Lines of Fate.

When I got up to 1992 in my reading of Russian literature, I finally had a chance to try Mark Kharitonov’s Линии судьбы, или Сундучок Милашевича, translated by Helena Goscilo as Lines of Fate. Usually, by the time I’ve finished reading a novel, I know pretty much what I think of it and what I want to say about it. That is not the case here. I will say what I can about it and throw up my hands in confusion. Perhaps someday I’ll read it again and it will all become clear. But probably not.

The novel (whose named chapters are divided into dozens of numbered sections) starts with an overwritten paragraph in quotation marks, then continues [I’ve revised my translation based on the comments]:

Так начинается один из самых странных рассказов Симеона Милашевича «Откровение», занятной судьбе которого Антон Андреевич Лизавин посвятил наиболее заинтересованные страницы своей кандидатской диссертации о земляках-литераторах 20-х годов.

Thus begins one of the strangest stories of Simeon Milashevich, “Revelation,” to whose curious fate Anton Andreevich Lizavin dedicated the most engaged pages of his dissertation about writers from his region of the ’20s.

I’m not sure about “engaged” for заинтересованные or “Russian men of letters” for земляках-литераторах (do my Russian readers find these uses as odd as I do?), but in any event it seemed like the book would be right up my alley, as well as fitting in with the preoccupation of writers like Trifonov and Bitov with trying to excavate the Soviet past. The problem is that the farther I read, the more confusing it got, and the more I felt I had no idea what was going on or why I was being told about it. After dominating the first part of the novel, Milashevich as a man virtually disappears, replaced by his enigmatic Rozanov-like fragments, which Lizavin (like the reader) keeps trying to interpret. Let me quote Goscilo’s introduction to the translation to give you an idea of what it’s like. After saying it “combines a love story with a spiritual voyage” and comparing it to Doctor Zhivago (a book I didn’t like at all), she writes:

Kharitonov shows how the personal lives of people with profound vision become mangled in the meat grinder of Soviet planning, how the utopian dream of a “bright future” transforms Russia into a giant orphanage. Yet the weight of the novel falls on the redemptive potential of creativity and the human impulse to restore form and meaning in the midst of mayhem. […] Lines of Fate embraces the Tolstoyan concept of history as a process that cannot be captured. Indeed, history is synonymous with mystery. In retrospect it can only be posited, collated from scraps by individuals with investigative passions. […] In dramatizing the process of assembling a continuous story line from disparate, often contradictory fragments, [it conveys] simultaneity through crosscutting […]. Indeed, cinematic and musical techniques to a large degree determine the tempo and texture of Kharitonov’s prose.

To simulate the fragmentation of life narratives, Kharitonov plays a variation on the age-old device of the discovered manuscript. In this case, the text from the past must be assembled from bits and pieces of candy wrapper sheets (fantiki), which during the early Soviet era of shortages substituted for regular paper. The scholar Lizavin’s efforts to “piece together” the biography of the provincial writer Milashevich from the loose fantiki covered with the latter’s ruminations serve as an organizing metaphor for the novel. That metaphor captures Milashevich’s struggles to connect his own youth with his maturity, other characters’ insistence on grasping the link between seemingly discrete aspects of their own or others’ life experiences, and, ultimately, our desire as readers to “make sense” of Lines of Fate. […] Boundaries between decades, between imagined and empirically verifiable matter, between Milashevich and Lizavin, blur and periodically vanish in the novel’s aleatory but insistent movement toward a perceived truth about human existence.

Kharitonov conveys his sense of timeless truths and of life’s cyclic patters through the related devices of repetition, echo, overlap, and doubling. Characters appear in multiple and mysterious incarnations: Milashevich’s beloved Aleksandra Paradizova “returns” as Lizavin’s Zoia; Milashevich himself becomes “resurrected” through Lizavin’s passion for his writings; the painter Bosoi the Flyer returns from military combat as the poet Iona Sverbeyev, later to become the founder of a children’s orphanage; the religious figure of Makarii splinters into two or three selves, and so forth. […] While exploring the unknowability of human life and history, the novel affirms the necessity of seeking out their significance.

As I read that, I think “…I guess?” The thing is that it seems much clearer in that summary than it does while you’re reading, lost in a swamp of sensory and psychological details interspersed with gnomic quotes from the fantiki (e.g., “столько ждать, беззвучно, не шелохнувшись” [to wait so long, soundlessly, without moving]). New characters keep being introduced, and phrases and sentences keep being repeated in new contexts, sometimes helpfully italicized, sometimes not. There’s never a sense of structure, of building towards a climax; there’s barely a plot at all. What’s it all about?

Oddly, I found some enlightenment by reading something apparently unrelated, Dmitry Bykov’s essay on Makanin, where he says:

Еще он очень похож по основной интонации своей на Алексея Ремизова, который всю жизнь писал о людях, как бы ускользающих от взгляда. Это люди окраин, малозаметные, как в «Крестовых сестрах», малозаметные, скромные, несчастные персонажи, у которых какая-то своя насыщенная внутренняя жизнь, полная своих примет и ритуалов, своих зависимостей, потому что маленький человек, он же цепляется за мир с помощью сотни незаметных нам приспособлений. […] Приходится взаимодействовать с миром, это большие люди могут себе позволить не замечать этих примет, а маленький, он зависит от тысяч мелочей. Вот об этом писал Ремизов и его прямой ученик Маканин.

He is also very similar in his basic intonations to Aleksei Remizov, who all his life wrote about people who, as it were, slipped out of sight. They are people of the outskirts, inconspicuous, as in [Remizov’s novella] Sisters of the Cross, inconspicuous, modest, unhappy characters who have a kind of rich inner life, full of its own signs and rituals, their own relations of dependence, because a little man clings to the world with the help of hundreds of devices imperceptible to us. […] One has to interact with the world; big people can afford not to notice these signs, but a little one depends on thousands of trifles.

He also uses Andrei Bely’s Серебряный голубь (The Silver Dove) as a point of comparison, and that made me sit up and pay attention. Bely was also writing about provincial life and its mix of boredom and violence, and as I wrote in my review:

There’s a good deal of mystical hugger-mugger, and it’s impossible to take the characters very seriously, but who cares? The real hero of the book is Bely’s prose, and it’s mesmerizing, an astoundingly accomplished variant, sophisticated and flexible, of Gogol’s early village-bumpkin style.

And that’s what’s missing here: a great prose style that would sweep me along so that I wouldn’t mind the impenetrable plot and piling-up of apparently irrelevant details. It’s the same complaint I had about Tynyanov and Bitov: the idea may be clever, but the writing doesn’t grab me. As I said about Bitov’s Pushkin House, I’m not sure how the fault is to be apportioned between me and the author. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do now, though. I’m going to read Remizov.

I should mention that Goscilo translated the shortened journal version of the novel (in Druzhba narodov #1, #2) rather than the full version published as a book in 1994 (available as a pdf thanks to the invaluable, which seems odd since her version didn’t come out until 1996; also, she makes some unfortunate gaffes — she mistakes армейское ‘army’ for армянское ‘Armenian’ (twice!), translates метр семьдесят восемь ‘1.78 meters’ as “seventy-eight meters,” and renders запасник as “reservist” rather than the correct ‘storeroom.’ Still, if you’re curious about the novel and don’t read Russian, it’s worth giving it a try.


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    Fill-in-the-blank contest: “‘Boredom and Violence’ is the name of my new ____ cover band.” (Assume all plausible candidates to fill in the blank are second-or-third-tier-at-best British punk bands of the 1977-79 era.)

  2. The White Cats? (Featuring Rat Scabies and songs like “Machine Gun Etiquette” and “Shotgun Lovers.”)

  3. @J.W. Brewer: Clearly a question for rozele.

  4. Good lord, is rozele a Brit-punk maven on top of everything else?

  5. J.W. Brewer says

    Hat’s proposal, FWIW, creates sort of a conundrum, namely whether the extremely-obscure-and-failed-and-thus-with-plenty-of-potential-insider-hipster-points side project of someone from a first-tier (and thus ineligible) band does or doesn’t count as a “second-or-third-tier-at-best” eligible candidate. Even as the proposer of the challenge, I find myself uncertain of how to rule on the eligibility question, which will probably now need to be resolved via expensive and time-consuming arbitration in Switzerland.

  6. Jen in Edinburgh says

    I thought arbitration was made in the Hague.

  7. It doesn’t seem to be a hifi translation. In a single cited sentence the translator managed to drop the name of the Milashevich’s story «Откровение»/Revelation and земляках-литераторах should be “local authors”. “engaged” for заинтересованные seems to be ok, the word is a bit unusual in this context in Russian as well.

    The strange thing, Russian is ambivalent between которого referring back to Milashevich or to his story. Both a man and a story can have fate. Reading first few numbered paragraphs, I am inclined to conclude that it is about the story. Or Kharitonov might have been deliberately ambigous. Then “whose” is probably a good translation. It tends toward Milashevich as a referent, but doesn’t exclude the story as well.

  8. January First-of-May says

    The strange thing, Russian is ambivalent between которого referring back to Milashevich or to his story.

    I read it as clearly referring to the story even in the one listed paragraph. If the story’s title wasn’t there, though (like it isn’t in the English text), it would indeed have been quite ambiguous.

  9. Whoops, I forgot to put the title in! I had meant to make sure I was rendering it correctly, then simply forgot about it. For comparison, here’s Goscilo’s version:

    Thus begins one of Simeon Milashevich’s strangest stories, “Revelation,” to the interesting fate of which Anton Andreyevich Lizavin devoted the most crucial pages of his M.A. dissertation on his fellow literati of the twenties.

    I dislike her “interesting” and “crucial” even more than I do my own choices, and I think “fellow literati” is simply wrong.

  10. homie literati
    Fellow countrymen of letters🙂

  11. Whoops here as well, I thought it was Goscilo’s trnslation, not yours. Anyway, hers is not better.

    For занятной neither “interesting” nor “entertaining” is an exact fit, but it is a folly to search for the precise word for word translation. I would suggest “curious”.

    And, really, земляках-литераторах is not some enigma. It’s purely compositional, земляк means a person from your region. литератор is a writer or a bit more generally not only someone who makes living by writing novels or poetry, but also sketches, feuilletons, essays, criticism, libretti and the like. “fellow literati of the twenties” not only misses completely the regional emphasis of земляк, but makes it sound that Lizavin himself was from the 20s. “Men of letters” just like “literati” is unnecessarily elevated. Russian литератор is not a highfallutin occupation. English wiktionary creates a wrong impression, while Russian wiki is directly on the point “a person making living from writing”.

  12. Writing proletariat.

    Has nothing to lose except their pens.

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    Writers are not proletarians. Stalin understood this, and tried to help writers to serve the proletariat, even providing them with rest cures in holiday areas in the Northeast, but history has not been kind to him (possibly because writers of history succumbed to bourgeois sympathy with the writers Stalin tried to help).

  14. I recall reading a glowing review of this novel by Andrei Nemzer in 1991 or 1992. The critic believed it worthy of the first Russian Booker prize, which it ended up receiving. “I should get a hold of this book and read it,” I thought back in the day. Almost 30 years later, I still haven’t gotten down to reading it. Macanin’s The Hatch was also nominated in 1992, as was Petrushevskaya’s The Time is Night.

  15. J.W. Brewer says

    @JenInE: The focus of the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague is international disputes involving sovereign states whereas by contrast Switzerland is more likely to be the situs of arbitrations of international disputes among private commercial interests. I may not have fully thought through which paradigm the dispute I was mentioning fit into better …

  16. J.W. Brewer says

    Separately re “literati,” would “Fellow Grub Street hacks” be too archaic and/or particularistic to be a good English version?

  17. D.O.: Thanks, I’ve revised my translation based on your very helpful comments.

    The critic believed it worthy of the first Russian Booker prize, which it ended up receiving.

    Oh yeah, I should have mentioned that — it was a big deal at the time (I too thought “I should read that”), and it’s doubtless why the novel was translated. Nobody seems to talk much about it any more, though. And looking down the list of Russian Booker winners, I see most of them are not well remembered; Wikipedia quotes Dmitry Bykov as noting the Booker jury’s “amazing ability to choose the worst or, in any case, the least significant of six novels.”

  18. PlasticPaddy says

    Such problems with terminology can only be solved by applying correctly the principles of dialectical materialism. A proletarian who spends the whole day heroically bent over a shovel in order to overfulfil his quota, and chooses to spend his few hours of free time providing proletarians unable to take inspiration from the sight of his labour (possibly they too were bent over shovels and could not see him for that reason) creating inspiring writings–this comrade is a proletarian who writes. A Maxim Gorky who spends many years abroad and attending committee meetings instead of working with a shovel is a writer for the proletariat, who is properly called a proletarian writer because if you are born a proletarian, you remain a proletarian, unless you do not.

  19. Jeffry A House says

    Love the Russian posts! Keep them coming, please!

    For some reason, Kharitanov is more commonly translated into French, than English. The Internet Oracle tells me eleven of his novels have made it into French. I’ve read one, a while ago, called L’esprit de Pouchkine. If I had to summarize it, I’d say “the author confusingly, but occasionally interestingly, mulls the question of whether the Russian soul, the spirit of Pushkin, is a good thing, or a bad thing.” Spoiler: he never decides on the answer.

  20. Yup, that sounds like him!

  21. @LH: “Wikipedia quotes Dmitry Bykov as noting the Booker jury’s ‘amazing ability to choose the worst or, in any case, the least significant of six novels.'”

    Bykov is hyperbole incarnate but there’s some truth to this. Chudakov’s first-rate novel losing out to Ulitskaya’s “family saga” in 2001 was one of those cases. The Booker jury made amends in 2011 – by awarding the prize to Chudakov for the “best novel of the decade.” Posthumously.

  22. Bykov is hyperbole incarnate

    Yes, and he frequently rides wildly off in all directions and gets simple facts wrong, but he’s still one of the most interesting and stimulating critics I know. I may disagree with him, but he never bores me and he always makes me think.

  23. I’m not sure about “engaged” for заинтересованные or “Russian men of letters” for земляках-литераторах (do my Russian readers find these uses as odd as I do?),

    In my idiolect заинтересованные страницы does not work.

  24. Thanks, I needed that reinforcement.

  25. January First-of-May says

    In my idiolect заинтересованные страницы does not work.

    Doesn’t work in mine either. If anything I found “engaged pages” to be slightly less weird.

    Russian Booker prize

    Somewhat infamously given in 2010 to Elena Kolyadina’s Flower Cross, a historical novel set in the 17th century filled with archaic-sounding (but apparently mostly anachronistic) language and similarly archaic-sounding (but supposedly even more anachronistic) profanity.

    The whole thing (notably its opening line, В афедрон не давала ли?*) was utterly mocked** back in the day.

    *) That is, “Did you put out into the aphedron?”, with the intended slang meaning; the addressee was unfamiliar with said slang meaning, and also had no idea what an “aphedron” was and assumed it was some kind of voyage, so her answer was an enthusiastic “yes”. The rest of the chapter was a sitcom-level mess of misunderstanding until the poor priest finally bothered to explain the meaning of “aphedron”.
    (It means “butt”***, so he was asking her about anal sex.)

    **) Admittedly mostly with even more profanity. Here’s one relatively profanity-free stanza from one of the mockeries…

    Седьмого дня в Тотемское райпо,
    Предвосхищая выход на IPO,
    Пришёл обоз, колдобясь об ухабы:
    Вибраторы, резиновые бабы,
    На микросхемах электроминет –
    Всё завезли! А афедронов нет!

    ***) In Russian. In the original Greek it meant “toilet”, but this wasn’t known until the 20th century.

  26. Ah yes, I remember that! I thought it sounded silly but worth investigating, but I never got around to it.

  27. “В афедрон не давала ли?)”

    Sounds like a Russian intelligent (a member of intelligentsia) having fun in 2000s:/

    The interrogative li looks as if it was added to -la for poetic reasons. lali-lila-lali, vaphedron nedavalali?

    But I do not know how in 17 century people asked ladies if they ever (or last night) practiced anal sex.

  28. The etymology of aphedron and how and where it developed the meaning “arse” is, of course, totally interesting.

  29. But I do not know how in 17 century people asked ladies if they ever (or last night) practiced anal sex.
    It doesn’t sound like something one would have asked a lady about…

  30. The 17th century wasn’t a delicate time.

  31. so her answer was an enthusiastic “yes” – Reminds "однажды Бах спросил свою подругу…"

  32. January First-of-May says

    однажды Бах спросил свою подругу…

    When I saw the first two lines I thought it would be about the fish.

  33. однажды Бах спросил свою подругу

    Once an aspiring Ph.D. candidate walked with his date near the Institute of Applied Mathematics. “Do you want me to show you Keldysh?”, asked the young man. “Not at all!”, was the indignant reply.

    It doesn’t sound like something one would have asked a lady about…

    I think, SFReader once linked in this pages the list of questions that nuns had to answer on confession. From around 17th century. It was remarkably detailed and inventive.

  34. If he offered a homeomorphism*, she would be curious.

    *a generic math word chosen for its sound.

  35. Would homeomorphism be as an obscure an English word as authochtonous?* Or orgulous?

    * I used autochthonous just yesterday, actually (although I ended up deleting it).


    Here is that 17th century confession questionnaire.

    The priest apparently is supposed to ask women at the confession some very detailed questions regarding their sex life (including touching and kissing penises, letting men do the same to your vagina, various sex positions, anal sex, lesbian sex – describing the variety of ways how it’s usually done -, engaging in a threesome with your husband and other women, orgy with many men, sex with monks and priests, bestiality, sex with relatives and in-laws, etc).

    Maybe that’s what they had back then instead of sex education.

  37. “Maybe that’s what they had back then instead of sex education.”

    Hey!!!! Так нечестно.
    The version about Kama Sutra reproduced exactly my own thought (from a few hours ago) that I decided not to post.
    And now I refresh the page and you have changed it. I was going to refer to it in future…

    But we arrived to it from different directions: I first thought about “porn for clerics” and only then Kama Sutra. “Education” is a more optimistic view.

  38. There was a story – I guess, one must be 22 to laugh at it, I remember it for linguistical reasons and I could have already mentioned it – that illustrates another possible turn. A group of then math students told it about then best student. The guy had never kissed anyone, which was a popular topic of conversations among girls, but already met Putin (when receiving an award). They joked about a mythical dish “deflopé” (I suppose é, because it was mock French) that the most refined of the posh have supposedly already tried and others aspire to try, and once they used a verb deflopirovat’ (“deflopate”?) in the sense “to boast with pretentious stuff”. He stared at them slightly confused and said “I see what you mean!”, and then interpreted their text in light of Flop. “You are the only one here, who thought about this” said the girl who told the story. She’s a psychologist, but still she said it with sadness in her voice. (I do not know what they thought about, my only guess was “deflorate”).

  39. See Исповедь в России в XIV-XIX вв. (Confession in Russia in the XIV-XIX Centuries) by Maria Korogodina (2006) for typical “confessional questionnaires” from pre-Petrine Russia. Priests were expected to run through a long list of questions at a private confession. The church had different standard lists for confessants from different groups, including married women of modest social station. They would be routinely asked things like, “Have you been on top of your husband or another woman? Underneath another woman? Have you let your husband or another man use your anus? Have you let your husband take you in the manner of beasts? Have you inserted a finger in your womb?” Higher-ranking people would be asked if they mistreated their servants or plotted against the tsar.

  40. Unexpectedly, online in htmlhere, even though it was printed in 800 copies.

  41. God bless the internet.

  42. I recall C. S. Lewis using, in a letter I think, the phrase flop d’estime as if it were a well known expression in his circle.

  43. @Brett:

    i’m honored, but i’m not the one for that task.
    now, for certain periods of the boston-area scene…
    (Boredom & Violence would’ve definitely been a benefit compilation on Cherrydisc, circa 1994)

  44. John Cowan says

    For me, aphedron perfectly suggests some confused mixture of aphelion ‘point in a planet’s orbit furthest from the Sun’ and polyhedron, much like Lewis Carroll’s frumious ‘(epithet peculiar to bandersnatchi)’ < fuming + furious.

  45. Wikipedia sez:

    Perhaps due in part to Luther’s “natural course,” various 18th and 19th Century scholars assumed it was a euphemism for the human bowel. However the discovery and publication of an inscription at Pergamon confirmed that the word does, as per Latin secessus, in fact mean latrine.

  46. January First-of-May says

    Turns out that the “butt” theory would have been implausible long before the 20th century, because the word shows up in Historia Ecclesiastica by Socrates Scholasticus, regarding the death of Arius (1:38)…

    Ὁ δὲ ἀφεδρὼν ἄχρι νῦν ἐν τῇ Κωνσταντινουπόλει δείκνυται͵ ὡς ἔφην͵ ὄπισθεν τῆς ἀγορᾶς Κωνσταντίνου καὶ τοῦ ἐν τῇ στοᾷ μακέλλου
    “This aphedron is still shown at Constantinople, as I have said, behind Constantine Square and the shambles in the colonnade”

    (text from Greek Wikisource, translation based on English Wikisource and supplemented by Krivushin’s Russian translation)

    The context (previous description omitted, but hopefully easy to look up) fairly clearly describes a toilet, and in any case clearly a place not a body part.

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