Sophie Pinkham

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.

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