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The Songs of Sergei Dovlatov

Pushkin Hills

by Sergei Dovlatov, translated from the Russian by Katherine Dovlatov, with an afterword by James Wood
Counterpoint, 163 pp., $24.00
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Nina Alovert
Sergei Dovlatov with Joseph Brodsky (right) and David Rieff (center), New York City, 1984

In a less punishing country than Russia, Sergei Dovlatov would have been a popular writer whose revolutionary approach to writing would have been obscured by the lightness of tone, brevity, and apparent simplicity of most of his work. The public would have loved him, but most critics would have been disdainful of the vulgarity of his characters’ language and the apparently autobiographical nature of most of his writing. But Dovlatov lived in the Soviet Union, where his fiction could not be published, so he was denied the popularity he deserved. As for the critics, he often drank with them, and they still found occasion to dismiss him. If Dovlatov lore is to be believed, one of them once praised a story he had been shown by saying, “I dislike this one less than the others.”

Dovlatov was born in 1941 and grew up in Leningrad. By his mid-thirties he had succeeded in having a grand total of two short stories published in Soviet magazines. He worked for a series of obscure newspapers, writing news stories he preferred to sign with a variety of pen names. His first book was finally published by a Russian-language house in the United States in 1977. Having a book published abroad was, from the writer’s point of view, an admission of defeat—he was giving up hope of ever seeing a book or even so much as another short story printed in the USSR—and, from the point of view of the Soviet state, a declaration of war.

A couple of years later, Dovlatov moved to New York, where he had a quick and spectacular success. He launched a weekly newspaper, Novyi amerikanets (The New American), short-lived but popular and influential among Soviet émigrés, tens of thousands of whom landed in the US in the late 1970s. He had roughly a book a year published by the Russian-language émigré presses. But what set him apart from all Soviet émigré writers, except his friend and fellow Leningrad exile Joseph Brodsky, was that Dovlatov was also published extensively, and well, in translation. The New Yorker printed ten of his short stories in the 1980s, and most of his books were translated into English.

Back in the USSR, Dovlatov’s fiction could not be published until the late 1980s, when perestroika and glasnost opened the door to printing both for émigré writers and for writers who did not follow the socialist realist line. The critic who had praised Dovlatov so sparingly, a former classmate and now an editor at a leading literary journal, then published his short stories. Dovlatov’s books started coming out, on gray pulpy paper that frayed at the touch, but with press runs in the hundreds of thousands at first and then in the millions. Just as his work was reaching Russian audiences, in August 1990, he died of a heart attack in New York, ten days before his forty-ninth birthday and one year before the Soviet regime came to an end.

During the following decade Dovlatov’s literary reputation in Russia rose higher and higher: he went from being a writer known to very few to a household name and, finally, to the status of a classic. Dovlatov is to Russian vernacular what Casablanca and Mark Twain are to American speech: many unattributed and unidentified literary allusions and quotes come from his work, while he is often credited with aphorisms he never uttered.

By the end of the 1990s it was clear that Dovlatov’s writing had transformed the language and changed the boundaries of Russian literature in profound, permanent ways. He was the first Russian writer to use urban vernacular—as distinct from the stylized rural language favored by late-Soviet official writers and the sterilized, idealized urban language used by the quasi-official ones. “Seryozha was, first and foremost, a remarkable stylist,” Joseph Brodsky wrote three years after Dovlatov’s death:

His stories rest primarily on the rhythm of the sentence, the cadence of the narrative voice. They are written like poems: the plot is secondary, it is but a pretext for speech. It is song rather than storytelling.1

Or, one might argue, it is storytelling at its purest, where the telling takes precedence over the story.

While Dovlatov’s reputation in Russia soared, in America, where he was first recognized, he was gradually forgotten. The last English-language edition of his work, The Suitcase, translated by Antonina W. Bouis, was published in 1990; it was, however, reissued in a new edition by Dovlatov’s daughter Katherine in 2011. In Russia, Dovlatov’s fame is continuously sustained by new editions, often supplemented with memoirs: some of the many women Dovlatov jilted, many of the people to whom he owed money, and many of the writers he knew and surpassed have written memoirs of him (as well as at least two people he never met). But in the United States, at the time of his death, only one of his books remained untranslated into English—and Dovlatov himself believed it to be untranslatable. Now Katherine Dovlatov has completed her own translation of this book, which in English is called Pushkin Hills.

Like all of Dovlatov’s books, Pushkin Hills is a first-person account of a series of events that schematically resemble events in the writer’s own life. Each of Dovlatov’s books does so: The Zone tells of his time in the military, serving as a gulag guard; The Suitcase is a series of interlocking short stories each of which purports to give the background of an item in the author’s émigré suitcase. Pushkin Hills is loosely based on the time Dovlatov spent working as a tour guide in an Alexander Pushkin theme park while his semi-estranged wife and daughter got ready to emigrate to the United States. Leaving ample clues pointing to the autobiographical nature of his books, Dovlatov complicated matters by assigning character names in accordance with an undecipherable logic or, possibly, no logic at all. Some of his characters bear the names of real friends and acquaintances; others are thinly disguised and sound like their originals; and still others are fictitious. “The names, events and dates given here are all real,” Dovlatov wrote quite inaccurately in the author’s note to The Zone:

I invented only those details that were not essential. Therefore, any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious. And all the fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.2

In Pushkin Hills, Dovlatov further confuses things and future biographers by naming the narrator after his cousin Boris Dovlatov, a notorious Leningrad actor turned con man. The physical resemblance between the two is said to have been remarkable. And the narrator’s daughter is called Masha, the name of Dovlatov’s second daughter, whom he had with his first wife, out of wedlock, after having his first daughter with his second wife. The narrator’s wife, however, is given the name Tatyana, which does not appear to have belonged to any of the writer’s real-life loves.

The narrator of Pushkin Hills describes meeting his future wife at a party at a sculptor’s studio. He suggests they leave together. She agrees:

Apparently the studio had three doors. One led to the elevator, another to the underbelly of the heating system, and the third to the roof.
I didn’t feel like going back. And judging by the rising volume inside, the evening’s celebrations were headed for a brawl.
I hesitated for a moment and stepped onto the rumbling roof. Tanya followed me.

That is as transparent an allegory of the dilemma of emigration as I have seen. By all accounts, Dovlatov resisted emigration and dreaded it the way only a writer can: he feared losing his relationship to language and to a reading public—tenuous as that connection was for a writer who could not get published—and he could imagine how painful emigration would be. But Dovlatov’s troubles in Leningrad mounted—not only could he not get published but, by 1978, he could not walk down the street without being accosted by police—and it seemed there were only two ways out: he could go to jail, or he could go to the United States.

Both Dovlatov and his many memoir-writing friends have described the bittersweet taste with which his American success left him. In The Craft, he described a scene borrowed from his own experience:

Lynne called and said, “I sent the translation to The New Yorker. They liked it. They’ll print it two or three months.”
The New Yorker?” I asked. “Is that a newspaper or a magazine?”
Lynne was taken aback by my ignorance. “The New Yorker,” she said, “is one of the most popular magazines in America. They’ll pay several thousand dollars.”
“Wow,” I said. Frankly, I wasn’t even surprised. I had been waiting too long.3

Lynne here is the fictional version of Anne Frydman, who, thanks to Brodsky, became Dovlatov’s American translator. However ambivalent Dovlatov might have been about his US success, back in the Soviet Union he could not have dreamed of it: deciding to emigrate felt like falling into the abyss.

The narrator’s wife in Pushkin Hills, however, steps into emigration as calmly and decisively as she stepped onto the roof: she seeks true change. First, she divorces the narrator in Russia, but stays on with him; when this fails to change him, or her life, in any appreciable way, she decides to leave. Here Dovlatov appears to have based the character precisely on his real-life wife. “I thought that while I am still physically able, I should try starting a new life of some sort,” Dovlatov’s widow Elena told his biographers thirty years later. “All I needed was radical change. And emigration gave me that opportunity.”4

While the agony of deciding whether to emigrate is the subtext of Pushkin Hills, outwardly the book is in large part a story of drinking. At the start of the novel, as the narrator begins his journey to Pushkin Hills, we get a snapshot of his character and his state of health:

I sat by the door. A waiter with tremendous felted sideburns materialized a minute later.
“What’s your pleasure?”
“My pleasure,” I said, “is for everyone to be kind, humble and courteous.”
The waiter, having had his fill of life’s diversity, said nothing.
“My pleasure is half a glass of vodka, a beer and two sandwiches.”
“What kind?”
“Sausage, I guess.”
I got out a pack of cigarettes and lit up. My hands were shaking uncontrollably. “Better not drop the glass…” And just then two refined old ladies sat down at the next table. They looked like they were from our bus.
The waiter brought a small carafe, a bottle of beer and two chocolates.
“The sandwiches are all gone,” he announced with a note of false tragedy.
I paid up. I lifted the glass and put it down right away. My hands shook like an epileptic’s. The old ladies looked me over with distaste. I attempted a smile:
“Look at me with love!”
The ladies shuddered and changed tables.

The narrator drinks. It is because of the drinking that his wife divorces him. It is because of his drinking—and the divorce and the debts the drinking has produced—that the narrator removes himself to Pushkin Hills, where he works as a guide.

There he reluctantly joins the cult of Pushkin, the greatest of the great womanizing Russian geniuses, the extent of whose influence on Russian culture became fully clear only after his early death:

The more I got to know Pushkin, the less I felt like talking about him. Especially at this embarrassing level…. What intrigued me most about Pushkin was his Olympian detachment. His willingness to accept and express any point of view…. Like the moon, illuminating the way for prey and predator both.

For a time in Pushkin Hills, the narrator resists drink. Instead, he observes the drinking of others and ruminates on his own:

Several times Mitrofanov and Pototsky invited me to join them for a drink. I turned them down. This did not take any effort on my part. I can easily refuse the first drink. It’s the stopping that I haven’t learnt. The motor is good but the brakes fail me….

These passages are funny—this is the lighthearted writing about drinking and other common ills that guaranteed Dovlatov’s mass appeal in Russia.

But these passages are also the reason Dovlatov himself believed the book could not be translated: they feature Misha, one of the two village drunks in the novel who have unique patterns of speech. One speaks in Soviet newspaper headlines and slogans, the other in something between gibberish and a language all his own. The narrator explains:

It was with some difficulty that I caught the gist of his extensive monologues.
What’s more, Misha’s speech was organized in a remarkable way. Only nouns and verbs were pronounced with clarity and dependability. Mostly in inappropriate combinations. All secondary parts of speech Mikhail Ivanych used at his sole discretion. Whichever ones happened to turn up. Never mind the prepositions, particles and conjunctions. He created them as he went along. His speech was not unlike classical music, abstract art or the song of a goldfinch. Emotions clearly prevailed over meaning.
Let’s imagine I said:
“Misha, perhaps you should lay off the sauce, if only for a little while.”
In response I’d hear:
“Tha’ maggot-faggot, God knows wha’… Gets a fiver in the morning an’ shoot to the piss factory… Advance is on deposit… How’sa imma quit?… Whatsa smart in’at?…

Katherine Dovlatov’s translation of Misha sounds like he has created his own language out of scraps of American English and slang. With the narrator’s voice, she takes the opposite approach: in the great translators’ debate, she falls on the side of formal equivalence, the school of holding as closely as possible to the syntax of the original. This approach produces a sort of accented prose that, at its best, conveys some of the rhythm and melody of the original language. “You have some ability—you might not have,” the narrator says to himself in this translation, using a distinctly Russian sentence structure.

The alternative to formal equivalency is favored by supporters of dynamic equivalence, who argue for translating in a way that achieves the same reading experience in translation as in the original language (with correspondingly less deference to the syntax and figures of speech in the original). With some notable exceptions, English translations of Russian literature have followed the formal equivalence tradition (though the Russians themselves, dating back to Pushkin himself, are firm believers in dynamic equivalence as the only possible approach to translation).

Anne Frydman’s Dovlatov translations followed this formal tradition as well. Antonina W. Bouis’s 1990 translation of The Suitcase, though, derives from the school of dynamic equivalency—and Dovlatov’s prose suddenly falls flat. The reason is probably what the Russian critic Alexander Genis called Dovlatov’s “deceptive” simplicity. “Dovlatov’s simplicity is not of the primary kind,” wrote Genis. “It is the result of subtraction, the product of overcoming complexity.”5

Katherine Dovlatov’s translation feels almost transparent at times, as though the original Russian were visible through the text. This happens when the narrator describes Pushkin: “Not a monarchist, not a conspirator and not a Christian—he was only a poet, a genius, and he felt compassion for the cycle of life as a whole.” A more dynamic translation might have ended with “compassion for every living thing.”

As a translator, Katherine Dovlatov is by no means a strict formalist. Not only does she deviate from that school when she translates Dovlatov’s drunkards, she takes risks on other occasions, sometimes to powerful effect. In the phrase “Tatyana rose over my life like the dawn’s morning light” the translator injects an allusion to the American national anthem that is certainly absent in the original. The image, however, seems entirely appropriate, as the narrator continues:

That is, calmly, beautifully, without encouraging excessive emotions. Excessive was only her indifference. Her limitless indifference was comparable to a natural phenomenon…

And then Valery Markov, the second of the Pushkin Hills’ untranslatable drunkards, appears, this one compared by the narrator to “a faulty loudspeaker.” Katherine Dovlatov translates his speech as an uninterrupted flow of ideological exclamations: “Hands off Vietnam and Cambodia! The border is locked! Karatsupa never sleeps! Persons of Jewish nationality excepted!” (Nikita Karatsupa, as the translator’s note explains, was a legendary Soviet border guard.)

Confronted with this level of ideological absurdity on one hand and his wife’s final decision to leave the country, taking their daughter with her, on the other, the narrator falls off the wagon. The ironic, distant description of other people’s drinking gives way to an increasingly dark view from the inside of a binge:

Vera brought me my trousers. I got dressed. Then put on my shoes, after shaking the pine needles out. With disgust I lit up a cigarette…
The heavy taste of morning blocked out the shame of yesterday.

And a couple of pages later:

We fell asleep in someone’s hayloft in Petrovskoye. In the morning, this nightmare started over. Even the stable hands from the lumber mill recoiled from us.
What’s more, Markov was going around with a lilac lampshade on his head. I was missing a left sleeve.

He comes to just long enough to transport himself to Leningrad for his wife and daughter’s going-away party. Once they are off, he resumes drinking. The reader realizes it is the narrator, not his émigré family, who has fallen into the abyss:

On the eleventh day I began having hallucinations. These weren’t demons, these were your garden-variety cats. White and grey. Several of them.
Then I got caught in a downpour of little worms. Red spots appeared on my stomach. The skin on the palms of my hands started to peel.
The booze ran out. The money ran out. I didn’t have the strength to go anywhere or do anything.

The descent of the drunkard in Pushkin Hills, from qualified hope to utter despair, is arguably one of Dovlatov’s greatest contributions to Russian literature. In real life, the writer survived his wife and daughter’s emigration, continued to binge-drink and to write, was published abroad, faced persecution and prosecution, was arrested and jailed for two weeks, and finally chose to emigrate rather than wind up behind bars.

One year after Elena and Katherine left the Soviet Union, Sergei Dovlatov moved in with them in Queens, New York. In a few years, he and his wife had a son. Sergei Dovlatov enjoyed spectacular literary success, which, in his darker moods, he claimed came too late. He died while on a binge, likely in a state he had described so clearly in the final pages of Pushkin Hills.

  1. 1

    Joseph Brodsky in Sergei Dovlatov. Sobraniye Sochineniy (St. Petersburg: Limbus Press, 1993), Vol. 3, p. 358. 

  2. 2

    Sergei Dovlatov, The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story, translated by Anne Frydman (Counterpoint, 2011). 

  3. 3

    Sergei Dovlatov, “Remeslo,” in Sergei Dovlatov. Sobraniye Sochineniy, Vol. 2. 

  4. 4

    Anna Kovalyova and Lev Lurye, Dovlatov (St. Petersburg: Amfora, 2009), p. 95. 

  5. 5

    Alexander Genis, “Na urovne prostoty,” in Maloizvestny Dovlatov (St. Petersburg: Zhurnal Zvezda, 1999), p. 468. 

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