TALK OF APPOINTING Vladimir Nabokov as a professor of literature at Harvard in 1957 caused the great Russian-American linguist Roman Jakobson, a professor at Harvard’s Slavic Department, to quip: “Gentlemen, even if one allows that he is an important writer, are we next to invite an elephant to be Professor of Zoology?” Fast-forward 60 years. Dmitry Bykov’s appointment as a Visiting Professor at UCLA’s Slavic Department at first raised similar concerns among my colleagues. But it soon became clear that the department could not have made a better choice. Bykov’s course was not just informative — it was also great theater. His lectures attracted students, professors, and even members of the city’s large Russian community.
In addition to his course, Bykov gave three public lectures on major Russian literary figures of the late 20th century. What he presented were “unsolidary readings” — a term coined by Bykov’s friend and mentor, USC Professor Alexander Zholkovsky, to refer to rereadings of major texts and authors that challenge established critical opinion. His three subjects were Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Joseph Brodsky, and Sergey Dovlatov, two poets and a prose writer who ended their days in the United States. In his final lecture, Bykov channeled a milder, softer attitude toward emigration, possibly because, as he spoke of Dovlatov’s brilliant collection of short stories The Suitcase, he was packing his own. His lecture ended just two hours before his plane took off for Moscow, and, for a moment, it felt as if Bykov himself was emigrating, leaving his home in Los Angeles for a scary and unknown land on the verge of great political upheaval.
SASHA RAZOR: Your UCLA course concerned the question of plots in Russian literature, and the point of departure was a meditation on the laws of the “best seller.” Are you writing anything based on this lecture?
DMITRY BYKOV: Yes, there is indeed a direct connection between that lecture and my creative plans. For a long time, I’ve been dreaming of writing a book that you just can’t put aside, an absolute best seller. To do so, I would have to negate all the literary schemes that have existed for centuries. So, I came up with something totally new. I will write Ocean, my next novel, in English, and I will not publish it in Russian. At least for now.
But to demonstrate how I would apply the laws of an absolute best seller in this novel, I first needed to elaborate on my vision of established literary schemes.
Do you specifically mean the Hamlet-Faustus scheme, which you explained in your course? Can you summarize it briefly?
Absolutely. The 20th-century Russian novel makes use of two main plot structures. We can provisionally call them the “Hamlet” plot, which contains elements of both the trickster novel and biblical motifs, and the “Faustus” plot, which includes an artist-hero, adultery, escape as a metaphor for revolution, and a dead child. By the way, one of my students decided to apply these schemes and came up with a best-seller plot of such quality that I was tempted to steal it. But, as you know, it is a sin to rob your own tribe. Let me illustrate this concept further. A Russian example of a trickster plot is The Twelve Chairs, the brilliant picaresque comedy by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov from 1928, and examples of “Faustus” plots are Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago and Nabokov’s Lolita. Mikhail Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is a combination of the two: Voland, the Devil, is a trickster, while the Master is Faustus.
So how is this taxonomy connected to your new project of an absolute best seller? In which way are you going to negate these schemes?
Imagine that what I call the “Hamlet-Faustus” scheme is a thing of the past, and that I’ve found something new, something that corresponds to our 21st century. Let me explain this with an illustration from the history of the detective genre and Dostoyevsky’s contribution to it. Detective novels make it easy to demonstrate the laws of literature. They are like flies in zoology. Before Dostoyevsky, Russian literature was young and presumptuous. It reminds me of a teenage boy who sees a map of the stars for the first time in his life and immediately starts correcting it.
So what plots are available to a budding detective novelist?
- “The Victorian chimney detective”: A criminal is chosen among the circle of suspects.
- “The gardener did it”: There is a circle of suspects, but the murderer does not belong to it — he or she simply happened to walk by.
- There was no murder; the victim is either alive or committed a suicide.
- The investigator is the murderer.
- Everyone is a suspect and everyone is a murderer, as in Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (1934).
- The victim was murdered by someone who is already dead, and all the other victims are interconnected, as in Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None (1939).
- The narrator is the murderer, as in Anton Chekhov’s The Shooting Party (1884) and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926).
- The murderer is a spirit who migrates between bodies, as in David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
- The murderer is society itself — this is the rarest case — as in J. B. Priestley’s An Inspector Calls (1945).
Dostoyevsky writes his Idiot (1868) at a moment in history before the eighth and the ninth plots are even invented, and delineates a 10th plot structure. The first of the six parts tells us everything about the murderer, the victim, the motivation, and the circumstances. The last five chapters ask the question, “So now what?” This was a revolution in the detective genre. The reader was used to looking for the culprit, and that’s it. And authors must have been terribly bored of writing these plots, because they knew well in advance who their murderers were. Then, all of a sudden, we get a detective plot in which the author is searching for God. All of Chesterton grew out of that innovation. Later, William Hjortsberg developed the same plot in a virtuoso way in his novel Falling Angel (1978), filmed as Angel Heart (1987).
So what is your innovation?
According to my new scheme, Real Life exists right next to us, like dark matter, but we rarely see it, although we harbor some ideas about its existence. But on some occasions, people from this Real Life become visible to us after they die. Have you heard of the Tamam Shud case, the man from Somerton? What about the Isdal Woman? What about the case of Elisa Lam, which happened right here in Los Angeles? These stories will all receive an explanation in my new book. I’m in a rush to claim this idea first, so I can’t tell you much more. Now you understand why I long to leave all my worldly concerns behind, go to my vacation home, and dedicate myself to the main purpose of my life.
You mentioned that you were planning to write this book in English. Are you going to work with someone else?
I do have a co-author, a genius Serbian scholar whose name I cannot yet announce. We met at a conference at Princeton and spoke for three days straight about the laws of literature. This is what happened. I gave a talk, and he commented on it, applying my discovery of Russian literary patterns to the entirety of European literature. Then, during the reception, we sat and talked, and shouted every time we made a discovery. The skeletons of all plots, literary matter itself, seemed malleable beneath our fingers — we exposed the essence of all schemes, of all things, and of world history in general. Other guests started bringing us coffee to keep us going. They probably realized they were witnessing the birth of a new literary theory, a theory that would explain everything about humanity, the totality of everything. This is the kind of person I am — an overly confident fellow. But anyone who has gone through a similar experience would understand me, would understand what I mean … Why did I say I can’t announce the name of the scholar? I think I can. It’s Aleksandar Bošković, a lecturer in Bosnia, Croatian, and Serbian at Columbia University.
You have recently finished a new novel titled June. Tell us about it.
It’s difficult to talk about June precisely because I just finished it. Besides, some devices in the book don’t work in retelling. The plot revolves around three narratives, which all take place between 1938 and the 1940s. The first is about a boy expelled from his university because someone has anonymously denounced him to the authorities. The second concerns a journalist and his love for an émigré woman who has returned to the Soviet Union. And the third is about a writer who learns how to influence people by using a special combination of words. In addition, there are elements of automatic writing — a powerful device that affects the reader through hypnosis. The novel is partly constructed around one such “automatic” text.
As to the meaning of the book, it has a strong antiwar message. You see, the neurosis that Russia is currently going through is something that always results in external war, as if war could resolve the country’s inner tensions and settle all accounts. In June, I am trying to demonstrate that war does not solve anything — it just further internalizes the problems. You cannot cure or treat anything with war. War is like a landmine buried under our feet, and it is exploding. Unfortunately, external aggression is the only way Russia knows how to resolve its internal conflicts.
Which of your novels would you recommend to readers who are not familiar with your work?
To my English readers, I can recommend my novel Living Souls (2010), which has been translated. For my Russian readers, I can also recommend Ostromov, or, the Magician’s Disciple (2010) — written about a sect of Freemasons in Leningrad in the 1920s — and Kvartal: Passage (2015). Generally, I hold Kvartal in higher esteem than my other books. However, it took about a decade for Living Souls to be properly read and received, so I don’t think that Kvartal’s “time” has yet come. The usual lag between the publication of my texts and their proper reception is about a decade. And this happens not because I am a visionary, who discerns what lies ahead, but because my readers refuse to see certain things until the time comes when they cannot ignore them any longer.
But you aren’t just a novelist, you’re also a poet. Let’s talk about poetry. You separate poets into two categories: transmitters and rhеtors. Could you explain this division?
This is a rather simple division. The first category knows and the second understands. Transmitters are focused on themselves and transmit the celestial sounds they hear. They are neither thinkers, nor do they have any psychological insights. Poet of this type say the things that match their voices the best. We can apply the same paradigm to artists in general. The artistic philosophy is always subservient to the artist’s creative method, and not vice versa. In Russian literature, an example of a transmitter-poet is Alexander Blok, the Symbolist who claims to have heard the “music of the Revolution” in 1917 and written his epic The Twelve. These poets transmit the sound of their epoch, but they do not have a uniform intonation. They usually sing in different voices. To hear the sound of their time, they cannot have their own authorial persona; they rely on their intuition instead.
The category of rhetors is diverse. It includes Alexander Pushkin, Vladimir Mayakovsky, and Joseph Brodsky. In this category, we can differentiate between thinkers and proclaimers. But the most interesting case is the overlap between the two — a poet who channels the sound and the rhythm of the epoch and, at the same time, does not forget to think. There are only a few examples of this: Mikhail Lermontov and Nikolai Zabolotsky.
In the lecture dedicated to the memory of Yevgeny Yevtushenko, you placed Yevtushenko in the same category as Joseph Brodsky and the Russian poet and singer Vladimir Vysotsky, which caused some indignation from those who esteem both Brodsky and Vysotsky more highly. Can you clarify your position on this?
I didn’t notice any indignation. Of course, Yevtshenko wrote a lot of nonsense, but time has shown that Brodsky wrote some very weak poems as well. How much of Brodsky do we really remember and read today? To put it simply, Yevtushenko’s weak poems are weaker than the weak poems by Brodsky. Brodsky held himself up to certain standards, but Yevtushenko periodically failed to control the quality of his output. As for Vysotsky, he also has his share of bad verse. However, I would be happy to edit an anthology of, say, the 30 best poems by these three authors — truly their best, golden poems. If anyone commissioned me to do this, we would get a unique portrait of the era, written by three quills. And all three responded to each other — that is, they experienced bouts of foolish, fervent envy, as well as admiration. You see, the history of literature is not an individual competition. It is a team sport. And the game is usually not between countries, but between a team of poets and the force of global entropy — a force we do not always see, again, like dark matter. And I want to think of myself as being on the poets’ team, too. I hope that I’m not a benchwarmer. It is curious that, in today’s Russia, this dark matter, this force of entropy, became visible; at least we can see our opponent. Did you see Jerry Zucker’s Ghost? Do you remember the moment when they suddenly become visible?
How would you explain the deeper causes of Russia’s current problems?
I feel it has to do with self-justification. I relate it to the Russian preposition zato, a word that is sometimes translated as instead or but. In fact, it is even more typical and significant than the equally untranslatable avos’ — a kind of carelessness, a blind trust in sheer luck. This is how Russian logic works: we live badly, wrongfully, and immorally, but we have the greatest poetry! Russian discourse always presupposes this “but” — this is the verbal formalization of our emptiness and amorality. And all of Russian rhetoric, all of these buts are meant to compensate for and cover the hollowness of Russia: but we are the grandest, the loudest; but we have the longest verses. This is what cynicism is in its essence, and the flip side of it is a purely criminal sentimentality. Cynicism is directed to the outer world, and the sentimentality is directed toward the self. I don’t want to elaborate more on this topic. Why tease the geese?
What should we expect in the future? How do you assess Russia’s political situation?
Generally speaking, we should expect some events to develop quickly. They will be radical in nature and will be rather positive. But, it is important to prevent this situation from dissipating into chaos. This is why we need intellectuals of all sorts with us, and there are many young intellectuals in today’s Russia. By the way, I am seriously thinking that all those adorable freaks who sit in my lectures, in particular those who study with me in the United States, will play their part in these events. I have a similar student audience — roughly 15- to 25-year-olds — regardless of the country in which I’m lecturing. When Russia goes through some unavoidable normalization, all of them will come here and start helping us. At least some students promised me they would. You understand, it is very important to foster an international intellectual community today. There can be no revolution without the International. So, I see myself as one of the agents of this new International. The idea at its core is an intellectual — not a social — takeover. You too — you are working on this project, and I don’t doubt that you will contribute to the building of a new Russia and not simply chill out in California. Everyone will rush to be with us, and the whole world will look upon us with hope and delight. As always, Russia has the lowest standards of everything, and this is the optimal point of departure: even before the year 2020, we will begin developing so rapidly that the rest of the world will have to catch up with us. You’ll see this for yourself. Soon you’ll have a chance to verify my intuition.
What if your prediction does not come true?
Well, that is the title of my new collection of poems, What if not … There is a line in it that I can translate in the following way: “And what if I never jump out of hell — well …”
In one of your articles, you called the war between Russia and Ukraine a war “invented by writers.” Could you talk a little bit about this war? How can these writers who are calling for war in Donbas and the pro-Ukrainian writers start a dialogue? Is this dialogue even possible?
Yes, the dialogue is possible, and it is already ongoing. You see, there is one complication. There are some Russian-language writers and poets in Ukraine who continue to publish in Russia. Their fate is tragic because, Ukrainians see them as collaborationists. As for me, I also think that it is completely wrong to live in today’s Ukraine and to publish in Russia! Or why would they be friends with the Russian writers who display patriotic attitudes? I think that Ukrainians should continue building their cultural identity, orienting themselves toward Eastern Europe.
Writers are always eager to go to war, but they are usually not very good warriors. Bandits, on the other hand, make great warriors. Although my grandfather, who served in World War II, remarked that the bravest men on the battlefield were the bookkeepers. To be more precise, they made the most calm and professional soldiers, which is understandable, since their entire peacetime career is a minefield.
How do you see the role of the writer in today’s society?
As Boris Strugatsky said, “To see everything, to hear everything, to understand everything.”
If you are invited to teach in the US again, what would you like to teach?
I see myself as a valuable specialist in Soviet literature, a time period that produced nearly one-third of the entire Russian literary corpus. To continue with the Strugatsky brothers references, the Soviet period is the Zone, where we all still go to get supplies. And forgive me the pun, but I’m a fantastic teacher of fantastika, the Russian word for science fiction. I’ve already taught a science fiction course at Princeton and I would like to build it up further. Also, if the opportunity presents itself, I would absolutely love to design a graduate seminar on Soviet poetry. There is such an abundance of poetic lines stuck in my memory, that it would simply be therapeutic to teach it in order to put it all to good use. I’d be happy to teach either in the United States or in Russia, if Russia would only let me.