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Sergei Dovlatov and His Narrative Masks

Young, Jekaterina

Publication Year: 2009

This book provides an introduction to Sergei Dovlatov (1941 90) that is closely attentive to the details of his life and work, their place in the history of Soviet society and literature, and of émigré culture during this turbulent period. A journalist, newspaper editor, and prose writer, Dovlatov is most highly regarded for his short stories, which draw heavily on his experiences in Russia before 1979, when he was forced out of the country. During compulsory military service, before becoming a journalist, he worked briefly as a prison camp guard —an experience that gave him a unique perspective on the operations of the Soviet state. After moving to New York, Dovlatov published works (in the New Yorker and elsewhere) that earned him considerable renown in America and back in Russia. Young’s book presents a valuable critical overview of the prose of a late twentieth century master within the context of the prevailing Russian and larger literary culture.

Published by: Northwestern University Press

Series: Studies in Russian Literature and Theory


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pp. v

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pp. vii-ix

This book is a study of the prose of Sergei Dovlatov (1941–90) in the context of the literary process in Russia. His literary career was both extraordinary and, in a perverse way, typical. He grew up in the city of Leningrad, to which he felt a deep affinity, and where he spent most of the first thirty-seven years of his life. He started writing just as the “thaw” period of the early 1960s,

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pp. xi-xii

In the course of preparing this book I made two visits to New York to consult Dovlatov’s family archive. I experienced the utmost kindness from Elena Dovlatova and wish to record my deep gratitude for her help and generosity. I have also received invaluable assistance and advice from Ksana Mechik- Blank, Katia Dovlatova, Andrei Ar’ev, Mikhail Roginsky, Elena ...

Note on the Text

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pp. xiii

Abbreviations of Works by Sergei Dovlatov

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pp. xv

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1. Dovlatov in Leningrad

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pp. 3-35

IT IS NO SECRET that in the mid- 1950s, when Khrushchev came to power following the death of Stalin, the Soviet regime controlled every aspect of life in the Soviet Union. The extent of that control is well illustrated by the fact that special permission had to be sought by the minister for agriculture to transmit weather forecasts on radio for a period of five to ...

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2. Dovlatov in Emigration

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pp. 36-55

Why was the mass emigration of the 1970s and ’80s necessary? Soon after this statement Nekrasov himself, a winner of the Stalin Prize in 1947 for his book V okopakh Stalingrada (In the Trenches of Stalingrad) and one of the most popular Soviet authors, was forced to emigrate. Exile has historically been used as a form of punishment, particularly for political opponents of those in power (not just in Russia). Perhaps the ...

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3. The Zone

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pp. 56-86

DATES OF ORIGINAL COMPOSITION have not been established for all the stories comprising Zona: Zapiski nadziratelia (The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story), but many of them were evidently written between 1965 and 1967 and belong among Dovlatov’s very earliest works.1 One of Dovlatov’s first readers of these stories in the late 1960s was the writer Israel Metter, who was an unofficial mentor of young writers. In the ...

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4. The Compromise: Journalism and Fiction

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pp. 87-109

ARRIVING IN TALLINN in late September 1972, Dovlatov was unable to fi nd a permanent position and worked as a freelance journalist for Molodezh’ Estonii (Youth of Estonia) and Vechernii Tallin (Tallinn Evening News).1 During his first few months in Tallinn he even worked in a boiler room, which was not an unusual situation for members of the artistic ...

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5. Dovlatov’s Sanctuary and Pushkin

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pp. 110-130

DOVLATOV’S NOVEL ZAPOVEDNIK (THE SANCTUARY) is loosely based upon the author’s own experiences during a period spent working in the “Pushkin Hills” (Pushkinskie Gory) Museum at Mikhailovskoe. It was not unusual for members of the Moscow and Leningrad intelligentsia to work as guides at the museum, and when Dovlatov’s life in Estonia became ...

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6. The Suitcase and The Fridge

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pp. 131-161

THE STORIES comprising Chemodan (The Suitcase) were written in the 1980s in New York and published in full there in 1986.1 A preliminary publication, “Rasskazy iz chemodana” (“Tales from a Suitcase”), lacking the story “Kurtka Fernana Lezhe” (“Fernand Léger’s Jacket”), had been published a year before in the periodical Grani no. 137, 1985. The ...

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7. Ours

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pp. 162-178

NASHI (OURS: A RUSSIAN FAMILY ALBUM) is an autobiographical collection of character sketches providing an engaging glimpse of four generations of a Soviet family.1 It consists of twelve chapters written in the early 1980s as separate stories and published separately in various journals. The thirteenth chapter was specially added for the book edition and is ...

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8. Tales of

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pp. 179-201

THE SHORT NOVEL Inostranka (A Foreign Woman) was written in New York in 1985 and published there by Russica in 1986. It has a dedication: “To lonely Russian women in America with love, sadness and hope.” The novel is about Russian émigré life in Forest Hills, New York, where Dovlatov depicts a community of former dissidents, bibliophiles, ...

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9. Dovlatov’s Posthumous Reputation

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pp. 202-212

IN ONE OF HIS LETTERS from the mid- 1980s, Dovlatov wrote to Naum Sagalovsky: Bulgakov’s hero says: “Fame will never come to a man who writes bad poems.” This sentence also works in reverse. Sooner or later everything will work out. Is it not a miracle that Bulgakov and Platonov, who had been among the literary ...


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pp. 213-246

Selected Bibliography

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pp. 247-262


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pp. 263-271

E-ISBN-13: 9780810163843
Print-ISBN-13: 9780810125971

Page Count: 290
Publication Year: 2009

Edition: 1
Series Title: Studies in Russian Literature and Theory