Monday, 19 September 2011

Dovlatov Days

Russian writer and rasskazchik extraordinaire Sergei Dovlatov was born on 1 September 1941 (in Ufa), and died in New York on 24 August 1990, a week short of his forty-ninth birthday. St Petersburg (and his second city, Tallinn, where he worked on a local newspaper for almost three years) are currently celebrating 'Dovlatovskie Dni', or 'Dovlatov Days', in the month that would have seen Dovlatov turn seventy. The best-publicized exhibition is this one at the Fontannyi Dom, housed in the apartment directly under Anna Akhmatova's flat-museum. 

However, the display is underwhelming: you stroll past giant blow-up composites of pages from Dovlatov's emigre newspaper Novyi amerikanets ('The New American'), coo over endearing collages of rare photographs of Dovlatov's American home (revealing that he liked to work next to photographs of his beautiful second wife Elena and their infant son), and eyeball a chest-high papier-mache model of an imaginary 'Dovlatov Park'. Visitors are encouraged to creep under the model, poke their heads through circular gaps in its structure, and take a 360-degree survey of the 'Park Kul'tury i Otdykha imeni S. Dovlatova', complete with papier-mache duck-pond, babushki knitting papier-mache wool, and 'No Walking On The Grass' signs. This experience made me feel like a coconut sitting on a coconut shy.

A friendly curator
I preferred the less ambitious but more coherent exhibition at the nearby Lermontov Library on Liteinyi Prospekt (picture left), which simply showed a complete set of caricatures by Dovlatov's illustrator Aleksandr Florenskii (see Remeslo, or Craft, top left).

I was delighted to pick up a copy of Anna Kovalova and Lev Lur'e's quirky 'composite biography' of Dovlatov at the Fontanka bookshop Poriadok slov (Word Order). This book recounts the writer's life through the reminiscences of friends and family (many reprinted from earlier memoirs or articles) , juxtaposed, where relevant, with brief extracts from Dovlatov's humorous autobiographical writings (and he wrote very little that was neither humorous nor autobiographical). The chief virtues of this book (besides the fact that you can dip in and out as you wish) are the insights that it offers into Dovlatov's family members (including his beautiful, syntactically pedantic proofreader mother Nora and his brilliant ne'er-do-well cousin Boris), and the unsparing honesty of most of the contributors. No hagiography here; there's even a prevailing whiff of begrudgery from friends overshadowed or superseded. We gather that Dovlatov's first marriage - to Asia Pekurovskaia, acclaimed as the most beautiful girl in her cohort at the Leningrad Philological Faculty - was a Scott-and-Zelda-style union based on shared glamour and infatuation rather than true love; the pair reportedly flaunted their complementary pulchritude in front of dowdier peers. (Comparisons to Fitzgerald and Hemingway recur constantly.)  Dovlatov's apparent need to shine in every group or gathering inspired his literary perfectionism, but also led to the alcoholism that would kill him - since America was a fish-pond where he could never be the biggest fish. His polite but pained relationship with the slightly elder and considerably more suave Joseph Brodsky is illuminated by Lev Losev in a wonderful eyewitness anecdote: when Dovlatov brought Brodsky a dedicated issue of Novyi amerikanets as a birthday tribute, the poet pointedly downplayed the gift and then, as if accidentally, scrumpled up the cover and dropped it in the waste bin, symbolically rejecting Dovlatov's admiration along with any hint of parity of patronage. Brodsky considered himself Dovlatov's patron, and he reserved the right to despise mere journalism.

If you're new to Dovlatov, I recommend reading his most famous book Chemodan (The Suitcase, 1986); or Kompromiss (The Compromise, 1981, reviewed here by Lizok's Bookshelf); and the autobiographical story cycle, Nashi (Ours, 1983), reviewed in translation here by Languagehat. Meanwhile, if you're in Petersburg, I recommend wandering down to no. 23 Ulitsa Rubinshteina, where Dovlatov grew up, and admiring the plaque on the wall of his building, now a pizza restaurant (appropriately enough for this post-Chekhovian urban ironist). 
I love this account by a local journalist, Elena Mulina,of the Nevskoe vremia (Neva Times), of how she tried to find Dovlatov's actual flat (no. 34) and was reduced to bribing a random drunk in the yard with a 149-ruble bottle of vodka to show her inside, where she found a teenage boy hiding behind stacks of drying laundry with a laptop - solo on his iMac, presumably. As I mooched off down Rubinshteina, I took this shot of two little boys trying to jostle each other off the kerb - forget sixty years, and they could have been Dovlatov and his cousin Boris, trading mischief on their way home from school.


  1. That Dovlatov Park exhibit sounds a bit bizarre. I'm glad the book is enjoyable, though -- thank you for the sampling of material!

  2. You're right, Lisa, it was a deeply peculiar exhibit - I even took some sneaky photos when the guardian babushki were distracted, but they came out too blurry to post here. Moreover, I'd have thought that a park in honour of Dovlatov would be the kind of place where you CAN walk on the grass...

  3. Yes, I would imagine that a Dovlatov park wouldn't have many rules at all!

    P.S. I looked up "coconut shy," something I'd never heard of until your post.