Inspired by the list of influences at the end of Torrey Peters’ Detransition, Baby, I wrote a list of influences on Two Big Differences.
Катакомбы Валентина Петровича Катаева
The Catacombs (also titled For the Power of the Soviets) is a novel written by Valentine Kataev in 1949. Kataev was the older brother of another famous Odessan writer, Yevgeny Petrov of Ilf and Petrov. This novel is considered one of the most Soviet Realist works by Kataev, and this description corresponds with the alternate title. It fits well within the Young Adult genre since its protagonist is a young boy orphaned during the Great Patriotic War. There is a trilogy about young Peska. The boy joins the partisans in the Odessa catacombs and fights with them. As Dodona Kiziria writes, the blatantly Soviet Realist novel is nonetheless written in “the limpid and elegant language of a true poet.” The edition I read had illustrations in the Soviet Realist style. Despite my American apprehension toward reading something that sounded so propagandistic, the language Kiziria describes struck me. Later Kataev wrote The Grass of Oblivion about his relationship with Ivan Bunin when Bunin was escaping, by way of Odessa, the incoming Soviet power. This memoir-novel is in a later style Kataev called mauvism from the French word “mauvais.” It is naive, even “bad,” as if he felt the confidence of challenging his earlier reputation for poetic language in the service of propaganda (to a degree). Or perhaps only later, after his success as an established Soviet writer, Kataev felt comfortable returning to something considerably less “intellectual,” his real Odessan language, which he ironically calls “mauvais”? Perhaps perhaps perhaps.
Whatever the case may be, the constraint Kataev imposed on himself makes the language perfect for nostalgia. The portrait of the young Odessan writer presenting his work to Bunin, having it savagely critiqued by that author, walking with him along the Black Sea, corresponded with my experience learning Russian here in South Brooklyn and with other mentor-writers I’ve encountered. My mother-in-law was reading this book while she was dying, so I can’t read it anymore unless I have time for very deep, sad feeling to wash over me.
Иностранка Сергея Донатовича Довлатова
Sergei Dovlatov wrote A Foreign Woman about Soviet emigres in the Forest Hills neighborhood of Queens. The novella/novel is the usual, hilarious and heartbreaking. But what was especially striking and influential for me was the relationship of the narrator and the protagonist, the иностранка herself, Marusya. The narrator’s love for her he describes as like a dog for his master. Dovlatov was certainly an influence on David Bezmozgis, whose story “Natasha” has a similar doomed devotion from its narrator and who had something to say about Two Big Differences. A Foreign Woman was also an early introduction to the immigrant lifestyle and culture of Soviet New Yorkers. To me the book was so fantastical, almost unbelievable, until I moved here years after reading it and have now lived among this culture for almost six years. One of my older friends here interviewed Dovlatov back then.
The Mars Room / Rachel Kushner
Kushner’s third novel is a California story, describing the San Francisco of her childhood, where I discovered her and where I read Flamethrowers. It describes a parent murdering in defense of her child. It describes California prisons, where I taught for a few years like one of the characters in The Mars Room. It is Kushner’s best culmination of her deadly humor and deadly seriousness, her appreciation for Americana in all its ugliness, and her philosophical greatness. While reading it, I thought that I had never read a sex scene in her work and began to wonder if that was a blindspot. The very next chapter I read was about the corrupt cop character, Doc, and included a very male, machoistic description of sex. This chapter absolutely decimated the thought about any blindspot. The ending of this novel, steeped in Nietzschean optimism, has remained with me and put Kushner alongside Cormac McCarthy as my two favorite living authors.
Flamethrowers / Rachel Kushner
As I’ve discussed elsewhere but is still worth mentioning, this novel’s depiction of the 1970s Autonomia Movement in Italy became a model for my depiction of Euromaidan in Odessa in 2014. Perhaps the reason is that I was reading Flamethrowers during the summer after the May 2nd fire in Odessa. I found the continued focus on the many characters, on the many people involved in the movement so refreshing. Traditionally, writers depict major historical events through the perspective of one character. Kushner took influence from Nanni Balestrini’s “collective character.” These events happen as collective experiences. To isolate them to a single character’s or even a few characters’ perspective feels too circumspect. In addition, Flamethrowers demonstrates the same humor that makes the bleak content of Kushner’s novels lighter, light enough that a reader can laugh, along with the desperate characters, at the gallows humor, something Kushner’s Odessan ancestors would likely have appreciated.
In Other Words / Jhumpa Lahiri
Before her switch to Italian, Lahiri’s work was both striking and served as a model for me. But it did not remain with me the way her themes of language acquisition and wandering through a foreign language do in this book. In Other Words opened a gateway for me. I consider it a brave book. I enjoy when very successful authors take what seem like risks as great as their success. Lahiri’s exploration of the insider-outsider feelings she had with learning Italian and the way it became a language over which she obsessed enabled me to lay claim in whatever way I have to my endeavor to learn Russian.
Whereabouts / Jhumpa Lahiri
Whereabouts marked an even greater leap into Italian and writing translingually for Jhumpa Lahiri. She wrote the novel in Italian, as she had written In Other Words. However, this time she translated herself, something she discussed in an article she wrote for Words Without Borders. In Other Words had included a short story written originally in Italian. This novel resembled the story to a degree. Lahiri’s style is stripped down, simpler. That is to say, her translation of herself into English does not necessarily resemble her originally English prose of earlier in her career. Perhaps like Samuel Beckett, Lahiri’s motion into a different language changes her writing, and she remains more loyal to where that motion has taken her than to the motion of the writing she began in English. Again, that is to say that Lahiri’s style has changed, become perhaps less of a style, like Beckett’s, who also translated himself back into English. For Beckett, it was a way to escape this idea of “style.” The task is likely impossible. However, the change undertaken by translingual writers such as Lahiri is, to me, the most courageous literary action a writer can undertake. An even more recent example is the writer and translator Jennifer Croft’s Homesick, originally written in Spanish by this author from Oklahoma but translated into English. That Beckett and Lahiri and Croft did so without necessarily having to, such as other writers who have migrated due to political or personal situations that demanded they do so, sets them apart from other translingual or exophonic writers. It’s something to which to aspire.
Зависть Юрия Карловича Олеши
Jealousy by Yuri Olesha–an Odessan who, like Babel and many other Odessan writers, escaped to the bigger, arguably more “literary” Moscow–is a text that asks a lot of its reader. Like with many novels, perhaps with most of the genre of poetry, access is not necessarily immediate. A reader must work, especially a reader who only began to read Russian in his mid-20s (me).
Одесские Рассказы Исаака Эммануиловича Бабеля
Of course, Babel’s Odessa stories are incredibly influential on Two Big Differences. How could they not be? They’re like the influence of William Faulkner on any writer who has any connection whatsoever with the American South. The title, as many readers likely know, comes from the almost tourist brochure-like short essay, “Odessa,” the passage at the very beginning, the second sentence, right before explaining how Odessans say тудою-сюдою (tudoiu-siudoiu, or here and there in a strange way). You can hear this speech in shows like Мишка Япончик (Mishka Iaponchik, the real name of the person on whom Babel’s Benya Krik is based) and the famous Ликвидация (a show about post-war Odessa featuring a performance by Leonid Utesov of “У чёрного моря” (U Chernogo Moria, By the Black Sea), a song I often sing to my younger daughter to help her fall asleep. In other words, Babel’s influence is undoubtable. See translations of these stories by Boris Dralyuk or Val Vinokur, and you’ll have a great idea of Odessa. However, I’ve also heard that this speech is “вымышленный в Москве” (“thought up in Moscow”) from the other Odessan whose epigraph is at the beginning of Two Big Differences. And it makes sense, what Zhvanetsky says. Wouldn’t it be a fantastic Odessan prank if all of this industry built up around Babel were a total fabrication? Didn’t he send himself off to Moscow as soon as he could, similar to Olesha, Kataev, others trying to escape “provincial” Odessa? For me, what’s best to take from Babel isn’t necessarily the strange phrases but the humor, as Zhvanetsky says, such as in Babel’s story, “How It Was Done in Odessa”: “Поэтому он Король, а вы держите фигу в кармане” (“That’s why he’s King, and you give the finger with your hand in your pocket.”)
Двенадцать Стульев Ильфа и Петрова
The Twelve Chairs, the famous novel about an Odessan operator, Ostap Bender, certainly also established the Odessan or “Southwestern” literary school. Perhaps Ilf and Petrov established something more genuine, despite the often cartoonish caricatures in the novel. As in Babel, Ilf and Petrov seem to come from a place of understanding and love for these wretched characters. Maybe. The depiction of the way Odessans hustle is dead on and also a depiction likely extendable to almost all Soviet people. The hustle was necessary, a means of survival. Maybe. Or they were simply giving a very specific and pointed critique of the New Economic Plan (NEP) and those who took advantage of it.
Natasha and Other Stories by David Bezmozgis
This story of an Americanized Soviet immigrant teenager meeting his gorgeous cousin and having a sexual awakening with her is one of the best of Bezmozgis’ whole career and certainly placed well as the title story for his first collection. In addition, the writer-filmmaker made the story “Natasha” into a film. The main character, addressed by his surname, Berman, attempts to use Natasha as a way to gain ethos in the eyes of a drug dealer acquaintance from his suburban Toronto neighborhood. The plan backfires. When Berman says, “She’s Russian. We’re born intense,” the drug dealer counters with, “With all due respect, Berman, you and her aren’t even the same species.” His Americanization has stripped him of all the “intensity” expected of a Soviet person who remained. And almost all of these stories include some or another one-liner of the same gravitas. The one that struck me the most isn’t actually from “Natasha.” It comes from “Tapka,” the first story in the collection. The stories are in chronological order, so “Tapka” depicts a younger Berman. He has failed to be responsible for a little dog, something I once failed at as well for an aunt of mine. And the guilt speaks to him, “You killed Tapka.” It’s an incredible line. But you must read it to know.
Венерин волос Михаила Павловича Шишкина
Maidenhair by Mikhail Shishkin is so free in its exploration of pastiche, weaving together so many different story lines in a way that keeps them organic, in a way that is like a poem. I read it half in Russian, half in English. Shishkin himself lived, in 2014, between Russian culture and Swiss, and that’s present in the parts about the Swiss interpreters of Eastern European and Central Asian refugees to Switzerland, a precursor to the current refugee crisis from a different region adjacent to Europe. Shishkin also lampoons Western “torture porn” exoticization of the suffering of Eastern people (European, Asian, simply not Western). Indeed. Westerners, be careful what you choose to criticize and how you go about it, he seemed to be saying. That, of course, was very important when I, a Westerner, decided to write a story both depicting and criticizing the political events of 2014 in Ukraine, specifically in Odessa.