Erofeev: The Outsider.

I’ve finally finished reading Венедикт Ерофеев: посторонний (Venedikt Erofeev: The outsider) by Oleg Lekmanov, Mikhail Sverdlov, and Ilya Simanovsky, which is seemingly (and amazingly) the first biography of one of the most famous Russian writers of the last half-century. It took me longer than it might have because it’s a tough read — not on account of the writing, which is excellent, but because the story is such a sad one, especially towards the end. Most biographies of writers follow a predictable pattern: early attempts, first sales, growing mastery, acquaintance with other writers and cultural figures, fame, prizes, etc.; they tend to get boring in the latter parts because they feature dinner parties and arguments with publishers. This is very different; it’s at least as much the story of a drunk as of a writer, and the writer is known, essentially, for only one book. If Erofeev hadn’t written Moskva-Petushki (my review), no one but his friends would remember him, and there would be no biography. There’s nothing wrong with that — Cervantes, Proust, and Ellison are in much the same position — but it creates an overbalance of the life (which consisted mostly of quitting schools, getting fired from jobs, and endless drinking) at the expense of the works. The authors deal with the problem in part by interspersing chapters about the life with (brilliant, convincing) analytical chapters about the novel, but finally they run out of novel and there is nothing left but a slog towards an early grave; the sudden fame and recognition at the end of the 1980s came too late for him to get much enjoyment from them (the throat cancer that killed him was already forcing him to speak through a mechanical apparatus), and the brutally indifferent Soviet government refused to let him go abroad for treatment just as it had Blok almost six decades earlier.

That gives too bleak a picture; it’s what’s foremost in my mind, because I just finished reading it, but the book is full of good things, notably quotes from pretty much everyone who ever crossed his path. Here’s one from Sergei Ivanov, plucked pretty much at random:

«В 1973-м на филфаке МГУ самиздатную рукопись дал почитать однокурсник Андрей Зорин. В обмен на „Николая Николаевича“ Алешковского. Помню, в момент обмена (на „Большом Сачке“) подошла Наташа Нусинова и полюбопытствовала: „Что это у вас?“ На что Зорин одними губами произнес: „Forbidden!“»

“In 1973 at the philological faculty of Moscow State University my classmate Andrei Zorin gave me a samizdat manuscript [of Moskva-Petushki] to read, in exchange for Aleshkovsky’s Nikolai Nikolaevich [see this post]. I remember that at the moment of the exchange (at the ‘Big Goof-off’ [a place on the first floor of the First Humanitarian Building of the university where students hung out]) Natasha Nusinova came up and asked curiously ‘What’s that you’ve got?’ To which Zorin responded, just moving his lips, ‘Forbidden!’ [in English].”

Those few sentences give a vivid image of a certain aspect of student life at the time. I wish there was any prospect of a translation, but I’m afraid Erofeev is too little known in English-speaking lands; if Bykov’s superb biography of Pasternak hasn’t gotten one, this is probably a lost cause. But if you read Russian, it’s well worth your time.

I could let it go at that, but I feel compelled to say some things about Erofeev as a person. Maybe I shouldn’t, but reading about him pushed a number of my buttons, and I’m going to vent; cover your ears if you don’t like hearing bad things about literary greats and/or complaints about alcoholics. Look, I realize it’s a disease and people suffering from it need help rather than condemnation, but there are drunks and drunks (I’ve known more than a few — at one time at least three of my friends were going to AA meetings simultaneously), and Erofeev was a nasty one. Furthermore, he chose his poison; until his first year at the university he was a nice guy, a straight-A student who didn’t smoke or drink, and during a school break he took up both vices with a vengeance and stopped going to classes. As for his behavior, here’s an extended quote from Natalya Arkhipova (you can find the Russian here; search on “А когда начинал уже напиваться”):

But when he started to get drunk, he was very fond of insulting everyone in turn. He’d say something nasty in your own home. I was still very young then, and I didn’t understand all this cheap épatage; I tried to serve them plates and glasses… But I was a “stupid slut,” of course… And that was the least of it… The “Vladimir people” [pals of Erofeev from his time at Vladimir Pedagogical Institute] stayed with us for several days; they were brusque and mocked us [or ‘showed off’] terribly. They considered it an act of valor to drink the hostess’s perfume, and one of them did that with mine. All this endless drunkenness lived, swirled, and got dramatically hung over to the music of Bruckner and Mahler. One summer we were drinking in some field, and then we all got lost. The next day, Erofeev rang the bell at my parents’ apartment at seven in the morning and asked: “Are the kids there, by any chance?” He somehow managed to remember their address, the jerk. He was covered in straw and rumpled, with a strong hangover, and he even asked for a hair of the dog. I mean, he didn’t give a damn what my parents would think.

And once — this was in another house at Ilyinka, part of which we rented for the winter — I was coming home from work at twilight. Suddenly I saw that our terrace had been broken into. My heart skipped a beat. Of course there was nothing there to steal except a record player, but it was still really frightening. I went in and there were Erofeev and [his old friend] Tikhonov in an unconscious state. There was also the owner’s dog, and on the floor was her bowl of food, among other things, terribly smelly whale meat, and semi-rusty forks that were used for dog food. They had eaten it with those forks. I was barely able to shake them awake, and of course they had to spend the night. In the morning they were badly hung over; they were wildly rude and demanded beer. I don’t know where the strength came from, but I couldn’t stand it any more, and I just pushed them one by one from the porch into the snow …

It’s only an illusion that something absolutely magnetic, beautiful and poetic was always happening around Venichka. In fact, it was simply a phantasmagoria of killing himself and every sign of life around him. He was stubbornly destroying himself with alcohol.

The authors say they included this extended quote so the reader won’t forget that Erofeev’s absolute freedom from the surrounding world and its conventions could turn into absolute egoism and could badly hurt those close to him. As for his attitude toward women, they quote Valeria Chernykh as saying “stupid slut” [„глупая девка“] was about the nicest thing he called them. He was also very fond of the word жидяра, an extended form of жид ‘yid, kike,’ when referring to Jews; here’s a quote from an interview:

«Мне как-то сказал Муравьев году в 74-м: „А ты знаешь, что, Ерофеев, тебя издали в Израиле“. Я решил, что это очередная его шуточка, и ничего в ответ не сказал. А потом действительно узнал спустя еще несколько месяцев, что действительно в Израиле издали, мать твою, жидяры, мать их!»

In ’74 Muravyov said to me, “You know, Erofeev, they’ve published you in Israel.” I thought that was another of his jokes, and didn’t say anything. But then several months later I learned that the yids, fuck their mother, really had published me, fuck your mother!

Sure, sure, it’s all cheap épatage, he loved women (although he was incapable of being faithful and demanded they put up with his infidelity), and he had Jewish friends who were fond of him (as did Ezra Pound), it’s just that he couldn’t bear being “polite” and “normal” and “bourgeois” and had to constantly let everyone know he wouldn’t follow their silly rules. And once upon a time I might have accepted that. But you know what? I’ve grown more and more intolerant of sexism and anti-Semitism as I’ve aged (I can see Venichka sneering even as I say those bien-pensant words), and I don’t care what the excuse is, I don’t like it. Furthermore, after the novel came out he started spending time with the kind of right-wing Russian nationalists who got more and more openly anti-Semitic over time (the Jews, after all, being the ultimate un-Russians), and I suspect that had he lived Erofeev might have forgotten that his slurs were just a pose. In a late interview he even said that he loved Soviet power [советскую власть] — he couldn’t resist pissing off all those disgusting liberals who kissed the West’s ass and spouted pieties about the Jews. And yes, liberals are very often annoying, and in my youth I too enjoyed pissing them off on occasion. But somehow the last few years have convinced me that there are far worse things than laughable liberalism.

Comments

  1. He isn’t all that famous at home. His poem is known but I don’t think that it’s loved, or influential. More like a one-off dead end with a whiff of scandal. But of course it may just be my personal impression.

    Anyway my point is different. Ain’t the downtown Ilyinka there. You can see for yourself, no verandas, no porches opening into the snow, no windows for a unnoticed break-in. Hers is a station on Kazan RR line.
    https://ru.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%98%D0%BB%D1%8C%D0%B8%D0%BD%D1%81%D0%BA%D0%B0%D1%8F_(%D0%BF%D0%BB%D0%B0%D1%82%D1%84%D0%BE%D1%80%D0%BC%D0%B0)

  2. Whoa, that was sloppy of me — thanks, fixed! And if he’s not that well known now, things have certainly changed over the last few decades. But of course they have…

  3. Il’inka is an unofficial, often affectionate name, that’s how social network groups of the locals call it, that’s how the renters usually call it too. I happen to be an almost local (one station over) but I suspect that the name is known all over Moscow, yet can’t tell for sure. What I can tell for sure is that it was surprisingly difficult to Google, because of too many lookalikes elsewhere in Russia and because the official names are much easier to search for.

  4. Erofeev was certainly the most popular writer among MGU students of my generation (late 80s, early 90s). Erofeev and Viktor Tsoi were the countercultural heroes. My impression at the time was that a lot of people understood Erofeev’s alcoholism as a brave political stance, a refusal to participate in a degraded and corrupt system, and to accept physical suffering as martyrdom for everyone else who went along with it. In retrospect, that looks naive, but we had drunken юродивые in the West as well – Shane McGowan springs to mind.

  5. I wouldn’t translate девка as “slut” in that context. “Stupid girl” is probably fine. Девка is derogatory when addressed to a woman but the element of condescension seems stronger to me than the implication of sexual promiscuity. “Dumb cunt” would work in British or Australian English, but not American.

  6. Yeah, I struggled over that; there’s really no good solution. I don’t like “stupid girl” because it lacks the element of sexist contempt — a woman could say that in a moment of irritation, but I doubt women say „глупая девка“ much. I agree about the superiority of UK/Aussie English in this regard!

    l’inka is an unofficial, often affectionate name, that’s how social network groups of the locals call it, that’s how the renters usually call it too. I happen to be an almost local (one station over) but I suspect that the name is known all over Moscow, yet can’t tell for sure. What I can tell for sure is that it was surprisingly difficult to Google, because of too many lookalikes elsewhere in Russia and because the official names are much easier to search for.

    There’s absolutely zero chance I would have found out if you hadn’t told me; local knowledge is the best search engine!

  7. local knowledge is the best search engine!

    True. Still I wondered what Natalya Arkhipova had actually said (for example, you can usually tell apart Russian references to a street vs. a village simply by the prepositions used), and there I see in the very first sentence of her story: Мы жили под Москвой — в Ильинке по Казанской железной дороге

  8. J.W. Brewer says:

    Was the median non-dissident male of his generation living in the USSR really notably more polite or bourgeois than this when speaking of females and/or Jews? Was he being “transgressive” or what have you vis-a-vis that sort of baseline, or only vis-a-vis an alien baseline found at the time in certain Western societies and the sub-subset of Soviet dissident subculture who took that as their role model?

  9. The latter, as I thought was clear from my account (“all those disgusting liberals who kissed the West’s ass and spouted pieties about the Jews”). Politeness and political correctness have never been features of average Russian discourse. (Neither, of course, are they features of average discourse anywhere; it’s just the spread of gentility and the level of pretense that varies by country.)

  10. J.W. Brewer says:

    Okay, maybe I needed more context than you gave, because being not notably more misogynistic and anti-Semitic in conversation than the average Moscow drunk of the time doesn’t strike me as much evidence of “absolute freedom from the surrounding world and its conventions” although it might of course be evidence that those conventions could benefit from some more gentility.

  11. John Cowan says:

    “Fake it till you make it” reflects a real social phenomenon, and a decline in public nastiness and associated belligerency is a definite tendency of the modern age, though of course there are upticks and fails and whole parts of the Earth that are only superficially modernized.

    I forget who said this (Dr. Google is unhelpful today), but dueling did not die out when it was made illegal, but when it came to be seen as ridiculous. Similarly, Khrushchev said in connection with the Cuban missile crisis that he was not a Tsarist officer who had to kill himself because he farted at a ball, something that allowed the K brothers to walk back from the brink.

  12. Okay, maybe I needed more context than you gave, because being not notably more misogynistic and anti-Semitic in conversation than the average Moscow drunk of the time doesn’t strike me as much evidence of “absolute freedom from the surrounding world and its conventions”

    But that wasn’t the measuring stick, any more than writers in, say, the UK measure their behavior against that of the yobs at the local. His “surrounding world” was that of university students and other people who could quote nineteenth-century poets by the yard (which he was better at than anyone — he had a fantastic memory).

  13. “Furthermore, after the novel came out he started spending time with the kind of right-wing Russian nationalists who got more and more openly anti-Semitic over time (the Jews, after all, being the ultimate un-Russians), and I suspect that had he lived Erofeev might have forgotten that his slurs were just a pose.”

    The novel first appeared in print, in Israel, in 1973. Erofeev died in 1990. He spent the intervening years (especially the years up to 1985) drinking with all sorts of people, from literary scholars to liberal dissidents to black market dealers to various dregs of society. However, it so happened that a lady from Vladimir Osipov’s circle offered Erofeev shelter for a couple months when he was effectively homeless in 1973. In exchange, he wrote an essay on Rozanov for Osipov’s Samizdat journal, Veche. That was his connection with the “nationalists.” An episode, one of many.

    More generally, there’s no evidence Erofeev was sympathetic either to anti-Semitism or to vulgar nationalism. He always rooted for Israel in its wars. (Perhaps, as a lifelong anti-Communist, he picked the side that fought against the Kremlin’s proxies.) The protagonist in Walpurgis Night, Erofeev’s 1985 play, is Jewish – and it’s a character you can’t help liking. A nationalist in Osipov’s mold would have chosen Eastern Orthodoxy over any other Christian denomination. Erofeev, however, got baptized as a Roman Catholic in 1987. He had always mistrusted the Russian church.

    Erofeev remains popular with the crowd that matters: all the critics and the writers worth reading know him by heart. Moscow-Petushki is not this only work, although it’s the best. The first one I’d read was My Little Leniniana: my father, who found it irresistible, gave me a copy when I was (probably) still in my “Stalin bad, Lenin good” phase. Erofeev kept writing until the end – most of his notebooks are still unpublished.

  14. He always rooted for Israel in its wars.

    Yes, I know, and I didn’t accuse him of anti-Semitism, just of posing in that direction. I don’t even like the pose.

    Moscow-Petushki is not this only work, although it’s the best.

    Right, and Proust wrote other stuff too. But nobody would know either of them if not for their one masterpiece.

  15. Dmitry Pruss says:

    It’s a relatively common attitude in Russia, and not only in Russia, to adore Israel and to hate the Jews who didn’t move there yet. A more Russian-specific variation is to love Israel and to despise the Jews who conspire against this Israeli-lover’s hopes to move there permanently. It’s just different narratives and different myths, about the invincible giant out there vs. about the real people here. Even a certain American President lamented how the pesky locals refuse to appreciate what he does for Another Victory Out There.

    The Erofeev issue is unusual in any case because very few people, in Russia or elsewhere, engage in xenophobic / misogynist speech in front of the very targets of these hatreds who happen to be their party hosts / supporters / benefactors. It’s just a different thing. One thing is to espouse hatreds among the like-minded morons, and quite another is to do it face to face with people who help you. It may be more about being a jerk than about being an acceptable-variety mild xenophobe. Most people who made anti-Semitic statements in my presence would backtrack and say something clumsily nicer when I’d interject that I am Jewish. “Well, a Jew is a human being too”, said a Lezgi ex-prisoner co-worker in Sumgayit and never brought it up again. During my military training, a Tatar instructor brought up the Protocols of the Elders and asked me to witness that this old fake was true. Not excited about arguing with a superior, I just reasoned that if I was a part of a conspiracy that powerful, then surely I wouldn’t be biding my time in this shithole. Major Fattakhov still tried again, asking if I might have heard about it without being a coconspirator, and I had to improvise a mat two-liner verse, after which he, too, never brought it up again. You see, people generally aren’t jerks, even when they are xenophobes.

  16. David Eddyshaw says:

    if I was a part of a conspiracy that powerful, then surely I wouldn’t be biding my time in this shithole

    I’ve always regretted the fact that my grandmother never shared the world domination plan with me. Possibly her mother never passed it on to her … you’d think people would make the effort, though.

  17. This clash of the sterotypes, the weak Jew and the tough Israeli, has been used and abused in almost every imaginable way by people of every political stripe, and in every combination of liking and disliking these two stereotypes. Bah.

  18. Dmitry Pruss: “It’s a relatively common attitude in Russia, and not only in Russia, to adore Israel and to hate the Jews who didn’t move there yet. A more Russian-specific variation is to love Israel and to despise the Jews who conspire against this Israeli-lover’s hopes to move there permanently.”

    True but irrelevant to our case. In Erofeev’s eyes, Israel was vulnerable, liable to get crushed at any moment by Soviet satellites. (Moskva-Petushki appeared in Israel a few months before the Yom Kippur war.) Erofeev always rooted for the underdog and despised the strong and the perfect. He was pretty consistent in his, as well as in despising Communism.

    As most alcoholics of his caliber, Erofeev was at times an humongous jerk and a monster. However, it’s not because he used yob-speak to close friends or in “play-interviews” (Lekmanov’s term) that he deserves these labels. I don’t think you can draw any meaningful inferences from that at all. He was always polite and well-mannered with strangers and casual acquaintances, at least when sober.

  19. It may be more about being a jerk than about being an acceptable-variety mild xenophobe.

    I don’t find anti-Semitism, even “mild,” acceptable in any way. I would have thought the last century in general and the last few years in particular would have taught everyone that mild, “ha-ha” xenophobia can turn into actual real-world harm in the blink of an eye.

    I don’t think you can draw any meaningful inferences from that at all.

    We’ll have to agree to disagree. When people say things to close friends or as “jokes,” they’re not coming out of nowhere.

  20. acceptable in any way

    Did I misuse a word? I didn’t mean “anything that you or I would be willing to accept”. I only wanted to pointed to out that dishing out racist or sexist hatreds to a target of the hatred face to face, in person, even among people who weren’t friends, was (is) much more roundly rejected by the society than xenophobia or misogyny as such. It’s relevant for the Erofeev storyline because people remembered being offended by hearing the hateful things about themselves, face to face, in a circle of friends and admirers.

    If A is stronger rejected by the society than B, then is it misleading to say that B is more societally acceptable than A?

  21. Oh! No, you didn’t misuse any words, I just misunderstood you — sorry!

  22. John Cowan says:

    my grandmother never shared the world domination plan with me

    She may not have known it herself: you not only have to belong to the right synagogue (as opposed to, say, the ones for golf or tennis), you also have to pay them enough.

  23. J.W. Brewer says:

    I appreciate the various contributions that clarify for me how E.’s use of this sort of talk was different from that of the common or garden-variety ungenteel Russian drunk of the time.

  24. Speaking of “девка”… Just realized that děvka in Czech means “slut” or “floozie”.

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