Masha Gessen on Dovlatov.

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.


  1. I was struck by the reviewer’s use of jilted, which seems extremely Victorian, and by the reference to the New Yorker as a popular rather than a famous magazine — surely a popular magazine would be TV Guide, say, though it has to my surprise only about twice as many readers.

    The discussion of formal vs. dynamic translation strikes me as rather fishy. If “the dawn’s morning light” is an allusion to the U.S. national anthem, why isn’t “the cycle of life” (said to be transparently Russian) a direct reference to The Lion King? And it’s confusing to say “the dawn’s morning light” is “certainly absent” in the Russian. What is absent, the expression or the allusion? And why “certainly”, which implies in English certitude without actual evidence? (We don’t say “The sun is certainly shining” on a sunny day; we do say “At 20,000 feet the sun is certainly shining” on a cloudy one.)

  2. “Certainly absent” is, of course, allusion. That’s why it is not a good translation, actually.

    I like Dovlatov very much, though he does have an annoying trait. Apparently, over the years he created a collection of witticisms (published in his “Solo on Underwood” and “Solo on IBM”), which he then inserted in his various works. Unfortunate part is that he repeats many of them in several different places. Another amusing trait, this time the one I like, is Dovlatov’s description of meeting his (second) wife. He gives at least 3 different accounts in different books: either she stayed in his apartment after a party or they met at the friend’s party (that’s the one from “Pushkin Hills”), or she first came to him as a poll worker charged with fulfilling the participation quota.

    And I dispute Gessen’s thesis that drinking is at the center of the “Pushkin Hills”. The book is more about soul-searching of the writer. Binge drinking only accentuates the different stages. The first one, at the eponymous theme park, happens when narrator’s wife announces her and their daughter departure to the US. This is a soul crushing moment for the narrator and drinking is just his reaction to it. The second one (did Gessen miss it?) after his family left, is a sort of purge that brings narrator to the state of clean slate after which (as well as because of considerable prodding from the state) he decides to emigrate himself.

  3. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    “I was struck by the reviewer’s use of jilted, which seems extremely Victorian,…”

    In the way that often happens when you come across an unusual or outdated word, I met “jilted” again within couple of hours of reading your comment, at this delightful page:

    What on earth took me to such a page, you may be wondering. Perhaps it’s just the sort of thing I like to read. But no, I was taken there by a link on an Amazon discussion forum.

    Probably you and I don’t mix much with the sort of people who say “jilted” (I would probably expect “dumped”), but apparently it is still used in some circles.

  4. marie-lucie says

    Some years ago an English friend of mine told me the story of how she had been jilted by her fiancé just before her final exams. This is someone whose brilliant command of the language, both orally and in writing, I have always admired.

  5. Yeah, I would put “jilt” in the “not that common, but still very much alive” category.

  6. m-l: Yes, if Dovlatov actually promised to marry all those women, then jilted is indeed appropriate. But if not, I would go for dumped or something similar.

    Athel: It is a delightful page in its way. I particularly liked “Amanda Payne…your gig is up!” Meaning, of course, “the jig is up”, a very different statement.

  7. I learned “jilt” from, of all sources, The Abduction of Figaro “by” P. D. Q. Bach. The title of the opera was one of the many jokes that Peter Schickele had been using for decades (and an allusion to the actual plays/operas about Figaro, as well as The Abduction From the Seraglio). However, Schickele was commissioned by the Minnesota Opera in the 1980s to actually write and produce the whole opera. I watched the televised premier (“the first time it has been inflicted upon the public”), and as the characters were introduced, Donna Donna was billed as a “jilted lady.”

  8. Sir JCass says

    Does nobody remember Jilted John and his punk novelty song “Gordon is a Moron”? Maybe it didn’t cross the Atlantic.

    Jilted John was the alter ego of Graham Fellows, later responsible for the wonderful comic creation John Shuttleworth.

  9. Never heard of him or it, I’m afraid, and I’m something of an early-punk aficionado.

  10. Martin Barlow says

    ‘Jilted’ is more commonly used in the UK and is still current, but beginning to sound a bit old-fashioned maybe. The US influence means that ‘dumped’ is increasingly used. Anyway jilted or dumped, jolting or dumping, Dovlatov is a great writer. Are ‘Solo on Underwood’ and ‘Solo on an IBM’ available in any form?

  11. I googled the first and got “Sergei Dovlatov Notebooks Solo on Underwood Solo … – eBay”; it was no longer available, but I’d guess copies come up for sale once in a while.

  12. Egogoogling the other day, I found an ad telling me that lots of John Cowan was available for sale on eBay. Quite untrue, I’m sorry to say.

    Almost all the hits now are for the bluegrass singer and bassist, though my home page is still #4.

    While I’m at it, I’m working a consulting gig (for better money than the last one) waiting for one of several promised full-time spots to open up. At least this job is open-ended.

  13. Well, the gig is up, and I’m back to starving in the East Village (though not cheaply). Several prospects are being prospected, however.

  14. We will all keep our fingers crossed!

  15. David Marjanović says

    ‘Jilted’ is more commonly used in the UK and is still current, but beginning to sound a bit old-fashioned maybe. The US influence means that ‘dumped’ is increasingly used.

    Ditched has arrived in German.

Speak Your Mind