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Dovlatov’s Way

September 4, 2014 | by

This weekend, an intersection in Queens will be renamed Sergei Dovlatov Way.

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Sergei Dovlatov

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. Read More »

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Odysseus in the Yard

June 16, 2014 | by

Celebrating Bloomsday in prison.

Poldy

An illustration of Leopold Bloom from Joyce’s notes, ca. 1941.

The man I affectionately termed Odysseus, though never to his face, was sixty-five and ailing. He was Philip Rubinitz, a onetime actor who had served about twenty years by then for the crime of stabbing his best friend through the heart with an antique SS dagger. Nevertheless, he was the facility rabbi’s clerk. His liver was failing and his back hurt, but he took laps with me around the yard of Green Haven Correctional Facility, observing our simulated Dublin through cataracts in his eyes. It must have been hard for him to keep up with my much younger legs, but he tottered around our Nightown seeking out a way home to his long-lost wife with the same fervor that Leopold Bloom had. His parole date was still five years away. I followed around full of the overconfidence and energy of youth and insecurity, much like Stephen Dedalus. It was June 16, several years ago now, and little did Rubinitz know that he was helping me celebrate Bloomsday in the yard.

After I’d been convicted, my father had said, “Good. You’ll finally read Joyce.” But it took a few years inside to finally come to it. Having initially avoided Ulysses, my mind was blown when I finally gathered the fortitude to read it—the scales fell from my eyes, and from then on I decided I had to celebrate Bloomsday with the rest of the converts.

None of whom, it seemed, were anywhere near me. Working as a prison librarian, I had seen a few men attempt A Portrait of the Artist, but our edition of Ulysses always stood on the shelf gathering dust. Grim, thick, and foreboding, it was too imposing in reputation for even the most ambitious of convicts. Finnegans Wake wasn’t available at all. The civilian librarians knew better. Read More »

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