Sunday, November 8, 2009

Catching up

Leafing through the blogs, came across Sonya Chung's wonderful write up on the work of Sergei Dovlatov (and how out of print it is in the US today). He is a Soviet (anti-Soviet) short story writer, a funnyman, who emigrated to the US in the 70s, and after considerable struggle, got his break with a publication in the New Yorker. My friend Johnnie knows Dovlatov's entire body of work by heart. I am not a huge fan, but only because Dovlatov's brand of humor is too mean to my taste.

"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, the two of them estranged by then. 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 (or at least second) 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?"


  1. You'll be pleased to know the combination of you and Sonya Chung has inspired me. And my copy will arrive next week!

  2. Theresa, how exciting!! Please let me know what you think of it when you read it -- I'm super curious!