Vladimir Sharov - an almagam of Tolstoy, Doistoievski and Solzhenitsyn. "Russian history is, in fact, a commentary to the Bible"

Vladimir Sharov, Before and During, Trans. by Oliver Ready. Dedalus Books,  2013. [1993.]

sample chapter

Set in a dementia ward in Moscow in the long decades of late-Soviet stagnation, Before and During sweeps the reader away from its dismal setting into a series of fantastical excursions into the Russian past. We meet Leo Tolstoy’s twin brother, eaten by the great writer in his mother’s womb, only to be born as Tolstoy’s ‘son’; the philosopher-hermit Nikolai Fyodorov, who believed that the common task of humanity was the physical resurrection of their ancestors; a self-replicating Madame de Staël who, during her second life, is carried through plague-ridden Russia in a glass post-chaise and becomes Fyodorov’s lover. (In her third and last life, she becomes mother and lover to Stalin). Out of these intoxicating, darkly comic fantasies – all described in a serious, steady voice – Sharov seeks to retrieves the hidden connections and hidden strivings of the Russian past, its wild, lustful quest for justice, salvation and God.

Set in Soviet Russia half a century ago, Before and During is narrated by a forty-five-year-old character identified simply as Alyosha. For most of the novel he is (voluntarily) institutionalized, in the Korsakov Psychiatric Institute, having recognized that he's not quite fit for everyday life -- but by and large, and except for some soporific fits, he seems reasonably well-grounded. Even before he went to the psych ward Alyosha had been working on a 'Memorial Book' (inspired by Ivan the Terrible's own 'Memorial Book of the Disgraced'), and it's in the institution -- which is largely populated by: "Old Bolsheviks or former Party bosses" -- that, after an initial adjustment period, his 'Memorial Book' really begins to take shape. It is the record of others' tales, a variety of often fantastical (life-)stories, many of which go back to earlier Russian history, and which also share certain features -- especially mystical features, with, for example, forms of resurrection a recurring theme.
       Deep in the layers of stories Alyosha records comes an explanation from the composer Scriabin, trying to explain one variation of what he and many others in Alyosha's mystical quest-tale are after:     '"The Mystery" he said, "is remembrance. Every man will have to remember everything he experienced since the creation of the world. We all have this experience, its preserved in each and every one of us -- you just need to learn how to summon it.
       Among the first characters Alyosha writes of in his Memorial Book is an old relative, apparently senile and dying when he visits her a last time, who has spent her last years writing her memoirs -- a memory book of her own that, however, stands in contrast to her conversation with Alyosha: it is only what she hasn't fixed on the page that remains vivid in her mind, while what she's carefully recorded is now, at best, hazy to her. Alyosha wonders whether: "whatever is not written down really does drift away and die" -- or will it, in some way, transcend death, something stronger than a mere written record.
       These issues of human memory -- in its broadest sense -- are exemplified incarnate in several examples, notably those of Leo Tolstoy and Madame Germaine de Staël, as Alyosha comes to learn stories about them from acolytes and others close to them. Tolstoy's late mysticism is compared to Bolshevism itself:
     Essentially the Tolstoyans pursued almost identical aims to those of the Bolsheviks, though by very different, incompatible means: absolute freedom.
       In the first instance in the novel of what amounts to cloning, Sharov claims Tolstoy's eldest son, Lev Lvovich, was not really his son but rather an identical (if time-delayed) alter-Tolstoy, Tolstoy's monoovular (i.e. identical) twin, matured a generation after Tolstoy's own birth in Tolstoy's wife's womb. The biology may be a bit fuzzy, but the concept(ion) is inspired -- as is then the description of the second Tolstoy's sad fate, making for a neat (if creepy) alternative explanation of familiar historical facts.
       A different form of resurrection is attributed to the more central figure of Madame de Staël, who, in new forms, remains a major Russian presence several times over, long after her original passing in 1817. Indeed, de Staël -- or an after-de Staël -- is fundamental in shaping the Soviet state, creating, in more than one way, Stalin. Sharov's twisted reimagining of Stalin's origins and path -- and de Staël's maneuvers, which at one point include rejection of the man, as only jealousy can rouse the necessary instincts and actions for Stalin to assume complete power -- are a brilliant if deeply disturbing fantastical revision of history.
       The overlap of genius and madness -- the: "extraordinary coupling of pathology and genius" -- also figures prominently in the book, with the institute where Alyosha winds up having once also housed the Institute for Natural Genius. Different fanatical factions and their leaders -- from the Tolstoyans to dominant Fyodorov (de Staël's not-quite-soulmate) -- reflect various forms of absolutism (as does, of course, the Bolshevism that is a backdrop to much of what happens). 'God' is a dominant notion to many of these figures and the ideas that motivate them -- but it is god as an absolutist concept, adapted to their beliefs, ultimately a mystical figure/concept beyond much reality.
       The dangers of absolutism are made clear in the necessary consequences of these belief-systems taken to their extremes. So, for example:
Communism would be formed by perfect people; imperfect people would never manage to build it -- they would only get in the way.
       And if trying to perfect the flawed was too time- or energy-consuming, well then, they could and should just be done away with .....
       So too the story leads to a biblical-scale apocalypse, the coming of a flood (this being cold Russia, the rains are snow) and the creating of a preserving Ark -- which, unsurprisingly in Sharov's dark and twisted vision isn't welcoming but amounts to almost an anti-Ark.
       With its multilayered narrative -- stories within stories, at times reaching back more than a century -- and its very determined but obscurantist fanatics and semi-madmen, Before and During is far from straightforward fiction; summary, or even just attempts to describe some of what it is about (as above) can only give a very limited sense of what this novel is. It shimmers in shrouds of mysticism -- yet for all that it is remarkably lucid. There's a crispness to Sharov's writing (and Oliver Ready's translation) that cuts through what otherwise seems foggy, and even as the narrator fades in and out of his own story, Alyosha's account, and his recordings in his Memorial Book, remain firmly grounded and relatively clear. The mysticism can be confounding (as mysticism always seems to -- or is meant to ? -- be), but this is in part offset by Sharov repeatedly stunning with invention: conceptually this is an often brilliant novel.
       Before and During is very much a novel from and of and about Russia, highly allusive and steeped in Russian history and literature. The real-life figures can serve as reassuring touchstones for foreign readers, but there's clearly (and/or unclearly) much more to it; nevertheless, even just superficially -- without closer familiarity with Orthodox and Bolshevik history and creeds, for example -- Before and During is rewarding, a rare work of fiction that is, on several levels (including literarily and philosophically), provocative as well as simply exhilarating. An impressive achievement. - M.A.Orthofer

"Russian history is, in fact, a commentary to the Bible," Vladimir Sharov said in a recent interview. Coming from an historian, this statement calls for certain facts to be revised in its light; illustrated in a work of fiction, it makes for a complex, thought-provoking and controversial book.
On its first publication in Russia in 1993, Before and During did cause some controversy: editors of the very magazine where it appeared criticised the author for taking too many liberties with facts, while a proportion of readers found its links between Orthodox Christianity and Bolshevism hard to digest.
The novel starts at the tail end of the Soviet era, with its narrator, known only as Alyosha, working on his Memorial Book, where he intends to record the lives of people he has known. He suffers mental blackouts and is admitted to the dementia ward of a psychiatric hospital in Moscow. There his project takes on a new dimension: he resolves to include his fellow patients in the book and begins jotting down their stories, not realising at first that his subjects “needed to be loved and saved, not analysed.”
Not only does Alyosha fail to redeem them by merely transcribing their accounts – in retrospect, he thinks that his intervention may have brought about the catastrophic finale.
As the novel’s threads multiply, it grows into a phantasmagoria centred around the character of Madame de Staël, a French author famous for her stance against Napoleon. Possessed of an ability to prolong her life, she settles in Russia after her first reincarnation, a “Pythian priestess” who can see into the future and whose actions eventually determine the country’s fate (the similarity between her name and Stalin’s is no coincidence).
Powerful erotic currents are created by descriptions of de Staël’s relationships with her many lovers, among them the philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov, one of the founders of Russian cosmism, and the composer Alexander Scriabin, who saw music as a way of building a new universe. His unfinished opus, “Mysterium”, conceived as “a sublime orgy, a rite, a kind of global frenzy”, has never been traced.
Sharov offers an intriguing scenario where Scriabin performs it for none other than Lenin, who transcribes its principal themes in a code, thus producing some of his best-known works, including The State and Revolution. These writings, when deciphered, turn out to portray the events that shook the world in 1917: “One part of a nation leads another to slaughter and the smell of the offering, the fragrance of the offering, brought with faith in truth and justice, with unwavering readiness, goes up into the sky.”
When Alyosha announces early on that “what follows is not a transcript, nor even the first edit”, it becomes clear decoding is to play a crucial role in the book. However, the recounted stories are often quoted verbatim, a device that further increases the narrative’s level of recursion: Alyosha’s efforts alone are not enough to resurrect the past, so he needs a medium to deliver the message. The translator Oliver Ready, well aware of the multi-layered original, skilfully follows its cadences.
Some of the book’s elements – madness, fantasy, biblical references – are reminiscent of The Master and Margarita, but the analogy with Bulgakov does not run very deep. Sharov’s real precursor is Andrey Platonov, who was influenced by Fyodorov’s teachings and drew strong parallels between Soviet ideology and religion. If Russian history is indeed a commentary to the Bible, then Before and During is an audacious attempt to shine a mystical light on it, an unusual take on the 20th century’s apocalypse that leaves the reader to look for their own explications. - Anna Aslanyan

Historical fiction, by definition, supplements the verifiable documentary record with elements of the imagination. Otherwise, it is not fiction but history. These elements often include invented characters, made-up dialogue, the filling in of vague or unknowable events and personalities. Through the more or less careful manipulation of historical truth, the novelist seeks to uncover a deeper emotional truth that speaks to both the reality of a past time and the needs of the present.
Before and During (Dedalus Books, 2014)—Vladimir Sharov’s exploration of Soviet life and the revolutionary movement that preceded it, skillfully translated by Oliver Ready—pushes historical invention to its limits. Set in a Moscow psychiatric hospital circa 1965, the novel follows a patient identified only as Alyosha as he pursues his self-assigned quest to create a Memorial Book of the Dead, à la Ivan the Terrible, by recording the life stories of those around him and people of importance in his own past. One fellow-patient, Ifraimov, launches into a long and fantastical account of reincarnation, philosophy, revolution, free love, and incest that sweeps from Mme de Staël and Lev Tolstoy to Lenin and Stalin—assiduously recorded by Alyosha.

As Sharov’s English-language publisher puts it, “Out of these intoxicating, darkly comic fantasies—all described in a serious, steady voice—Sharov seeks to retrieve the hidden connections and hidden strivings of the Russian past, its wild, lustful quest for justice, salvation, and God.” It’s quite a ride. But if you love Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita, this book’s for you. - C. P. Lesley

Vladimir Sharov, The Rehearsals, Trans. by Oliver Ready,  Dedalus, 2018.

New Jerusalem Monastery, seventeenth-century Moscow. Patriarch Nikon has instructed an itinerant French dramatist to stage the New Testament and hasten the Second Coming. But this will be a strange form of theatre. The actors are untrained, illiterate Russian peasants, and nobody is allowed to play Christ. They are persecuted, arrested, displaced, and ultimately replaced by their own children. Yet the rehearsals continue... A stunning reflection on art, history, religion and national identity, Rehearsals is the seminal work in the unique oeuvre of Vladimir Sharov, Russian Booker Prize winner (2014) and author of Before & During (Read Russia award for best translation, 2015).

The novel recounts the failure of the human race to produce God‘s great play on the stage of the world. Rehearsing means repeating, to perpetually review the play and to try again and again, thereby immortalizing the play throughout the ages. And in this, the theme of the novel evokes the memory of that most infamous rubber stamp „Khranit‘ vechno“ (to be preserved forever) on KGB files. Rehearsals should lead to apremiere, but this does not happen in the novel.
In the 17th century theatre is considered by the church to be the work of the devil. However, in Siberia a bishop campaigns to stage a play about the second coming of Christ. The French director struggles with the illiterate Siberian villagers over the final version of the play and, similar to the passion play at Oberammergau, the chastity and suitability of the inhabitants for the roles of Jews, Romans and Apostles, and above all for that of Judas. A decree demands that the role of Jesus must not be filled, for unlike in Oberammergau, the Siberian village is not rehearsing the Passion, but the incarnate return of the Redeemer. The urgency to stage the play is increased by the fact that the end of the world is prophesied for 1666 and this turns the play into both an invocation and a prerequisite for the second coming of Christ. But, as the end of the world is repeatedly postponed and, for the villagers, takes on multifaceted changeable forms - schism, war, enlightenment, anti-Jewish pogroms, revolution, Stalin‘s terror, GULAG -, so the premiere is deferred by years, decades, centuries without those involved ever losing their hope or determination. On the contrary, the protagonists manage to pass on trust and confidence from generation to generation. The self-imposed task becomes the justification for existence, the rehearsals become the reason for living.
It is not without reason that, in this secular age, Sharov has set the plot in one of those Old-Orthodox communities that considers itself to be God‘s last chosen people and believes that their village is the New Jerusalem. With unbelievably realistic attention to detail the novel presents reports of historical witnesses, archive sources, verbal and written memories as if discovered by a contemporary reporter who has analyzed, researched, queried and interpreted them. - www.wiedling-litag.com/authors/sharov/titles_2.html

In 1656, at the behest of Patriarch Nikon of Moscow, the building of a life-size replica of Jerusalem began on the bank of the river Istra. The trees were cut down and tonnes of additional earth brought in to fashion the typical landscape of Central Russia into the geographical semblance of the Holy Land. The imposing monastic ensemble that grew there in the course of the years of intense work, in which Nikon himself took part, became known as The New Jerusalem Monastery. The cathedral of the complex was built to resemble the Church of the Holy Sepuclchre in Jerusalem, the river Istra was rechristened as the Jordan, and the surrounding terrain features received Biblical names: Mount Sinai, Mount Tabor, the Garden of Gethsemane.
Although this may sound  like something that sprang from the fertile mind of Russian writer Vladmir Sharov, this unbeleavable event did happen, and you can actually visit the restored monastery in all its splendour if you ever come to the town of Istra, about 40 kilometres away from Moscow. For Sharov, this colossal construction project is just the point of departure for the construction of his own:  one of the most striking novels you are going to read in the coming year. In The Rehearsals,  the building of New Jerusalem is concurrent with the preparations for a mystery play faithfully recreating the events of the Gospels that Patriarch Nikon commissions a Breton theatre director to stage on the monastery grounds. The director uses the local peasants for the roles of the Jews, the Christians, and the Romans, as he is forbidden to employ professional actors. Since nobody is allowed to play Jesus Christ himself, that part is conferred to the empty space which the crowd of amateur thespians have to address year after year as they rehearse for the great premiere scheduled for the year 1666. Perhaps then, during the performance, Jesus Christ will descend in New Jerusalem on the bank of the Istra River, and the world will come to an end? When the time comes, we realise that the premiere will have to be postponed and that the rehearsals will continue for many more years, overshadowing by the scale of the attendant cruelty and brutality both the Biblical sources and the humble beginnings of the 17th-century.
Sharov’s dense and skillfully manipulative narrative will require all your attention. Bear with him, and you will be rewarded.  Ridden with all sorts of rabbit holes, that’s a Wonderland no Alice would visit on her own accord, for the journey would take her to the terrifying metaphysical depths of Russian and Soviet history. Translated into English by Oliver Ready (one of the five virtuosi I posted about earlier), Sharov’s staggering novel is slated to come out from Dedalus Books at the end of January. Don’t miss it.  - theuntranslated.wordpress.com/2017/12/25/forthcoming-the-rehearsals-by-vladimir-sharov/

The Rehearsals takes an unusual circuit of Russian history. The novel begins:
     In 1939 Isaiah Trifonovich Kobylin ceased to be a Jew, and the Jewish nation, of which he was the last, ended with him.
       Moving first a bit forward through Soviet times, the novel circles back to the seventeenth century and lays the foundations for what then is also the final part of the novel, leading back to this initial conclusion.
       A narrator explains he learnt this story from Kobylin, in 1967, but first offer more personal background, beginning his story with his own university studies, at the University of Kuibyshev in Samara in 1958, and his acquaintance with: "a man who was trying to understand God" named Ilyin. His theological deliberations are one influence on the narrator; another is that of: "a decrepit octogenarian philosophy professor from Kiev known to the entire university as 'The Idealist'", who nominally lectures on Gogol. Moving with his family to Tomsk in 1963, the narrator moves to a new (and better) university, and comes under the wing of another dedicated professor, Suvorin.
       Among Suvorin's fields of interest is the historical 'Schism', caused by the reforms instituted by Russian Orthodox patriarch Nikon in the seventeenth century. The 'Old Believers', who wanted to stick to the old formulas and rites, were exiled -- and, as the narrator notes:
The history of Siberia, after all, is also the history of the Schism. The Old Believers who were exiled here from Russia in the seventeenth century, or fled here of their own accord, were the first to colonize and cultivate these lands. They were needed here, so the authorities didn't interfere with their faith
       Suvorin amassed a large number of manuscripts from and about these times in the course of his work, and generally passed them on to the university when he was done with them. After his death, there's some disagreement between the heirs and the university, and it's the narrator who acts as middleman of sorts, with Suvorin's library and manuscripts going through his hands, as he continues to take an interest in his professor's work. He also adds to the historical haul, a man who sold manuscripts to Suvorin -- the Kobylin introduced (so briefly) at the start of the novel -- now offering him his latest finds. The narrator's first purchase is the papers of a French theatre director, Jacques de Sertan. Because nothing in this novel is simple or straightforward, the papers are of course written not in French but in Breton, and it takes the narrator three years to find someone able to translate them (though, of course: "I found him right under my nose, in the next house along").
       Here then, finally, almost a quarter of the way into the book, the story gets to the (more or less) actual story, as Sertan's eastern European (and eventually Russian) odyssey, beginning in 1645, is the heart of the novel, and the basis for the rest. Sertan's theatrical troupe doesn't enjoy great success in those tough times -- by 1654: "his entire troupe had been reduced to a single man". Patriarch Nikon seems an unlikely savior -- after all, he: "held that the theatre was a satanic spectacle and that anyone who watched it imperilled his soul" -- but Nikon has big plans.
       Nikon's grand scheme is nothing less than a 'New Jerusalem'. In fact, he wants: "to move all Palestine's sacred places over here, onto Russian soil" (and he means everything). He also wants to put on a grand mystery play-- the grandest of mystery plays, which is where Sertan's expertise is meant to come into play. Sertan, however, is a bit overwhelmed by Nikon's grand ambitions.
       The preparations in New Jerusalem extend over years -- and come to naught. The Schism leads to arrests and then exile, the two hundred and eight souls who had been preparing for the play exiled along with Sertan, the list of them conveniently grouping them by their roles -- significant, because they didn't really let go of these on their very long journey, and then in Siberian exile. So, for example, those playing Jews stuck to the part (though the narrator admits: "I don't think they ever became real Jews, with the possible exception of one group"). The play, which had been meant to be performed only once, is in fact never put on as such -- and yet in its performers sticking to the fundamentals of their roles, the fictional identities they were to play, in their Mosslands exile, in a sense their on-going lives recreated (Biblical) history more authentically than the mere drama Sertan had been planning:
     Essentially, Sertan had created a new people and a new community, unlike any other.
       The community survives, too, in its odd state, until the twentieth century and Soviet times. Shaped by the Russian upheavals of the seventeenth century, the community is then only undone by Soviet repression.
       The Rehearsals unfolds unusually, but is ultimately effective -- the theme of cyclical repetition (of history and much else), in particular, effectively conveyed. Even as it seems to meander, Sharov's broad approach cleverly covers a great deal; if fundamentally fictional, there's much here based on historical fact, and the story reflects modern Russian history, from the 1600s through Soviet times, very well.
       The characters, even those appearing only briefly on the scene, provide a variety of insightful and entertaining angles in Sharov's complexly structured tale -- even the in-way-over-his-head Sertan, who can't escape his fate and finds that:
The country he ended up with was so inconceivable, so impossible that there had to be some mistake. Presumably, Sertan did not understand Russia, did not understand where itw as headed, what fate it was preparing itself for, and for a long time, almost up to his final days, he also failed to understand what he himself was doing here, thanks to his warped, incomplete relationships with the people with whom fate had thrown him together.
       Several of the theological and political issues at the heart of the novel -- such as the Schism -- are quite Russia-specific in this very much about-Russia novel, and some of the theological debate can be a bit wearing, but central though national and religious identity and issues are, and how very much The Rehearsals is not only steeped in Russian history but also tries to define it, that's not all there is to the novel. In fact, there's quite a bit of entertainment to the story too, including some exciting adventure. The novel might qualify as wildly imagined -- if it weren't for the fact that so much of it is factual -- and Sharov also has good fun with many of his characters and scenes. More loosely digressive than most fiction, The Rehearsals nevertheless consistently sticks to its larger story -- it's just that it turns out to be more multifaceted than the simple(r) one, of putting on a play, at the heart of it.
       The Rehearsals pulls readers along to some strange places, not so much at a slow pace but in a roundabout fashion, but it's worth the unusual ride. - M.A.Orthofer

Vladimir Sharov wrote a dissertation on the Time of Troubles (late sixteenth, early seventeenth century Russia) at university and though this novel is mainly set sometime after that period, Sharov’s knowledge of the period clearly informs this book. Alexander Etkind has described Sharov’s writing as magical historicism, (the bizarre but instructive imagery that has evolved out of postcatastrophic, post-Soviet culture) and this seems a useful term. Sharov’s writing is clearly not straightforward magic realism but is certainly not your standard historical novel.
On the face of it, a novel about seventeenth century Russia and, in particular, its religious issues, might not seem to be everyone’s taste. However, Sharov’s writing and the fascinating issues he raises make it well worthwhile and we must be grateful to Dedalus for finally making it available in English translation.
Our narrator, who seems to be called Sergei gives us a convoluted but nevertheless very interesting and imaginative exposition of what led him to the main story of this novel, namely the eponymous rehearsals. We start with Isaiah Kobylin who, apparently, is the last of the Jewish nation. We move on to Sergei Ilyin, a friend of the narrator who preaches to our narrator. Ilyin is half Jewish, half Old Believer. (The Old Believers are key to this novel and to the period Sharov is writing about.) Ilyin has a complicated thesis about Christ being really God but God coming down to man to bring goodness (primarily in the form of miracles). However, man, as we know, failed to reform. He believes that it is essential that man follow the Law and turn more to God. (This takes place in 1958, so well before the fall of Communism.) - The Modern Novel  read more here

Russia’s premier literary award – the Russian Booker Prize – was awarded at the beginning of December. This year, the award for the best work of fiction in Russian was awarded to Vladimir Sharov for his novel “Return to Egypt.”            
Russian writer and essayist Vladimir Sharov, 62, made his debut as a poet back in 1979. With his big white beard, the author bears an uncanny resemblance to Leo Tolstoy. His books are imbued with biblical motifs and attempts at rethinking Russian history.
Russia Beyond the Headlines: What does it mean to you to receive the Russian Booker Prize?
Vladimir Sharov: For me, the prize is an opportunity to be read by a much larger number of people. It will be a lot easier to form relationships with Russian and foreign publishers, because they equate receiving a prize to having a wide readership. It will also be easier to form relationships with translators, and a translator is the most important thing there is for a writer. When someone else works almost at your rate, rhythm and immersion in the text, it gives you the opportunity to simply live.
RBTH: Can you briefly explain to foreign readers what your novel “Return to Egypt” is about and how you arrived at the plot?
V.S.: At some point, I started to think that the entirety of Russian life and history in the 20th century, and even in the second half of the 19th century, was an attempt to finish Dead Souls – the second part that Nikolai Gogol burned and the third one that was never written. There were attempts by writers, and later attempts by the authorities, which ended with an enormous amount of blood and much else besides.
That became people’s understanding of Gogol – people who were distanced from him by two or three generations, who saw and lived through many things. 
RBTH: Would it be fair to say that your work – particularly “Return to Egypt” – is only for intellectuals, rather than everyone?
V.S.: It’s hard for me to say. When someone is writing a novel they possess a certain amount of power within its bounds. But once a novel is published, the author is the last person who matters. And I think that they shouldn’t even comment on the text. They should just listen to the people who read it. There is a huge difference between what you write at the time and what you have actually written.
RBTH: Who is your readership? Do you write for anyone in particular?
V.S.: I don’t write for any particular reader. For me, the process of writing a book is an attempt to understand the things that remain obscure to me. By the end it seems that I have started to at least partially understand some things, although that feeling does fade rather quickly. It’s that kind of tool for me: if I write for anyone, it is only for myself.
But, of course, it’s always a gift to me when someone else reads my work and talks to me about it, or draws, translates, or publishes something I have written.
A novel is like a child. You understand some things about it when it is still inside you, but as soon as the umbilical cord is cut, another life begins, and you just want it to turn out well. You no longer have any control and must modestly step aside.
RBTH: Do you identify with any particular literary movement?
V.S.: For me, Andrei Platonov is most important 20th-century writer – and not just in terms of Russian literature. But whenever I really like something, I don’t want to duplicate it. I simply take a step back and admire it. I just have some questions and confusion, and I try to deal with them.
I would rather like to think that I am partially a chronicler of times I didn’t live in but am trying to restore. A huge part of that time was simply lost in the Civil War. It wasn’t recorded, put into an archive, or even burned in stoves. And, just like a hunter tracking an animal can determine what type of animal it is, or like a paleontologist can rebuild an entire animal from a bone, what I write is an attempt to restore the life not captured in the archives – simply the fluid, unwritten human life.
RBTH: In his column on the short-list for another literary prize – the Big Book Prize – the writer Pavel Basinsky wrote that contemporary prose refers to times past, other countries and spaces. And he asks the question, “Has life become boring?” What are your thoughts on that?
V.S.: I can’t answer for everyone, but personally I need distance – at least 30-40 years – if I am to lift my hand to write about something. During their lives people have countless experiences and feelings:  they talk, work, go to the theatre, go out, and then they write it down in a diary, and the words end up depicting a totally different sense and value than what they actually felt when they lived it. I am not a person of momentary impressions. I need them to settle. Life moves too fast to write it down in shorthand.
RBTH: Excuse an indiscreet question: the Russian Booker Prize is 1.5 million rubles. Have you already thought about how you will spend it?
V.S.: I’m just going to live. A novel takes five-six years to write, so if you divide the prize by years, it’s not that much. I don’t think my life will change. I will simply be freed from thoughts about what I’m going to live on. -  Alexandra Guzeva     


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