Over at The Millions, Sonya Chung has an excellent review of Sergei Dovlatov’s Ours: A Russian Family Album, which I had no idea was so hard to get hold of: the NYPL only has one copy (which Chung had been hogging), and
so, at the moment, does it’s pretty expensive at Amazon. Chung doesn’t understand it, and neither do I; Dovlatov is one of the funniest and most likable writers I know, and I’m sure Americans would love him if he were properly introduced. Here’s a snippet of Chung’s review:
Ours is composed of 13 stories, each about a different Dovlatov family member (the collection was published as fiction but is quite evidently based on Dovlatov’s real-life family). There is Grandpa Isaak, a Jew of enormous physical stature, who was mysteriously arrested for espionage and killed in a prison camp; Grandfather Stepan, an Armenian Georgian, who threw himself into a ravine; Dovlatov’s bastard cousin Boris, handsome and talented, who courted danger and whom “life turned into a criminal”; Uncle Leopold, a “hustler,” who disappeared from their lives for over 30 years before being rediscovered in Belgium. Mother and Father, an actress and a theatre director, “often quarreled,” and divorce when Dovlatov is eight years old; and of course there is Lena (pronounced “Yenna”—more on Lena later), Dovlatov’s wife, who emigrates with their daughter Katya years before Dovlatov, the two of them estranged by then. In the opening of the story that describes their courtship and marriage, the narrator Sergei Dovlatov tells us, “I emigrated to America dreaming of divorce.”
Would you guess that Ours is essentially a comedy? The humor is exhilarating, in a specific way that I find hard to describe. It’s likely there is something that Russians who experienced the Stalinist and Soviet eras first (or at least second) hand recognize as “Russian humor,” and as a Westerner I am just an enthusiastic tourist, smitten by an approach to the terrors and darkness of life that is both sharp and silly.
Read the whole review, then pester any publishers you know to get Dovlatov out before the English-speaking public. This is one of those times I’m especially glad I can read Russian.