Messages in a Bottle

American Jewish Literature Converses with the Russian Canon

How could an American be Doestoevsky or Doestoevsky be an American?’ — Irving Howe, Steady Work

‘To whom does the poet speak?’ asked Osip Mandelstam in his 1913 essay, On the Interlocutor.

At a critical moment, a seafarer tosses a sealed bottle into the ocean waves, containing his name and a message detailing his fate. Wandering along the dunes many years later, I happen upon it in the sand. I read the message, note the date, the last will and testament of one who has passed on. I have the right to do so. I have not opened someone else’s mail. The message in the bottle was addressed to its finder. I found it. That means, I have become its secret addressee.

To claim himself, a Russian Jewish Modernist, heir to the classic Russian poets of the past required a degree of imagination, if not a speck of audacity.  But Mandelstam was an imaginative young poet living at an audacious moment. Good literature, after all, should be stretched beyond temporal, political and ethnic boundaries. Mandelstam’s dialogue has evolved in recent years with a new wave of Russian-born Jewish writers who appear, in various forms, to have found a bottle, opened it, and attempted to reply. Only many of them are responding from another shore, and in another language.

Gary Shteyngart, Lara Vapnyar and Ilya Kaminsky are three examples of Russian-born American Jewish writers who have successfully interwoven the classics of their native Russian literature into their writing. All three have sensed the advantages, for a young writer born in the Soviet Union, of returning to the mystique of a culture from which he is estranged, but which he knows intimately — the collapsing former Eastern Bloc. The kind of post-traumatic artistic and literary zeitgeist that gave West European intellectuals their centrality in the early twentieth century may well have lent cultural capital to East Europeans at the end of Soviet Era. Their astounding popularity has ushered in a new wave of interest in the post-Soviet Russian Jewish condition — an experience that differs markedly from the dominant branches of American Judaism, as well as from the cultural narrative that has belonged to East European Jewish émigrés of past generations. This generation did not leave Russia due to the immediate life threatening dangers of pogroms or purges, but it has experienced the Soviet period, and the subtle, but ever-present institutionalised anti-Semitism that came with it. The experience of Jewishness in the United States is as informed by their intimacy with Russian culture as it is by Judaism. It is this intimate and fraught attachment to Russian culture that the writers Emily Gould offhandedly dubbed ‘the beet generation’ is preserving, albeit through a collection of cultural and linguistic filters.  Shteyngart made the New York Time’s ‘Ten Best Books of 2006’ with his second novel, Absurdistan, a satire on post-Soviet politics. Lara Vapnyar, who emigrated to the United States from St. Petersburg, soon began writing in English, publishing a collection of short stories, There Are Jews in My House, in 2003. Her 2006 novel Memoirs of a Muse introduces a Russian émigré and literary groupie whose sexual awakening as a child in Russia involved masturbating beside a portrait of Dostoevsky. Ilya Kaminsky’s debut volume of poetry is a collection of odes to (largely) Russian, Jewish, male poets. He exhibits his literary education for whoever is there to listen and, given his success (in 2005 the book won the Whiting Prize, the Metcalf Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the Foreword Poetry Book of the Year award), it would appear that people are listening. While none of these writers demonstrates an attachment to Judaism as a religion, all integrate the experience of being Jewish in Russia with the experience of being Russian in the United States.

Of the three, Gary Shteyngart’s writing is most satirical. The Russian Debutante’s Handbook takes an underachieving Russian Jewish émigré and recent graduate of a mid-Western liberal arts college, and places him in Prague. Here he finds himself mediating between an international group of twenty-something poets, who divide their time between poetry readings and ecstasy trips, and the violent underworld of Russian Mafiosi. Shteyngart continued moving his attention East in his second novel, Absurdistan, this time placing his hapless Russian Jewish cosmopolitan hero, Misha Vaynper, in the body of an obese ‘Accidental College’ educated melancholic. The Nabokovian tension between Vaynper and his rival, Jerry Shteynfarb, a New York novelist who both resembles the author and has stolen the hero’s girlfriend, reproduces the kind of conflict frequently found in Nabokov between the successfully Americanised author and the fumbling, fresh-off-the-boat main character.  In a poignant flashback to his years at Accidental College, Vaynper, Shtaynfarb, and Vladimir Girshkin of Russian Debutant compete for the approval of an American Russophile:

I looked sadly at my compatriots. Three Russians from Leningrad. Striving for the attention of a solitary American Jew. Why couldn’t we do better by each other?  Why couldn’t we form a team to assuage our loneliness?  One day I had offered Girshkin and Shteynfarb some homemade beet salad and a loaf of authentic rye bread from the local Lithuanian-owned bakery, but they had only laughed at my nostalgia.

Shteyngart, not unlike Nikolai Gogol, appears to be at his best when ridiculing elements of himself, often personified in multiple characters at once. Indeed one of the most direct instances of literary borrowing in Shteyngart’s work comes from Gogol and appears in the short story “Shylock on the Neva.” (Many pieces of this story would reappear in Absurdistan.) Published in both The New Yorker and Boris Fishman’s anthology The Wild East, the story loosely follows the structure of Gogol’s The Portrait, borrowing Gogol’s artist, Chartkov, along with his Kolomna neighborhood, but re-furbishing it to suit a New Russian context.  Gogol, in The Portrait, paints a dreary nineteenth-century Kolomna:

You will find old ladies who pray; old ladies who drink; old ladies who both pray and drink; old ladies who subsist by mysterious means, dragging old rags and linen like ants from the Kalinkin Bridge to the flea market, where they hope to sell them for fifteen copecks; in other words, the very dregs of humanity, whose lot even the most philanthropic politicians would be hard put to improve.

Compare this to Shteyngart’s portrait of a twenty-first century Kolomna, a veritable post-Soviet cloaca bearing all of the trappings, but none of the comforts, of bargain-globalisation:

Chartkov lived on the far edge of the Kolomna district. I hasten to paint a picture for the reader: the Fontanka River, windswept (even in summer), its crooked nineteenth-century skyline interrupted by a post-apocalyptic wedge of the Sovetskaya Hotel; the hotel surrounded by rows of yellowing, water-logged apartment houses; the apartment houses, in turn, surrounded by corrugated shacks housing a bootleg-CD emporium; the ad-hoc Casino Mississippi (“America Is Far, but Mississippi Is Near”); a burned-out kiosk selling industrial-sized containers of crab salad; and the requisite Syrian-shwarma hut smelling of spilled vodka, spoiled cabbage, and a vague, free-floating inhumanity.

Gogol assists the American writer in mapping the St. Petersburg of a new era of post-Soviet dead souls. True, Shteyngart may lack Gogol’s seriousness, aiming his work at satirising the politics and corruption of the post-Soviet period without burdening it with Gogol’s deeply pessimistic concern for the human soul. But, increasingly throughout Shteyngart’s work, the initiated will hear an insistent whispering from between the lines, ‘O Rus! Whither are you speeding?’

If Shteyngart’s muse is Gogol, Lara Vapnyar’s is Dostoevky. Her 2006 Memoirs of a Muse features the shrinking but seductive Tatiana, whose insecurities increase exponentially when she emigrates from her native Moscow to New York.  The heroine has attempted to model herself on Dostoevsky’s lover. Apollinaria Suslova refused to serve the writer blindly, making her far superior to Dostoevsky’s eventual second spouse, Anna Grigorievna, according to Tatiana. Upon first reading Grigorievna’s memoirs, Tatiana ‘hated her guts.’ ‘I choked with rage when she described how Dostoevsky called her affectionate names, bought her fruit and sweets, and declared his love on his knees.’ In her quest to understand the connection between the women in Dostoevsky’s life and those in his work, young Tatiana reads The Gambler, and arrives at the conclusion that ‘There was another woman, a real woman who gave life to the character of Polina and to the novel itself. She was not Anna Grigorievna.’ Tatiana, inspired, sets out to become a muse who will engender such phrases as Dostoevsky’s, ‘The imprint of her foot is long and narrow. It is a maddening imprint – yes, simply a maddening one!’ The heroine eventually attaches herself to a New York writer (with an uncanny resemblance to Shteyngart’s Shteynfarb).

Vapnyar’s novel, while less vivid than her earlier short fiction, playfully sexualizes the main character’s desire for intimacy with the history of Russian culture:

Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev, Dostoevsky. Graying hair, prominent foreheads, knowing eyes. … A dead old writer would materialize in my room in his shabby — for some reason I always imagined them shabby — nineteenth century clothes and sit down on the edge of my bed with an expression so serious and so kind that it made me want to cry. He would gently sit me up, supporting my back with his hand, and press my hand to his chest. He would stroke my hair and stroke my back and then unbutton my pajama top, slowly, button by button, whispering gentle words. I was completely naked with a fully clothed dead old writer in my bed (I didn’t find naked dead old writers appealing), waiting for something wonderful to happen.

Vapnyar’s character transports her love of (and lust for) Russian literature to her adopted New York, claiming an intimacy to her own cultural heritage that will eventually lead her to her true calling — providing accurate details for film reproductions of Anna Karenina.

Memoirs of a Muse, while offering, at certain moments, a touching portrayal of Russian Jewish emigration and nostalgia, is on the whole less striking than the stories that together make up Vapnyar’s first collection, There are Jews in My House. The title story of this collection describes the slowly disintegrating friendship between a Russian woman, Galina, and her Jewish friend Raia who seeks refuge from the Nazis during the Siege of Leningrad. While this story does not overtly reference the classics of Russian literature, the largely women’s literature from besieged Leningrad (particularly the memoirs of Lidia Ginzburg), as well as the stories of the Holocaust that are attributed, in this fictional tale, to hearsay, are present, not far beneath the surface.

The rumors about Jews differed. Some said that when Germans occupied a new town, the first thing they did was to put all the Jews on cattle trains and ship them away. Others said that Germans didn’t bother to ship Jews anywhere; they just drove them together to the edge of a town or to a big ravine and shot them all. Everyone: men, women, and children.

The story presents the psychological dilemma of a non-Jewish woman struggling against her own frustration with her friend and the readily available anti-Semitism surrounding her, in the face of limited resources and the fear of retribution. The strained relationship between the two women, heightened by Galina’s claustrophobia and Raia’s fear of betrayal, creates a far more striking portrait of intimacy than Vapnyar’s somewhat more clichéd portrayal of lovers in Memoirs of a Muse. As the women’s friendship falls apart, the reader has an increasing sense of the fragility of Russian-Jewish relations, and of what stands to be lost should the two cultures become irreparably estranged.

The poet Ilya Kaminsky is, more than the other writers I have discussed, personalizing the experience of texts in the Russian Jewish tradition. He dedicates poems to Joseph Brodsky, Marina Tsevaeva and Paul Celan, but it is to the poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) that he devotes an entire section of Dancing in Odessa. Mandelstam, born to Jewish parents in Warsaw, was a founding member of the Petersburg Modernist movement known as ‘Acmeism’ Sent into exile with his wife for an anti-Stalin poem in the 1930s, Mandelstam would eventually die in a Gulag. Just as Mandelstam rushes to engage the nineteenth century Russian poet Borotynsky in On the Interlocutor Kaminsky rushes to engage in a conversation with Mandelstam, to learn through transcription and imitation.

A modern Orpheus: sent to hell, he never returned, while his widow searched across one sixth of the earth’s surface, clutching the saucepan with his songs rolled up inside, memorizing them by night in case they were found by Furies with a search warrant.

Mandelstam’s wife, Nadezhda, is present throughout the piece as an interpreter, allowing Kaminsky to embrace the life, and not only the art, of his poetic forebear. She appears in the parenthetical margins, filling in elements of her husband’s life where words are missing. It is Nadezhda’s autobiography Hope Against Hope that sets the scene for the elegy. ‘A manuscript stuck into a saucepan would never have been found.’ Nadezhda writes, ‘Best of all would have been to put it on the dining table.”’The poem, like Nadezhda’s memoir, begins with a description of the Mandelstams’ apartment, a space which is, conspicuously, not private:

Making love, they turn off the lights
But the neighbor has binoculars
And he watches, dust settling on his lids.

Present throughout Kaminsky’s elegy is an implied third, a peeping Tom, a trailing dog, a guest at the table. By placing himself in close proximity to the Mandelstams, Kaminsky inserts himself into their conversations, sometimes inviting himself for a drink.

Now, memory, pour some beer,
salt the rim of the glass; you
who are writing me, have what you want:
a golden coin, my tongue to put it under.

In this rewriting, Mandelstam offers himself, in a combination of a Soviet kitchen conversation and classical passage across the Styx, to Kaminsky.  Kaminsky accepts the role of interlocutor, and with it, the sacred treasure of a poet’s tongue. He thereby transports Mandelstam to the next world, simultaneously delivering a eulogy and reviving him.

He believed in the human being. Could not
Cure himself
Of Petersburg. He recited by heart
Phone numbers
Of the dead.

‘A deaf boy counted how many birds there were in his neighbor’s backyard, producing a four-digit number. He dialed the number and confessed his love to the voice on the line.’ As the young deaf protagonist of his Dancing in Odessa dials the quantity of birds he has counted, Kaminsky continues to search for Mandelstam’s phone number.

The poet, like the boy in the poem, has been hearing impaired since early childhood. The poems in the anthology not only describe a poet’s discovery of a voice, but the discovery of a way of listening: ‘My secret: at the age of four I became deaf. When I lost my hearing, I began to see voices.’These visible voices pass to his readers with the verse of past poets. By addressing an American audience that is drawn to, if not already intimately acquainted with, the Russian ‘original,’ Kaminsky helps to foster a new generation of Jewish émigré American writing, one that draws on the Mandelstams and Brodskys of the past, but which depends on the newer experience of post-Soviet globalization.

Two decades since the formal end of the Soviet Union, this new generation of Russian born American writers has exposed a seismic shift in the relationship between the Russian Jewish émigré and American culture. Moreover, the quest for an authentic Russian literary experience marks, however unintentionally, a gradual, but fundamental, departure from the Cold War differentiation between Russian and American culture, encouraged by the New York Intellectuals, the first-generation American-born children of Jewish immigrants like Alfred Kazin, Lionel Trilling and Irving Howe.

That both perspectives should have been shaped by a group of Jewish cosmopolitans of (primarily) East European descent attests to the degree to which first and second-generation Jewish émigrés have, throughout the twentieth century, served as natural (if sometimes reluctant) ambassadors between the United States and Eastern Europe.  The insinuation by this generation of Russian-Jewish writers is venerable, if brazen: in order to understand the Russian-Jewish condition, you must know Russian literature.

Kaminsky’s Elegy for Joseph Brodsky is a poignant message in a bottle. Addressed to the poet of the past, who, like Kaminsky himself, found success in English with American readers, it is written for the reader of today:

I left your Russia for good, poems sewn into my
pillow
Rushing towards my own training
To live with your lines
On the verge of a story set against itself.

Amelia Glaser is an Assistant Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at the University of California, San Diego. Her Translations include an anthology of Yiddish poetry, title Proletpen: America’s Rebel—Yiddish Poets (U. Wisconsin, 2005)

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