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“But that’s not my point” #WITMonth #Klotsvog21 @RusLibrary @ColumbiaUP @Rustransdark

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Having already read several books for WIT, I hadn’t necessarily intended to pick up another one. However, the best laid plans… Earlier in the year, I took part in a Twitter readalong of Olga Zilberbourg’s “Like Water and Other Stories” which was co-ordinated by the lovely Reem (Paper Pills) @ReemK10. She’s indefatigable when it comes to organising these events and when she announced one for this book, I had to join in. The work is questions is “Klotsvog” by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Lisa C. Hayden, and it turned out to be a powerful read.

“Klotsvog” was issued in 2019 by the Russian Library imprint of Columbia University Press, and I was lucky enough to win it in a Twitter giveaway by the lovely @Rustransdark group at the University of Exeter. It arrived just as the first lockdown took hold, and somehow, I hadn’t got round to picking it up; however this was the perfect time to do so, and as always, having reading buddies really enhanced the experience. I confess, however, that I got to a point when I couldn’t stick to the ten or so pages a day and made my way to the end of the book – and was left a bit stunned and breathless. Let me try to explain why…

As a direct person, I myself never drop any hints and don’t welcome it when others drop them in my direction.

The book is narrated by Maya Abramovna Klotsvog, who introduces herself in the first paragraph with the statement that her name is not important: “what’s important is how somebody made life’s journey…”. Born of a Jewish family in 1930, her memories of her early life are given fairly briefly; having been evacuated during the ‘Great Patriotic War’ with her mother, they survived the conflict (although her father did not) and Maya manages some schooling and then finds a job in bank. This does not go so well, so she enrolls in evening classes – which is where things go wrong and Maya starts on her winding path through life. An affair with a married teacher leads to pregnancy; searching for a way to deal with this, she marries an older man, convincing him of his paternity. Her son Mishenka is born; she moves on to another husband, palming her son off on relatives; then there is a daughter, and another man. All of Maya’s life seems to consist of scheming, manipulating other people and constantly trying to improve her lot, find a nicer home and control what happens around her. However, none of this brings her happiness – in fact, in the end all she will find is heartache, and also that it’s impossible to deny what you are.

…my child will never speak Jewish. That’s for his own benefit. And don’t pretend you don’t understand. Jewish words cost you nothing. But oh, they could cost him so much. They could bring him death.

On first look, Maya Klotsvog is a shocking and awful person. Her narrative is focused entirely on her own needs, her own feelings and what she’s had to do to survive – she in fact seems proud of it. There are constant self-justifications, regular betrayals, twisting of facts and what seems like a total misreading of the reality around her. She describes herself as a teacher, even though she’s never really taught a class; however, her constant interference in the education of her children, where she describes herself as talking to the teachers ‘pedagogue to pedagogue’, make you cringe at her insensitivity and lack of self-awareness. She is, perhaps, the ultimate unreliable narrator because she has no idea how other people perceive her.

What she also fails to recognise is the effect she has on other people. Everyone close to her is eventually pushed away, and even those who love her can’t stay near her. Her hardness and lack of warmth are quite stunning, and although I felt sympathy for most of the adults who encountered her, it was the children who I felt suffered most at first. Manipulated, abandoned, shuffled from pillar to post, lied to – what a life.

And yet… “Klotsvog” is a subtle and nuanced piece of writing, and as I read I recognised that Maya is someone who desperately needs to control the people and surroundings she encounters on a daily basis, as the wider picture is out of her control. She’s almost OCD in her need to have things exactly as she wants them, and I suspect that her whole life is entirely driven by fear; having made it through the war and with knowledge of the Holocaust, Klotsvog is aware that she is vulnerable as a Jew in the Soviet Union, and her ghastly behaviour throughout the book comes from a need to survive. The book never spells out the horrors of the Nazi ‘final solution’, but it’s there under the surface and in little references which slip into the narrative. As Lara Vapnyar points out in her introduction, Stalin had his own plan for something similar; Jewish people were not safe in the Soviet Union, and as time moves on and Klotsvog grows older, anti-semitism seems to be becoming more prevalent. It’s hard to like Maya as a character initially, and her behaviour is reprehensible, but I came to understand her and in the end pity her.

…she’s scared. She’s scared because she ended up Jewish. All children are afraid of the dark. And Jewishness is akin to the dark for children if they don’t engage with it.

Because, as a character, she certainly makes the bed in which she ends up lying. Her behaviour not only alienates all those around her, it also enables the creation of one of the most disturbing child characters I’ve ever come across. I don’t want to reveal too much about this plot strand for those who might read the book, but let’s just say that considering the kind of children in Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four” might give you the idea. I found this whole element absolutely chilling and I still haven’t recovered from the horror of it. Maya’s reaction to this child is not always rational, and definitely exacerbates things – but still, nobody really deserves that.

I started reading Klotsvog close on the heels of Petrushevskaya’s “The Girl from the Metropol Hotel” and there were a surprising amount of resonances between the two stories, as both narrators were outcasts and outsiders, whether because of their political history or Jewish heritage. However, although both stories are told in mostly measured prose, the Sovietspeak and repeated phrases which creep into Maya’s language perhaps reflects the constraints under which she lived all those years. What could be seen as a book length exercise in self-justification certainly goes much deeper than that.

“Klotsvog” is translated by the always excellent Lisa C. Hayden, who brings her expertise and knowledge of the Soviet world to the book with marvellous results. Her friendship with the late author also adds a poignant edge, and Vapnyar’s introduction is also a emotional one. This really is a work which brings forth all kinds of feelings.

Well, I could go on and on about this book, and there is so much more which could be said, but I’ll stop here. Suffice to say, “Klotsvog” is a powerful and unforgettable book, Maya is a monstrous yet ultimately tragic creation; this was a wonderful book with which to round off #WITMonth and thanks so much to Reem for organising the readalong which nudged me into picking up the book!

The blurred lens of history… #solovyovandlarionov #eugenevodolazkin @LizoksBooks @OneworldNews

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Solovyov and Larionov by Eugene Vodolazkin
Translated by Lisa C. Hayden

One of last year’s outstanding books for me was a title I read and reviewed for Shiny New Books – “The Aviator” by Eugene Vodolazkin. That book was the Kiev-born author’s third novel; however, his works have not been translated in the order of publication. His second work, “Laurus” came out in 2016 and “The Aviator” a year ago. However, his debut, “Solovyov and Larionov”, came out via Oneworld last November. Again rendered most wonderfully into English by Lisa C. Hayden (who translated his other books), I was *very* keen to read  “S&L”; and Oneworld were kind enough to provide a review copy.

The premise of the book is fascinating; Solovyov is a Russian historian with a focus on a general of the White Army, Larionov. The latter is something of a mystery; having fought to defend the Crimea in the post-revolutionary Civil War, somehow the General not only survived the carnage meted out by the Red Army, he also made it through the Soviet years, living his life out in Yalta and dying finally in 1976. The mystery of how and why the General avoided execution absorbs not only Solovyov, but also any number of scholars (some of who feature in the book). Solovyov himself is perhaps an unlikely protagonist; a somewhat diffident man, he was born by a railroad halt in the middle of nowhere which only has a number, not a name. Absorbed by books from a young age, he has an intense friendship with a local girl which blossoms into something more, before finally escaping to Petersburg to study. Whilst following the trail of the General’s life, he travels to Yalta to attend a Larionov conference, encountering the remaining associates/relatives of Larionov and also entering an intense relationship with the daughter of one of the General’s assistants. There are searches for lost manuscripts; a wonderfully satirical and often screamingly funny rendition of the events of the conference and the awfulness of a collection of academics in one place; and gradual discoveries of lost parts of the General’s life which bring Solovyov closer to home than he might have expected.

That’s a somewhat simplistic summary of what is a very complex, clever, multi-layered and thought-provoking book, and to describe it as a literary detective story as the blurb does is perhaps underselling it. The construction of the novel itself is quite remarkable; Vodolazkin manages a brilliant interweaving of the title characters’ stories where the narrative switches between the two without even a pause, yet it’s never anything less than clear as to what’s happening. Although ostensibly about Solovyov’s search to find out the truth about the General, the book is also actually the story of Solovyov finding himself, of his reckoning with his own past as well as Russia’s, and of his coming to terms with his journey to the current point of his life. On the evidence of the two of his works that I’ve read, Vodolazkin is always totally in control of his narrative, here brilliantly bringing all the strands of his tale together to an ending which reveals just how entwined the two lives have been.

We could approach the explanation from another angle. There exist people who possess the gift of contemplation. They are not inclined to interfere with the course life takes and do not create new events, because they believe there are already enough events in the world. They see their role as comprehending what has already taken place. Might that attitude toward the world be what begets genuine historians?

His writing is beautiful too; although he often seems to deliberately adopt the detached tone of a historian (taking on an authorial “we” when it suits), the description of place and atmosphere is stunning, and at times I felt I was in Yalta with either Solovyov or Larionov. The narrative is studded with references to Russian history and literature, a lot of which I got but many of course I probably missed, and the spell of Chekhov hangs over the Yalta sections in particular (the great writer spent his final days there). Petersburg and its surrounding waters are brilliantly conjured too (both Solovyov and Larionov are drawn to the sea). As well as beauty, however, there is of course conflict; there are details of the General’s battles and the horrors of the Civil War are clearly shown; as well as the sheer exhaustion of the Russian people, unable after so much fighting to even understand what they were battling for and why they were on a particular side.

This is how strange the war was – Russians against Russians – when solders taken prisoner could fight the very next day for the other side. They did so just as selflessly as before. There were quite a few people for whom shifts of this sort became a habit. For some, it was the only possible work under war conditions. For some, it was a way of life at a time when, by and large, people were indifferent about whom they fought for… Essentially, there were not many choices.

That this is a book about a historian is particularly relevant, because the more satirical and humorous elements certainly poke fun at the absurdity of some academics, with their own particular focus on a section of the past, their skewed reading of it and indeed their own particularly odd theories (including one that the General was actually a woman…!) It becomes clear as Solovyov continues with his endeavours to find out the truth that an accurate rendering of the past, and indeed an understanding of it, may never be possible; the historian’s researches are like a jigsaw puzzle with half the pieces missing and it’s only if particular things can be found out, by the person with the knowledge to interpret them correctly, that all will fall into place. Like “The Aviator”, “Solovyov and Larionov” ends with a certain ambiguity in place, leaving behind it a book of characters and events and places that linger beautifully in the mind.

Yalta: View from the Tsar’s Path via Wikimedia Commons

“Solovyov and Larionov” was nominated for a number of Russian awards and I can understand why; it’s hard to accept that this was a first novel, particularly as it’s such a wide-ranging work which takes in so many themes. However, the major thread I sense running through Vodolazkin’s works is that of memory, whether individual or collective. There is a fascinating conversation with Vodolazkin and Lisa Hayden at the LA Review of Books, and the former states:

Memory … What do we have except memory? Nothing. Memory is the consciousness of a person, whereas history is the consciousness of the people.

I think that may well sum up what Vodolazkin is trying to capture in his books, particularly in a country where memory and history have been so twisted and warped over the years. The author is himself a historian, which lends further authenticity to his account of the vagaries of research, the complexities of tracking down sources and the frank impossibility of ever really knowing the truth – either about history, or one’s own memories, which are of course human and therefore fallible.

As is probably obvious, I found “Solovyov and Larionov” to be just as good a book as “The Aviator” in its beautiful writing, its thought-provoking narrative and its wonderfully atmospheric sense of place and time. I can see that I’m going to be pondering on it for quite some time to come, and although his second novel “Laurus” has a very different setting (mediaeval Russia) I may just have to seek it out…

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