Sep/Oct 2018 Current Moscow Time: 03:32:00
20 September 2018

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Dovlatov in America

Author: John Castellucci

Mar/Apr 2017
Page 50   ( 6 pages)

Summary: Some writers adapt easily to living abroad, after being cut off from their homeland. Sergei Dovlatov was not one of those writers.


Midway through Pushkin Hills, Sergei Dovlatov’s novel based on his experiences as a tour guide in Soviet Russia, there’s a conversation between a writer who, like Dovlatov, is having trouble getting his stories published, and a woman who, like Dovlatov’s ex-wife Elena, is trying to persuade him to emigrate with her to the United States.

“This is where my readers are. And there ... who needs my stories in Chicago?”

“Who needs them here? The headwaiter in Crescent Shore, who doesn’t even read the menu?”

“Everybody. It’s just that nobody has guessed it yet.”

As a novel set on a tourist attraction – the family estate of Alexander Pushkin – Pushkin Hills is grim and funny, full of the sorrowful Russian humor critics call “laughter through tears.”

But it’s also the book that Dovlatov, stymied by Soviet censorship, wrote just before he threw in the towel and followed his ex-wife and daughter to America. The passage in which the protagonist, Boris Alikhanov, argues with Tanya about the sacrifices he would have to make as a writer if he left Russia, is prophetic.

It sums up what happened to Dovlatov after he joined the so-called “Third Wave” of Russian émigrés, quitting the Soviet Union to settle in Forest Hills, Queens.

The 12 years between his arrival in New York and his death at age 48 in an ambulance on the way to Coney Island Hospital were the most fruitful in Dovlatov’s career. Between 1978 and 1990, he wrote the stories and novels that placed him at the forefront of the last generation of Soviet writers – the poets and novelists who came of age just as the Thaw initiated by Nikita Khrushchev gave way to the return of Communist Party orthodoxy, stifling creativity and dissent.

He was an unusual person. Good-looking, with a thick beard and mustache in his later years, he bore an uncanny resemblance to the movie actor Omar Sharif. The son of an Armenian actress and Jewish theater director, he drank like a Russian muzhik, going off on binges that lasted days and ultimately destroyed his health. Twice married and twice divorced, he was father of four children by three women, one of whom was his common-law wife.

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