Excerpts from A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas copyright © 2019 by Maxim D. Shrayer. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the author.
Rawi Abdelal: So welcome everyone. I think I know almost everyone, my name is Rawi Abdelal. I'm the faculty director of the Davis Center and it's my great pleasure to present to you Maxim D. Shrayer who's an irritatingly prolific author [crosstalk 00:00:20]. And I have spent some time over the past week with his new collection, these three novellas. I have a bunch of questions and I can't remember whether I was allowed to ask questions before you did your reading or [crosstalk 00:00:35] you do it after, but it's a real pleasure to have the chance to have this conversation with you after you've just finished your book. So do you want to do your reading first?
Maxim D. Shrayer: Wonderful. So thank you so much. I want to start by saying that like my protagonist, whose name is Simon Reznikov and whom you'll meet shortly, I have been living in America for over 30 years and in Boston for almost 25, but unlike my protagonist, I've had an intellectual home here at the Davis Center, for which I'm very grateful and thank you. I know many of you and very happy to see some of you whom I haven't yet met.
Maxim D. Shrayer: And this book is a book of fiction. It's a book of three interconnected novellas that are about the lives of immigrants from Russia and the former Soviet Union and mostly in America, a little bit in Canada. And as you know, there are perhaps as many as a million Russian Americans. Is that a lot? Well, it certainly depends on how you look at it. One could say that the majority of us came here on the wings of the great Jewish immigration from the Soviet Union.
Maxim D. Shrayer: One could say that as a community, there's a lot of upward social mobility, right? So there is a significant amount of visibility, right? Think of the Jewish boy from Moscow who more or less created Google, right? So these examples are, I think, extremely visible, but at the same time, what interests me here as a fictionist, not as an academic and as a student of Jewish life and culture, is that immigrants from Russia are not quite assimilated into the American stream. And so their daily lives are fueled by this combustible mix of success and alienation. And that really is the tension that interests me very much in this book. As I mentioned, the protagonist is a Boston-based immigrant. I might as well say it because this question comes up, is he autobiographical? Very slightly. And I can say unlike his creator, Simon Reznikov, who used to be Semyon in Russia,…].
Maxim D. Shrayer: … is still restless. And this restlessness really pushes him in many directions and one of them is travel. The book takes him in various places of pilgrimage. And Veronika Tuckerova here is one of my sources of Czech knowledge. There is a dimension of the book that is happening in Bohemia, in Prague and also in the Bohemian spa triangle soon after the Velvet Revolution. And even though I wrote it from personal experience, I asked Veronika, "Could you read it?" And I'm grateful because she corrected a few things for me. [crosstalk 00:03:59] Right. But what I mainly want to say before I read a little bit from each of the novellas is that I think immigrants bring with them both material and immaterial baggage. Material is easier to account for. So when my family was finally allowed to immigrate after years of being refused, we had exactly four suitcases and my father had a typewriter and I had a typewriter.
Maxim D. Shrayer: So that's the material baggage we came here with. Of course, the immaterial, the non-material baggage, the baggage of memory is harder to account for. And also it changes because in a sense, the process of entering the mainstream after the American fashion is still one of the gradual disposal of parts of that immaterial baggage and the acquisition of new baggage. And that, too, interests me as a fictionist because it's a source, as you can imagine, of many collisions involving the past, the past that encroaches upon immigrants, and the future that pressures them somehow to move on. So when I say about my main character that he is trapped in a “no man's land,” that he lives as I suppose Robert Frost would put it, “betwixt and between,” I mean that he's an ex-Soviet Jew who is becoming an American Jew. And that, of course, is not a topic I invented.
Maxim D. Shrayer: And here I just want to say that I very much learned as a fictionist not only from the more predictable sources like Nabokov, who is also one of my main protagonists in my literary and academic work, but also the person I'm thinking particularly is Bernard Malamud who, of course, is a major American writer with Jewish-Russian roots. And what particularly impresses me about Malamud is a refusal to over-translate the past. In other words, that he's very comfortable deploying some strangeness and foreignness, Russian-ness perhaps, that is living in his books in English as it were, but not fully assimilated or fully translated. Okay. Now how does the book work?
Speaker 3: I don't know what that means?
Maxim D. Shrayer: Which part?
Speaker 3: What you just said.
Maxim D. Shrayer: Well, what that means is that basically it's as though the characters still have parts and pieces of their selves, of their daily lives, which exist as it were in English, but they're not idiomatically, fully, naturally translated. They retain a certain strangeness. And that's what interests me. The refusal to over-translate strangeness.
Speaker 3: Are you talking about translation literally or—
Maxim D. Shrayer: No, I'm not talking about literally… but, say, when somebody arrives in clothes which are described with a Russian word here, a Yiddish word there, for instance, which is hardly knowable to the audience who doesn't know these languages. And the question is why do that? And I think to me this is a really essential question because it speaks on the one end to a certain verisimilitude, but it also speaks, I think, to the sort of translingual mindset of these people, of these characters of mine.
Maxim D. Shrayer: Because I think the daily lives of immigrants are really in that perpetual state of incomplete self-translation. Is that right? Does that make sense? And you will hear a little bit of that soon, particularly when I read from the last novella. So they are three interconnected novellas and how they work structurally is that only toward the end of the book, only in the third novella, do we finally appreciate much more about the character’s beginning as an immigrant. So it is not structured linearly or chronologically, it goes back between chronology of the historical sort and a different chronology, perhaps emotional chronology, that is more central to this character but it's a lot less central to the indifferent history that surrounds him. Oh yeah, and then I just want to share an anecdote. I was very fortunate because a number of my books have had covers based on the pictures I took.
Maxim D. Shrayer: What's interesting, I was thinking about it this morning. I've concluded that not a single Russian book of mine had a cover based on my artwork. And also not a single book in translation. Chinese, Italian, I've had those published… but of my books published in the original, here a number of them have had covers based on my own photos, whatever that means. I think my theory is that European publishers are particularly resistant to that because there is a certain respect for the professionalism of our designers and cover designers. So let them do the work. But basically this cover I'm particularly happy with because it happened more or less this time of the year, a year ago. So the book had already been finished. I knew it was coming out and I was taking a walk in a little park in Brookline, very near to where I live, Griggs Park. It had rained all night and it was stormy.
Maxim D. Shrayer: And when I came out to the park, the whole grounds were littered with leaves of weeping willows. More or less like that. And then what you don't see... So I snapped some pictures. There was a guy with a very old Newfoundland and the dog was not walking. The dog was sitting and I thought to myself, "Well, it's very interesting, he must be an immigrant from the Soviet Union. And he brought the dog when the dog was young and then the dog has since aged." So I came up to the guy and he had a Slavic accent. I didn't investigate it further, but somehow I came away from that thinking that this is an apt little metaphor of the aging of these memories. That the dog is, in a sense, his immigrant past. But I do see him in the park, so he's real. The book is not real, but the guy is real.
Maxim D. Shrayer: Okay. So the first novella that I'll read from is called “Bohemian String.” Bohemian is kind of a pun both on the idea of Bohemian lifestyle and on Bohemia as specifically the original Czech lands. In that novella, my protagonist travels to Prague because he's researching a biography of an elusive Jewish Czech writer who is very famous for his writing, but whose biography is virtually unknown for various reasons. And Simon is in Prague. He longs to go to Russia, he cannot, and he meets a Czech woman who basically helps him figure out a lot of things about himself. And it's a romance that starts very, very hopefully but does not end so hopefully. So I'll read a section toward the end of the first novella first. And feel free to interrupt, okay? [crosstalk 00:11:26] Okay.
Maxim D. Shrayer: “Walking from Klementinum towards the Charles Bridge, Simon thought of how soothing it felt to be an anonymous person in a seething city crowd. His plane was leaving Saturday morning, and Friday was their last day together in Prague. His original plan had been to do some souvenir shopping and find a present for his mother, perhaps a locally made scarf or shawl or a pair of earrings with Czech garnets. Instead, without fully knowing what he was doing, he hopped on the tram. From his stop he ran up the hill all the way to Vítek and Irenka’s house. [basically Vítek is an old vintage 1968 dissident who now rents rooms to visiting Western scholars, just so you understand the context].”
Maxim D. Shrayer: “He borrowed Vítek’s portable Consul, its slaten body reminding him of his own father’s old typewriter. Kneeling in front of the only chair in his room, Simon machine-gunned the text of an invitation: Simon Reznikov 516 Whitney Avenue, Apt. 2 New Haven, CT 06511 USA The US Consulate Prague, Czech RepublicIt is my pleasure to invite Ms. Milena Krupičková, citizen of Czechoslovakia the Czech Republic, to visit me in the United States of America during June–August 1993. Ms. Krupičková is a close friend of mine, and the purpose of her visit will be tourism. Throughout the duration of Ms. Krupičková’s stay in the United States I will take care of her accommodations and, if necessary, provide her with financial and healthcare assistance. I am a US citizen and would be grateful if the US Consulate acted favorably and promptly on Ms. Krupičková’s request for a US visa. Sincerely, Simon Reznikov.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: “He released the guide and rotated the platen knob clockwise until most of the sheet was out of the typewriter’s grip. He then proofread the invitation, rotated the knob in the opposite direction and typed the letter ‘r’ over the word “Czechoslovakia,” crossing it out as well as he could. He rotated the knob just a touch and typed “the Czech Republic” above the blacked-out name of the country which the land of his birth caressed with tanks and jackboots in 1968, just as he was learning to walk in the streets of Moscow. He smiled like a blind jazz pianist, rolled the page off the platen, folded it, and placed it in an airmail envelope.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: “It was the only envelope he had in his room, and he wrote “Milena Krupičková, Prague” on it, thinking of the lonesome boy in Chekhov’s story, who inscribed the envelope with the tremulous words “to grandpa’s at the village.” Taking some money from a stash he kept in his toiletry kit, Simon headed down to the tram stop. He bought a bunch of waxy tulips from a flower girl. Should I just ask Milena to marry me right here on the spot? Simon thought, as he walked past the interchangeable hippies strumming their guitars on the bridge. Just take my grandmother’s old ring off my pinkie and give it to her? he reasoned with an imaginary double who was called Syoma. For some reason Simon was convinced that Milena would say “yes.” But his Russian double, was he also sure? When Simon and Milena came out of the bar, holding glasses of white wine, Simon noticed Frantík, Milena’s ex-boyfriend, watching them from a bookshop across the street.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: “By the time they had found two empty chairs on the sidewalk and pulled them together, the jealous musician was gone. Silently they sipped their wine, the rims of their hands joining and coming apart like blades of grass in the wind. Breaking the silence, Simon asked, “Milena, I wanted to ask you something.”
“Ask me,” Milena said, lowering her angled chin onto her left shoulder.
“Would you like to come and stay with me this summer?”
“Yes, in America. In New Haven, to be precise. But first you would fly to New York.”
“The Kennedy Airport, like in spy novels?” Milena asked.
“Exactly. And then we'll drive to New Haven, and I'll take you around and show you New England. We can visit my folks in Boston. See Cape Cod and the ocean. There’s lots to do.”
“Will you have time for me?”
Simon hesitated, then reached for his breast pocket and removed the airmail envelope he had prepared for her.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: “I didn’t have another kind,” he said.
“This is for me?” Milena asked.
“I’ve typed up an invitation. You’ll need to take it to the American embassy in Prague. Here, open it.”
Milena slowly read the invitation, her lips mouthing some of the words. She blushed, then composed herself and said, trying to find the right English words,
“Simon, you surprised me. May I please think about it?”
They crossed to the other side, holding hands. The Vltava, swollen with the spring torrents, carried urban detritus under the arches of the bridge. There are sixteen of them. Simon remembered Milena telling him the first time they walked together across the Charles Bridge. Yelping and thrashing, a Maltese was trying to rip its leash from the hands of its owner, an old lady wearing a mauve hat with flowers.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: "Small dogs, big tempers, Simon wanted to quote one of his father’s aphorisms but hesitated. He thought of his parents in Boston, of the daily Russian phone calls, and he felt a double pang of sadness, which Russian immigrants sometimes feel when traveling in Europe. At the circle near Malostranské Square, he offered to walk Milena to her car.
“I’m meeting my girlfriend Agáta. I’ll drop her off and then drive home,” Milena said, a bit vaguely.
“Are you sure?” he asked, feebly.
“There’s your tram, go. I’ll pick you up at the house at ten in the morning.”
“I love you, Milena,” he yelled through the tram’s closing doors.”
And things don't pan out the way he imagined they would at this point, but they do eventually. But to get to that eventually, I'd like to read a little bit from the middle novella, which is called “Brotherly Love” from the very opening which, you will see, explains how life arranges for Simon a rendezvous with the past in the form of an immigrant woman he used to know back in Moscow.
Maxim D. Shrayer: “From his Soviet youth Simon Reznikov missed camaraderie the most. He had been in America for nearly nine years, and yet his best male friends were still living in the old country. He had made new friends in college and graduate school, but it just wasn't the same. In Russia they were like brothers to one another. They cared about each other no less passionately than they did about the girls they loved. How they admired one another' youthful wit and abandon. It was nearly impossible to explain to an American. This male friendship, this bond. . . . Brotherly love! They showed affection for each other through hugging and patting, even kissing. It would never occur to them, back in the days of Soviet innocence and puritanism, that bodily contacts were anything but expressions of brotherly love. After living in America for some time, Simon the immigrant had begun to cultivate an image of himself and his old Soviet friends as something of a cross between Arthurian knights and lion cubs.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: All this had everything and nothing to do with an e-mail Simon received in April 1996. He had just defended his dissertation and was waiting to hear from the colleges he had interviewed with about teaching jobs. The email came on a Friday morning, April 12th, the old Soviet Day of Cosmonautics. It displayed an economy of words: “I've moved to Conn., a systems admin. job. The rest when I see you. AM.” The initials “AM” stood for Aleksandra Mironova, or “Sashenka,” as everybody called her back in Moscow. Simon telephoned Sashenka on the evening of the Day of Cosmonautics. Two days later, on a sunny Saturday morning, he drove from New Haven to see her. Route 91 was empty all the way to the outskirts of Hartford. Twice, Simon listened to “Because You Loved Me” by Celine Dion on different stations, singing along and keeping rhythm with his left hand. When he wasn’t singing along or reading the rural landscape, he let his memory ebb and flow.
Maxim D. Shrayer: “Fate itself was taking him to a rendezvous with the past . . . Simon had met Sashenka in the summer of 1986. He was nineteen, a rising third-year university student majoring in philology, and had just returned from a seven-week research trip to the deep south of Russia. During this folklore-collecting expedition, a group of them traveled in a ramshackle bus from one Russian village to another, recording old people's stories and songs. They slept in tents and cooked their own meals. There were fifteen in the group, including two faculty members, a married graduate student and a driver, so there was little chance of romance. And they never stayed in any given place for more than two or three nights, which didn't leave much time to court the local collective farm belles.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: “By the end of the trip Simon had grown his first beard, curlier and lighter than his chestnut hair. His skin felt like the outside of an old sheepskin coat: layers of dust, salt, and sun. Simon returned to Moscow at the end of July. After collecting his pay for the expedition work, which came to almost 120 rubles, three times the monthly stipend he received at the university, Simon felt rich and grown-up. A few days later he and his parents took a night express train for Estonia. Like most of his friends in Moscow, Simon was still living at home with parents, and Estonia had for many years been the annual destination of their summer escape. That summer, between his second and third university years, Simon for the first time didn’t share a seaside apartment with his mother and father, but roomed with three of his best friends who had rented a cottage and were already in Estonia waiting for him to join them.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: “The name of the blessed Estonian resort where Simon had spent a total of three years—adding up all the summers he had been there first as a kid, then as a teenager and university student—was Pärnu. This Baltic resort stood on the west coast of Estonia, about a two-hour drive from Estonia's capital, Tallinn. Pärnu enjoyed a heyday during Estonia’s brief spell of independence. Then came the Soviet annexation in 1940, then the Nazi occupation, and finally the Soviet “liberation,” which lasted for fifty years. During the Soviet era the waterfront Rannahotel, a landmark of Estonian functionalism, was turned into a vacation home for Communist Party officials, heroic miners, and valiant cotton growers. Many streets were given Soviet names, but the town retained much of its prewar character, as even years of Soviet rule couldn't take the Northern European breeding out of the local population, nor could it remove the Gothic roofs from the local Soviet offices.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: And so that was the place where these two Russian immigrants had their shared youth and very happy memories, and now they are getting together for a very torturous reunion. And now I'm going to read something a bit more, I suppose, comical if one could put it this way, more burlesque. This is from the latter part of the third novella, which is called “Borscht Belt.” Borscht Belt refers, of course, to the area in the Catskills, right in upstate New York, which had in its heyday, right, become a vacationland for Jews, particularly of the greater New York metropolitan area, right? If you, for instance, read Isaac Bashevis Singer's, "Enemies: A Love Story," remember at one point he takes one of his three lovers to Borscht Belt, but of course, as you will see, oh you will not see that… but basically when I first discovered it, and the name sounded slightly absurd to me because to a Russian ear, this suggests Jewishness in a very minor way.
Maxim D. Shrayer: Whereas what it does suggest first and foremost is of course borscht, a staple of Russian and Ukrainian cuisine. But basically what you need to know, because everything else will come out of this section I'll read is: so this is Simon's first American summer. He is really still a greenie and he and his parents are struggling because they have to work and he is a student and works a lot. So he hadn't thought of the idea of an American vacation. And then there is a bit of a lull in his work schedule, summer work schedule. And somehow he is convinced by a combination of parents' friends to drive his grandmother and a close friend's grandmother to the Catskills, where an ex-Soviet Jewish entrepreneur had bought an old grand Jewish resort and turned it into a resort for the recent immigrants from the Soviet Union.
Maxim D. Shrayer: And as you can imagine, this alone, right, his alone provides a fictionist with a lot of material because for Simon, this is precisely the kind of past that he's trying to leave behind and he's forced to spend two weeks in this place. And so he meets a very colorful set of characters, including a young woman whose parents came from Zaporozhie, but who to him is very, very American, and a certain ageless lady who wants to become his muse. And it's from this section that I will read, and I'm happy to answer Rawi's questions and hear your comments because I know he has some.
Maxim D. Shrayer: So this is from “Borscht Belt,” toward the end of the book. And so at this point if you have read the book, you have already understood quite a bit about Simon's past, but you are still figuring things out, including what you are about to discover, is that he has a certain interest in, what can we say, in pathological boundaries in not so much in life, but in art. In art, they interests him and life, I guess less so.
Maxim D. Shrayer: At breakfast the following morning Madame Yankelson, red roses climbing the twin trellises of her chiffon top, came up to their table, said a perfunctory hello to the grandmothers, and turned her gaze onto Simon.
“Young man, I would like it very much if you could spend some time with me,” she said like an ageless actress in a radio play. “Please finish your breakfast, and my friend Lydia and I will look forward to seeing you at our usual post near the column by the main entrance.”
A Moscow tomcat Simon may have been, but he was also a polite Jewish boy, and he couldn’t very well say “No” or “I’m busy.” Half an hour later, he stood in front of Madame Yankelson like a cadet at graduation exercises. She raised herself from her chair, threaded her soft arm through his, and he thought of hotdogs and buns, of Rabelais’s oversized lovers, and also of Marina who would see him walking the same path but in Madame Yankelson’s company.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: "Take me to the lake, darling,” Madame Yankelson said and led Simon across the meadow. “I’m leaving the parasol with you,” she said to Lydia Shmukler, who silently nodded. From her white rocking chair, Madame Yankelson picked up a sequined purse the shape of a Maltese dog.
As they walked across the front lawn in the direction of the lake, Madame Yankelson put more weight on his right arm, as though trying to shift the direction.
“I know a secluded spot. There’s a little bench there, and a marvelous view of the mountains,” she said to Simon.
Instead of following the main alley, they veered off to the left, walking on a narrower path, which first dropped, then corrected its course. They finally came to a clearing with the promised bench and ensnared shrubs behind its back. Through an opening between tree trunks, one could see three bands of color—milky-blue sky, pea-green woods, and ink-grey road. Like a child’s innocent painting, uncluttered by people.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: “I would like you to read some of your poems to me,” said Madame Yankelson, half turning to Simon and resting her bare arm on the back of the bench.
“My poems?” Simon muttered. “How do you know I write poems?”
“I read, my young friend, I read émigré magazines,” she replied.
“Well, perhaps another time, Madame Yankelson,” he said, somehow unable to put things right.
“I will be your best audience,” Madame Yankelson insisted.
She took a thin brown cigarette out of her purse.
“I don’t suppose you smoke, no? Well, you should know that I’ve been inspiring poets since I was a young lady.” Holding the cigarette between her thumb and index finger, Madame Yankelson inhaled with affect. “You don’t believe me?” she uttered with a labored laugh.
“Mayakovsky himself was very fond of me, you know.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: “—now Simon couldn’t hide his curiosity. It wasn’t very often that one ran into people who knew the great poet.
“To explain I would have to tell you my age. And a true lady never reveals her age,” said Madame Yankelson, making the kind of upward motion of her neck and cheekbones that was meant to pull back the furrows and wrinkles.
“Madame Yankelson, you’re as young as you look,” Simon said, horrified by the platitudes he was prepared to spout.
“Thank you, you’re becoming a very dear friend,” she said, removing a perfumed handkerchief from her purse. She waved the handkerchief, letting its skein brush against her lips.
“We moved from Riga to Moscow in 1925. I was thirteen,” Madame Yankelson said, beginning her story. “My father was a renowned gemologist. He started working as an expert at the Central Jewelry Trust.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: "So you’re originally from Riga,” Simon interrupted.
“You’re a student of literature. You must have heard of my famous relative, Roman?” said Madame Yankelson.
“Roman Yankelson is your relative? The great medievalist?”
“My second cousin. Same last name. Their branch is also from Riga,” Madame Yankelson affirmed, her voice feigning indifference. “Roman and I were a few years apart. When we emigrated, he was living in Boston, actually in Cambridge. I believe he had already retired. My late husband, too, was still alive, and we saw Roman in Manhattan when he was in town for a conference. I can’t say he was dying to embrace his long-lost relatives.”
“Why not?” Simon asked, naively.
“He had himself baptized, you know. Non-Jewish wife, non-Jewish family. You know how it goes. . . . ” A toadish frown crept onto Madame Yankelson’s face, but she immediately chased it away with her white fleshy hand.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: “I said to him: ‘Romochka, why do you need this nonsense? You want to write about Prince Igor, be my guest, but you don’t need to go to their church and convert to feel more Slavic.’ I don’t think Roman or his Slovak wife liked hearing this. And he didn’t even ask about the family that stayed behind in Riga. Still, Roma was my cousin, and when he passed on, I went down to Boston for his funeral.”
“Madame Yankelson,” Simon asked, trying to steer the conversation back to Mayakovsky and poetry. “You moved to Moscow from Riga—”
“Oh yes, in 1925.” She picked up the dangling story. ”Moscow was terribly overcrowded. At first we lived in an awful hole in the wall—even though my father was getting a very good salary and had connections. Finally—this was already 1926—my father managed to secure two rooms in a very decent apartment. Communal, of course, but that’s the way it was back in those days. We moved to Gendrikov Lane, a very nice central location—you’re from Moscow, you should know where it is.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: "Vaguely,” Simon said. “Isn’t it somewhere near the Taganka Theater?”
Madame Yankelson sighed and dabbed off tiny beads of dew on her
“I was a girl, but already a young woman,” she continued. “Now imagine: we’re moving in. It’s a hot sunny day in June. My father is at his office, my mother is running around and supervising the movers, and I’m just standing in everybody’s way, wearing a lovely little sailor dress with ribbons and frills, taking everything in. And suddenly I see a big handsome man with a shaved head descending the stairs. At first I thought he was mean-spirited, but then he smiled at me—not even a full smile, but a half smile and a flicker in his eyes—and I could tell he was a gentle soul.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: ‘Hello, young lady,’ he said. ‘Let’s get acquainted. I’m Mayakovsky.’ ‘I’m Violetta Yankelson,’ I said. ‘Are you by chance related to my good friend Romka Yankelson?’ he asked me in such a way that I felt I could trust him completely. And, may the Lord punish me if I’m lying to you, I felt that I would have done anything for this beautiful sad man. Anything.”
“So you lived in the same building as Mayakovsky?” Simon asked, just to make sure he understood her correctly. The whole story was so fabulous.
“Yes, after 1926. And still after he shot himself. That was in 1930, I remember the day I found out like it was yesterday. They lived one floor above us. Mayakovsky and the Briks. Lilya was legally Brik’s wife, and Mayakovsky loved her madly. She ruined his life, you know that, don’t you?”
Maxim D. Shrayer: “What was he like?” Simon asked.
“Mayakovsky? A genius. And such a gallant man. He was always so kind to us. My parents worshipped him.” Madame Yankelson wiped the corners of her eyes with a thumb wrapped in the handkerchief. They sat for about a minute without speaking. All around them on the clearing, grasshoppers stammered away, dragonflies juddered in midflight, bees pulverized the mountain air. The life of insects went about its hourly tasks, replete with small sounds and vibrations, and yet indifferent to the fluctuations of the human spirit. “Madame Yankelson, should we head back?”
“Back?” she repeated, momentarily confused, but then, regaining clarity of mind, she lifted her body from the bench. Clutching her white purse with one hand, she leaned on Simon’s elbow with the other. They walked on the path and, quite innocently and thoughtlessly, just trying to find his way out of the encroaching silence, he said to Madame Yankelson:“I’m ashamed to admit but I’ve never been to Riga. We used to go to Pärnu every summer.”
Maxim D. Shrayer: “Suddenly, as if picking up a forgotten thread in the labyrinth of her past, she stopped, looked at Simon with stern passion, and cried out:
“I love Riga and I hate it. It’s the place of my birth; it’s a city of death. My parents had the foolishness to go to Riga in 1940 to visit my grandparents. My older brother was a young air force pilot stationed in the north. I was a recent university graduate. We didn’t stop them, and we were never to see them again. Killed at Rumbula . . .”
Madame Yankelson and Simon parted in front of the main entrance, and he could see that her companion, Lydia Shmukler, a silent sentinel, was waiting in her chair. Simon waved to her, said a formal goodbye to Madame Yankelson, and ran up four flights of stairs to his garret. He collapsed and slept until lunch.” After he wakes up, things continue to develop in a direction one could call the forbidden. You'll have to find out for yourselves. Thank you so much.
Rawi Abdelal: So I will get our conversation started. I certainly don't want to dominate it, but I had a few reactions and maybe I'll pose one question to you after an observation and then we'll see if other people have some thoughts they'd like to share or questions they'd like to ask you. I am, I'm not sure I told you, also an immigrant to this country. I'm not from Russia and not Jewish, both of those are probably obvious, but I was born in Egypt to Dutch and Egyptian parents and one of the things that I've always felt and I felt it acutely reading these novellas and have sometimes felt it reading other pieces of fiction about immigrants to this country is the sense of being an anthropologist. Here in the United States, trying to make sense of the ways of these people and then the more I made sense of the ways of these people, the less I could make sense of the ways of my family's relatives and their places.
Rawi Abdelal: And so this sort of permanent anthropological expedition where one is always trying to figure out the ways of the people but not feeling quite at home. It definitely had that sense, these novellas or that was my feeling of it and I was really struck and now I will ask the question from page 85 about this quotation from Brotherly Love, the second novella. Nostalgia, this is Simon's thoughts as given to us by Maxim. Nostalgia, he was learning was like an acute infection and time and distance eventually cured it. Unless of course it turned into a chronic condition. And so then I wondered and I didn't feel as though you were clear with us perhaps on purpose about whether Simeon or Simon, however supposed to call him was cured of his nostalgia or whether it became chronic. And then in so far as there's some autobiographical element to these novellas.
Maxim D. Shrayer: Very slight.
Rawi Abdelal: Very slight.
Maxim D. Shrayer: Honestly, very slight. I'm not being coy. I've written biographical narratives as you know, but this one is very deliberately not.
Rawi Abdelal: But in so far as there are some elements of that idea, I feel licensed to ask you whether your nostalgia became chronic or remained acute over your years here so that's a more personal question and you can skip over that.
Maxim Shrayer: It's a great question and thanks, I was somewhat pleased with that little passage, so I'm glad you chose it, Rawi, thank you. So my feeling is that as far as Simon and his life, which is told in fragments deliberately, is concerned, I think it does not turn into a chronic condition for him, which is why the book ends not with this whole disaster in the Catskills, which he barely overcomes, but with the kind of retrospective glance at how things have worked out for him, but also told in a kind of a contrapuntal fashion, where there is another story which we come across in the book of another Russian immigrant who, oddly unlike Simon, has not moved on. So basically with Simon I think his cure occurs after he has his American children in the book.
Maxim D. Shrayer: That would be my sense. Now, and I know you don't believe me, but I just want to go on record by saying that this is the least autobiographical literary book I have written. I've written two interconnected long books of literary nonfiction, “Waiting for America” and “Leaving Russia: A Jewish Story,” which are my stories told in two parts. I've also written and published a number of short stories, some collected in Y”om Kippur in Amsterdam,” which have some autobiographical elements. Really, I was keen here to come up with a character who is very, very different from me. And in fact, it's funny, I had this conversation with my father who is a writer and in many ways, my mentor. And he said, I must tell you, I agree he's really not you at all. And I was kind of pleased because this is how it came out.
Maxim D. Shrayer: But the personal part of it, Rawi, whether it's been cured, I think yes. And I think also there's one other piece to the sort of the way nostalgia presents itself as an illness, which is I think returning to Russia, making frequent visits there is an interesting kind of medicine, but at least for somebody who came here through my circumstances, because on the one hand you get to breathe the air of culture that I think is very curative. But on the other, I think you get further convinced that the reasons for your family's decision to uproot itself were correct. And that's been my sense of these returns.
Maxim D. Shrayer: Simon is just different. And in fact, this part that's happening in Prague, and then the Czech lens, is interesting because it's like Nosferatu at the seashore, remember he's standing there, he's drawn to the sea because he knows that this ship is returning, right? But he is not on the ship. So I feel like being in the Czech lands, gives him a closer proximity to Russia, but he doesn't go to Russia. He's in Slavic lands, but in a very different setting. So that was sort of the device there. Yeah. So Rawi, I don't know if I've fully answered your question, but...
Rawi Abdelal: There's no way to fully answer the question...
Maxim D. Shrayer: That's right.
Rawi Abdelal: ... But that was a plenty good answer.
Maxim Shrayer: Thanks so much. Rawi, thank you.
Excerpts from A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas copyright © 2019 by Maxim D. Shrayer. All rights reserved. Reproduced by permission of the author.