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.


  1. I also enjoyed Chung’s review… and I also had no idea Dovlatov’s work can be so hard to find in English. I’m glad a friend unexpectedly lent me her four-volume Dovlatov collected works set two years ago. She handed it over in a tote bag, saying something like “This is my favorite. I hope you like Dovlatov, too.” I read several of the novels and liked Dovlatov and his humor so much that I bought my own copies of two of the volumes… Ours and Зона are waiting for me.

  2. I’m sorry (Nij), but you are totally NUTS for not checking on Emms’s first. You can get it, and even have it shipped to Norway, for $15 through bookfinder.

  3. That Amazon link is to a copy of Ours by ‘Seegei Dovlatov’. If you search Amazon for “Dovlatov”, you will see another entry for ‘Ours’ with many more copies in it—though still none directly from Amazon.

  4. Thanks, Z.D.—I’ve changed the post’s link to a better one.

  5. Far off topic: When James Joyce came to Trieste in 1904 (where he befriended Italo Svevo and probably Umberto Saba), the American consul there was Fiorello La Guardia, who later became a national political figure and the mayor of New York City. La Guardia’s mother was a Triestine Jew in origin, but LaGuardia was raised as an Episcopalian in Arizona.
    OK, someone write a play about that. “You know what you should do, Fiorello? Go back to New York…..”

  6. Stylistically, Dovlatov was ruthless to himself. He would rewrite his texts countless times. He famously adhered to his own self-imposed rule to not to have any words in a sentence that start from the same letter.

  7. He was born in 1882. That was a bit young to be consul, wasn’t it? Wiki says “La Guardia served in U.S. consulates in Budapest, Trieste, and Fiume (1901–1906).” Was he working for the State Dept. aged 19?

  8. LaGuardia was only 5′-2″, short even for a Republican.

  9. Hat: a small technical note on data protection [added later: it started out small, anyway …]. The way the NYPL has implemented its web pages, I can page back through your search history and see what else you had been looking at. I’ll explain in a minute why I think that is not really good news, even if plain old links to Google search results work in a similar way (the 1 2 3 … buttons at the bottom of the page).
    Clicking on “NYPL only has one copy” in your blog, one reaches a NYPL search results page. But pressing the “<< Back to results” area at the top left took me to your previous search results page, an intermediate one. Continuing in that way, I reached the page where you had initially entered “dovlatov”.
    Your initial reaction to this may be “who cares? Anyone is welcome to see what I was searching for”. In fact the URL of your link contains “dovlatov”, and clicking on the link doesn’t take you to an existing page, but rather causes a search to be repeated. Similarly, a Google URL for a search result does not actually “link to results”, as I misleadingly wrote above, but just repeats the search.
    But what we have here is a data trail of the same kind that is established via browser cookies, not necessarily through the URLs that you see, and used to track what you look at in the internet – specific kinds of products or pornography, for instance, that can be used to create a “profile”. It’s similar to rifling in your garbage can to see what you’ve been reading or eating. You don’t see “results”, but ingredients (URLs, candy wrappers) from which “results” can be (plausibly) reconstructed.
    Until I started writing about the NYPL pages just now, it hadn’t even occurred to me that Google works in the same way. I mean, understanding the structure of a URL, or recognizing a candy wrapper, is not rocket science, particularly to someone in IT like myself. But I had not yet had the explicit recognition that this stuff can be used to “profile”, even if only in a small way.
    I hope this doesn’t strike people as hysterical, because that’s not what I am at this point. Rather, precisely because I’m in IT, I am professionally confronted with data protection issues all the time, and know how easy it is to smuggle info – particularly because that’s a standard technique for “establishing security”, via a “security token”!
    Writing this comment has led me to an explicit recognition of something else new: it’s not just data that needs protection, but data processing itself (having the search words in the URL, for instance). You have to protect against data, and against data processing.
    IT exploitation of data for all kinds of purposes comes creeping on velvet toes behind who-cares-about-my-URLs. Like exploitation of genomic knowledge for all kinds of purposes follows soundlessly in the wake of research into the possible genetic causes of certain diseases. Nobody knows “what to do about it”, myself included. I guess my nerves are rather bare after just reading Ulrich Beck’s Risikogesellschaft (Risk Society) and Gegengifte (Counterpoisons / Antidotes).

  10. marie-lucie says

    a bit young to be consul
    He could have been a minor clerk, rather than a diplomat. Assuming he spoke or at least understood his mother’s language or dialect, he would have been a valuable recruit in the consulate.

  11. I hope this doesn’t strike people as hysterical
    Certainly not me, and I am very grateful for your amazingly comprehensible (to a computer illiterate like me) comment. Like you, I don’t know what to do about it, or whether I should remove the NYPL link, but you’ve given me food for thought.

  12. As for La Guardia, here’s the relevant section of the NYT obit:

    Soon after his father’s death, young Fiorello accompanied relatives to Budapest, where his mother’s body is buried in the Jewish Cemetery. There at the age of 19 he obtained employment in the United States Consulate. A few months later he was sent to the consulate at Trieste as interpreter. When he was 20 he became consul at Fiume, then part of Austria-Hungary.

    After a row with officials at Fiume because of his refusal to line up emigrants for a reception to the Archduchess Josepha, he decided to resign and to return to America.

  13. Your credit smuggles information about you. Unlike the marine version, where everybody except the captain can know about the stowaway, with no harm done, in the case of your credit card only the captain is supposed to know what’s on board. But how likely is it that that will work as intended? With all those sailors, full of blameless IT curiosity, poking around in the hold?

  14. Consul was a connections job, and LaGuardia had the weird language skills, and consul in Fiume or Trieste isn’t exactly top-drawer (no offense, Triestines and Fiumians!)

  15. Above should start: “Your credit card smuggles information”

  16. “Velvet toes”?? Velvet paws

  17. Kári Tulinius says

    Luckily my local library has a large selection of Russian texts, both in the original and translation, because there was (and still is) a sizable Russian Jewish community here in Providence. There were three copies of Ours in the system so I’ve requested one. I’ve long loved his Suitcase.

  18. If anyone cares, I can’t google any other sign of this Archduchess mentioned above, Josepha. There’s just an Eighteenth century one and one who was born in 1937. All the references I’ve found to the incident above are simply copied from two sources. It’s shocking how they all talk about her as if everyone knows who it is. I may start inventing minor royalty myself, they will go out riding shetland ponies in my Russian novel. Laguardia may have a part, I like him.

  19. I can’t google any other sign of this Archduchess mentioned above, Josepha
    I believe it is Erzherzogin Maria Josepha von Sachsen. Here is another photo of her visiting the harbor at Fiume. Other versions of the story seem to say that LaGuardia refused to delay the departure of a ship for her inspection, rather than form a line-up per se.

  20. In my play LaGuardia talks Joyce into emigrating to America to work in the iron mines with all the other Slovenians. Joye agrees because he wants to brush up on his Slovenian.

  21. His frequent absences from his family helped her goal of keeping her children away from his bad influence.
    There’s something beautiful about that sentence. It’s sort of like “The morning star and the evening star are one and the same”.
    Problem: a no good husband who’s never home. Solution: he’s never home.
    It belongs in the Tao Te Ching.

  22. When LaGuardia did come back to New York City, he worked at Ellis Island as an interpreter for both Italian and Yiddish. Quoth Wikipedia:
    La Guardia was the city’s first Italian-American mayor, but was not a typical Italian New Yorker. He was a Republican Episcopalian who had grown up in Arizona, and had an Istrian Jewish mother and a Roman Catholic-turned-atheist Italian father. He reportedly spoke seven languages, including Hebrew, Croatian, German, Hungarian, Italian, and Yiddish.

  23. MMcM, thank you very much for that.
    For the first time, thanks to Aidan Kehoe’s instructions, I was able to access the google book, using a ‘proxy’.
    Maria Josefa’s son Karl was the one who became Kaiser after Franz-Joseph died. From Wiki:

    others have seen Charles as a brave and honourable figure who tried as Emperor-King to halt World War I. The English writer, Herbert Vivian, wrote:
    “Karl was a great leader, a Prince of peace, who wanted to save the world from a year of war; a statesman with ideas to save his people from the complicated problems of his Empire; a King who loved his people, a fearless man, a noble soul, distinguished, a saint from whose grave blessings come.”
    Anatole France stated:
    “Emperor Karl is the only decent man to come out of the war in a leadership position, yet he was a saint and no one listened to him. He sincerely wanted peace, and therefore was despised by the whole world. It was a wonderful chance that was lost.”
    All of these various viewpoints give weight to the words of Pope Saint Pius X during an audience with a young Charles: “I bless Archduke Charles, who will be the future Emperor of Austria and will help lead his countries and peoples to great honor and many blessings – but this will not become obvious until after his death.”

    No, it will only become obvious when my Russian novel is published. He died in Madeira, aged 34. He was probably poisoned, like Napoleon on St. Helena.

  24. He was poisoned
    This is only speculation, but you have to explore all avenues when you’re writing a historical novel.

  25. a saint from whose grave blessings come
    Isn’t there a word missing here? From whose what? What part of the saint is the origin of these grave blessings? Oh well, maybe it doesn’t make any difference. Grave blessings are better than frivolous ones.

  26. Now I understand. How obtuse of me! It wasn’t part of the saint at all.
    a saint from whose crypt grave blessings come

  27. A blessing may be neither grave nor frivolous. And we can try adding text at the end:
    A saint from whose grave blessings come lighter blessings.

  28. David Marjanović says

    Or maybe there are no grave blessings, just blessings that come from his grave…?
    Besides, no hagiography is necessary here. He’s already been beatified for somewhat dubious reasons.

  29. Or maybe there are no grave blessings, just blessings that come from his grave…?
    Reingelegt, reingelegt!! Selber doof!

  30. Following his beatification, he has become commonly known as Blessed Charles.
    Not in Austria, I’ll bet.

  31. Selig Karl?

  32. Selig Karl
    Karl selig would mean “Karl of recent memory”, i.e. not long dead (feu Charles).
    a great leader, a Prince of peace … a statesman with ideas … loved his people, a fearless man, a noble soul, distinguished, a saint
    Them’s one big bunch of character features! His praise-o-nym would have to be something like Karl der Besteste-und-Überhaupt (Charles the Bestest-and-Lemme-Tellya).
    By the way, how does the word “yet” function in the following sentence quoted above?
    Emperor Karl is the only decent man to come out of the war in a leadership position, yet he was a saint and no one listened to him.

  33. I think it’s okay. He was a leader; yet no one listened, even though he was a saint.

  34. If you think the sentence is ok as is, then to add “even though” is cheating. “yet” means “despite the fact that”, “nevertheless”, and makes no sense where it stands. That was my point.
    The only way I can make sense out of the sentence is to alter it, exchanging the “yet” and the following “and”:
    He was a leader, and he was a saint yet no one listened to him

  35. I mean: “yet” means “despite that”

  36. Anyway, since even prophets are without honor in their own country, saints can’t expect any better.
    He was a leader, and he was a saint, therefore no one listened to him

  37. Okay, maybe it’s not a brilliant translation. I’ll give Anatole the benefit of the doubt. But what do you think about Pope St. Pius X reading the tea-leaves? I didn’t know popes did predictions. How much does the pope get paid?

  38. According to Wikipedia, Pius X was as determined as Pius IX to fight “modernizing” tendencies (Pius IX was the dude who foisted papal infallibility on the world). Pius X may have believed that tea-leaf reading was suitably retrograde proof that he meant business too.
    Here’s an interesting tidbit:

    Following his death, Pius X was buried in a simple and unadorned tomb in the crypt below St. Peter’s Basilica. Papal physicians had been in the habit of removing organs to aid the embalming process. Pius X expressly prohibited this, however, and none of his successors have allowed the practice to be reinstituted.

  39. John Cowan: I’m sure Mario Pei wrote somewhere that La Guardia’s language abilities in languages other than Italian and English were limited, and that he could give speeches in “passable” Yiddish, Serbo-Croatian and other languages. Mario Pei isn’t the best or most most credible linguist, granted, but as a fellow New Yorker he is probably more reliable as a first-hand witness as to La Guardia’s actual linguistic competence.

  40. Of course today’s intellectual, trained on Trivial Pursuit and accustomed to speed-skating over the thin ice of his ignorance, knows that papal infallibility does not mean that if the pope gave you a racing tip then you should bet on the horse in question. The dogma expresses a qualified position:

    that the Holy Spirit will not allow the Church to err in its belief or teaching under certain circumstances.

    There’s plenty of argumentative leeway there for lawyers.

  41. Governor Olson of Minnesota, a friend of LaGuardia’s was also reputed to be fluent in Yiddish. He grew up in a Yiddish neighborhood and spent a lot of time with the neighbors.
    This is probably a good time to remind people that the Venerable Bede has finally been sainted. (I don’t know the reason for the long delay; probably there was some kind of problem with the paperwork.) Please go through your bibliographies and reference books and update.

  42. I confess to inadequate knowledge about the Venerable B. Must he now be called the Venerated Bede?

  43. marie-lucie says

    The Venerable Bede and his new elevation were mentioned not too long ago, in Language Log if not here. I asked a question: do we now have to correct books which mention him (for instance as a source on early England) and use “Saint Bede” instead? I don’t recall getting a reply.
    Grumbly: “Venerabilis” means that he is worthy of being venerated, so he has been venerated all this time. But now he is a “saint”, which means that his intercession can be invoked if you have a problem that is within his competence (since saints have their specialties, related to events in their own lives).

  44. marie-lucie: I didn’t know that about intercession. So saints are like solicitors, each with a licence to practice (intercede) only in certain fields? And becoming a saint is like being admitted to the bar?

  45. marie-lucie says

    Grumbly, sort of. I guess it’s like getting higher and higher degrees. You can’t skip the intermediate steps, and each time you have to prove that you deserve the designation by specific acts. I think that to be a saint you have to have caused two miracles (hard to prove these days, as the examiners are much more picky than they were 1000 and more years ago). I would look up “canonization” in Wikipedia but I feel too lazy at the moment.

  46. So I now know at what step the Venerable title is acquired during the process of canonization.
    Step 1) An initial gathering of information about the “candidate”‘s credentials. If this information justifies it, the candidate will be called “Servant of God” and assigned a postulator, who gathers further information.
    Step 2) A certification non cultus will be issued after more information-gathering has verified that “no superstitious or heretical worship or improper cult has grown up around the servant or his or her tomb”.
    Step 3)

    “Venerable/Heroic in Virtue” When enough information has been gathered, the Congregation [for the Causes of the Saints] will recommend to the pope that he make a proclamation of the Servant of God’s heroic virtue (that is, that the servant exhibited the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, and the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance, to an heroic degree). From this point the one said to be “heroic in virtue” is referred to by the title “Venerable”. A Venerable has as of yet no feast day, no churches may be built in his or her honor, and the church has made no statement on the person’s probable or certain presence in heaven, but prayer cards and other materials may be printed to encourage the faithful to pray for a miracle wrought by his or her intercession as a sign of God’s will that the person be canonized.

    After that comes “Blessed”, then “Saint”. To be canonized a saint, one (or more) miracle is necessary.
    So, that much made me doubt the possibility that “the Venerable Bede has finally been sainted”, as JE put it, because that would involve skipping the “Blessed” step. However, it turns out Bede’s appellation of Venerable has nothing to do with the canonization term Venerable, as this passage from the Catholic Encyclopedia describes it:

    The title Venerabilis seems to have been associated with the name of Bede within two generations after his death. There is of course no early authority for the legend repeated by Fuller of the “dunce-monk” who in composing an epitaph on Bede was at a loss to complete the line: Hac sunt in fossa Bedae . . . . ossa and who next morning found that the angels had filled the gap with the word venerabilis.

    Catholicism made easy!

  47. hard to prove these days, as the examiners are much more picky than they were 1000 and more years ago
    Really? That’s hard to square with the vast increase in the number of saints in recent years.

  48. J. W. Brewer says

    If and when the Bl. Kaiser Karl is declared to have been reclassified as a saint proper, it seems there ought to be some special festal celebration in the once Hapsburg city of Trieste/Trst/etc, with representatives of the Joyce and LaGuardia families invited to attend. The service could either be in the varied languages of the Hapsburg lands or perhaps Esperanto. (Have I told the story here of arriving in Trieste in May of ’06 to learn from street posters that I had missed by a day or two the chance to witness a Solemn High Mass being conducted in Esperanto?)

  49. LaGuardia was a Protestant Jew, not a Catholic Jew.
    Grumbly, are you saying categorically that you would bet against the pope in a horse race?
    I sure wouldn’t.
    Solicitors can only practise in certain fields?
    Also, as my daughter pointed out, on tv and in films how is it that people “call their lawyer” when they get into trouble with the police? Does everyone else in the world but us have a criminal lawyer on retainer?

  50. J. W. Brewer says

    For a perhaps more impressive bit of prophesying than Pius X provided, and in the context of Russian literature to boot, consider Vladimir Nabokov. In Speak Memory, he refers (in one of those Nabakovian parentheticals) to his friend and Paris publisher Ilya Fondaminskii (both first and last name romanized/transliterated lots of different ways) as a “saintly and heroic soul.” A half-century and change after Speak Memory was published, the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate acted, and IF was duly glorified as St. Ilya. (I take it St. Ilya’s relationship with VN was not considered evidence of sanctity, but at least it wasn’t disqualifying.)

  51. marie-lucie says

    hard to prove these days, as the examiners are much more picky than they were 1000 and more years ago – Really? That’s hard to square with the vast increase in the number of saints in recent years.
    LH, the Church is not just looking at recent years, or even at one century, but at a much longer perspective of almost two millennia. There have been indqualities over the centuries: under certain popes decades have gone by with hardly any new saints, but other popes have picked up the slack and acknowledged persons deserving of sainthood who seemed to have been passed over. In the contemporary world there have been several developments: a few years ago the Vatican reconsidered its list of saints (there are several saints associated with almost each day of the year) and threw out a number for which there was no evidence that they had even existed (St Christopher being prominent among the “victims”); in earlier centuries many saints were declared such because of a local cult that grew around them (something no longer accepted as evidence of sainthood); recent popes have looked beyond the old traditionally Catholic countries at places where Catholicism was of more recent date, as in Africa or Asia, as sources of potential saints; and proving a miracle requires not only the opinion of ordinary people but also attestations by medical or other qualified scientific authorities regarding the occurrence of phenomena for which they have no explanation.

  52. bet against the Pope in a horse race
    What would the Pope and the horse(s) be racing to do?

  53. St. Olaf must have helped a bit in turning Norway Christian.

  54. Poor Dovlatov. Not easily available in English, then sees his thread hijacked.
    I’ll just note with local pride that the Minuteman library system (Metro Boston) has 6 copies of Ours, 3 in the Newton Library alone, as well as English translations of The Compromise, and a Foreign Woman. Although sadly none of them are checked out. Of course in Newton Dovlatov fans are more likely to be Russian speakers anyway.

  55. The Newton Free Library offers proxy (home) access to both the OED and JSTOR.

  56. Yes, but for both of them it says:
    Home access for this database is available only to Newton residents with a Newton library card number beginning 21323.
    I’ve tried putting that number in with three additional numbers, but I can’t get it to work.

  57. David Marjanović says

    I think that to be a saint you have to have caused two miracles (hard to prove these days, as the examiners are much more picky than they were 1000 and more years ago).

    Even more recently, they were relaxed again, however. The two miracles used to be four, and the famous job of advocatus diaboli has been abolished.
    Also, the criteria for miracle healings are by far not as strict as they could be. Several recent cases that were accepted by the Church are rather laughable.
    Wikipedia has fairly detailed articles on all four stages (“Venerable” to “Saint”).

  58. Advocatus diaboli sounds like an interesting job, were you your own boss?

  59. Also, as my daughter pointed out, on tv and in films how is it that people “call their lawyer” when they get into trouble with the police?

    AJP probably already knows this, but for those of us whose mortal coil remains unshuffled: Because they have seen other characters on TV or the movies saying they are going to call their lawyers, and so on. Indeed, if someone threatens you with their lawyer, a good comeback is “ORLY? What’s your lawyer’s name?” Rarely can they answer.

  60. TV has indeed a big influence on what people think how the legal system works and what the law is. Several years ago I read that in Germany, there is a problem with wills that are typed (or nowadays probably printed from a word document) and signed by the testator and two witnesses, because people have seen that in American films and TV shows; the problem is that in Germany, a will needs to be either hand-written and signed by the testator, or notarized by a notary public in order to be valid.

  61. “Police in many lands are now complaining that local arrestees are insisting on having their Miranda rights read to them, just like perps in American TV cop shows. When it’s explained to them that they are in a different country, where those rights do not exist, they become outraged.” —Neal Stephenson, “In the Beginning was the Command Line” (1999)

  62. David Marjanović says

    Some countries have actually introduced 911 as an emergency phone number because enough people had seen it on TV and expected it to work.

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