“Dovlatov? You’ve never heard of him?! But he was published in The New Yorker!” So a Siberian scientist explained to me at a café in Tartu four years ago. No I had not heard of Sergei Dovlatov. I thought I knew all the Russian emigré writers who made it to the big time in the USA, and I felt ashamed. And so did a lot of us, since it is only in the last two years that Dovlatov’s work has been making it back into print.
It turns out we are just about ready for his unique take on the absurdistan that was the Soviet Union. Yes, it was a terrible and oppressive nation where no one could be trusted and its citizens were subjected to all manner of cruel psychological and physical punishment, all in the name of political lies. How to live in the midst of such abuse? Always watch your back, never trust anyone – that makes it sound exciting. But really to live and not merely survive? Then you just have to laugh at the absurdities as they pile up. And no one is better at writing about that strategy for enduring totalitarianism than Dovlatov. And so far the best of his books to be recently released is surely Pushkin Hills, available for the first time in English in a fine translation by the writer’s own daughter Katherine Dovlatov.
What are these Pushkin Hills? In Russian the title is Zapovednik, or “The Preserve,” which refers to estate of the great Pushkin outside the city of Pskov. All of Dovlatov’s novels are vaguely autobiographical and the man is always getting in trouble with the authorities one way or another. Here our man takes a job as a tour guide at the home of the great poet because he just can’t take the idiocy of his country anymore. Having to deal with the nagging bureaucratic threats of the Soviet state, he dreams all the while he should be a writer: “Life is impossible. You must either live or write. Either the word, or business. But the word is your business. And you detest all Business with a capital B.”
Meanwhile his wife threatens to emigrate to America and Dovlatov has decamped to Pushkin Hills. He’s not really sure why he isn’t thrilled at the possibility of getting out of all this. Somehow this broken world is his subject, these are his people: “The Preserve was total pandemonium. The tour guides were nuts. The tourists were ignorant pigs. And everyone was crazy about Pushkin. Crazy about their love for Pushkin. Crazy about their love for their love.” And what is expected of a tour guide. “A vivid and dramatic story, and nothing more.”
Here is where Dovlatov excels, his story is chock full of characters and confusion and ridiculousness and smiles. Throughout the book we learn glimmers of the frustration that guides his own journey. “By the time a man reaches thirty he must have resolved all his problems except literary ones…. I couldn’t do it. The amount of money I owed had long crossed that line where you stop caring. Literary officials had put my name on some sort of blacklist a while ago…. Officially I was a full-fledged creative personality. In reality I was on the edge of a mental breakdown.”
Pushkin Hills basically ends in the middle of Dovlatov’s story. You close the book laughing but desperately wanting more. Does the author escape to join his family in the new world, where he is worried that “no one needs my stories in Chicago” ? But it turns out that only in America did he become the writer he was destined to be. And as he died far too young his star faded quickly. But now it’s rapidly coming back. I look forward to the publication of the sequel to Pushkin Hills, A Foreign Woman, about what really happened to Dovlatov in the States. The finest of his books is still The Compromise, about the bending of the truth required by the author working as a journalist in Soviet-occupied Estonia, but there are no plans yet to re-issue that one. You can also read The Suitcase, which describes one by one all the items the author brought with him when he finally did emigrate, into a world that had its frustrations but at least allowed him to write. But back in The Preserve, Dovlatov was not sure where his travails would end. As he wrote in a poem to his wife,
My darling, I’m in Pushkin Hills now,
Monotony and boredom without a switch,
I wander through the grounds like a bitch
And fear is wracking my very soul!
Dovlatov felt the same way when he first met his wife. “A thousand times I will fall into this pit. And a thousand times I will die from fear. The only solace is that this fear lasts less than a smoke.”
David Rothenberg is one of the organizers of an international festival and conference on improvisation in music, called VS INTERPRETATION, http://agosto-
Pushkin Hills, by Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Katherine Dovlatov, is available from Alma Classics at £6.39.