I’ve proselytized for Sergei Dovlatov before (e.g., here) and am doing so again by sharing Masha Gessen’s fine NYRB review of Pushkin Hills, his daughter Katherine’s translation of his 1983 novel Zapovednik [The reserve]. She describes Dovlatov’s life and the ups and downs of his reputation (“While Dovlatov’s reputation in Russia soared, in America, where he was first recognized, he was gradually forgotten”), and of course his work
Like all of Dovlatov’s books, Pushkin Hills is a first-person account of a series of events that schematically resemble events in the writer’s own life. Each of Dovlatov’s books does so: The Zone tells of his time in the military, serving as a gulag guard; The Suitcase is a series of interlocking short stories each of which purports to give the background of an item in the author’s émigré suitcase. Pushkin Hills is loosely based on the time Dovlatov spent working as a tour guide in an Alexander Pushkin theme park while his semi-estranged wife and daughter got ready to emigrate to the United States. Leaving ample clues pointing to the autobiographical nature of his books, Dovlatov complicated matters by assigning character names in accordance with an undecipherable logic or, possibly, no logic at all. Some of his characters bear the names of real friends and acquaintances; others are thinly disguised and sound like their originals; and still others are fictitious. “The names, events and dates given here are all real,” Dovlatov wrote quite inaccurately in the author’s note to The Zone[...]
Gessen is always an enjoyable writer, and she’s got a great subject here; read the whole thing.