What’s in Dovlatov’s Suitcase

Translationista has been receiving a lot of books for review lately, and since I don’t have time to write all the reviews myself these days, I’m starting to invite a select group of translation-savvy guest reviewers to speak their minds on this blog. Here is the first such review, from the pen of Adam Z. Levy.
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In March 1989, a short story called “The Photo Album” appeared in The New Yorker, written by Russian émigré Sergei Dovlatov. The story was his eighth to appear in the magazine and the second to recount the less-than-romantic circumstances under which he met his wife, Lena. In this version, it is Election Day in Leningrad. The narrator, also a man named Sergei Dovlatov and no enthusiast of the Soviet electoral process, writes, “I was in no hurry. I had skipped voting about three times already. And not out of dissident considerations, either — rather, out of an abhorrence for meaningless acts.”

If a Dovlatovian ethos exists, perhaps this last line summarizes it to a T, for it is meaninglessness, or perhaps an absurdity that Sergei takes for meaninglessness, that defines and enlivens the odd situations into which he constantly finds himself thrown. In the “The Photo Album,” what finally rouses Sergei from his mother’s apartment and his lazy, bathrobed state is the arrival of Lena, a canvasser. “She looked like a school teacher,” he says. “That is, a bit of an old maid.” Instead of voting, he escorts her to the movies, then to the Writers’ House, where Sergei hopes they will run into someone famous enough to impress Lena. But the evening’s selection of literary celebrities is unremarkable. He recognizes and is recognized by no one. Finally, he spots a writer named Danchkovsky: “In a pinch, he could be called famous.” “I lowered my voice and whispered to Elena Borisovna, ‘Look, Danchkovsky himself! Wild success . . . sure to win the Lenin Prize.’ Danchkovsky headed for the corner farthest from the jukebox. As he passed us, he slowed down. I raised my glass familiarly. Danchkovsky, without a greeting, said clearly, ‘I read your humor piece in Aurora. It’s crap.’”

To those familiar with Dovlatov’s stories, the bullet points of his biography should come as no surprise. Born in 1941 in the Soviet Republic of Bashkiria to an Armenian mother and a half-Jewish father, he spent most of his life in Leningrad, where he flunked out of the University, worked as a prison guard for the Soviet Army, and found “hackwork” as a journalist at various newspapers and magazines, until he was expelled some years later by the Union of Journalists. After failing to publish in the Soviet Union and facing intense harassment from the government, he emigrated to New York in 1979, where he published twelve books before his untimely death in 1990, at the age of 48. One month later, his collection The Suitcase appeared in English, containing a revised version of “The Photo Album.”

After languishing for two decades in relative obscurity, The Suitcase was re-released this year by Counterpoint Press, in an expert translation by Antonina W. Bouis. The collection is Dovlatov at his finest. “I looked at the empty suitcase,” he writes in the foreword. “On the bottom was Karl Marx. On the lid was Brodsky. And between them, my lost, precious, only life.” In the stories that follow, each named for the various items in the suitcase that accompanied him across the Atlantic, Dovlatov offers a wonderfully irreverent, comic view of Soviet life with what his friend and poet Joseph Brodsky called the “muted common sense of his work.” But beneath the humorous surface runs a deep empathy and sadness on which his stories often turn.

At the end of “The Photo Album,” after coming across his own photograph among a box of his wife Lena’s things, Sergei says, “I was morbidly agitated. It was hard for me to concentrate, to understand the cause. I saw that everything going on in our lives was for real. If I was feeling that for the first time only now, then how much love had been lost over the long years?” Such moments, perhaps for their very humanity in the face of alienation and absurdity, give the impression that there is more of Babel coursing through Dovlatov’s work than, say, of Gogol.

What then is the task of the translator of Dovlatov? On first glance, it may seem like a simple one. His sentences are short, his diction colloquial and uncomplicated. And yet, it is all too easy for humorous, economical prose like Dovlatov’s to wind up less humorous and economical than in the original. In this regard, Antonina W. Bouis, who is the second translator of Dovlatov’s work after the wonderful Anne Frydman, does an impressive job. She has also translated Dovlatov’s novel A Foreign Woman, as well as countless other books from the Russian.

In The Suitcase, Bouis manages to give each sentence a certain sturdiness that does not weigh down the reading or render the prose clunky. Rather, there is a fluidity to her translation that maintains both Dovlatov’s deliberateness and comic lightness. (“I stared at the file. I felt what a pig might feel in the meat section of a deli.”) If there is anything lost in the translation, it is only Dovlatov’s tendency, as mentioned in an earlier post, not to use two words in the same sentence that begin with the same letter. But Bouis’ decision to discard this quirky feature of his prose along the way seems like a smart one. What we are left with is a sharp, witty book pulled out from the closet, like Dovlatov’s suitcase, and much deserving of its second release.

Adam Z. Levy lives in New York and teaches creative writing at Columbia University.

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