Makanin’s Old Books.

I’ve been wanting to read Vladimir Makanin for years, mainly because of Lizok — back in 2011 she wrote “I’ve read quite a few books and stories by Vladimir Makanin and found more than enough to consider him a favorite” and in 2017 “I’m not sure I would have started writing this blog if it hadn’t been for the dearth of English-language information about his books,” so he was high on my list. I’m not quite sure why I started with Старые книги [Old books], except that I’d gotten up to 1976 and decided I wanted a breather before plunging into the Big Three of that year, Trifonov’s Дом на набережной [The House on the Embankment], Rasputin’s Прощание с Матёрой [Farewell to Matyora], and Sokolov’s Школа для дураков [A School for Fools]. Needless to say, I was attracted by the title, which turned out to be fully justified: the heroine, Svetik (an unusual diminutive for Svetlana), arrives in Moscow with the intention of making some money in the illegal book trade, and much of the story focuses on the details of how that trade worked (if you’re planning to travel via time machine to Moscow in the 1970s, you will definitely want to read it first — which reminds me, Russian readers will want to check out Техника выживания для случайно попавшего в СССР, about how to make a living if you unexpectedly find yourself back in 1980).

I enjoyed the story greatly, in part because I was coming off an Andrei Bitov binge, and while Bitov is a fine writer, I had gotten pretty tired of his solipsism — everything he writes, whether fiction or travel reportage (of which he did a lot), focuses almost entirely on a first-person viewpoint described in tireless, moment-by-moment philosophical detail (opening his book on Armenia at random I immediately see “I dream of living this moment. In this moment, by this moment alone. I would then be alive, harmonious, and happy…”; from his book on Georgia: “Time exists independently, we exist independently. Time is not understood…”) A little of that goes a long way, and I’d had a lot of it. What a relief it was to open Makanin and see (my translation):

Svetik laughs again:
“So do you think we should try doing a little trading together?”
“Together?”
“Sure.”
“Wow. That’s great! Fantastic!… That’s really cool!”
Svetik interrupts him.
“Where do you live?”
“Here. Next door. Right next door… In this house right here. All by myself. I have my own apartment.”
“A whole apartment all to yourself?”
“Yes! All to myself… Together — that would be cool!”

Светик опять смеется:
— А хочешь, попробуем промышлять вместе?
— Вместе?
— Ну да.
— Ух ты. Отлично! Красота!.. Вот здорово!
Светик прерывает его.
— Где ты живешь?
— Здесь. Рядом. Совсем рядом… Вот в этом доме. Один. У меня квартира.
— Один в целой квартире?
— Да!.. Один… Вместе — это здорово!

We have no idea what’s going on, but we’re plunged into a cheerful world of people getting by and helping each other out when it’s convenient (or they’re besotted) and betraying each other when that’s convenient, with no extraneous background or description. We eventually learn that Svetik has left her native Chelyabinsk because her mother’s on her fifth husband and is getting more and more insistent that Svetik should get married and move out, but we don’t get any tear-jerking backstory about how she suffered — she wanted out and she left. (It reminds me of Aquarium’s “Теперь ты говоришь: ‘Ну куда же ты отсюда?’/ Ты знаешь, главное – прочь, а там все равно” [Now you ask “So where are you going from here?”/ You know, the main thing is away, beyond that I don’t care].) When things get difficult in Moscow, she might go back to Chelyabinsk for a while, or she might head south where it’s nice and warm; she’ll see.

There’s not much of a plot. Peter Rollberg calls it a “grotesque mystery novella,” but that’s nuts — there’s no mystery, Svetik just keeps trying to stay one step ahead of the law using her wits and well-honed survival instincts, and even the law isn’t presented as very frightening (of course, it couldn’t be so presented in Brezhnev’s USSR). She and her crew reminded me of some of the lowlifes I used to hang out with in New Haven when I was in my twenties and enjoyed random activity and scavenging for drinks; Makanin doesn’t pretend that they’re noble or that they’re wicked, he’s just having fun describing them and their world, as Kataev does in The Embezzlers. The feel of both novels brings to mind Manny Farber on Preston Sturges: “Basically, a Sturges film is executed to give one the delighted sensation of a person moving on a smoothly traveling vehicle going at high speed through fields, towns, homes, even through other vehicles. The vehicle in which the spectator is traveling never stops but seems to be moving in a circle, making its journey again and again in an ascending, narrowing spiral until it diminishes into nothingness.” (Incidentally, Amazon is still offering the Kindle edition of Farber on Film: The Complete Film Writings of Manny Farber for an absurdly cheap $1.99; grab it if you have any interest in movie criticism.)

Really, the main thing is the books. Everybody wants detective stories — American if possible, but homegrown is OK, anything is better than the official crap that’s readily available. Some grad students are looking for a saint’s life they need for their dissertation, and their stuffy boss, who winds up getting sucked into Svetik’s chaotic life, desperately wants a copy of the unfindable 17th-century «Книгу печалей и радостей» [Book of sorrows and joys]; one of the high points of the story (spoiler!) is when Svetik happens on a copy in the possession of Father Vasily (in a monastery she wanders off to), and the beautifully unexpected result is that instead of stealing it (which we fully expect) she photographs every page with the camera she’s brought on the trip, and when she triumphantly shows the scholar the copy and he tremulously asks how much she wants for it (she got 500 rubles for the saint’s life), she impulsively gives it to him (she’s got a growing crush on him).

What I ultimately loved about it, and what makes me want to read more Makanin, is its sense of the contingency of life. So many stories are about fated loves and fated lives; two people see each other and are doomed to either get married or part in agony. Here, people fall in love pretty casually, and nothing may come of it; at one point Svetik reflects on two of the other characters that one of them didn’t notice the other was madly in love with him: “Не заметил, значит, не заметил — уже проехали.” [He didn’t notice, so he didn’t notice — they’ve already gone past each other.] She’s often wrong about where things are headed (as are we readers), but she doesn’t care, she’s ready for anything and takes it as it comes. That’s true to life as I know it; there’s no plot and nothing is written in the stars, we just muddle through and keep smiling if we’re lucky enough to be so disposed.

Comments

  1. проехали is generally not about having gone past one’s intended destination in this context, it’s more like a one word equivalent of “water under bridge”, “too late to do something about it” (which is of course very related, but it doesn’t conjure up the imagery of riding a mode of transportation)

    I am a bit disappointed by the time-traveler advice BTW. The newspapers were posted on the billboards, did they already forget? Farmers’ markets always offered a chance to load-unload a few boxes for small change. And a beer hall near a University might have been a chance to make connections if the time traveler never had connections in the 1980 Moscow – which is possible but hard to believe. Everyone was crashing with friends and cousins then…

  2. January First-of-May says:

    if the time traveler never had connections in the 1980 Moscow – which is possible but hard to believe

    Surely even if he did have any friends and/or cousins who were already extant in 1980, they would not have recognized him. And I think it is implied that he would’ve gotten a lot of connections eventually; it’s just that he wouldn’t really have the proper documents for any legal work.

    The newspapers were posted on the billboards, did they already forget?

    I remember the occasional billboarded newspaper from my own childhood (late 1990s/early 2000s), but I’m not sure if this would in fact have been commonplace in 1980. (I tried to search on Google, but couldn’t think of an appropriate Russian term for “billboard”, and the terms I tried resulted in too many irrelevant results.)

  3. проехали is generally not about having gone past one’s intended destination in this context, it’s more like a one word equivalent of “water under bridge”, “too late to do something about it” (which is of course very related, but it doesn’t conjure up the imagery of riding a mode of transportation)

    I know, but I couldn’t figure out a better translation. If I were actually translating the novella, I’d have had to sweat over it, but since it was just a passing line in a post, I let it go. I’m lazy.

  4. I forgot to mention in the post that I was surprised to see мент ‘cop’ used throughout; I had somehow thought it was of later vintage. And while I’m at it, another item of linguistic interest is that a character’s оканье is mocked mercilessly.

  5. PlasticPaddy says:

    @hat
    Ment is prerevolutionary; Russian Wiktionary has a citation from 1904:
    https://ru.m.wiktionary.org/wiki/%D0%BC%D0%B5%D0%BD%D1%82

  6. Wow! So I guess it just became more common in recent decades; the Corpus just has a few citations before the 1980s.

  7. I remember the occasional billboarded newspaper from my own childhood (late 1990s/early 2000s), but I’m not sure if this would in fact have been commonplace in 1980. (I tried to search on Google, but couldn’t think of an appropriate Russian term for “billboard”

    Газетные стенды. Related concepts are рекламные витрины, щиты и тумбы. No, it was most definitely NOT a 1990s invention! The newspaper billboards are at least as old as the Soviet propaganda newspapers themselves. Ever heard that “Правды” нет, “Советская Россия” продана, остался “Труд” за 3 копейки?

    I didn’t dig too deep for the Moscow billboard history, but one thorough source which comes up is this:
    https://www.signbusiness.ru/publications/history/825-moskovskie-stendy-i-afishnye-tumby.php

  8. Wow! So I guess it just became more common in recent decades; the Corpus just has a few citations before the 1980s.
    My impression is that in Soviet times, the word was seen as part of the underworld slang, so a Soviet author may perhaps have put it in the mouth of an underworld or associated character, but not used otherwise; surely the shock value of ment to an upstanding Soviet citizen was higher than that of “cop” to a suburban American. Again my impression is that the word became more normal in the 90s, when the underworld and its slang permeated popular culture.

  9. Makes sense.

  10. I used to read a lot of Soviet detective fiction.

    Main criminal underworld word for cop was musor (“trash”).

  11. +мильтон

    1. прост. то же, что милиционер ◆ Тут какой-то паразит за милицией кинулся. // Является мильтон. Кричит: // ― Запасайтесь, дьяволы, гробами, сейчас стрелять буду! М. М. Зощенко, «Нервные люди», 1924 г.

  12. Anna Poleva cites A.M. Moldovan’s study suggesting that the early 1900s “ment” was a borrowing from Polish męt “rolling water, maelstrom” => scum
    https://ifilman.ru/otkuda-slovo-ment.html
    https://www.academia.edu/4934894/%D0%9A_%D1%8D%D1%82%D0%B8%D0%BC%D0%BE%D0%BB%D0%BE%D0%B3%D0%B8%D0%B8_%D1%81%D0%BB%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%B0_%D0%BC%D0%B5%D0%BD%D1%82
    https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/m%C4%99t

    She notes, however, that it wasn’t narrowly associated with the cops, and that by the 1940s the word fell into disuse. So a continuity with the post-1960s “ment” isn’t assured.

  13. Very interesting! I suppose it’s possible that some young thugs heard some old thugs talking about мент in the broader sense and, not being familiar with it but liking the sound of it, specialized it to ‘cop.’

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