlatov, camp slang was poetry. Deprived of nearly everything, the prison inmates, or ‘zeks’, devoted their attention to words. The Zone, a novel based on Dovlatov’s stint as a prison guard during his military service, provides a masterclass in the language of Russian criminals, and is full of clever parodies of the tortured syntax of official language, formulations emptied of meaning and soaked in booze. A captain encourages the guards not to drink themselves into a stupor: ‘Your thesis should be: drink, but within limits. Not drinking at all – that would be overkill. That would be an anti-Marxist utopia, as they say.’ On New Year’s Eve, the staff is ordered to assemble in the Lenin Room. When the political instructor sees that they’re already too drunk to stand, one of the men replies: ‘Life, Comrade Lieutenant, races ahead of the ideal.’ Like Pushkin, Marxism has become a joke. In The Zone’s climax the zeks put on a play called Kremlin Stars. Lenin is played by a professional thief; Dzerzhinsky, one-time chief of the secret police, by a dope-smoking paedophile. Camp staff and inmates all burst out laughing when Lenin delivers his final speech: ‘Whose are these happy, young faces? Whose are these cheerful, sparkling eyes? Can this really be the youth of the 1970s? … Can it really be the splendid grandchildren of the Revolution?’ A room full of drunks, thieves, rapists, murderers, counterfeiters and profiteers: this was the bright Soviet future.
The Zone is a contribution to the long tradition of Russian and Soviet prison memoirs, from Dostoyevsky to Varlam Shalamov. But Dovlatov is an odd man out. The book is framed by letters to Dovlatov’s real-life publisher at a Russian émigré press about its repeated rejection on the grounds that ‘the prison-camp theme is exhausted,’ and that ‘after Solzhenitsyn, the subject ought to be closed.’ (In a rejection letter included in The Invisible Book, a Soviet editor tells the narrator: ‘We don’t want anything tragic or gloomy. We want to sing and laugh like children!’) Dovlatov says that even if he isn’t Solzhenitsyn, he still has the right to exist; that his book is about criminal camps, not political ones; and that unlike Solzhenitsyn, he believes that the problem isn’t that the camps are hell, but that hell is inside us. The difference between previous camps and Dovlatov’s is the difference between the USSR under Stalin and the USSR under Brezhnev. Terror gave way to bored misery; moral absolutism to irony. Things stopped looking so black and white.
In The Zone, Dovlatov maintains a deadpan tone, without a trace of melodrama. The writer-narrator tells his editor:
I am interested in life and not in prison, and in people, not monsters. And I absolutely do not want to be known as the modern-day Virgil who leads Dante through Hell (however much I may love Shalamov) … So I have omitted, as they say, the most heartrending details of camp life. I did not lure my readers on with promises of thrills and strange sights. I would have preferred to lead them up to a mirror.
It’s a mirror in more than one sense: The Zone wants to show that it wasn’t just the zeks who feared the guards; the guards were afraid of the zeks, too, with good reason. They were often alone with them, outnumbered, and were attacked and even killed. Alikhanov, Dovlatov’s alter ego in The Zone as in Pushkin Hills, gets a shiv in the ribs. At one point the narrator is reduced to tears by the cruelty of the zeks.
In Pushkin Hills everyone keeps asking Alikhanov: ‘Do you love Pushkin?’ At last he cries: ‘To love publicly is obscene!’ But Alikhanov really does love Pushkin – in particular, his refusal to judge, his position ‘above morality’. Dovlatov is a writer descended from Pushkin and Chekhov, with whom (as the critic Jekaterina Young has pointed out) he shared a preference for mercy over justice. His refusal to take sides is another reason Dovlatov was unpublishable in the Soviet Union. The Invisible Book includes a government reader report that says: ‘There is something programmatic about the author’s showy, slightly arrogant refusal to draw any conclusions or make any moral judgments; it seems as if the merest hint of a moral would make him bristle and close himself off.’
‘In a foreign tongue we lose 80 per cent of our personality,’ Alikhanov says in Pushkin Hills, as he tries to decide whether to emigrate. ‘We lose our ability to joke, to be ironic. This alone terrifies me.’ Dovlatov was preoccupied with the texture and rhythm of language; at one point he resolved as a formal constraint never to use two words with the same first letter in one sentence. In New York, he brooded over the fact that his work would never be fully understood in English translation. Some translations of his books differ significantly from the Russian versions, with sections rearranged or deleted; this seems to have been something Dovlatov did to make the works more intelligible to Anglophone readers. After Kurt Vonnegut sent him a fan letter, Dovlatov wrote back: ‘However much I might publish in English, nobody will ever write about my language … and that is the only thing, as I am brash enough to believe, that is of any interest.’ Fortunately, he was wrong, though it’s true that much is lost: translators struggle with Dovlatov’s extensive wordplay and allusions. (The explanatory notes included in some of the translations help.) Anne Frydman captures Dovlatov’s comic timing, but isn’t quite up to the daunting task of translating The Zone’s arcane slang (some of which needs explanation even in the Russian text), despite Dovlatov’s attempts to help her. In Pushkin Hills, Katherine Dovlatov is more inventive in her versions of his neologisms. Take these lines about a village drunk whose language is ‘not unlike classical music, abstract art or the song of a goldfinch’:
He called gossipy women prattletraps. Bad housewives – majordodos. Unfaithful women – peter-cheetahs. Beer and vodka – sledgehammer, poison and kerosene. And the young generation – pussberries … Once he strung up two cats on a rowan tree, making the nooses with a fishing line. ‘Breeding shebangers,’ he said, ‘catervaulting about.’
In 1983, Dovlatov told an interviewer: ‘If I detect a hint in a letter that a book of mine has been read, this alone arouses powerful emotions in me. Because I know that if my books are finding their way to my birthplace, they’re being passed gingerly and in secret from one person to the next until they turn to dust. If books had souls and tongues to speak, we’d know each dreams of such a fate.’ He died just as his work was becoming available in Russia, no longer as disintegrating samizdat but in proper books, printed in large runs. Today he’s close to having a cult of his own in Russia. The government has recommended his books for schoolchildren, and his fans have opened a Dovlatov House in Pushkin Hills.