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


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