Gandlevsky’s Illegible.

I started reading Sergei Gandlevsky’s 2002 novel НРЗБ (an abbreviation for неразборчивый ‘undecipherable, illegible’) some time ago on my Kindle; it was one of those well-spoken-of books I didn’t really know anything about, but I figured I’d give it a try. The more I read, the more I liked it, so a little over halfway through I ordered it in hardcopy from Globus Books in San Francisco (plug: they’re great, buy your Russian books from them!) and waited for it to arrive, at which point I started all over again, happy that I could now make marginal notes and create my own index on the endpaper. Since I’m going to be enthusing about it, I’m glad to report that it’s available in Susanne Fusso’s translation as Illegible, so if you don’t read Russian but are infected by my enthusiasm, you can give it a try; I’ve ordered a copy myself so I can read it to my wife once we’ve finished Louis Couperus’s Eline Vere (impressively modern for a book from the 1880s, with female characters my wife is surprised were created by a man).

Happily, Fusso’s introduction (as well as a brief excerpt from her translation) is online at the Jordan Center website (1, 2, 3), so I can send you there for a plot description and background on the author if you want it; I’ll just say he’s a well-known poet who dislikes “poetic prose” and the book is in four sections, the first and third in close third person and set around 1972, when the hero Lyova was a young, impetuous, and foolish poet, while the second and fourth are in first person and set thirty years later, when he’s older and in poor health but just as foolish. And one thing that impressed me is that Gandlevsky creates a perfectly appropriate prose style for him, competent and endlessly allusive, showing off a command of Russian idioms and a knowledge of classic poetry (especially, of course, Pushkin), but no real fireworks — it’s clear the protagonist is clever but no genius, and that’s a hard thing to pull off (I’ve read too many novels where supposedly mediocre people think in high-flown poetic metaphors). And yet within those constraints he creates brilliant effects: at one point, he talks about the world coming alive with the spring thaw and compares the grass shooting up with “a botany class film, when in the darkness on the screen a sprout under the ground sprouts out of a pea and butts the ground with its crown, and in a moment or two the shoot is wriggling in the open and pushing out leaves left and right, growing before your eyes” [стремительность учебного фильма по ботанике, когда в темноте на экране росток под землей выпрастывается из горошины и бодает маковкой почву, а уже через миг-другой побег извивается на воле и выбрасывает вправо и влево листья, взрослея на глазах]; then a couple of paragraphs later comes the capper: Krivorotov’s jealousy “grew, sprouted, and matured like that plant from the school movie” [росла, колосилась и матерела не хуже того самого растения со школьной киноленты] (my translations). That’s how to work an image!

Once I’d realized how good it was, what most surprised me was how its plot kept surprising — even shocking — me. It’s one thing to create a plausible portrait of young writers competing over poetry and women; it’s another to dole out information so cunningly you can make the reader feel as sandbagged as the hero when he belatedly discovers important facts about his own life. And I kept being reminded of earlier novels I loved, like Nabokov’s Дар [The Gift], Makanin’s Андеграунд [Underground; see this post], and Buida’s Ермо [Ermo; see this post] — in fact, there’s a setup-and-resolution that is so reminiscent of that last novel I think it must be a deliberate allusion. I’m going to be thinking about this book for quite a while.


  1. I’ve read too many novels where supposedly mediocre people think in high-flown poetic metaphors

    Yes, this dooms lots of novels. All too many writers attempt to turn children into literary prodigies.

  2. Now, this is strange. There is another novel entitled НРЗБ by Zholkovsky. Not poet’s prose, but this time academic’s prose.

  3. The one by Zholkovsky is a collection of short stories and a story therein. It was published a few years after Gandlevsky’s novel.

  4. Very weird!

  5. Globus Books is having a holiday sale:

    ¶ Our holiday sale continues till December 26! We offer 20% off on $50+ orders made both in store and online. 
    ¶ We also offer a free gift wrapping for your books purchased at our store and online!
    ¶ Globus Books will be open during regular hours on December 22 & 23, closed on December 24, 25 & 26. Happy Holidays!

    I placed the following order:

    Пелевин, В. ДПП (НН) 1 $10.00
    Алданов, М. Собрание сочинений в шести томах. Том 4 1 $7.00
    Алданов, М. Собрание сочинений в шести томах. Том 5 1 $7.00
    Осоргин, М. Вольный каменщик: Повесть, рассказы 1 $10.00
    Новелла Серебряного века 1 $14.00
    Андреев, Л.Н. Повести и рассказы 1 $6.08
    Subtotal $54.08
    Shipping USPS Media Mail – 2-8 business days. $5.95
    Coupon Redeemed: HOLIDAY ($10.82)
    Order Total $49.21

    Can’t wait till it arrives!

  6. In what kind of world can you these days get a book, any book, for $6? That’s the price of a Sunday paper! Even $14 is ridiculous.

  7. The cheap ones are old Soviet editions. Current books cost more like $20-$30, so I tend not to buy them.

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