Russian Literature and the Survival of the Human Spirit: “Anna Karenina” to “Klotsvog”

Once upon a time, I read a lot of 19th-century Russian literature. I was enraptured by the Russian greats:  Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Chernyshevsky, Tolstoy, Goncharov, Chekhov, Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, and Dostoevsky.  Always a keen reader, I was awed by an exceptional professor who taught a 19th-century Russian Literature in Translation class. I considered taking Russian, but I was studying three languages, two of them seriously, and I knew I had maxed out my limits.

And so I became a compulsive rereader of Anna Karenina. Dolly, Kitty, and Anna suffered terribly in love—and Anna did not survive it.  I knew all about the morass of love.  Well, I was 20:  I knew everything!

“Be sure to read the Maude translation,” a fellow Russian lit geek told me.

“I’ve got it.” I had, in fact, read David Magarshack’s translation in high school, but I loved my Norton edition with the Maude.

Education is a transformative experience. I still marvel over the fact that I, a penniless young woman whose working-class father once beat her up for going on a 25-mile Hike for Hunger, scrabbled my way through college. Years later, when he called to express surprise that I had graduated with honors (his wife had seen it in the paper), he ended the conversation with an insult I can hardly bear to remember.

The spirit of human survival is often a theme is Russian literature.  I rarely venture into Soviet fiction, but I recently read and loved Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog, translated by Lisa C. Hayden.  I admired the measured, moderate tone of the Jewish narrator, Maya Klotsvog, who at first seems like an ideal friend:   indeed, everyone knows a Maya. But she exaggerates her achievements,  claiming she is a retired mathematics teacher, though she taught only a few classes before dropping out to raise her children.

Perhaps it is the denial that keeps her going. She has a degree and certainly has the ability to teach.  She says,

I was born in 1930 and—like my whole generation—saw too much, things that weren’t pretty.

Field of work: mathematics teacher. Retired, of course. But I don’t consider myself a former teacher. Like a lot of other professions, a teacher’s profession doesn’t exist in the past tense. Acknowledging that sustains me tremendously.

With much denial of the impact of anti-Semitism, the beautiful Maya, who attracts men and has multiple affairs and marriages,  claims she had a happy childhood but reveals that her father died during the Battle of Dnieper.  One of her greatest regrets:  in the haste of evacuation during the German invasion, Maya and her mother left behind dresses made of the special fabric her father brought home after the Polish campaign. She hopes that their Jewish friends who refused to evacuate wore the dresses, but she knows that most were killed. She insists the women in her family were happy during the evacuation:  they spent “the period of the Great Patriotic War in evacuation, in the vicinity of Atbasar Station in the Kazakh Soviet Socialist Republic.”

It is clear that Maya, who thinks herself so logical, needs desperately to feel.  Everything is not fine, though she claims it is.  Sex is her addiction.  Unlike Anna Karenina, she can remarry without becoming a pariah.  Maya is always in love with someone new, and always deceives herself that the latest lover is her soulmate.  

Her first husband, Fima, who lost his family in the holocaust, marries her even though he knows she is pregnant by a married professor. He is willing to raise the child.  Her second husband adopts her son, who certainly prefers him to critical Maya, and soon forgets Fima.  When Maya moves to Moscow to marry her latest lover she arranges for her son to live most of the time with her mother.  And yet she can’t stop meddling in his life, even from afar. 

As for the daughter of her third marriage, a fat little girl with artistic talent who shrilly denies being Jewish—she is called “a fat Jew” at school—tries the patience of Maya, who blames the girl for her psychological problems.  Maya embarks on another affair, her typical response to stress. 

 Khemlin slowly reveals Maya’s psychological secrets in brilliant, crystalline prose.  And somehow we are never impatient with Maya–we pity her instead.

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