September 4, 2014 | by Daniel Genis
This weekend, an intersection in Queens will be renamed Sergei Dovlatov Way.
Sergei Dovlatov gave me a pistol when I was a child. It was just an air gun, it turned out, but my mother couldn’t tell the difference, and she was justifiably horrified to see me running around with a semiautomatic. It did not have a red plastic tip and it was nicely chromed, from somewhere in Eastern Europe. With enough pressure pumped into it, its little steel pellets could really hurt someone. Dovlatov found this very funny. Now we New Yorkers are naming a street after him.
And I’m thrilled. That street in Forest Hills, Queens, is the same one where his widow lives; it’s where his daughter, who recently translated Dovlatov’s great novel Pushkin Hills, grew up; and it’s where I grew up, too. At least eighteen thousand people share in my enthusiasm—that’s the number of petitioners it took to make this happen. That it’s such a formidable number should come as no surprise. Even if Joseph Brodsky was the greatest member of the so-called Third Wave of Russian immigrants—he won the Nobel and married an Italian woman—it’s Dovlatov whom readers love viscerally, unconditionally. How can we help it? When Matt Taibbi showed up to inaugurate Katherine Dovlatov’s translation a few months ago, I asked why he came: it was because Dovlatov was the one Russian author who made him laugh out loud. And suddenly we understood one another. Dovlatov made me laugh out loud, too, first in person, and then when I grew up, through his literature.
During the height of his fame, Dovlatov’s works were read universally. Solzhenitsyn, a dour man in his Vermont stronghold who wished to have nothing to do with the Third Wave “sausage immigrants,” read his entire three-volume collected works. The pieces translate easily because of their inherent humanity, and their humor, remarkably, translates as well. In Russia, where his work was retyped at night for samizdat, his secret readership grew, making many a fan. Half of Russia sat in jail, the other half stuck around to be with the first, and Dovlatov had been in both positions—and wrote about it, and still made it funny. The KGB, of course, was not a fan; they even destroyed typeset plates that had been prepared for publication. Dovlatov took the dissident-lite approach of simply not taking the Soviet Union seriously, and for this he was beloved.
When he emigrated he continued to write fiction, in addition to the newspaper he and my father were putting out, sometimes right from our living room. He worked on his prose with a perfectionist’s zeal. His writing reads as very light and sardonic, but I remember him saying that in a single sentence no two words should begin with the same letter. To us, he’s a modern classic—the Bulgakov who lived among us—but he also made the transmigration that every literary émigré hopes for. He became known in America, at least for a little bit. Everyone said he had “made it”: he’d been translated straight into The New Yorker only six months after he arrived. The KGB’s censors were his best publicists. He received a sweet letter from Kurt Vonnegut and saw five of his novels translated and published. (Pushkin Hills, the sixth, came out this year care of his daughter.)
On the street that will be named for him is the Russian store where he bought too much food when he wasn’t watching his weight, and the shop where he got his smokes when he wasn’t quitting. He lived there for twelve years. My memories of his home are dim because he spent so much time in mine, working on the immigrant newspaper that, were it to exist today, would probably be a blog. From his friendship with my father, I got to ride on the Goliath’s shoulders. Dovlatov would pick me up and hoist me as close to the ceiling as I’ll ever be. He was always the tallest man in the room, and I enjoyed being that high. My father appreciated the attention that the great writer gave his only son; my mother was terrified. And then he gave me that gun …
The idea that his very street might one day be named for him was unthinkable to us at the time—many of us were living hand to mouth. Dovlatov, like my father and all of his generation, lived an immigrant’s life and worked hard for his bread. And then he ate too much of it, drank too much, smoked too much, and died too young, in 1990.
The existence of a Dovlatov Street is a very New York thing to have, because the author took his characters, who always felt like heroes and not personages, right from his surroundings. He did it when he was working as a camp guard—ex-prisoners love him, despite this. He did it in the Soviet Union—eventually getting him expelled, though now he’s eternally in print. And he did it in Queens. The people who populate his American work are still around, many on the very street named for him.
Sergei Dovlatov Street is a great addition to New York City. I hope it will make tourists and residents alike Google the man, perhaps even read his work. And for immigrant Russians, it’s more than a memorial. Brodsky came away with the Nobel, but Dovlatov was “наш,” (pronounced “nosh,” meaning ours)—also the title of one of his greatest books. His street enshrines the entire Third Wave, the immigrants like Brodsky and my father, Alexander Genis, and the painters Komar and Melamid and Baryshnikov, and dissident heroes like Academic Sakharov and General Grigorenko, and even Yakov Smirnoff—the wave that I rode into life. Dovlatov Street means the Third Wave made it, that we were not mere “sausage immigrants.” Dovlatov deserves his street. I only hope that his widow isn’t too bothered by the pot-bellied men and the women in impossibly high stiletto heels, jostling for a photograph by the sign.
Daniel Genis is a writer working in Brooklyn. He’s been published in the New York Daily News, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Vice, and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter @DanGenis.
The renaming ceremony for Sergei Dovlatov Way is this Sunday, September 7, at ten A.M., on 108th Street and 63rd Drive in Forest Hills, Queens. Dovlatov is the first Russian American writer to be honored with a street name in the U.S.