OCTOBER 21, 2019
UNLIKE MANY of the stories in Maxim Osipov’s Rock, Paper, Scissors: And Other Stories, “The Gypsy” has a happy ending. It’s an appropriate “happy” ending for a story in a collection full of characters who have been both physically and psychologically displaced — some are migrants, some lose their homes, some lose their memories. The fleeting quality of the happiness in the story’s ending suits the perpetually in-transit protagonist, an unnamed Moscow doctor who constantly travels for work. His happiness comes from a stretched-out moment that ought to pass quickly but doesn’t. As the doctor waits for his car to be repaired,
He puts on his headphones […] and suddenly realizes he’s happy.
How can he manage to stay in this state? He knows that, in the best of cases, it will last a few minutes and then dissipate. It’s useless to try to hold on to it. The very attempt signals its failure.
But somehow it lasts. Is it the music?
No, the music is over, but he’s still happy.
Doctors usually have practices that anchor them to a single place, but in this story, the protagonist’s local practice in a public hospital doesn’t pay well, and those with serious ailments and means travel abroad for treatment. The doctor asks for no money from his impoverished patients and spends an occasional, intense, lucrative 48 hours traveling with the moneyed sick to the United States. The protagonist has a home, and there are people who “love him unconditionally,” but the doctor’s life-in-motion cuts him off from his place and his people. The narrative is likewise severed from the development of relationships with place and community. “The Gypsy” offers the only sort of happy ending that life under such conditions has to offer: a passing moment that lasts just a little longer than it seems it should.
The work in Rock, Paper, Scissors, all published between 2010 and 2017, we meet seemingly simple, quiet people, and Osipov’s narration stays close to their subjective experience. While sometimes spanning years and geographical locations, the stories primarily focus on explaining and expanding specific moments of feeling and experience, like the doctor’s fleeting happiness at the mechanic’s shop, rather than developing traditionally structured plots. This is Osipov’s first stand-alone volume in English, published by NYRB Classics, edited by Boris Dralyuk (executive editor here at the Los Angeles Review of Books), and translated from the Russian original by Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson. Osipov’s stories have appeared in some English-language literary magazines (Granta, The White Review, Asymptote), and this newly translated collection has attracted enthusiastic reviews from all literary corners, and for good reason. In Russia, Osipov has been awarded numerous prizes, and his stories are published regularly in the journal Znamia, a sturdy institution that has been around since 1931. His stories have been collected in a half-dozen volumes in Russian and translated into 10 or so languages. He is also a noted playwright.
Osipov writes with a gentle tone that is frequently unsettled, as shocks of violence (four murders, among other things) disrupt the initial, apparent quietude. The violent events rupture everyday life, and the quiet atmospheres Osipov cultivates bring this contrast to the fore, rendering violence both utterly banal and difficult to reconcile with the otherwise mundane reality the reader has been introduced to. In “After Eternity: The Notes of a Literary Director,” a shooting ripped straight from the pages of a Romantic novel disturbs the peace of a local theater community; in “Renaissance Man,” an oligarch accidentally murders a woman and then shoots himself; in “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” Ruhshona, a young Tajik woman, kills her would-be rapist and prepares to spend her life in prison. These moments of violence emerge in unexpected and isolated bursts, within tales otherwise characterized by melancholy contemplation of home, community, and love: the narrator of “After Eternity” remembers his lost theater-making idyll; the oligarch searches vainly for intellectual community, family, and romance; Ruhshona contemplates her own homeland prior to its destruction through civil war. Osipov maps this subverted quietude onto the stories’ settings, too: his stories primarily take place in provincial Russia, a location where Chekhovian dreamers yearned for the cosmopolitan life of the big city, and Tolstoyan landowners settled into pleasant productivity.
Over and over, however, his stories portray both youthful restlessness and settling down as illusions from the past — as distant as the worlds of Chekhov and Tolstoy. In Osipov’s stories, homes are also often a relic of the past, having disappeared before the story even starts. In “After Eternity,” for example, an entire town is, in typically Soviet jargon, “liquidated,” evicted by order of the authorities and erased from the map. For Ruhshona, her native Tajikistan has been utterly transformed by the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The “Gypsy” doctor has to fly around the world every week to keep up his local medical practice. Osipov brings us characters uprooted and unfixed, homeless and in transit, in the end of their stories as at the beginning, so that maintenance of the mundane appears delicate, constantly on the verge of dissolution.
The most common settings of Osipov’s stories are the places he himself knows best: the hospital and the theater. A cardiologist in his 50s, he continues to practice medicine. He draws on his professional and personal experience in his fiction — doctors appear throughout the collection, sometimes at the center of a story, sometimes at the margins, as do actors and performers of various stripes. In the context of Russian literature, experience with medicine and theater, combined with a penchant for writing short, emotionally intense stories, draws immediate comparisons to Chekhov — another writer-doctor-playwright who frequently wrote about doctors and actors. While this connection has been frequently made, some attention to the more substantial similarities and differences between the two writers helps to articulate the particularly strange and stretched-out nature of time in Osipov’s stories.
Osipov, like Chekhov, likes to end his stories just when they appear to be moving toward a satisfying conclusion. Chekhov’s “The Lady with a Dog,” for example, famously ends before two cheating lovers figure out how to resolve their situation. The last line: “It was clear to both that they still had a long way to go, and the most complex and difficult part had only just begun.” Osipov doesn’t just end his stories before their climaxes, he starts them in that moment, flashes back, and then ends the story right where it began, leaving any resolution beyond the scope of his narrative. This structure is particularly striking in the story “Objects in Mirror,” which begins with a professor of screenwriting, Andrey Georgievich, anticipating his arrest. He recalls his day, and the story ends in the same instant, as we realize that the arrest hasn’t yet taken place. This looping, layered, and gap-ridden temporality, more characteristic of the feeling-logic of memory than the linearity of historical narrative, is a common characteristic of the stories in Rock, Paper, Scissors. We are given the sense that these characters’ fates are already sealed — we may not know exactly what will happen, but it feels as though the determining factors of their stories have already occurred. Osipov uses a similar structure in “The Mill” about a young woman on life support; in “Good People,” a woman with dementia, Bella, experiences the present and the past simultaneously and lives perpetually in the hours before a secret meeting with a man she loved. For Bella, the moment before her meeting is the only thing left in her memory — as in “Objects in Mirror,” the central event of the story is perpetually postponed. These stories seem to exist entirely within the moment when, as Chekhov puts it in “The Lady with a Dog,” “[t]he most complex and difficult part was only just beginning.”
Chekhov kept resolved endings out of his stories in part to subvert the 19th-century notion — put forward by the great realists, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky — that the meaning of life could be narrated into existence. Writing with the desire to definitively answer questions such as “Why am I alive?” (as Anna Karenina’s Konstantin Levin asks himself, nearly driving himself to suicide) has a formal, and not just philosophical, dimension: such an answer is found through the resolution of burning questions that drive complex narratives. For these writers, answers to these questions come at the neatly resolved end, and more often than not, in the form of religious revelation (Anna Karenina, Crime and Punishment, Brothers Karamazov). Like Chekhov’s, Osipov’s stories present skepticism of the potential for art to uncover meaning in life. Like Chekhov, Osipov keeps any moment of revelation outside of the scope of the story. Many of his stories are depictions of single expanded moments filled with lifetimes and even generations of feeling. For each person, all of their lives are present in each passing moment, and their futures appear largely fixed. Within this understanding of human experience — which sets aside, as Chekhov also did, the possibility of answering a question like “Why am I alive?” — literature’s task is to expose the density of time and experience present in each moment, thus showing life itself as devoid of the kind of linear development that could lead to answers or resolution.
It may be the irresistible temptation and ultimate folly of someone who studies 19th-century Russian literature — like the author of this review — to impose that era’s tight-knit intertextuality on a collection of 21st-century stories. But there are myriad clues that Osipov’s tales are intended, at least in part, to engage this past tradition, and paying attention to those moments reveals the author’s interest in the ways that the relationship between literature and life can become a question of life and death. One problem with trying to use art to discover the meaning of life is the temptation for readers to confuse the order of things: we may somehow, begin putting literature ahead of life. In the long, complex story “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” Ruhshona, a devout Muslim who was raised on the Russian classics, disavows “this tinsel we wrap our lives in — music, philosophy, literature,” as she discovers her faith, deciding, “There is some form of truth to [art], in parts, but [art is] […] not the truth.” Other details of the story support Ruhshona’s view that art itself is “not the truth.” While another character, a young teacher in the town where she lives, finds meaning in literature, Osipov portrays him as weak-willed and self-involved, unable to face the suffering that exists in the world. Literature allows him to look away from the truth, rather than at it. When Ruhshona is imprisoned later in the story, her boss, Ksenia, comes to visit her in prison. Ksenia, in her mind, exalts Ruhshona’s action, using language that draws comparison with Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov, of Crime and Punishment, who thought he could render himself arbiter of moral law by committing murder. Ksenia thinks to herself: “Roxana’s act has raised her so impossibly high, taken her so close to the secrets of the world!” But Ruhshona admonishes Ksenia, as though reading her mind, and makes the reference to Dostoyevsky explicit: “We can do without the Dostoevskian dramatics.” She tells both Ksenia and the reader not to filter her action through the plots that came before.
The story “After Eternity,” a highlight of the collection, does suggest that there might be some refuge in the arts — perhaps not in the works themselves, but in the social world that the making of art might briefly manifest. The story is framed by a doctor who, as does the unnamed narrator of Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, finds himself in possession of a dead man’s journals. They belong to his former patient, Alexander Ivanovich Ivlev, the former artistic director of a provincial theater. Alexander’s diary describes a settlement in the Far North called “Eternity,” founded as part of the industrialization of Russia in the mid-20th-century. The regional theater in the city provides its company all the components of the good life: deep friendship, intellectual and creative satisfaction, romantic intrigue, a place to live. The echoes of A Hero of Our Time in the story’s framing appear auspicious only after the community is shaken by a shooting: one actor murders another over the love of a woman, echoing the duel that is the climactic event of Lermontov’s novel (this reference is made explicit in the story). Plots that have become so embedded in Russian culture — or at least in Russian literary culture — exert a force of their own, bubbling up in Osipov’s stories in unexpected and terrible ways.
The community in Eternity is finally destroyed, not by in-fighting, but by command from on high, just as it was created: the residents are evicted, and the city turned into a test site for missile target practice. While the danger of living life as though it is literature is dramatically portrayed in “After Eternity,” it also appears that art in the form of the temporarily shared world of the theater, vulnerable as it is to implosion and destruction, can give life meaning after all. It’s not the revelatory kind of meaning, rather the fleeting, inexplicable kind that the “Gypsy” doctor encounters so unexpectedly and momentarily in his car mechanic’s office. At the end of the story, Alexander Ivanovich reflects: “I had, after all, been given a glimpse of a little slice of the world, a slice all my own — and for a fairly long time, when all is said and done.” This “glimpse” came to Alexander Ivanovich in the form of the collaborative creation of art, and it was delicate — its equilibrium could not hold for long.
The tendency of people so invested in art to turn their lives into novelistic plots demonstrates how risky it is to ask life to take the shape of a story. Osipov’s stories are not the kind that encourage or even allow reenactment in life. He packs his stories with extremely particular feeling and experience, subverting the demands of a linear narrative: a beginning is also an end. The story is over before it has even begun.
Helen Stuhr-Rommereim is a PhD Candidate in the Comparative Literature & Literary Theory Program at the University of Pennsylvania, specializing in 19th-century Russian literature. She is an editor at Full Stop magazine.