Anything that Burns

John Bayley

Five years ago the formidable chairwoman of the first Russian Booker Prize remarked of one of the entries that she’d never been so disgusted in her life. There was an American judge on the panel, also a woman, who looked surprised. Conditioned as she and I were to the novel in the West, we had scarcely noticed what seemed to us rather quaint attempts by younger Russian novelists – aspirants for the prize – to shock and repel their readers. The new sexual and scatological candour in Russian writing was for us run-of-the-mill stuff, obviously copied from Western colleagues.

The chairwoman was of course quite accustomed to the ‘lower depths’ tradition of the Russian novel. Heirs of Gorky and Dostoevsky and Sologub would have been taken in her stride, even though her old Soviet training might make her instinctively feel that the Russian tradition of finding spirituality in the lower depths was not now quite the thing. Yet the novel she privately thought the best, and I agreed with her, was by a well-known novelist, Ludmilla Petrushevskaya. It was called The Time: Night, and was about the lower depths of family life, from the long-suffering Russian woman’s standpoint. It did not get the prize, probably because novels of this sort do not seem to be well received in Russia, even by women. They disclose private hells which Soviet ideology could have done nothing about, and hence preferred to believe had no real existence. Women characters have vital importance in Russian fiction, but not women writers, unless, as happened during the Soviet era, they write on outgoing male subjects. The intimate world presented by a writer like Antonia Tur, a friend and contemporary of Turgenev, who much admired her, seems never really to have caught on with the Russian reading public.

Although there are one or two hard-drinking ladies in Venedikt Yerofeev’s Moscow Stations, it presents a man’s world, a world of booze. Completed in 1970 during the Brezhnev era, the ‘time of stagnation’, it was not published until the heady days of 1989, and then in a specialised leftover magazine called Sobriety and Culture. The author, who died of throat cancer a year later, as a direct result of his bizarre alcoholic habits, must have appreciated the joke. It was the kind of humour of which his own little book is full, and which gave it instant fashionableness in the West. Since Yerofeev was dead he could not have been awarded the first Russian Booker Prize, and it’s unlikely he would have got it anyway: the Russian males on the jury smiled, chuckled, shuddered with deep internal laughter, but shook their heads. Ultimately nekulturny: a curiosity, a private joke, which the males obviously greatly preferred to the novels we had to consider, but in any case – niet. The simple, even naive solution to the critical problem posed by the book was found not by a literary man but by Peter Kapitsa, the Russian physicist, who enthused about the ‘brilliant form, the tragic content’ of Yerofeev’s offering.

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