I started reading Nashi, or Ours, by Sergei Dovlatov. I am halfway through Master and Margarita, and I admit, it’s very hard. Sometimes, the reading is extremely slow going and quite discouraging, and I know that as I move into the second half of the book (I’m not giving anything away when I say that even more supernatural stuff starts to happen) it’s going to get more challenging. So I picked this other book. I heard about it in some magazine a few years ago. Somebody wrote about this emigre author who came to New York in the ’80s and was publishing short stories in the New Yorker. These stories were unbelievably good, but dammit, they were out of print, and the only copy in the whole NY Public Library system was being hoarded by a repeat-renewer over a period of years. It was totally easy to find here, lucky me!
This book has the best combination of characteristics. At the same time, it’s very funny and very sad! I love books like that. I also really love how Dovlatov said that, of all Russia’s great writers, he wanted to be most like Chekhov. This seems like a slightly more modest goal than wanting to be your generation’s Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, but this ambition seems to lead to really fantastic books. Lev Grossman, who wrote Life and Fate, a really big deep book about Russia in WWII, shared a desire to be like Chekhov. (I should add that sadly, Dovlatov was like Chekhov in more ways than one and died in his forties.)
Anyway, I love this book so far. Part of the reason is that I love laughing out loud at something that’s written in Russian. Finding something outrageously funny (or outrageously moving) in a foreign language is a sign that you actually understand, that you understand more than just the words. (The thing that really got me going was a story about how the narrator’s grandfather single-handedly ruined the reputation of a fold-out bed company called Medzhik Bed.) Also, in very few pages, Dovlatov was able to get across perfectly a whole span of eras and characters from WWI to the sixties, across Vladivostok, the Caucasus, and Vienna. So look for his stories online in the New Yorker archive!
Anyway, school starts tomorrow. In preparation, I’ve been looking for some ideal English-language songs to teach to the kids (they want me to head up a choir here, nothing seriously musical, just to teach kids English, really). I’ve also been meeting with fellow teachers (I was going to write coworkers, but that just seemed too professional for a 22 year old kid like me. There’s a new rather uptight teacher here–imported from a school in Moscow proper where they use all kinds of educational theories, it seems–who is concerned that my American accent is going to mess with the kids’ British English language learned, but most of them are totally kind to me). Anyway, it makes me glad I chose the job I did, because this means working with and hanging out with Russians and it’s great. And they really take care of me. The first full day I was here the computer guys had me over for smoked fish and beer, one teacher I work with brought me a giant pale green vegetable item from her garden and a couple of others had me over last night for tea. It’s really, really something. If I had taken the other job, then I would have been at a British-run company, and I would have missed out on all of this.
That’s hot pepper powder. The brand is “Magic of the East”. Thank God! Something spicy… ahh. I’ve been craving spicy foods. (Next time in Moscow, I plan to look for hot sauce or salsa even if it takes me out of the way). Yes, I’m quite satisfied. I’ll have to go back there today since I ran out of “Patriots of Russia” matches. Maybe I’ll find other hidden delights. After all, I haven’t yet been in the other half of the store– according to the sign, they sell vodka and soap there.