- “The role of a novel is to entertain readers, and fear is one of the most entertaining things there is … I don’t particularly feel like apologizing. It’s impossible to increase the proportion already given to Islam in the news. We’re already nearly at 100% … A good provocateur knows who he’s going to shock. I’m absolutely incapable of predicting that … It’s always a surprise every time.” That’s Houellebecq, saying typically Houllebecq things about Islamophobia, on the eve of his novel Submission’s release in the UK. (It comes to America next month, translated by our own Lorin Stein.)
- Today in wacky and yet not implausible Pynchon theories: Is this brick of a novel called Cow Country—published this April by one Adrian Jones Pearson through a very, very small press—actually the work of the P-man himself? It has all of his hallmarks: “Need I mention that this novel is serious while spoofing … that high satire with a healthy dollop of bodily humor and a keen eye for paradox is this literary sensibility’s chosen (and perhaps as a person, inevitable) metier? … With a magnifying glass, one could look closely and find what seem to be minor instances of Pynchon jokes from earlier novels recycled in Cow Country, tweaked for their new context.”
- Alexander Brodsky and Ilya Utkin were architects in the late days of the Soviet Union, which set strict aesthetic parameters for the buildings it erected—all but ensuring that architecture ceased to be an imaginative discipline. But Brodsky and Utkin found a way to skirt the rules: they designed buildings that could never exist, like “precarious scaffolding, classical domes, huge glass towers, and other visionary architecture that referenced everything from ancient tombs to Le Corbusier’s sprawling city plans.”
- What is an author’s reputation made of? Reviews, sure. Critical studies, yes. But there’s also a less tangible factor you might call “litchat”: “the conversations that writers, readers, and critics have amongst themselves. Whether another writer is spoken of respectfully, whether you get the impression that ‘everyone’ is reading his or her new book enthusiastically, or how well people think he or she comes across in interviews—these and a dozen other imponderable factors constitute a reputation during a writer’s lifetime, particularly in the early part of a career.”
- The image of the booze-soaked, tortured writer is a distinctly male one—but let us not forget the women who drink. “Male writers get careful interpretation of the role of alcohol in their creative lives; women writers are alcoholics, pure and simple … Women writers, meanwhile, have evolved a more complicated relationship with drunkenness. It is no longer quite the stain it once was … Still the canon is for the most part seriously dented by the effects of what you could call the Hemingway attitude—this idea that a woman is contaminated by self-destructiveness, and contaminated in a way that slurs her art.”
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. Read More
The Guardian, Beautiful/Decay, and others have featured unnerving photos from Rebecca Litchfield’s Soviet Ghosts: The Soviet Union Abandoned: A Communist Empire in Decay, which documents the photographer’s travels to the ruins of the Soviet Union. The series examines how and why communities are abandoned, but this isn’t mere ruin porn; there’s an aspect of political subversion here, as Litchfield faced radiation exposure, arrest, and interrogation to secure these pictures, which include decommissioned locomotives, dilapidated military bases, and an abandoned sanatorium, many of them now deemed secret by the state. A more sensationalistic publisher might’ve subtitled the book, THE UNBELIEVABLE PHOTOGRAPHS THE FORMER USSR DOESN’T WANT YOU TO SEE! As Litchfield explains,
We maximized our stealthiness, ducking and diving into bushes and sneaking past sleeping security. But on day three, our good fortune ran out as we visited a top-secret radar installation. After walking through the forest, mosquitoes attacking us from all directions, we saw the radar and made our way toward it, but just meters away suddenly we were joined by military, and they weren’t happy …
See more photos here.