Sorokin’s Roman.

I was planning to write my review of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Роман [Roman] today because I expected to finish the book yesterday. As it happens, I finished it a day earlier because I skimmed the last hundred or so pages in a few minutes, but I’m writing about it today anyway, because I had to catch my breath and figure out what I wanted to say about this enchanting, boring, disgusting, maddening piece of fiction. I’m still trying to figure it out, and I’m hoping that the process of writing will help me clarify what I think.

It’s not the first Sorokin I’ve read; that would be his famous 1991 short story Кисет [The tobacco pouch], in which a touching but clichéd reminiscence of a WWII veteran looking for a woman who gave him a tobacco pouch during the war descends into gibberish (I saw a reference to it on Anatoly Vorobey’s site a couple of decades ago and gobbled it up), and that’s Sorokin’s gimmick in a nutshell: present some pleasing cliché and violently deconstruct it. I completely understand why a lot of people can’t stand Sorokin; some hate the clichés, while others are repelled by the violence, which frequently involves torture, coprophagy, cannibalism, and the like. But for me the clichés are redeemed by the brilliant presentation (Sorokin is a superb stylist capable of any sort of pastiche), and as for the violence, well, as he points out, the characters aren’t people, they’re just words on paper, and what happens to them is about literature and language, not suffering human beings. Of course that’s a bit disingenuous, since it’s a rare reader who can entirely divorce a literary character from the humanity the character is constructed to mimic, but it’s also true, and I can handle the results. Except…

Well, let me describe the book in enough detail to give you an idea of it; this will necessarily involve spoilers, so click through to the rest only if you don’t care about that. (I should mention that this, the last of his major works to be rendered into English, is said to be forthcoming from Dalkey Archive in Max Lawton’s translation, and I’ll also point out that the Russian text I linked to above is on Sorokin’s own site — he generously presents his work for all to read freely if they don’t want to cough up for a printed copy.)

The protagonist of the novel (“hero” would be a particularly unfortunate term in this case) is Roman Alekseevich Vospennikov. (I assume the surname is stressed on the first syllable, since it’s presumably based on the noun во́спенник [vospennik], a dialect equivalent of о́спенник ‘vaccinator,’ derived from оспа ‘smallpox’ — very appropriate in this context of infectious madness and death. I should also mention here that the given name Roman is homophonous with the noun роман ‘novel; romance,’ which is by no means irrelevant.) At the beginning, Roman has left an incipient legal career in the capital (presumably St. Petersburg, since the tale is set in an unspecified time and place but is clearly prerevolutionary) to try becoming a painter back on the country estate where he grew up, the home of his uncle and aunt Anton and Lidia Vospennikov — his parents died when he was a child, and they raised him as if he were theirs (they don’t have children of their own). He is met at the train station by the coachman Akim, who is thrilled to see him, as is everyone else when he arrives at the estate. He asks about Zoya, the woman he loves and has been thinking about since he left three years earlier, but no one gives him a clear answer.

Delighted to be back, he embarks on a program of experiencing all the old pleasures, and the novel correspondingly indulges in lengthy descriptions of the familiar activities of the tsarist gentry: elaborate meals, an Easter service, fishing, hunting, haymaking (like Tolstoyan heroes, Roman and his uncle Anton Petrovich take up scythes and mow alongside the peasants), the bathhouse (where an enthusiastic family friend increases the heat until more timid souls are afraid of being literally steamed to death), and mushroom gathering (during which Roman wanders off, sees a wolf devouring a baby elk, succumbs to unreasoning fury and attacks it with only a knife, and is nearly killed before finishing it off). Along the way he discovers Zoya is seeing a wealthy young man who wants to take her off to England; she tells Roman she doesn’t love her fiancé but is sick of Russia — “I’m not Russian!” — and will do anything to get away. They part, and that’s the last we hear of her. (I note that her name means ‘life’ in Greek: life is fleeing Russia, and only death remains.)

Now, all of these activities and descriptions are reminiscent of those in the Great Russian Novel as presented by Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Goncharov, and Turgenev, and all of them have been said by critics to be sources for Sorokin (he himself has mentioned Turgenev as an inspiration). Since I’m currently reading War and Peace to my wife at night, I’m particularly aware of the tricks of characterization and plotting he borrows from Tolstoy, but I’m sure there are allusions to all those writers if you dig for them. As I say, there are readers who are impatient with all that and say “We’ve seen it before, why are you repeating it,” but I enjoy it, and the thing is that it’s not all sweetness and light — ominous cracks keep appearing in the nostalgic surface; already in chapter 2 a chandelier is compared to a spider (Dostoevsky’s well-known symbol of evil) and Anton, a retired actor given to declamation, sighs “смерть моя” [my death], there are references to various Shakespeare heroes who end up killing and being killed (Hamlet, Macbeth, Caesar), and of course there is that murderous (and possibly mad) wolf. Furthermore, Sorokin preempts “been there, done that” criticism with a passage on storytelling near the start of Part 2, ch. 3:

When they entered a pine wood, the horse started to go at a walking pace; Anton Petrovich grumbled, but, submitting to his wife’s insistence [on not going as fast as Anton wanted], he decided to tell one of his well-known stories, which he was in the habit of using to pass the time on the road. These stories were absolutely wonderful in their simplicity, clarity, and that peculiar Russian humor whose essence, according to Roman, was not in the content but in the form, that is, in the art of telling a seemingly not very funny anecdote while mimicking the people involved. Anton Petrovich mastered this art to perfection and so told his stories over and over again. They were known and loved by all his relatives and acquaintances, cooks and groomsmen, simple village men and women. These monologues worked as smoothly as Belgian rifles: firing at the audience with a charge of zeal and bravado, they always hit the target, calling forth unrestrained laughter, though the essence of the story and even the manner of performance had been heard dozens of times before.

Когда въехали в сосновый бор, лошадь пошла шагом, Антон Петрович поворчал, но, смирившись под давлением супруги, решил рассказать одну из своих известных всем историй, которыми он обычно коротал дорожное время. Истории эти были совершенно замечательные по своей простоте, ясности и тому особенному русскому юмору, суть которого, по мнению Романа, заключалась не в содержании, а в форме, то есть в искусстве рассказать в лицах на вид не очень-то и смешной случай. Антон Петрович владел этим искусством в совершенстве и поэтому рассказывал свои истории по многу раз. Их знали и любили все родные и знакомые, кухарки и конюхи, простые деревенские мужики и бабы. Действовали эти монологи безотказно, как бельгийские ружья: стреляя в слушателей зарядом задора и удали, они всегда попадали в цель, вызывая безудержный смех, хотя суть истории и даже манера исполнения была слышана уже десятки раз.

(Add the image of the rifles to that list of ominous references.) During that Easter service, Roman notices a mysterious young green-eyed woman, and later on he discovers she’s an orphan named Tatyana, and when they meet they fall instantly and irrevocably in love with each other. The forest warden (a former soldier) who’s been raising her all these years as his own daughter is upset at first and insists on playing a round of Russian roulette with Roman, but he comes around after witnessing Roman rescuing an icon of the Mother of God from a burning house and blesses their relationship. Before you know it their wedding is being celebrated in magnificent style at Anton’s house, with tables laid out on the terraces for the well-born guests and on the lawn for the hundreds of peasants (everyone in the village is invited). There is an interminable description of the feasting, singing, and dancing that follows, and every once in a while we cut to the newlyweds staring into each other’s eyes, Roman whispering “Я люблю тебя” [I love you] and his bride responding “Я жива тобой” [I live through you]. Over and over. Each reader will have their own breaking point, but eventually you get so fed up with all the cooing and merriment you want them all done away with. Fortunately, Sorokin has you covered.

When Roman and Tatyana finally retire to their room for the night, they look with dazed pleasure at the table covered with wedding gifts. After they think they’ve opened them all, Roman finds a heavy one he’d overlooked, which turns out to be from the village atheist, Dr. Klyugin (who has told Roman earlier he believes in death, not life); it is an ax inscribed with the words Замахнулся – руби! [If you raised it (threateningly) — cut!]. He tells her how much he likes it, she tells him how much she likes the little wooden bell the village idiot had given her, they look at each other lovingly, he says he now understands everything and knows what to do (“Я понял всё! […] Пойдем! Я знаю, что делать”), and they go down the stairs to where some of the guests are still playing cards (it’s around 3 a.m. by now). This is on p. 502 of my 625-page edition, and that’s where the book might well have ended if it were by an author less committed to his obsessions. (At the Flibusta site, several of the comments by readers suggest people should put the book down at that point.) The rest of the book consists of descriptions of how Roman slaughters everyone with the ax to the accompaniment of the wooden bell — at first in some detail, but once he leaves the house and starts going around the village it’s just “he went into X’s house and found X sleeping and hit him with the ax and he died, and then he went into Y’s house…” Once he’s killed them all, he goes back to the houses and brings their heads and other body parts to the church, arranging them on the tables of the altar (one benefit of this section is that I finally learned what all those things behind the iconostasis are, thanks to this helpful page). Then he does things to and with them (killing Tatyana in the process). The very end (spoiler!) reads thus:

Roman twitched. Roman jerked. Roman twitched. Roman jerked. Roman jerked. Roman swayed. Roman moved. Roman twitched. Roman groaned. Roman wiggled. Roman shuddered. Roman twitched. Roman moved. Roman twitched. Roman died.

Роман дернулся. Роман пошевелил. Роман дернулся. Роман качнул. Роман дернулся. Роман качнул. Роман пошевелил. Роман дернулся. Роман застонал. Роман пошевелил. Роман вздрогнул. Роман дернулся. Роман пошевелил. Роман дернулся. Роман умер.

Note that that last sentence could equally well be translated “The novel died,” and that’s clearly an intended resonance. Shishkin was doing a loving pastiche of classical Russian literature in his first novel (see this post); Sorokin wants to kill it off, the way he was trying to kill off the sentimental war story in Кисет [The tobacco pouch]. I get it, I enjoy a lot of it, but I frankly don’t see the point of the endless tedium of the last hundred-plus pages. I can’t imagine writing all those repetitive words down, and I don’t envy Lawton having to translate them — and who’s going to read them? It’s far, far worse than the Second Appendix! Theoretical considerations are one thing, but it seems like a waste of time, effort, and printer’s ink.

Now I’ll read Sorokin’s other 1994 novel, Норма (Lawton’s translation as The Norm is forthcoming from New York Review Books — it’s too bad it can’t be rendered by the anagram/transliteration Norma); Dmitry Bykov says they are his two main works. He also says he was outraged by Роман when he read it in the 1990s, but he’s come to realize it was a justified reaction to the thuggery and obscenity of the times. I still don’t know how I feel about it, but maybe I’ll have more thoughts after reading Норма.


  1. David Marjanović says

    “The Faustian nihilist smashes the ideals”… and the Russian one hacks them to pieces, I guess.

    1994 […] the thuggery and obscenity of the times

    Ah, that I can see creating violent nihilists.

  2. But I never did like it all that much
    And one day the ax just fell.

  3. Nit pick: The tagline on the ax Замахнулся – руби! means if you raised it, cut. Which somehow reminded me a rule of chess взялся – ходи! — (if you) touched (the piece), move (it).

    FWIW, I was inspired to read The Pouch and honestly, am not going to read anything else.

  4. Nit pick: The tagline on the ax Замахнулся – руби! means if you raised it, cut.

    Fixed, thanks. And as I say, I can completely understand anyone not caring for Sorokin.

  5. Vospennikov is a real (somewhat rare) name. I am not sure how much credence give to this desciption, but if it is true, then it hardly can be related to vaccination. The lack of references and idiotic percentages of it’s origin do not increase my confidence. If we discard merchants of Tula, I would guess that it is a Church family name, the kind of which bishops liked to give to seminarists (there is a very instructive passage from Leskov on the topic somewhere in the bowels of this blog). Then Vospennekov would have something to do with elevated singing, maybe? On the third (or whichever) hand, there is Ospennikov as well.

  6. something to do with elevated singing, maybe?

    Only if you can explain the morphology: how do you get from воспеть to Воспенников? The path from воспенник to Воспенников is straightforward, so I’m sticking with that, though of course what it originally meant is unclear and maybe unknowable. And unimportant for the novel: what matters is not the historical origin but what resonances it had for Sorokin, and he may well have found the same dialect form as I did and thought “Aha, оспа — I can use that!”

  7. The Hebrew version of that terse chess rule is beautifully alliterative: /nagata — nasata!/

  8. In German, it rhymes: Berührt? – Geführt! “Touched? – Led!”. The word führen must have been chosen for the rhyme, because normally, “move” in chess is ziehen “pull, draw”.

  9. David Marjanović says

    And once you let go, your move is over, you can’t correct your move: Was liegt, das pickt – though that never quite rhymes, and it only works in Austria due to the dialect word picken “be sticky; glue”.

  10. I am not trying to convince you (LH) about anything. Just some musings related to the post…

  11. Lars Mathiesen says

    @DM, I don’t know what Danish chess players say, but in card games the rule is bordet fanger ~ ‘the table catches’.

  12. I am not trying to convince you (LH) about anything. Just some musings related to the post…

    Sure, and I appreciate it — I’m just trying to figure out how your suggestion would work.

  13. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    A question for the many of you who are much more au fait with Russian naming conventions than I am.

    Last week we saw Dr Zhivago on television. When Yuri reconnects with Lara after some years she addresses him as “Zhivago”. I would have expected “Yuri Andreyevich”. Is that wrong? (This was in French, but I expect the English was the same.)

  14. Both are possible, I believe, but calling someone by the surname sounds (much) more distant.

  15. I agree with juha, but I think the more relevant point is that the movie (if you’re talking about the David Lean version that was a worldwide hit in 1965) has little to do with the book and even less to do with the realia of Russian life (reportedly actual Russians who watched it at the time were doubled over with laughter). If you can tell me at what point in the story the episode occurs I can try to locate it in the novel, but I will bet cash money she doesn’t call him “Zhivago” in the original.

  16. Athel Cornish-Bowden says

    Yes. It was the David Lean film, which I saw when it was new. After Zhivago and his wife and father-in-law have to leave the family home in Moscow and end up in some place in the Urals he learns that Lara is working as a librarian in the nearby town, so he goes and searches for her.

    It may well be as remote from the realities of revolutionary Russia as you suggest (and it does seem to pass over the Kerensky period so quickly that one gets the impression of passing in one step from the Tsar to Lenin), but it can’t possibly be as bad as The Ten Commandments, which was also shown last week.

  17. I didn’t say it was a bad movie, I said it was a bad representation of the book and of Russia. I can’t separate my awareness of that fact from my feelings about the movie in general, but it seems to be generally acclaimed as a good representative of that sort of mass-market cinema.

  18. After Zhivago and his wife and father-in-law have to leave the family home in Moscow and end up in some place in the Urals he learns that Lara is working as a librarian in the nearby town, so he goes and searches for her.

    OK, I found it (it’s at the start of chapter 9), and it’s a good thing I didn’t bet cash money, because I would have lost: she does say “Zhivago!” when she sees him. (He responds “Larisa Fyodorovna!”) I’m not sufficiently imbued with the culture of the Civil War period to know what that form of address implies.

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