Set in Rome in 1978, David Bezmozgis’s first novel, The Free World, tells the story of the Krasnansky family, three generations of Latvian Jews, who leave their lives in Riga, and, like many Soviet immigrants bound for the West in the late seventies, must spend six months in the Italian metropolis to secure their visas. Contrary to the book’s title, the Krasnanskys find themselves confined to this Roman waiting room, weighed down by the rubble of their communist past, the uncertainty of their future, and their allegiances to one another. Born in Riga in 1973, Bezmozgis immigrated to Canada with his family in 1980 and told the immigrant assimilation story with his tender, restrained collection of short fiction, Natasha and Other Stories (2004). The Free World is a sort of prologue to Natasha, the taxing journey his resilient characters—Jews in Transit, as the émigré newspaper offered in Rome is called—made before settling in the North American suburb. I recently spoke with Bezmozgis at a café not far from the New York Public Library, where he is currently a fellow at the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center.
The Krasnanskys’ story begins on a train platform in Vienna and concludes before they ever reach the North American free world. Had you always intended to contain the narrative in this strange way station?
Yes, one thing I knew very clearly is that the book begins when they get to Italy and it ends when they’re about to leave. That in-between period, that purgatory, is the balancing point between the past, the unknowable future, and the present, which is intriguing and exotic. It’s full of dramatic possibility. It was always fascinating to me that these people had given up their lives without really knowing where they were going. I feel like I leave my apartment in Brooklyn to go to the Bronx with more information than my parents had leaving the Soviet Union to go to Canada.
The descriptions in the book are so vivid—both in terms of the setting and the characters’ emotional realities—that while reading it I felt as if I could almost hear you conducting exhaustive interviews with émigrés that had completed this exact voyage. How did you research for the book?
In the winter of 2004, I moved with my girlfriend to Rome for four months to experience the city. There, I interviewed two people who worked at the Jewish agencies and still remembered the period from that perspective. I tried to find the apartment building where we lived. My mother had vaguely remembered the street so I went to that street and stood in front of a building that may or may not have been ours. It was this weird act of trying to deliberately recollect. Then I came back to Toronto and talked to friends of the family. These were people who knew me since I was a boy so my mother would call up a friend and say, “David wants to come over and ask you questions about Italy.” And then I would show up. There was one family where the husband was so meticulous in what he kept that he showed me old invoices he had for money he owed to the Jewish agencies that he paid back and itemized. He also had notarized lists of all the things that they took from Latvia. It was just remarkable.
I’ve always found that asking my parents, who moved to the United States from Moscow, about the day to day of their Soviet lives is often met with puzzled expressions—as in, why do I want to know about such trivial details that, at least in their minds, are silly and uninteresting. Did your interview subjects have these kinds of reactions?
A lot of that, yes. But there were also people who had a story they wanted to tell. There was a close family friend who told a story of his brother who had been convicted of a commercial crime and there was something about the shady dealings that happened in Italy—gangster sorts of things—that I didn’t even know about. That made its way into the book.
The book is narrated in three voices: Samuil, the elderly communist patriarch; his daughter-in-law Polina; and Alec, Polina’s new husband and Samuil’s younger son, who, with his general lack of ambition toward all but beautiful women, feels like the least Soviet, most modern sort of character.
Modern is a good way to describe him because he is not weighed down by history the way everyone else is. His brother, Karl, is kind of modern like him, but his allegiance is to capitalism, so he knows his direction. But Alec has no real direction other than pleasure, which I guess is quite modern. He has no God, no ideology. The irony for him is that it was much easier for him to float through life in the Soviet Union than it is in Italy, where he really gets into trouble for the first time. He’s forced into a kind of maturation.
As within most Russian families, there is a spectrum of sociopolitical views. How intentional was your characterization of the Krasnanskys as a microcosm of the Soviet Union in the late seventies?
Very. The challenge was: How do you make the family represent all of those things without becoming caricatures, but remaining individuals who are at odds with one another for various reasons? How do you make people stand in for an entire history of the culture without being schematic? I just think they all have a point. Once you’ve made all those cases and you understand that those views are all tenable, what happens if different members of the family hold those positions; how are they going to get anywhere?
The arguments that result are some of the funnier scenes in the book. Do you think there is a difference between American and Russian humor?
I think there is Russian Jewish humor because of Russian Jewish history. Life is hard for Russians. It was even harder for Jews. So it becomes this gallows humor, this acceptance that life can be pretty black and you laugh in spite of it. There are a number of jokes in the book that are just stock Russian Jewish jokes, or anekdoti, that people will recognize. That was part of the mentality. You have very little power, and if you don’t laugh about it then you become Dostoevsky (whom some people find funny).
One of my favorite jokes in the book is delivered by Alec’s roommate, Lyova: “It’s difficult to travel with a large Jewish family. Too many opinions. Like the joke about the couple that has sex on the street in Israel. Everyone who passes by tells them they’re doing it wrong.” Since you’re writing about a specific historical period, were you nervous that if you got a single detail wrong, the Russian Jewish émigrés would quickly call you on it and tell you that you’re “doing it wrong”?
I wanted to get it right to the best of my ability. As I was writing it, I had the feeling and the belief that I was writing down the history of Soviet Jews in a way that I don’t think anyone has done in English and I don’t know that anyone would hazard to do. It was a strange missionary feeling. But I’m sure I’ll be called out. In fact, part of the novel ran in The New Yorker as an excerpt. In it there was a shooting competition, and I had said that Alec was a Stakhanovite marksman. Someone wrote in and said, “Your writer doesn’t know what he’s talking about. He would never be a Stakhanovite marksman. He would be a Voroshilov marksman.” So then I checked and it was like, “Oh yes, that’s true.” And I changed it.
My mother—who, for the most part, refuses books in English—recently read The Free World and said that the writing felt very familiar and very Russian. How did you approach the language in the book?
I usually thought about what the conversation would be like in Russian and then would translate it into English. If there was something ungainly about it, then I’d try to correct for it. There are certain words where, if I had a choice between that and some other English synonym, I’d consciously use the one that’s more Russian. My belief is that it will be transparent enough for an English speaker, but if you’re a Russian–speaking reader and you can translate backwards, there are certain nuances that will come through.
Russian dialogue is very specific—the tone, the rhythm, the humor. You emigrated when you were just six years old. Is it internalized from growing up in a primarily Russian–speaking household?
It is, but also it’s from reading books in English that have translated Russian transcripts. For instance, I was reading Stalin’s Secret War and it has all these transcripts of a secret trial held for the Jewish antifascist committee. But there is a certain type of English that it becomes and you pick up on the specific rhythm and see how people constructed their thoughts.
The Free World is like a prologue to Natasha and Other Stories. Was it difficult transitioning from short stories to a novel?
Part of the difficulty is just believing that you can do it. To contain a story in your head that is so long, to make it cohere. On the other hand, I would go to the bookstore and just keep reminding myself of how many people have written novels. I thought, “Well, I’m not dumber than most people. I must be able to do this if I just persevere.” On an intellectual level, you console yourself with that. I hope I learn from this one—or at least retain the confidence of knowing that I can finish a novel, purely based on precedent.
You were named one of The New Yorker’s “20 under 40” last year. Does that add to that new sense of confidence?
To be chosen by The New Yorker, because of the quality of that magazine, I think it’s significant. And maybe my daughter one day will look back and say, “Oh, my father was in ‘20 Under 40.’” But the confidence comes from knowing what I’ve done. To have it confirmed in some external way is nice but it could have just as easily not happened—they happened to do this now, when I was thirty-seven, and not three years from now; I happened to have something that was close to ready. And if you associate those sorts of things with yourself too closely, you’re going to be in trouble. The work is really lonely. It takes a lot of time. But when these things come it’s like, “Oh, what a nice little thrill.” Because most of it is not thrilling. It’s just work.