Sharov’s Rehearsals.

I’ve finished Vladimir Sharov’s Репетиции (The Rehearsals; see this post), and I’m having almost as much trouble deciding what I think as I did after reading Kharitonov’s Линии судьбы (Lines of Fate; see this post). I like the Sharov a lot better, and am looking forward to reading more of him, but I’m not clear what he’s doing here or why he’s doing it, or (which is perhaps another way of putting it) what kind of a novel it is. It starts off one way, goes in a different direction, and winds up with something else entirely. In order to explain all that, I’ll have to do a lot of spoiling, so you’ll have to decide if and when to bail out if you’re thinking of reading the novel yourself.

It starts, as I said in that earlier post, with a guy named Kobylin, who disappears immediately, makes a brief reappearance after dozens of pages, and shows up again at the very end, so that in a formal sense the novel is tied together by his story. It doesn’t feel that way, however, because he’s not actually a character, just a plot device (the same is true for many of the others who populate the book’s pages). After that comes the Ilyin section I described in the earlier post; having read the entire novel, I’m not clear on what purpose it serves other than to provide some religious background (Ilyin never reappears either, nor does the narrator’s fiancee Natasha who’s mentioned a few times early on; the “oprichnina” I built the earlier post around also has no further resonance, so I’m OK with Ready’s decision to omit it here). Then comes Professor Kuchmy at the Kuibyshev college he first attends, who talks about the senselessness of human existence and the unique ability of writers to produce genuine progeny through their writing, and Professor Suvorin in Tomsk who is obsessed with women (the narrator is the only male student he ever accepts) and with Old Believer manuscripts, and it is here that the real plot kicks in — the materials the narrator acquires after Suvorin’s death form the basis of his career (which otherwise goes undescribed) and the rest of the novel. I can’t improve on the Russian Dinosaur’s description, so I’ll quote it:

The Rehearsals traces the self-destructive urges in Russian society all the way back to the mid-seventeenth-century Schism in the Russian Orthodox Church, when the Patriarch Nikon forced through radical changes in text and ritual against the will of many, including his former mentor Archpriest Avvakum. Sharov develops Nikon as a brooding, complex, deeply religious and profoundly dangerous character, who all but kidnaps a travelling Breton player, De Sertan, commissioning him to direct and produce a religious mystery play at Nikon’s New Jerusalem monastery. But before the “first night” takes place, Nikon is arrested and De Sertan and his Russian players sent into Siberian exile, where they form a unique sectarian community. Not only do they continue rehearsing their mystery play about the birth of Christ for centuries, they live permanently, and pass on to their children and grandchildren, the roles they act – so the community divides into “Christians”, “Jews”, “Romans”, and others. The role of Christ is never cast – Nikon’s hope, and the community’s unspoken conviction, is that the day the rehearsals are finally complete, Christ will appear and the world will end.

This is all described in great detail, more detail than is plausibly contained in the manuscripts, but never mind — we accept that the narrator is novelizing the material. The real problem (for me) begins when the “Christians” plan to massacre the “Jews” in Mshanniki, the village they’ve created near the Ket river, and the latter flee. It takes place in winter, the “Christians” chasing them bring almost nothing with them, yet the chase goes on for weeks; finally, when everyone is near dead from cold, hunger, and exhaustion, it turns out that the “Jews” have circled back to the village, where the massacre idea gets forgotten and they go back to living as before. Then we get “Попытки разом покончить с евреями случались и позже, повторяясь обычно в каждом втором поколении” [The attempts to finish off the Jews once and for all happened later as well, repeating themselves usually in every other generation], at which point I wrote “Oh, come on” in the margin. Then comes the Revolution, and the village (still consisting of descendants rehearsing the play) is collectivized; still later it’s turned into a Gulag camp, with the head apostle, Pyotr (Peter), running the camp and Iakov (James) the head of the local NKVD. Peter, like his predecessors, decides the “Jews” have to be exterminated to bring on the Second Coming, and there is a grand scheme (described in detail, right out of The Great Escape) to stage a breakout in which the “Jews” can be killed. They manage to escape anyway… but circle around back to the camp, where the armed men await. Finis.

One problem I have with all this is the implausibility. I was trained by science fiction to accept one unlikely situation (time travel, say, or faster-than-light spaceships) as a premise (this is called “suspension of disbelief”), but the rest had better be believable. So I accepted the self-perpetuating troupe of actors doing their rehearsals generation after generation, especially since they’re in a remote Siberian village of the sort that sheltered Old Believer communities well into the twentieth century — it’s a genuinely new and exciting idea. But the repetition of the Jews-escaping-massacre-but-circling-back device was too much, as was the continuation of the rehearsals under Soviet power, and the husband of the dying Ruth (one of the few characters developed enough to be of interest in their own right) happening to be sent to the same camp, and various other events. Sharov keeps talking about “miracles,” and I fear he expects the reader to accept that God actually does take part in earthly events and arrange developments to His own satisfaction. I’m sorry, but that’s a bridge too far for me; I’m happy with religious characters, but I’m not a religious reader.

The other problem is the structure. It starts off as a “how I went to college and met interesting people” story, then morphs into a sort of generation-spaceship plot with the hoped-for planet replaced by the Second Coming, and then turns into a Gulag story, except with “Christians” and “Jews” playing the parts of the various elements of Gulag life. It makes it hard to take the Gulag story seriously (and one can’t help feeling it had been done more impressively many times by 1992), and the whole massacre-the-Jews thing made me pretty queasy even though the “Jews” were only acting the part. Still, I enjoyed it, and it’s early in his career, and I’ll hope that he figured out how to put a novel together in his later work.


  1. I didn’t read the novel, just several pages in the beginning (didn’t get even to Tomsk) and read about it a bit after the previous post. What I got from all of that is that the action happens in a kind of circular time. Nikon building New Jerusalem was an attempt to restart the history and De Sertan’s troop is caught in a sort of time loop where they relive they roles without a real resolution as continuing attempt to restart history. I am not sure whether it fits LH’s impressions from the novel.

    ADDENDUM: By the way, репетиция is of course “rehearsal”, no doubt. But it’s false friend “repetition” was probably on Sharov’s mind as well.

  2. “not clear what he’s doing here or why he’s doing it” – That is just how I felt about Before & During. Germaine de Staël gives birth to Joseph Stalin, that kind of thing. Occasionally she gives birth to herself. Lenin overthrows the Tsar by means of a Scriabin symphony. What is Sharov doing; why is he doing it?

  3. Stu Clayton says

    By the way, репетиция is of course “rehearsal”, no doubt. But it’s false friend “repetition” was probably on Sharov’s mind as well.

    A close friend rather, or sister. Rehearsal is repetition with a specific goal. See the OED’s etymologies.

  4. See Oliver Ready’s article “How Sharov’s Novels Are Made: The Rehearsals and Before & During” for a detailed (and much more favorable) discussion of the novel.

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