This post was produced in partnership with Bloom, a literary site that features authors whose first books were published when they were 40 or older.
In response to being dubbed “troubadour of honed banality,” Sergei Dovlatov wrote, in 1982, to his friend and publisher Igor Yefimov: “I am not offended. For truisms are in unusually short supply these days.” Of his childhood, he claimed, “I didn’t collect stamps, didn’t operate on earthworms and didn’t build model airplanes. What’s more, I didn’t even particularly like to read. I liked going to the movies and loafing.” On the relationship between body and soul, he wrote: “It seems to me that it is precisely the physically healthy who are most often spiritually blind…I myself was a very healthy person, and don’t I know about spiritual weakness!”
It is typical of Dovlatov to riff on his all-around underachievement. In a chapter in his novel The Suitcase called “The Finnish Crêpe Socks,” about his student years in Leningrad, he wrote, “The university campus was in the old part of town. The combination of water and stone creates a special, majestic atmosphere there. It’s hard to be a slacker under those circumstances, but I managed.” In relation to Soviet bureaucracy, he affected a remedial disconnect from reality: “No point in arguing. But of course I argued.’’ Time and again throughout his nonfictional fiction, Dovlatov’s stand-ins deprecate the writer’s path: “As for me, it’s never been clear, exactly, just what my occupation is”; “I gave [my books] out to my friends, along with my so-called archives”; “Generally speaking one should avoid the artistic professions.” And in the family-life realm, he describes his relationship with his wife thus: “We were both chronic failures, both at odds with reality” and “We didn’t raise our daughter, we merely loved her.”
This last comment is perhaps most revealing of Dovlatov’s modus operandi: the “merely” is both superciliously ironic and earnestly regretful. A few years ago, when I first starting reading and writing about Dovlatov, I focused on the wickedly humorous side of Dovlatov’s deadpan — “a Russian David Sedaris,” as David Bezmozgis put it. But a few years later, and a few more books into his body of work, I find myself more interested in that earnestness and regret — in Dovlatov the evolving man and artist, who crafted and, yes, honed a version of himself in his fiction that was just distorted enough to be true. And truth — moral, spiritual, artistic — was in the end for Dovlatov no laughing matter. As easily as he mocked the writer’s profession, for example, writing for him was both a matter of compulsion and survival, born — as we learn in The Zone, his autobiographical novel about working as a prison guard in a Soviet camp — out of near-despair:
Awful things happened around me. People reverted to an animal state. We lost our human aspect — being hungry, humiliated, tortured by fear.
My physical constitution became weak. But my consciousness remained undisturbed. This was evidently a defence mechanism. Otherwise I would have died of fright.
When a camp thief was strangled before my eyes outside of Ropcha, my consciousness did not fail to record every detail…
If I faced a cruel ordeal, my consciousness quietly rejoiced. New material would now be at its disposal…
In fact, I was already writing. My writing became a complement to life. A complement without which life would have been completely obscene.
With the release this month of the first English translation of Dovlatov’s 1983 novel Pushkin Hills, it seems especially important to have read The Zone — to retain a sense of Dovlatov’s more direct tone, uninflected by irony or absurdism, in one’s “consciousness,” to use his own word. “Like everything Dovlatov wrote,” James Wood writes in the Afterword to the new translation, “Pushkin Hills is funny on every page.” This is certainly true of Pushkin Hills, but The Zone, I would argue, is an exception. The absurdity of life in a Soviet prison camp is reported via Dovlatov’s signature sharp eye and ear but is markedly absent the levity. Constructed as a metafiction in which Dovlatov the author, now an émigré in New York City, delivers the novel to the publisher Igor Yefimov piecemeal, as a result of censorship (“a few courageous French women…were able to smuggle my work through customs borders”) — The Zone alternates between camp narratives and personal letters to Igor; and in it, we find a level of existential seriousness unmatched in his other work. In a letter to Igor about halfway through the book, he declares:
I am sure now that evil and good are arbitrary. The same people can display an equal ability for virtue or villainy…
For this reason, any categorical moral position seems ridiculous to me…
Man is to man — how shall I put it best? — a tabula rasa To put it another way — anything you please, depending on the conjunction of circumstances.
For this reason, may God give us steadfastness and courage and, even better — circumstances of time and place that are disposed to the good.
In the most chilling, and in my opinion most personally revealing of the narratives in The Zone, or any of his work for that matter, Dovlatov (the character is called “Bob” by the other guards) encounters a prisoner named Kuptsov, a tough-guy drifter. Dovlatov is both enraged by and drawn to Kuptsov:
“You’re going to work, or you’ll perish in the isolator. You’re going to work, I give you my word. Otherwise, you’ll croak.”
The zek looked at me as though I were a thing, a foreign car parked across from the Hermitage. He followed the line from the radiator to the exhaust pipe. Then he said distinctly, “I like to please myself.” And that instant: a mirage of a ship’s bridge above the waves.
“You’re one man against everyone. Which means you’re wrong.”
Kuptsov said slowly, distinctly and severely: “One is always right.”
And suddenly I understood that this zek who wanted to kill me made me glad, that I was constantly thinking of him, that I couldn’t live without Kuptsov…that he was dear and necessary to me, that he was dearer to me than the camaraderies of the soldiers which had swallowed the last pitiful crumbs of my idealism, that we were one. Because the only person you could hate that much was yourself.
And I also felt how tired he was.
The story ends with Dovlatov encountering an emaciated Kuptsov yet again, squatting by a campfire, not working. By then, Kuptsov has been in extended solitary confinement. Dovlatov browbeats him again about working, then forces him to hold an axe and swing at a tree trunk. Instead:
Kuptsov stepped to the side. Then he slowly got down on his knees beside a tree stump, set his left hand on the rough, gleaming yellow cut wood, then raised the axe and let it fall in one swift blow.
The story ends with a prisoner shouting at Dovlatov: “What are you standing there for, you dickwad? You win — call the medic!” Dovlatov is stunned by his own capacity for sadism as well as Kuptsov’s purity of conviction, “one man against everyone.” Who is prisoner, who is guard? Who is protector, who is criminal? In a letter to Igor, he writes, “Anyhow, I don’t write about prison and zeks. What I wanted to write about was life and people.” Ridiculous things do happen in prison camp, but in The Zone, Dovlatov is more interested in the poignancy of that absurdity than the humor.
All this is crucial background to Dovlatov’s more humorous work. In the story “The Driving Gloves,” Dovlatov is recruited by a second-rate Swedish journalist to perform the role of Tsar Peter the Great in a satirical underground film. At the film studio, the props guy turns out to be someone who remembers Dovlatov from the camps.
“Remember the isolation cell in Ropcha?”
“Remember the convict who strung himself up on his belt?”
“That was me. They pumped me for two hours, the bastards. “
The former prisoner furnishes Dovlatov with a kitschy Tsar outfit, and then as they part ways, he says, “When I was inside, I wanted out. But now, if I have a few drinks, I start missing the camp. What people! Lefty, One-Eye, Diesel!” Out of context, it’s a quirky one-liner delivered by a ridiculous minor character, but as readers of The Zone, we feel the chilly implications: what is freedom, anyway? The film intends to take up the same question, its climax showing Peter the Great melodramatically dismayed by modern Leningrad: “What have I done?…Why did I ever build this whorish city?” And Dovlatov himself is contending with his own post-prison imprisonment: his agreeing to the role in the first place has to do with his aimless ways, his alcoholism, and his wife’s perpetual disapproval.
Dovlatov’s darker experiences and depths also help us to understand his “bloomer” journey. If his comfortable childhood made him a loafer, and his years as a prison guard woke him up to his writer’s call, then the years following unfolded as a period of delays and false starts as he struggled to make good on that calling. These were years characterized by heavy drinking and lack of money, piles of unpublished writing, and eventually “intense harassment” by Soviet authorities. Finally, at age 40, reunited in Queens, N.Y., with his wife and daughter who had emigrated without him, The Compromise was published in the U.S., by a small Russian émigré press. In the mid-1980s, The New Yorker ran several of his stories in English, and English translations of his books began appearing, including A Foreign Woman, Ours: A Russian Family Album, and The Suitcase. None of his work was published in Russia until after his death in 1990 (after the fall of the Soviet Union).
But I don’t mean to be a killjoy. The “sparkling” humor that Wood references, “jokes, repartee, and this writer’s special savage levity,” are what excited me about Dovlatov’s work in the first place. Indeed, hilarity — in the form of both drunken and sober dialogue, along with deadpan one-liners — splashes every scene in Pushkin Hills. I only want to alert readers to the additional dimensions of Dovlatov’s oeuvre, numerous and equally rewarding. There are, for example, his powers of physical description — most often in the form of short, clipped sentences, wry and sharp. But then every so often we get a feast of Dovlatovian observation:
He had taken a seat in the way police officers, provocateurs and midnight guests do, with his side to the table.
The lad looked strong.
A brick-brown face towered over a wall of shoulders. Its dome was crowned with a brittle and dusty patch of last year’s grass. The stucco arches of his ears were swallowed up by the semi-darkness. The bastion of his wide solid forehead was missing embrasures. The gaping lips gloomed like a ravine. The flickering small swamps of his eyes, veiled by an icy cloud, questioned. The bottomless, cavernous mouth nurtured a threat.
The cousin got up and extended his left hand like a battleship.
There is also his fine attention to the natural world — the ways in which nature both enacts and reflects human fate, simply, directly — which I noticed especially in Pushkin Hills:
Morning. Milk with a bluish skin. Dogs barking, buckets jangling…
Jackdaws flew through the clear skies. Fog spread over the marsh, at the foot of the mountain. Sheep reposed in grey clumps on the green grass…Yellow sand stuck to my boots, wet from the morning dew. The air from the grove carried chill and smoke.
Last but not least: the more you read Dovlatov, the more you appreciate his particular romanticism — most frequently expressed in his obsession with his wife, Lena (pronounced “Yenna”). In Pushkin Hills, the Dovlatov persona, Boris Alikhanov, has become confused about both his family life and his writer’s vocation. He drinks too much and his debts have piled up, so he escapes to the Pushkin Hills Preserve, where he works as a tour guide, paying (humorously false) homage to the great poet Alexander Pushkin for the benefit of pilgrimaging tourists. The place is a sort of island of misfits, replete with memorably eccentric characters (including a depressive tour guide whose storytelling is so robust that “tourists fainted from the strain”), and Boris begins to settle in nicely. But just as he begins to return to his writing, own up to his creditors, and detox from vodka, his wife (technically former wife, but it matters little), named Tatyana in this version of events, shows up.
By “this version of events,” I refer to Dovlatov’s notable revisiting and revising, through his metafictions, of the story of how he met his wife; how they came to be married; and the ways in which her almost supernaturally unflappable temperament, and their life together, perplex him utterly. Pushkin Hills offers yet another version of their relationship — two others appear in “The Colonel Says I Love You” (from Ours) and “A Poplin Shirt” (from The Suitcase) — in which they meet at an artist’s party. Here’s how Boris tells it:
Tatyana rose over my life like the dawn’s morning light. That is, calmly, beautifully, without encouraging excessive emotions. Excessive was only her indifference. Her limitless indifference was comparable to a natural phenomenon.
They leave the party together, she invites him up to her apartment, they talk, she serves wine.
There was a pause, which in a situation like this could be fatal…
As strange as it may seem, I was feeling something like love.
Where did it come from? From what pile of garbage? From what depths of this wretched, miserable life? In what empty, barren soil do these exotic flowers bloom? Under the rays of which sun?
Some art studios full of junk, vulgarly dressed young ladies… Guitar, vodka, pathetic dissidence…And suddenly — dear God! — love.
Tatyana suggests they “just talk.” Boris says, “In theory, it’s possible. In practice — not really.” And then, we get:
Then it was cramped, and there were words that were painful to think about in the morning…And that’s how it all began. And lasted ten years.
In “A Poplin Shirt,” Lena appears on his doorstep as an election canvasser. He invites her in for tea, then they go to the movies (neither feels like voting), and then off to meet some writers and eat dinner.
Elena Borisovna astonished me by her docility. Or not docility, exactly — more a kind of indifference to the realities of life…Deciding that Mother was asleep by now, I turned home. I didn’t even say, “Come with me,” to Elena Borisovna. I didn’t even take her by the hand. We simply found ourselves at home. That was twenty years ago.
And finally, in “The Colonel Says I Love You,” Lena appears in his life almost magically. He wakes up in the middle of the night after a drunken evening and finds someone sleeping on his couch:
“Suppose it’s Lena.”
As it turns out, one of Dovlatov’s buddies had brought her to the communal apartment and then forgot about her. Dovlatov showers, Lena gets dressed, they have breakfast. Lena leaves, but first she says, “I’ll be here around six.” She returns that evening; and she never leaves.
In all three versions, his wife’s “limitless indifference” (also referred to as “extreme imperturbability”) puzzles him to the point of exasperation and sometimes rage. But then there are moments, mysterious and ecstatic, like the “dear God!” revelation above, or in “A Poplin Shirt,” when he finds a picture of himself in her photo album:
I suddenly realized the seriousness of everything. If I was only now feeling this for the first time, then how much love had been lost over the long years?
I didn’t have the strength to think it through. I never knew that love could be so strong and so sharp.
There is just one instance, a real-life event that is also repeatedly revisited in Dovlatov’s work, when his wife sheds her indifference: she decides that she and their daughter must emigrate to America. In Pushkin Hills, when Tanya announces this to Boris, it undoes him. Boris drinks alone in his locked room for 11 days. He begins to hallucinate; then runs out of money and booze; then pulls the blankets up over his head. Finally Lena calls, from Austria, saying they are fine. Boris asks if they will see each other again, to which she replies, “Yes…if you love us…”
Dovlatov ended “The Colonel Says I Love You” with essentially the same exchange. And in both endings, both stories, the same rejoinder from Dovlatov: “What has love got to do with it? Love is for the young…It’s beyond love. It’s fate…”
Lena remains mysterious to both Dovlatov and to the reader. And yet the reiterations and re-explorations of her presence in his life speak to something as real as a jackdaw in the sky, an exotic flower, or even yellow sand stuck to a boot. Lena keeps Dovlatov both honest and on his toes:
“You can’t be an artist at the expense of another human being…These are just words. Never-ending, beautiful words…I’ve had enough.” (Pushkin Hills)
Lena was not interested in my stories. I’m not even sure she had a clear idea of where I worked…My wife would just pick up the nearest book and read from wherever it opened. That used to anger me. Then I realized that she always ended up reading good book…(“A Poplin Shirt”)
“To love publicly is obscene!” Dovlatov shouts at his colleague on the Preserve, who is needling him to explain why he loves Pushkin. And while Dovlatov does not attempt to “explain” love, his efforts to understand it — not to mention the novel’s epigraph, To my wife, who was right — evidence a singular and permanent homage to Lena.
Comparisons to Hemingway are not unfounded: Dovlatov was a big, burly man, dark-haired and mustachioed. He was physically driven (a boxer in his younger years), a heavy drinker, a journalist. Both served in the army and saw unimaginable violence. “With your vices you should be a Hemingway at the very least…,” Tanya says to Boris in their last argument before he heads for Pushkin Hills. Boris claims to disdain Hemingway’s writing, and yet, among his very few possessions is “a picture of Hemingway.”
But the differences are marked: to my mind, those years in the prison camp — where he confronted (and eventually recorded) the humanity he found in the darkest corners of existence, including his own — along with his lifelong union with the imperturbable Lena, set him apart from the more unmoored Hemingway. By the time he produced the work that brought him critical acclaim, Dovlatov’s moral center — that is, his way of seeing and rendering human failure — was fully developed: he knew what he was capable of, and he knew his limitations. He had a closeknit community in Russian American New York, and a family he did love. Perhaps, like Boris, he wrestled with spectres of “unrecognized genius,” but he was also able to poke fun at the idea of genius itself, along with the rest of life’s disappointments and absurdities. Hemingway grew darker and more tormented in later life; Dovlatov died young, of heart failure, but he wrote 12 books in the last 12 years of his life.
A more apt comparison would be Chekhov, from whom some critics say the clarity and detachment of his narrative voice was descended. If Chekhov believed that “Man will become better when you show him what he is like,” Dovlatov was perhaps murkier on what “better” meant or looked like. Yet still he observed and rendered his fellow man with the same unflinching equanimity: whoever you are, whatever you’ve done or will do, you are worth my attention, my consciousness, on the deepest spiritual level.
And what has love got to do with it? In an interview at the Paris Review with Dovlatov’s daughter Katherine — “Katya,” who beautifully translated Pushkin Hills — she reveals:
It had to be perfect. And my English is nowhere near my father’s use of the Russian. He honed his craft. He wrote slowly and painstakingly…It was a huge responsibility. I did not want to let Dad down.
As for Lena, her mystique remains intact. When asked what her mother thought of the translation, Katherine says: “She tells me she liked it. She thought it read well and was funny.” You can just see Lena’s face: in Dovlatov’s words, “untroubled as a dam,” serenely holding back the flood of lives lived.
This is going to have to be quick and dirty, because my library copy of Sergei Dovlatov’s Ours: A Russian Family Album is already five days overdue—already twice renewed, and with two holds requested (my sincere apologies, ye law-abiding library patrons!). It is the single circulating copy at the New York Public Library. A search of two other library systems, a multi-county system upstate, and a major university, yielded just one copy, which is unavailable until February 2010, held by the university.
At Amazon, used copies from partner sellers are going for $24.39 – $139.22, and the three new copies go for $83.99, $101.59, and $141.13. There are no English translations of Dovlatov’s books currently available for preview on Google Books. The English language hardcover was originally published by Weidenfield & Nicolson in 1989; shortly after, in 1991, W&F was acquired by Orion, who was later (1998) acquired by France’s Hachette Livre. Needless to say, the book is out of print.
This is a terrible state of affairs. Dovlatov himself, whose literary success came so belated, and whose life and work were born of thwarted aspirations, dark comedy, and totalitarian absurdity, may have shrugged his shoulders: par for the course. He was a great humorist, and if he were with us today (he died in 1990), he would certainly find it amusing that a copy of his slim, “trifle” of an autobiographical story collection could sell on the American market for over $100. And yet, if you ask me, 100 bucks for a fresh, all-mine copy of Ours, might just be a bargain.
Sergei Dovlatov was born in the Republic of Bashkiria in 1941 but spent most of his childhood and pre-émigré adult life in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). He was a university flunky, worked as a prison guard in high-security camps for the Soviet Army, then eventually scraped together a living as a minor journalist in Leningrad and Estonia. He failed to publish his creative work in Russia, but began to find an audience among Russians in the West beginning in 1976; after which, a period of intense harassment by Soviet authorities, including expulsion from the Union of Journalists, ensued. In 1978, he emigrated to Forest Hills, NY. He published 12 books in the US and Europe, including The Suitcase, The Zone, The Compromise, A Foreign Woman, and Ours. His work was finally published and recognized in Russia following his death (after the fall of the Soviet Union). The New Yorker published nine of his stories—one published as nonfiction—between 1981 and 1989, five of which are collected in Ours.
Why is Dovlatov so little known or read in the West today? Fiction Editor Deborah Triesman asked David Bezmogis this question on a New Yorker podcast. “I have no idea,” he said. “It’s hard to understand these things.” Dovlatov couldn’t have said it better himself.
Ours is composed of 13 stories, each about a different Dovlatov family member (the collection was published as fiction but is quite evidently based on Dovlatov’s real-life family). There is Grandpa Isaak, a Jew of enormous physical stature, who was mysteriously arrested for espionage and killed in a prison camp; Grandfather Stepan, an Armenian Georgian, who threw himself into a ravine; Dovlatov’s bastard cousin Boris, handsome and talented, who courted danger and whom “life turned into a criminal”; Uncle Leopold, a “hustler,” who disappeared from their lives for over 30 years before being rediscovered in Belgium. Mother and Father, an actress and a theatre director, “often quarreled,” and divorce when Dovlatov is eight years old. And of course there is Lena (pronounced “Yenna”)—more on Lena later—Dovlatov’s wife, who emigrates with their daughter Katya years before Dovlatov joins them. In the opening of the story that describes their courtship and marriage, the narrator Sergei Dovlatov tells us, “I emigrated to America dreaming of divorce.”
Would you guess that Ours is essentially a comedy? The humor is exhilarating, in a specific way that I find hard to describe. It’s likely there is something that Russians who experienced the Stalinist and Soviet eras first-hand recognize as “Russian humor,” and as a Westerner I am just an enthusiastic tourist, smitten by an approach to the terrors and darkness of life that is both sharp and silly. I suspect my receptiveness to Dovlatov is also related to a bit of miserable-family-memoir fatigue. A quick perusal of the memoir section of a bookstore (McCourt, Karr, Walls, Burroughs, Pelzer, et alia—all fine and important writers, no argument there) might illustrate for you what I mean.
Dovlatov has plenty to boo-hoo about. Instead, Stalin appears as an unnamed throwaway understatement here and there (“Under dictators, people who stand out do not fare well”), major socio-political eras are summarized briskly (“The country was ruled by a bunch of nondescript, faceless leaders…On the other hand, father would point out, people were not being shot, or even imprisoned. Well… yes, but not so often”), the “savageness” of Russia deflected from a story’s main focus by a line like, “I’m afraid I couldn’t explain it. Dozens of books have been written about it.” On the subject of his own arbitrary imprisonment, Dovlatov again deflects (“Then I was suddenly arrested and put in Kalyaevski prison. I don’t much feel like writing about it in detail. I’ll say only this about it: I didn’t like being in jail”), in this case the story being about Mother, you see, not about Soviet repression; about, in particular, her “ethical sense of spelling” (she was a copyeditor), her cheerleading when he finally became published, and about how “we’ll never part.”
But I was telling you about Dovlatov’s comic talents. The thing about laughter is that it is most real, most soul-cleansing and invigorating, when it begins and ends in tears. “Ka-a-kem!” Grandfather Stepan shouts at his relatives for trying to convince him to leave his own home because of an earthquake warning. “I crap on you!” Does anyone else think that this is the most hilarious thing ever to shout at your relatives moments before a devastating earthquake? After the quake passes, hundreds of buildings collapsed and the water supply destroyed, Stepan’s wife finds him sitting in his armchair amid the rubble and laments, “The Lord has left us without a roof!” Stepan’s response? “‘Eh-eh.’ Then he counted the children.”
And then there’s this dialogue exchange, between Dovlatov and the German proprietor of a hotel in Austria, where Dovlatov and his mother await permission to enter the US as émigrés (the German speaks first):
“Did you ever belong to the Party?”
“No. In my opinion, the Party should consist of one person.”
“That’s the truth. What about the Young Communist League?”
“Yes. That happens automatically.”
“I understand. How do you like the West?
“After prison I like everything.”
“My father was arrested in 1940. He called Hitler ‘das braunes Schwein.’”
“Was he a Communist?”
“No… He wasn’t a Commie. He wasn’t even red. He just stood out. He was an educated man. He knew Latin. Do you know Latin?”
“Neither do I. Pity. And my children won’t know it either, which is a pity. I suspect Latin and Rod Stewart don’t go together.”
“Who is Rod Stewart?”
“A madman with a guitar. Would you like a glass of vodka?”
“I’ll bring some sandwiches.”
Also entertaining are Dovlatov’s wry self-deprecations regarding the writer’s vocation. “Do you have any sort of profession?” Uncle Leopold, the long-lost rich businessman in Belgium, asks. With characteristic unconviction, he replies, “Mainly I’m a writer. I write.” Relating his mother’s history as an actress, he writes: “She chose to enter the theater institute. I myself think it was the wrong choice. Generally speaking, one should avoid the artistic professions.” Recounting the first writing competition he ever won, he says of the two co-winners: “In his more mature years, Lenya Dyatilov took to drink. Makarov became a translator of the languages of the Komi people.” Then, “As for me, it’s never been clear, exactly, just what my occupation is.”
There is the story about Glasha, the family’s fox terrier, who went off with a family acquaintance into the Siberian forest for a few months to be trained as a hunting dog, and about whom Dovlatov’s mother eventually says, “It’s boring without Glasha here. There’s nobody to talk to.” Glasha turns out to be a “born nonconformist” and thus makes the journey with Dovlatov and his mother to New York, where it becomes evident that she has “little talent for democracy,” and is “loaded with neuroses. The sexual revolution never touched her. A typical middle-aged woman émigré from Russia.”
It’s not all fun and games, of course. Again, we understand better than we ever have as we read Ours that the heart of the best literary comedy is tragedy. Aunt Mara, a well-known literary editor, was privy to the ugly undersides of many famous Russian writers—political betrayals, spousal violence, felonious historical revisionism, petty crime. “My aunt knew a great many literary anecdotes… But what my aunt remembered for the most part were the humorous instances. I don’t fault her for this. Our memory is selective, like a ballot box.”
In the collection’s most explicitly political story, “Uncle Aron,” we get “the history of the Soviet Union itself.” Dovlatov’s mother’s younger brother switches loyalties and affiliations like Facebook profile pictures—first adoring Stalin, then becoming infatuated with Stalin’s successor Georgi Malenkov, then Nikolai Bulganin, then Krushchev. Eventually, he grows weary of disappointment and thwarted adoration, so he settles on Lenin, since he “had died long before and could not be removed from power…This meant the love could not decline in value.” Dovlatov quarrels often with his uncle, over the brilliance and/or idiocy of communism, until Uncle Aron falls ill, and in a fever of despair says to his nephew: “Do you know what torments me? When we lived in Novorossisk there was a fence—a tall brown fence—near our house. I walked by that fence every day. And I don’t know what was behind it. I never asked. I didn’t think it was important. How senselessly and stupidly I’ve lived my life!” Uncle Aron gets well again, but then gets sick, then gets well again; the two continue to quarrel. “I was very attached to him,” Dovlatov writes. Uncle Aron eventually grows old: “Then my uncle actually did die. A pity, and that tall brown fence gives me no peace.” Such a benign image, and yet it gives us no peace, either; we too are haunted by what’s hidden in the quotidian, our failures of perception, our deadened curiosity.
The penultimate story in Ours, and arguably its emotional center, is the story about Dovlatov’s wife Lena, “The Colonel Says I Love You.” It’s the only story not named for its main character, and once you’ve read it, you’ll recognize that it couldn’t be any other way; that the character Lena is so enigmatic, so compellingly unknowable, that to call the story “Lena” would be as flat and off-pitch as calling Ours, simply, “funny.”
But it is funny. And God knows we need funny, real funny, heartbreaking after-prison-I-like-everything funny. In defense of my habit of staying up late for Craig Ferguson, I found myself saying to my sleep-deprived life mate (it’s a studio apartment), as authoritatively as if I held an M.D. in funny, “You have to laugh out loud, from your lower belly, at least once a day.” Coming around again to the question of why Dovlatov is so little read today, David Bezmogis could only offer further perplexity: “He is so current, if we look at things that are popular now… my God, if he were published today, he’d be on the bestseller list, like… the Russian David Sedaris.”
Godspeed in claiming your copy of Ours. Hurry, while supplies last.