Before entering upon the second book of the narrative, the author must announce that he claims a profound penetration into the depths of the problem he has chosen.I was intrigued enough by Languagehat's post about Vladislav Zubok's Zhivago's Children that I decided to read it for myself. My impressions are mixed. On the one hand, from the point of view of historical research, it is the finest English-language study of the late Soviet intellectual world we have. There are no bombshell revelations, but the available sources are mined judiciously and with reasonable completeness. The narrative is forceful and compelling, and for the most part the argument is unobjectionable.
But is there even a serious problem here at all? Are the author's pretensions to depth well-founded?
Both questions will be answered by time and paper, but the author cannot abandon his pretensions, because any weighty Russian book deals with problems.
There are in Europe certain airheaded democracies with gentle climates, where an intellectual may hop all his life from the dentist's drill to the steering wheel of his Citroen, from the computer to the espresso counter, from the conductor's podium to the women's alcove, and where literature is almost as rarefied, sharp, and nutritious as a silver platter with oysters laid on brown seaweed sprinkled with ice.
Russia, with its six-month winter, its Tsarism, Marxism, and Stalinism, is not like that. We need a weighty, masochistic problem in which we can dig around with a tired, tormented, not very clean, but honest, finger. We need it, and it's not our fault.
Not our fault? Is it? Who let the genie out of the bottle, who tore away from the people, who humiliated themselves before the people, who got fat on the backs of the people, who let the Mongols into the towns, invited the Varangians as rulers, genuflected to Europe, barred themselves off from Europe, madly resisted the authorities, placidly submitted to stupid dictators? It was we who did all this--we, the Russian intelligentsia.
But is it our fault, is all of it our fault? Shouldn't we look for the origin of our current senility in the incline of the terrestrial axis, in solar explosions, in the lamentable weakness of our branch of the Gulf Stream?
Such reflections, however, cannot move the narrative along. It's time to say a prayer and start, no tricks...- Vasily Aksenov, Ozhog [The Burn]
On the other hand, the book has two significant, and interrelated, problems. The first is that it leans far too heavily on the testimony of the intelligentsia itself; as a result, although Zubok does offer some necessary caveats, what the intelligentsia says and thinks about itself is treated as unproblematic, and the other vital actors of the late Soviet period are marginalized or simply cast as foils. The second problem follows naturally from the first: the book is suffused with a palpable nostalgia for the generation of the '50s and '60s, which, as Victor Pelevin has sardonically written, "gave the world the do-it-yourself pop song and ejaculated into the black emptiness of space with the first satellite--the four-tailed spermatozoon of a future that would never arrive." In some ways, this is Zubok's own generation, in some ways not; either way, the sentimental and romantic tone of the middle chapters smacks too heavily of an effort to recall a vanished youth.
Maybe I'm too sensitive to this kind of thing, since my own intellectual and political development has taken place largely under the sign of disillusionment with the dreams of the 60's, Western and Russian. But it seems obvious to me that the problem with Zubok's book is precisely the problem with Aksenov's Ozhog and other texts of its kind. Ozhog's heavy-handed Pynchonian pathos, while superficially impressive and "powerful," breaks down upon closer examination into the familiar two components of post-'60s lit: a Baby Boomer identity crisis brought on by inexorable embourgeoisement and a misguided attempt to claim the title of (as Zubok's subtitle has it) "the last Russian intelligentsia." (Of course, some comparable formulation may be swapped in for Ozhog's Western counterparts.) These are the kinds of books Rimbaud would have written had he reappeared in Paris after his last sojourn in the Sahara and settled down to a leisure-class lifestyle in the 14eme. Viewed in historical context, they inevitably seem somewhat grotesque.
In Aksenov's case, the self-indulgence inherent in his project repeats itself on the formal level. The book's style is so affected that one almost does not notice the comical narcissism of referencing one's own books--by name!--as generational signposts. Its structure--a series of drunken tableaux enveloped, with Bukowskian seriousness, in a gleaming aura of pseudo-meaning--seems meant to conceal the poverty and emptiness of the plot, which apparently amounts to "we were young, wild, and idealistic, then everyone sold out and it was a bummer." Even the heavy use of English words and phrases, which is designed to scream "I was hip and with it back then," really evokes something more like the Brighton Beach creole of the Americanizing émigré. In short, whether or not the book is an imitation of Pynchon, it is far less successful at making the navel-gazing concerns of a single self-involved generation into matters of universal relevance, and the formal unconventionality serves it poorly as a disguise.
But, for better or worse, the '60s did come up with a winning formula for the intelligentsia novel: the undirected musings of an earnest, hard-drinking, vatnik and kirzachi-wearing man of the people, who reveals his profound emotional depths only after consuming a few liters of vodka and port. In the hands of Dovlatov and Erofeev, this rather rudimentary recipe yields some pretty stunning results. What separates them from Ozhog, which plainly strives to imitate their success? I can only come up with one factor. Erofeev and Dovlatov sacrifice everything--the epic exploration of theme, the pursuit of a moral message, and so on--to the illusion of drunken directness, which strips the story of all its generational neurosis. Ozhog, in the end, lacks the heart.