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Rock, Paper, Scissors and other stories by Maxim Osipov
Translated by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson

There are certain publishers whose catalogues I always watch with interest to see what gems they’ll be issuing next; likewise, there are translators whose work I trust and who I always know will be bringing into English something worth reading. So when the two coincide it’s like a perfect storm, and the resulting book is one I’m desperately keen to read. That was the case with “Rock, Paper, Scissors”: the publisher is NYRB, and the translators are Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming and Anne Marie Jackson; so it was a no-brainer that I was going to want to read this!

The world doesn’t break, no matter what you throw at it. That’s just how it’s built.

As well as being a fine author (more of which later…!), Maxim Osipov is a doctor, a cardiologist in fact; so someone who comes from that fine tradition of Russian writing doctors (Chekhov and Bulgakov instantly springing to mind, and indeed the publicity makes great play with this). However, the Russia which Osipov writes about in this collection of short works might initially seem to be a very different one from the earlier authors… or maybe not.

“Rock, Paper, Scissors” collects together 12 short works of varying lengths, and I might as well come straight out with it and say that every single one of them is a gem. Osipov himself lives in the provinces (Tarusa, a small town 90 miles from Moscow) and the provinces do indeed feature regularly in his works (a factor which can’t help but make me think of Chekhov again). That distance from the centre informs much modern Russian writing I’ve read (Solovyov and Larionov, again a recent Russian read, was set away from things); and it’s very relevant to Osipov’s work – as Svetlana Alexievich comments in her preface, “Out in the provinces, everything is in full view, more exposed – both human nature and the times beyond the window.”

In subject matter the stories range far and wide: some tackle medical situations directly (“Moscow-Petrozavodsk“, “The Mill“, “The Gypsy“); in some stories, the medical element is almost incidental (“The Waves of the Sea“); and in some an encounter with a doctor is a jumping off point for something very different (“After Eternity“). The stories are peopled with actors, writers, criminals (of the lower and higher order), teachers, musicians – a fascinating array of human beings, all trying to make their way in what is an often disorientating world. This is a modern Russia, although often the stories reach back into Soviet times, and many of the characters seem to feel a lack of identity, sometimes struggling to negotiate a complex modern world. There is harshness and brutality, there are unexpected twists and there is a strong sense of melancholy running through many of the stories. I could say that’s down to the eternal “Russian Soul”, although Alexievich claims that’s a myth in her preface!

Day in, day out, she sees the cool sky, the river, the sunset, and suddenly she understands: life is such a simple and austere thing. And all of these little decorations, this tinsel we wrap our lives in – music, philosophy, literature – are completely unnecessary. There is some form of truth to them, in parts, but they themselves are not the truth. The truth can be put very simply.

Osipov’s writing is beautifully atmospheric, and whether’s he’s writing about a settlement in the far North or a clinic in the suburbs, each place and its characters are wonderfully evoked. As I read on I felt the author had a deep sense of compassion for fellow humans, struggling to negotiate new and uncertain terrain whilst keeping hold of their past to give them some kind of context. There are references to past leaders and past artists, and a feeling of continuity with those who’ve come before.

Maxim Osipov by Divot [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

Reading short story collections can be a tricky thing; there’s the danger of the stories running into one, of not being differentiated enough, of becoming a blur when you get to the end. However, Osipov’s stories were all distinct and marvellous, and so good that I found myself taking a pause between each to simply let it settle in my soul. They’re stories that will affect you, that’s for sure, and in some cases break your heart. I really don’t know that I want to pick favourites, because when I read this collection again my reactions may change; however, I want to particularly mention “After Eternity“. Almost a novella in length, it tells the story of a theatre group in the frozen North through the notebooks of their Literary Director, and it’s one of those pieces of writing that you finish and then immediately go back to the start of, to re-read and rediscover meanings you didn’t quite get the significance of first time round – a wonderful piece of writing. And “Good People” was an incredibly moving and poignant piece, capturing quite brilliantly a woman whose mind is clouding with age. “Objects in Mirror” shows how the fear of those in authority continues, whatever the regime in charge. And the title piece is a complex story with many layers, looking at provincial politics and powerplay as well as the treatment of those from other countries.

… Bella was also emotional although she didn’t quite know why. There were more and more gaps in her mind, and the pathways and partitions between them were steadily narrowing, shrinking. She feared that the gaps would soon merge into one, and there’d be nothing left in her head but… what do you call that whitish liquid that swims up when milk goes sour? Ah, yes, that’s it: whey.

As you might have gathered, I think this is an absolutely stunning collection of stories, and one that has any number of layers which I want to go back and explore. This is the kind of writing that gets into your heart *and* your mind, the sort that changes the way you look at life and I do hope more of his work will be translated into English. As I mentioned, much has been made of the fact that Osipov draws on the Russian doctor-author tradition (and certainly Chekhov and Bulgakov are both authors whom I love). In the end, whether that comparison is relevant or not I don’t know; however, what is clear is that Opisov is a great observer of human life in all its light and shade, as well as a powerful author in his own right. So kudos to NYRB, Dralyuk, Fleming and Jackson – “Rock, Paper, Scissors” is a standout book, and will definitely be one of my reads of the year.

Recent Reads – Subtly Worded by Teffi

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Sadly, despite the huge piles of books on Mount TBR, the lure of new volumes doesn’t get any less – and this rather lovely book is really something special. I first came across Teffi’s work in “Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida”, a nice Penguin Classic collected by translator Robert Chandler, and which featured two of her stories: “Love” and “A Family Journey”. So when I saw that a selection of her work was coming out from Pushkin Press I was naturally *very* keen to read it!

subtly worded

Teffi’s real name was Nadezhda Alexandrovna Lokhvitskaya and she was born around 1872. Labelled a humourist, she had the distinction of being a favourite of both Tsar Alexander II and Lenin – which not many people could claim! She survived war, revolution and civil war, finally escaping to Paris where she spent the rest of her life, until her death in 1952. All through her life she wrote and published, her last stories being written not long before she died. She’s become unjustly neglected over the years but luckily Pushkin have brought this wonderful collection of pieces to us so she can be rediscovered by a whole new generation of English-speaking readers.

“Subtly Worded” contains a variety of pieces ranging from early pre-revolutionary stories through recollections of Rasputin to later stories and finally her last, thought-provoking works. And what wonderful works they are!The early pieces are gems; short, human stories with a sting in the tail and a hidden nugget of truth. “The Lifeless Beast” is a particularly powerful tale, telling the story of a young child whose world falls apart because of marital strife. Her only joy is in her toy ram, the beast of the title, and as her parents’ marriage disintegrates they are menaced by drunken women and rats in the cellar – the latter perhaps a metaphor for the circling evil in the world. It’s a striking and moving story. Even the slighter pieces, like “The Hat” which comments quite tartly on how much a person’s attractiveness is enhanced not by what they wear but on how they feel and project themselves, has a point to make. These are not just flimsy stories – Teffi always has something to say. The title story itself is a clever little masterpiece about the impossibility of communicating with friends and family left behind in Russia without endangering them or talking gibberish.

Some of the pieces are autobiographical and “Rasputin” in particular is intriguing. Teffi recalls her encounters with the mysterious monk who had so much influence on the Russian royal family and in many ways was a cause of their downfall; it’s a vivid, fascinating memoir and the monk comes across as a chilling personality. But the shorter piece, “Petrograd Monologue” gets across in a few pages the hardship and starvation suffered by the Russian people, which in the hands of a lesser writer would have taken more words and to less effect – it’s clever and subtle and very compelling.

The later stories, written when Teffi was an émigré in Paris, have a stronger sense of melancholy. She tells the tales of the ex-pats, struggling to adjust to life away from their homeland, trying to make a living in a strange and hostile city. These are funny and poignant at the same time, and you can tell that Teffi misses her Russia, the Russia of the past, in stories like “Ernest with the Languages” where she conjures up a Russian estate from her youth. There is also a section of magical tales, and some of these are quite chilling. The last few stories, from Teffi’s last years, are particularly moving, the last one in the volume relating her hallucinatory dreams under morphine as her life ebbs away.

“If a person in pain gazes  up at the stars as they ‘speak of eternity’, he’s supposed to sense his own insignificance and thus find relief. That’s the part I really can’s understand at all. Why would someone who’s been wronged by life find comfort in his complete and utter humiliation – in the recognition of his own insignificance? On top of all  your grief, sorrow and despair – here, have the contempt of eternity too: You’re a louse. Take comfort and be glad that you have a place on earth – even if it’s only the place of a louse.

Teffi’s work has been mainly translated here by Anne Marie Jackson, along with Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Clare Kitson, Irina Steinberg and Natalia Wase. Whoever chose the stories has made some wonderful selections, spanning the entire breadth of her works, and Jackson has done a grand job in giving Teffi a distinctive voice in English; in fact, all the translators have, because the tales work together seamlessly and it’s impossible to tell which translator did which story without looking.

Nadezhda_Teffi

There is an art to short story writing, and Teffi possessed it in spadefuls. Comparisons are being made with Chekhov but they’re odious (comparisons, that is). Teffi doesn’t need to be compared with anyone – she’s a great storyteller in her own right. As Jackson points out, Teffi is particularly good at capturing the voice and thoughts of children and really is a master of the short story form, capturing the essence of things in just a few pages.

Pushkin Press are doing such a wonderful job bringing us lost European authors, and they’ve performed a sterling service with this one, as Teffi has been unjustly neglected. She deserves to be known outside of Russia and thankfully we have wonderful translators and publishers who can bring her work to us! Highly recommended! And now I’ve just got to try to find where I’ve hidden my copy of “…from Pushkin to Buida”!

(Review copy kindly provided by Pushkin Press – for which many thanks! And as always with Pushkin, this is a beautifully produced volume, with French flaps, a lovely textured cover and quality paper – well done for producing books that are intrinsically objects of delight!)

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