When Writers Who Are Not Russian Write Novels Set in Russia

Some time back I wrote a review of The Conductor, by a writer from New Zealand, Sarah Quigley—the review is available here on the site of Dactyl Review. Set in Leningrad during the Nazi siege of WW II, the book details the life of a rather unassuming and humble musician, who gets his chance to conduct Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, dedicated to the besieged city. Quigley’s novel is good, especially sparking for its insights into classical music and its depictions of Shostakovich, but it is full of details that produce unintentional comic effects.

These details are indicative of a writer who knows little about Russian life and culture, speaks no Russian, and may not have ever set foot in the city of St. Petersburg (Leningrad). In one of the biggest howlers in the book, The Bronze Horseman—that statue of Peter the Great in Petersburg and the most famous monument in the whole country—is described as waving a sword in one hand. The fertile imagination of the author conjures up that sword and describes it in some detail: “His sword had a greenish hue towards the hilt, but its tip was bright from the touch of many hands.” Nice sword, except that on the actual statue it does not exist.

I’ve recently read two other novels set in Russia: (1) David Benioff, City of Thieves (Viking Penguin, 2008) and (2) Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, 2016). Both books have been well received, attracting favorable reviews and scads of readers. And with good reason, since they both have appealing characters and fascinating plots.

But, for a variety of reasons, in reading these novels I cannot take them entirely seriously. Neither of them gives me the feeling that I am exactly in the Soviet Union, where they are set. In City of Thieves Benioff avoids the many mistakes that writers unfamiliar with Russian culture often make. As is the grandfather of the book, Benioff’s own grandfather is Russian, and maybe it was he who steered him past the many cultural shoals.

The action of the book is a kind of fairy tale. During the German siege of Leningrad, a young man sets out tramping on foot out of the city and behind German lines, in search of a dozen eggs. With a total lack of concern for verisimilitude the author has him and his intrepid friends finding those dozen eggs—while, against all odds, killing a bunch of nasty Nazis in the bargain—and bringing the eggs back with him to Leningrad. Here we have the typical structure of the folk tale of magical adventure: departure, initiation, return triumphant, bearing a boon.

Benioff does a wonderful job of telling that folk tale. Of course, his grandfather forgot to inform him about one important fact: in Russia eggs are sold by the ten, not by the dozen, so that in Russia the very idea of going out in search of a dozen eggs won’t work. The concept of eggs by the dozen comes originally out of British custom and corresponds to British units of currency. With twelve pennies to the shilling it once made sense to sell one egg for a penny and a dozen eggs for a shilling. The British now deal in metrics, and there are no more pennies and shillings, but I assume that they still “spend a penny” (euphemism for go to a public toilet) and sell eggs by the dozen. We in the U.S. buy and sell our eggs the same way, having borrowed this piece of culture from England, although few Americans could explain how this all started, and nobody could come up with a good reason why it has to be this way.

This business with the eggs is the only big cultural misstep that I noticed in Benioff’s book, but Towles’ A Gentleman from Moscow is overladen with such missteps—despite several inferences that the narrator of the book is Russian. See the footnote to p. 100: “We Russians like to make use of honorifics, patronymics, and an array of diminutives.” Towles’ hero, Russian Count Alexander Rostov is a character out of the aristocracy of the nineteenth century, and the author appears to have a wonderful feeling for the ways of the European aristocracy. The action of the novel centers upon the vagaries and vicissitudes of Count Rostov’s life in the new, far-from-aristocratic Soviet Union.

As in City of Thieves, the author here asks much indulgence on the part of the reader, in terms of overlooking the lack of verisimilitude. Unlike most other counts, who were either shot in Soviet times or fled abroad, Count Rostov—thought to be the author of some left-leaning poem—is allowed to live on. But he is placed under a kind of house arrest, confined to living in one of the grandest hotels in Moscow, the Metropol. The plot of the novel involves his many adventures over a period of thirty years (1922-1954), while living in that hotel.

Towles, who obviously has never spent any time in a Soviet hotel, asks us to believe a lot of things about the Hotel Metropol that are just not believable. He assumes that after the imposition of the Soviet State this grand hotel in the European tradition could go on, largely as before, maintaining its grandeur, at least to some extent, and maintaining its restaurants serving high-level French cuisine.

Towles has extensive knowledge of what high-class people eat in high-class establishments. The book is full of food, but, unfortunately, much of it is French food, which Count Rostov, accustomed to the high life of a gourmand in the old days, feasts upon. I think that the first mention of any Russian food in this book full of food comes on p. 380, when kasha shows up.

In the Soviet Era I spent a good deal of time in Soviet hotels, and I know for a fact that no hotel, even the Metropol, maintained its high standards in cuisine. It just was not possible. At one point one of the characters remarks that he picked up a pineapple from the fruit bowl in the lobby. Not possible. No Soviet hotel served the French cuisine of a four-star restaurant in the West, and most Russians in Soviet times, in hotels or anywhere else, never laid eyes on a pineapple.

Another example. A hotel guest is described once as standing in front of his door, “patting his pocket for his key.” Not likely. You didn’t keep your key in your pocket. It had a huge fob on one end, which guaranteed that you turn it in when you left the hotel—either at the front desk or, more likely, to the floor lady, that redoubtable enforcer of order and decorum on each floor. This lady was there to keep an eye on things, and such persons were ubiquitous all over everywhere in the U.S.S.R., people there to watch other people. In Towles’ Metropol they are nowhere to be seen.

In addition to the many just not correct things about the way a Soviet hotel is described, the book commits  lots of other little cultural faux pas. Take this: “Midnight had just arrived, and the bells of Ascension had begun to swing, their chimes cascading over the frozen land in holy canticle.” Nice description, but in Russia bells do not swing; they are stationary while the clapper inside them moves to ring them.

Or this. Much is made over the count’s friend Misha’s attempt to publish an authoritative edition of Chekhov’s letters, and how chagrined he is when the stodgy Soviet editor forces him to take out one short passage, “a matter of a few sentences, fifty words.” But no. In the era of the U.S.S.R. Chekhov’s letters were published with massive cuts. Whole letters fell by the wayside, and not only because Chekhov might have mentioned something overtly political. His letters to this publisher Suvorin were rife with descriptions that prudish Soviet bureaucrats saw as indelicate, even almost obscene. In one letter, for example, which made its way to the light of day only after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Chekhov describes in great detail his consorting with a Japanese prostitute in the Asian city of Blagoveshchensk.

There are plenty more examples of this sort of thing, and there are also bits of writing that would make any Russian, or anyone familiar with Russia and the Soviet Union, groan in dismay or, perhaps, laugh with derision. Here is a passage set in 1938, in which the count’s protégé Nina describes the arrest of her husband. My interpolations are in brackets.

“’Please, Alexander Ilyich [Count Rostov]. I don’t have much time. Two weeks ago we were recalled from Ivanovo to attend a conference on the future of agricultural planning. On the first day of the meeting Leo was arrested. After some effort, I tracked him to the Lubyanka, but they wouldn’t let me see him. Naturally I began to fear the worst. [No, no no. In the first place, when they arrested someone and took him to the notorious prison of the secret police, there was no way to find out where they had taken him. No way. If they didn’t want to tell you, you would not find out. Then again, you didn’t go down to the Lubyanka and ask to get in. That would be simply ludicrous.]

“But yesterday I received word that he has been sentenced to five years of corrective labor. They are putting him on a train tonight for Sevvostlag. [Once again, everything here is totally impossible. In the first place, when they took people to Lubyanka in 1938 these unfortunates did not get a quick trial. Months could be spent torturing and interrogating them, forcing them to sign false accusations. Only after that might they be sentenced to a labor camp, or if not that, quite often shot. In the second place, people who went into Lubyanka became, for the most part, nonpersons. No one, not even their closest relatives was notified about what became of them, whether they were shot or sent East. They simply disappeared, and no one knew if they were alive or dead.]

“I am going to follow him there. What I need is for someone to watch over Sofia while I get myself settled.” [More impossibilities here. The wives of the Decembrists back in the nineteenth century followed their husbands to labor camps in Siberia, but that was the nineteenth century. Such a thing in Soviet times was unheard of. If a wife did, by some miracle, learn where in Siberia or the frozen north her loved one had been sent in 1938, she could undertake a trip there, and would certainly be arrested upon arrival and probably herself end up in a labor camp].

So there is a whole paragraph that will have Russians who read it squirming around and, ultimately, laughing in disbelief. Next, Count Rostov is allowed to unofficially adopt Nina’s daughter Sofia—who stays with him in the hotel for the duration of the novel. This also could not possibly have happened in Soviet times. Of course, the way the novel ends, with the count’s escape from the hotel and return to his now obliterated landed estate, without papers or internal passports, to join his old love—in a word, the happy ending—is also totally unbelievable.

Am I saying that A Gentleman in Moscow is a bad novel, and that all of its fans are utterly deluded? No. I can understand how plenty of people will enjoy this fairy tale about a Russia that in so many ways is at variance with the real thing. I’m also saying that almost any Russian, or anyone who really knows much about Russia, cannot appreciate this book. Maybe the best way of looking at both the Benioff and the Towles books is to make a distinction between fiction as light entertainment and serious literary fiction. A book of light entertainment can do without the genuine underpinnings of verisimilitude; a work of literary fiction, which aspires to be Art, cannot.

U.R. Bowie, author of Such Is the Scent of Our Sweet Opalescence


2 thoughts on “When Writers Who Are Not Russian Write Novels Set in Russia

  1. I’d like to read the Martin Amis book; I like some of his stuff. Will take a look your review. I haven’t read “Look at the Harlequins” in years, can’t remember much about it. In general, I don’t much like Nabokov’s “Switzerland” novels, the stuff he wrote after moving back to Europe late in his life. His “Ada” is so full of silliness (puerile games) that I’ve never been able to get past the first few pages.

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