MARCH 15, 2020
IN BROTHERLY LOVE, the second of three interrelated novellas in Maxim D. Shrayer’s A Russian Immigrant, the narrator says, “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.” The “he” in question is Simon Reznikov, an immigrant from Moscow to Boston in the late 1980s and the protagonist of Shrayer’s collection, which opens with Bohemian Spring and closes with Borscht Belt. In chronological order — with forays into the past that temporarily break the chronology — the novellas recount Simon’s life in the Soviet Union and his experience of immigration and gradual acculturation to American life. The interplay between the differing attitudes toward nostalgia referenced by the narrator — longing for your old, familiar life and moving beyond it as you become enmeshed in your new existence — is the central motif of this book.
Bohemian Spring opens in 1993, as Simon Reznikov and his parents, who six years prior “had come to America as refugees” (the official designation of Russian Jews fleeing Soviet antisemitism), become American citizens. The bulk of the novella focuses on Simon’s professional pursuits as a graduate student in comparative literature. Brotherly Love takes place in 1996, as he gets ready to go on the academic job market, and recounts his meeting with his ex-girlfriend, Sashenka, who has by now also immigrated to the United States. Borscht Belt, an extended reminiscence about Simon’s first year in the United States, eventually brings the story up to 2015, with Simon now an established professor, married, and a father. While it is never advisable to align a writer too closely with his or her characters, it is obvious from reading the “About the Author” section at the end of the book that several major aspects of Reznikov’s biography overlap with Shrayer’s. Both were refuseniks (people denied permission to emigrate by the Soviet government) along with their parents for several years in Moscow. Both come from Russian intelligentsia families, hold literature PhDs from American universities, and are academics, as well as writers of fiction and poetry in English and Russian (Shrayer is a professor of Russian and Jewish studies at Boston College, with a prodigious list of academic and popular publications, including his short story collection Yom Kippur in Amsterdam ). Needless to say, the experience of being Russian Jewish immigrants in America is fundamental both to the writer’s and his protagonist’s outlooks.
Published in 2019, A Russian Immigrant joins a number of other works by Russian-American writers from that year, such as Irina Reyn’s Mother Country, Lara Vapnyar’s Divide Me by Zero, Olga Zilberbourg’s Like Water and Other Stories, and Olga Livshin’s A Life Replaced. Russian-American literature is an ever-expanding category that entered a rapid-growth period about two decades ago, when (mostly Jewish) immigrants from the Soviet Union came of literary age and began telling, in an English punctuated with Russian words and expressions, stories of immigrant protagonists navigating their cultural and linguistic hybridity. To a greater or lesser extent, themes of immigration and questions of cultural and linguistic belonging are evident throughout their work.
They are likewise evident in A Russian Immigrant, where the story lines highlight both Simon’s life in the Soviet Union and how that life affects his worldview and actions in the United States. In Brotherly Love, a story of relationships going awry in ways that range from mundane to tragic, he bemoans the lack of Russian-style friendships in the new country: “From his Soviet youth Simon Reznikov missed camaraderie the most. […] 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.” In light of the novella’s end, this sentiment is grotesquely ironic, but it nevertheless underscores the steady pull that Simon’s Moscow past exerts on him; it is an integral part of his reminiscences and his discussions and interactions with others. At the same time, like other contemporary Russian-American writers, Shrayer does not envision immigration primarily as exile and loss, as did, for example, Joseph Brodsky. Like the majority of latter-day Russian-American protagonists, Simon eventually overcomes cultural alienation and linguistic insufficiency to fashion a comfortable existence in the United States.
Yet, as in other Russian-American protagonists, Simon Reznikov’s American side is inextricably linked with and informed by his Russian one. After nearly 30 years in the United States, he remains precisely the Russian immigrant of the book’s title. It is telling that the final novella, Borscht Belt, while set in 2015 with Simon well adjusted to American life, is primarily a retrospective account of his “American beginnings”: the early period of his immigration, in which he is much more of a foreigner in his new home. The novella recounts his first US vacation, to the Bluebell Inn in the Catskills, where he goes with his and his friend’s grandmothers — a setup both charming and amusing. The State of New York’s Catskill Mountains were dubbed the “Borscht Belt” because of the number of Jewish resorts that flourished there in the first half of the 20th century, but as a newly arrived immigrant, Simon points out to his more Americanized friend that “‘Borscht Belt’ doesn’t sound Jewish at all, […] Russian, Ukrainian, but not Jewish.” At the time of their visit in the late 1980s, “[t]he resort was living out its past grandeur, and there were no adult American-born Jews left among its clients.” As an American space occupied entirely by Russian immigrants, this resort is a physical manifestation of the metaphorical space in which Simon exists: a specifically Russian-American realm, with its fissures and cracks, one that may not be entirely comfortable, but which is at the core of who he is.
As is common in Russian-American fiction, the settings of the novellas alternate between the (former) Soviet Union and the United States, but Shrayer adds another level of geography and cultural layering. Bohemian Spring, the longest novella in the collection, is, as its name suggests, set mostly in Prague, the capital of the newly constituted Czech Republic. In 1993, while in graduate school, Simon Reznikov receives a travel grant to conduct research on the subject of his dissertation: Felix Gregor, a Czech-born Jewish writer of German-language prose (the numerous similarities with/allusions to Franz Kafka are obvious). The novella is both a type of literary detective tale in which Simon discovers something previously unknown about Gregor’s unfinished short story “The Jew’s Castle,” as well as an account of his growing relationship with Milena Krupičková, one of the Gregor archivists in the Czech National Library. The theme of hybrid identity is doubled in Bohemian Spring, explored through both Reznikov and Gregor, and it includes the instrumentalization of these identities by others. In an atmosphere of nascent national independence, Milena claims her beloved writer for the Czechs. Pointing out that Gregor “wrote his poems in Czech, and they move me to tears as they do most other Czechs,” Milena asserts that he “saw himself as a one-hundred-percent Czech.” This attitude, however, largely discounts both his German-language production of prose and, crucially, his Jewish background. Indeed, Milena’s insistence that her country “didn’t have a Jewish problem after 1918. It just was not an issue prior to the occupation,” and her response of “I just know…” to Simon’s question about how she knew that he himself was Jewish, suggests latent antisemitism. Rather disappointingly, neither Simon, whose Jewish heritage is such an integral part of who he is, nor the novella, which highlights Jewish lives and experiences, delves deeper.
The subject matter of A Russian Immigrant is fascinating, and contributions by Russian-American writers are an important and timely addition to immigrant voices in English-language literature. Yet at several points, the novellas’ themes feel underdeveloped, punctuated by a staccato writing style that seems to eschew depth. This is also true of some of the characters’ motivations. In Bohemian Spring, Simon’s declaration of love for Milena seems rushed; in Brotherly Love, the reader is left to speculate about why Simon’s friend Igor would agree to marry Sashenka. Moreover, while characters are vividly drawn, the female ones frequently read like gender clichés. In Borscht Belt, the aged Madame Yankelson puts a decided damper on Simon’s vacation because she is sexually desperate. Although both Milena and Sashenka eventually make independent decisions, for the most part, they unquestioningly look up to their men, which is particularly galling in Sashenka’s case, given her treatment by both Simon and, most notably, Igor. The fact that, rather than calling her Sasha, everyone calls her Sashenka — a diminutive version of the name usually reserved for children — infantilizes her, which adds a small indignity to the larger tragedy of her life. Nevertheless, A Russian Immigrant: Three Novellas has many interesting things to say about Russian-speaking immigrants in America by a writer who has intimate familiarity with this rich, topical material.