Many of Sergei Dovlatov’s short stories have been combined and loosely gathered together into “novel” form. In fact, three of his major novels are in reality compilations of his short stories, grouped generally by theme and specifically by tone. Ours: A Russian Family Album, for example, includes eight short stories; these stories originally appeared in national magazines such as Harper’s, The New Yorker, and Partisan Review. While purporting to be a novel, The Zone is really a series of sketches about prison life and different characters’ responses to it. Dovlatov’s last “novel,” The Suitcase, has been described as a “volume of interconnected tales” and “episodes” that “are in fact short stories.”
According to a 1986 article in The Christian Science Monitor, “Dovlatov’s considerable talent is best suited to the short story and the sketch. His first novel, ‘The Compromise,’ was a brilliant satire of Soviet journalism that really amounted to an ingeniously connected string of short pieces.” Similarly, noting Dovlatov’s talent for implying much through terse, abbreviated glimpses into Russian life, Newsweek stated in a review of Ours: A Russian Family Album:Famous for their long books, Russian writers can startle us with a brief one, as Sergei Dovlatov does in this deftly economical gallery of family portraits. An émigré living in New York, Dovlatov is witty in the Russian manner—which is a kind of farce played out against an open cellar door, the darkness yawning just beyond the actors’ nimble feet.
This sense of “farce” is evident throughout Dovlatov’s stories, in probability a function of the short-story form, which is motivated by, and infused with, the need for brevity and sharp focus. Dovlatov always describes poignantly and yet sardonically the machinations of people who display the inherent contradiction of living in a Soviet state while remaining unique, individual human beings. In “Uncle Aron,” Dovlatov relates how he and his aunt’s husband would wage verbal political battles that were in reality name-calling stances of personal opinion. This same Uncle Aron unwittingly displays the paradox of ideology pitted against personal preference. After years of favoring Soviet heroes who were repeatedly defamed and removed from power, Uncle Aron decides to play it safe and idolize Lenin: “Lenin had died long ago and could not be removed from power. It was close to impossible even to smear his name. This meant the love could not be endangered.” Yet after the years of disillusioning disappointment with a government that continually changes its mind, Uncle Aron himself comes apart, the seams of Soviet party lines and propagandist constructions unraveling in one singular life.At the same time, though, my uncle somehow came loose ideologically. He fell in love with Lenin but also with Solzhenitsyn. Sakharov, too—mainly because he had helped develop the hydrogen bomb in the Soviet Union and then hadn’t become a drunk but fought for the truth. In the last years of his life, my uncle was practically a dissident, but a moderate one. He never for an instant tolerated the anti-Communist, pro-Nazi Vlasovites; he revered Solzhenitsyn selectively.
It has been asserted that Russian literature in general is “dense” with ideological import and that this trait distinguishes Russian and Soviet writers from their “freer confreres in the West.” If the concern for ideology is indeed a large part of the impetus for Russian literature, and, if Western writers are enabled to write without its heavy-handed influence, then Dovlatov is caught somewhere in the middle, in the margin, between East and West in his philosophical stance. For although Dovlatov may not exhibit the emotionalism and transcendent mysticism of Fyodor Dostoevski or the wide historical perspective of Leo Tolstoy, his stories and “sketches” exist as precious insights into both the basic humanness and ordinariness of the average Soviet citizen and the absurdities created when ideology conflicts dramatically with ordinary human concerns.
In other words, ideology, for Dovlatov, is subordinate to those elements that make human beings human, and is, in turn, often debunked in his stories by the mere interaction of the human with the supposedly acceptable state-induced attitude. What emerges as inviolable and paramount in Dovlatov’s “brief glimpses” is the sense of the unique, individual, independent (as far as one was able to carry independence in the Soviet Union), and salient human being. The individual is always coupled with the dramatic, the nonindividual with the bland, gray colorlessness of the bureaucrat or Party member. Being part of the accepted Soviet Union is being part of something deadened, shameful, and yet something necessary.
In “Mother,” Dovlatov reveals how at the age of six he knew the score, the true nature of living in modern Russia:By the age of six, I myself knew that Stalin had been responsible for the death of my grandfather, and by the time I finished school, I knew most everything else. I knew that the newspaper printed lies. That ordinary people abroad lived better lives, were materially better off and more carefree. That to be a Party member was shameful but to one’s advantage.
This is the central issue and question that runs through Dovlatov’s text, like a subliminal motif or subtext in every description, observation, or satiric wisecrack: How can people live like this? How do they?
Dovlatov’s “heroes” (or antiheroes) somehow manage to rebel in either blatant or quietly subversive ways. Aunt Mara, from the story “Aunt Mara,” is a literary editor for the state and has volume after volume of “officially” accepted books from sanctioned authors of her day but, in the end, hoards by her bed books of “Akhmatova, Pasternak, Baratynski. ” Officially, her life is aligned to the state façade; unofficially, she treasures the banned and the dissident. Ironically, her “official” books with handwritten inscriptions must be censored by her relatives, who ripped out the pages of inscriptions.
“My First Cousin”
In “My First Cousin,” Dovlatov’s cousin Boris is a blatant rebel who tailors the system to his own inner and psychic needs. A born achiever, he engages in self-sabotage as a means of both living in and out of the Soviet system. Here too,...
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