The Self-Development of Truth: A Conversation with Maxim Osipov

By Daniel MedinApril 9, 2019

The Self-Development of Truth: A Conversation with Maxim Osipov
PERHAPS THE MOST exciting aspect of reading for a literary prize resides in the promise of discovery. For an editor in search of new writing, the task of working through a substantial number of forthcoming and recently published books can be a gift, providing as it does an overview of contemporary practices — a perspective less apparent when you’re down in the trenches — while leading to encounters with as yet unknown authors. For me, one such delightful encounter was with Maxim Osipov, whose short fiction I came across while judging the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s Internationaler Literaturpreis, the German equivalent of the Man Booker International. In the German edition published by a small Austrian press, Osipov’s stories stood out for the virtuosity of their execution, their exhilaratingly unexpected twists, and their compassionate yet steely irony. Now Anglophone readers can appreciate these qualities of Osipov’s prose in Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories, whose translation by Boris Dralyuk, Alex Fleming, and Anne Marie Jackson is no less a triumph than Birgit Veit’s into German. This conversation was conducted via email.


DANIEL MEDIN: There’s a story I love about Wallace Stevens. For much of his career, Stevens worked as a legal expert for an insurance company in Hartford. After his death, a journalist interviewed some former colleagues. Most were completely unaware of his prominence in the literary world. “But it doesn’t surprise me that he was a great poet,” remarked a co-worker: “he was a great insurance man!” Your principal vocation has long been that of cardiologist. Are fellow practitioners and patients familiar with your writing? To what extent do these spheres, the medical and the literary, remain separate in your day-to-day life?

MAXIM OSIPOV: I like this anecdote. Most of my colleagues are aware of my writing, and I must confess that they are not unanimously happy about it. As for patients, I try to avoid any mention of my non-medical activities. From time to time they bring me books to sign, which makes me very uneasy. As a doctor, I should have no age, no gender, no political or aesthetic preferences. But as a writer I have all of these. So I try to keep the two separate, which is increasingly difficult, especially since I use Facebook often. In Russia, unlike in Western Europe or the United States, Facebook has replaced institutional settings to become our sole form of community life. All of the others — the Academy of Science, for example, or other professional societies — have been destroyed.

You were no doubt a reader before you began any medical schooling. But publishing stories and writing for the stage are fairly recent developments. What sparked this literary activity? Or was writing something you always intended to turn to?

From the age of six I was a passionate reader, like many other boys and girls raised in a family of intellectuals. My father, who was a writer himself, didn’t want me to read books for children. He thought that it was better to focus on masterpieces, regardless of how little I might understand. So I first read War and Peace when I was ten. Otherwise, my experience of literature resembled that of other children from the same class — mostly 19th-century classics from Russia, accompanied by some British, American, French, and German works in translation. To be honest, I never enjoyed reading English books in the original. I had an excellent private instructor — her name was Anna Pavlovna — but I was just too lazy. I couldn’t retain English texts well, either. Interestingly, my anti-Soviet orientation was inspired by novels encountered during these years. I still recall my realization, upon reading The Three Musketeers and The Pickwick Papers, that Paris and London were realrather than invented places — cities that for some reason neither my parents nor I were allowed to visit.

Literary translations from French and other languages into Russian were of terrific quality, right? I’ve been told this was one of the things that the Soviet Union did exceptionally well.

Yes, they were perfect. A lot of talented people went into translation, since you encountered less censorship there and its remuneration was relatively good. But to return to your earlier question: I tend to identify being a writer with writing, which didn’t prevent me from believing myself to be one long before I authored a work of fiction. That did not happen until in 2009, when I was 45. I had, however, maintained a diary previously, and recall a caustic entry from the late nineties about being a physician who does not see patients (I was a publisher of medical texts) and a writer who has not written a single line. It must seem odd, but that’s how things were.

Has your activity as a publisher had any influence on how you work with your own translators? Did you collaborate actively with any (or all) of the three translators on Rock, Paper, Scissors? How did you arrive at this selection of stories for the English edition?

I founded a publishing house named Practica Publishers in 1993. We mainly did translations of medical books, although there were also some titles on theology and musicology. I edited many books myself, and believe me, we really were leaders in the field. Practica is now defunct but this work was a boon to the kind of writing I do today. As for your question concerning the translators of Rock, Paper, Scissors— yes, our collaboration was a very active one. Every author must dream of having a team of translators as excellent as this. Boris [Dralyuk], Alex [Fleming], and Anne Marie [Jackson] always reacted positively to my remarks. They rarely took my suggestions (this is good), but they would make modifications with those comments in mind and thus improve the text. Once a story is finished I assemble extensive footnotes for its future. There can be up to 200 for a 10-page story. They include the sources of quotations, explanations of rarely used words, and some realities that a foreigner may not be aware of. My footnotes should not under any circumstance be considered part of the text proper; their purpose is to be helpful. As a reader, you don’t have to understand everyword in a work — that’s not the reason we are drawn to certain texts or films or music. But for translators, this comprehension is essential, and I would like to help facilitate it. As for the selection of stories in this edition, it is largely mine. I believe it represents me properly.

What was your first work of fiction?

I consider “Rock, Paper, Scissors” my first. (It was preceded by another story, but I would prefer to forget that one.) Its origin is very strange. Boris Brovtsyn, a great violinist and dear friend who was living in the United Kingdom and Lithuania, insisted that I read this awful novel that imagined the world in what must have been 2050 or so. Lithuanians were terrified by its depiction of a world in which Russia exercised hegemony over the entirety of Europe, including the UK. Its ideology of domination in the book was modeled after the classic 19th-century triad of Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality. And so I thought, well, if Russian authorities want to realize such a vision today, they would probably prefer Islam in the place of Orthodoxy. That was the impetus. Along with the fact that “Islam” is a semi-forbidden word in modern Russia. You can discuss Islamic culture, Islamic extremists, and so forth, but not Islam itself. The same had been true of the word “Jew” previously (I still remember Mikhail Gorbachev speaking of Russians, Ukrainians, and “people of Jewish nationality”). In sum, I did some research and ultimately came up with what my story is today. I should add that it was profoundly inspired by close observation of provincial authorities — observations much closer to reality than I could have ever wished for! I’ve also revised it several times, mostly after it was produced for the theater. This doesn’t make “Rock, Paper, Scissors” my favorite — though I did put more labor into it than the others, and it was my first.

Since you mention the stage: I was struck by the profound understanding of the theatrical and musical worlds evinced by stories like “After Eternity” and “Polish Friend.” There are details in each — as well as elsewhere in this collection — that do more than just “ring true” when it comes to representing the lives of individual actors and musicians. Your familiarity seems to come from a place that is deeper than sympathy or intuition. Let’s begin with your experience of the theater; how was it that your first mature story became adapted as a play?

I think that short stories, even long short stories (my personal preference), can be closer to poetry than to novels. It’s not the subject matter that I find central to short fiction, but style and form, which far exceed content in their importance. Being deeply knowledgeable about your material — in my case, about medicine and, to a lesser extent, religion, music, theater, politics, even chess — is not essential, however much it may help. I prefer to write about subjects that I am familiar with. That said, I was practically ignorant of the theater until I saw a performance, almost by accident, of Boris Vakhtin’s An Absolutely Happy Village at the Fomenko Theater in Moscow. I loved it so much that I immediately wanted to do something for this troupe. So I wrote a play titled Russian and Literature that was based on “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” and in the process met with Fomenko and his actors and so forth. In the end, the play wasn’t staged at this theater (the story behind this actually resembles events in Mikhail Bulgakov’s Theatrical Novel). Instead, it had its premiere at the Omsk Drama Theater and was then staged at Lev Dodin’s Maly Drama Theater in St. Petersburg, where it can still be seen today. Later, I wrote a piece for theater called Scapegoats, which was translated by John Freedman and published in his anthology of contemporary Russian drama. And finally, Rigoletto, a work for one actor, which is political, funny, and very sad. I doubt there are many opportunities for it to be performed today; nearly all theaters are state-supported, and censorship has become a visible phenomenon in the last few years. My relation to the theater is not as intimate as the one I have to music, but I must have picked something up from these experiences. Actors are the best readers of my stories. They are accustomed to reading slowly — very slowly, exactly the way a writer of short fiction wants the work to be read. Actors and translators both read slowly, trying to understand what is behind the words. That is what I like about them most of all.

Musicians are also prominent in your writings, especially classically trained musicians. I am thinking of “Renaissance Man,” for example, or “Polish Friend,” which I find endearing for many reasons, among them the banal facts that I was once in a relationship with a violinist; rented a room from a cellist; witnessed dozens of master classes; and have read the biographies of admired instrumentalists and composers. You already mentioned your friendship with Boris Brovtsyn, the prominent soloist. Your daughter is a professional violinist as well, so this seems to be one of those areas that you happen to know something about. That you are a passionate listener is certainly discernable in your fiction. And so I’d like to return to something mentioned briefly above, the priority of form over matter in short fiction. Are there useful analogies between writing and making music in your creative process?

I am surrounded by musicians. My wife is a pianist, and there are many other pianists among our friends, as well as teachers, composers, and musicologists. My daughter Maryana and her husband Dmitry, who is a violist, are the founding members of the Eliot Quartet. I’m happy to say that it was my idea to name the group after T.S. Eliot, whose Four Quartets had been inspired by Beethoven’s innovative late quartets. The Eliot Quartet is based in Frankfurt, and they’ve already started to receive international recognition. Mentioning this, I am reminded of how often parents are like Chekhov’s “The Darling” — I am no different. So, for me, music is now divided into two parts: string quartets on the one hand, and all other music on the other. I’m not the first to observe that music is the greatest teacher of composition in any art, including writing. There are many similarities between short stories and musical sonatas. Both last between 15 and 40 minutes. They “make nothing happen,” as Auden said of poetry. When we listen to a sonata for the first time the purpose is to decide whether we want to listen to it again or not. The same should occur when you read a short story. Like a sonata, a work of short fiction should strive to compress many elements, and be built of significant changes in rhythm, tonality, etc. These are the aspects that make a superlative story stand out — not its subject matter. A successful story also resembles music and poetry insofar as we only begin to truly appreciate it not during but long after our initial encounter. Finally, stories — again, like quartets — demand more of an effort from their readers than novels. Perhaps that is why publishers prefer novels.

Can you imagine ever writing a novel?

No, I cannot. But this does not mean I will not come up with one someday.

Another question about form. There’s a classical authenticity that comes across throughout Rock, Paper, Scissors, especially in your narrative voice. It’s a curious experience for me as a reader: stylistically, your fiction evokes the work of the great 19th-century Russian masters. Yet the Russia the stories represent, and the Russians whose lives they chronicle, belong inseparably to the present. The contrast is often startling, which is why I’d be curious to hear about your relationship to the radical innovators of Russian prose during the 20th century— for example, Andrei Platonov or the OBERIU group and their inheritors. What, if anything, have they meant to you, whether politically or aesthetically? Have their efforts to invent new ways to represent modernity influenced your own thinking about form?

I once noted in an essay that over the course of five years Russia changes a great deal, but in 200, not at all. And so Russian life can be described with any sort of voice. I try to look at things directly, without a lens. This tradition isn’t very strong in Russian literature, although Chekhov — and Pushkin, of course — did it this way. I admire Platonov, especially his stories. Among the artists of OBERIU, Nikolay Zabolotsky probably affected my style — both his early poems as well as the ones written well after most of the group had died or been killed. I consider him one of the greatest poets of the last century. Konstantin Vaginov and the other prose writers did not have an equivalent influence. But I do not feel I’m the ideal person to discuss my own style of writing; I doubt writers should dwell on such matters too long.

Since you mention Chekhov, there’s a line of his that occurred to me again and again while reading your fiction: that the writer’s task is not to solve problems, but to present them properly.

 “I’m not a remedy, I’m a pain,” and all that. That sounds rather lofty to me. But yes, the people in my stories usually receive no answers. Or they do, but to questions they never asked. I want my characters to be autonomous, and my readers at liberty to determine whether they like them or not. I have no desire to manipulate or teach: the task is to tell a story that will not dictate a response. Every story departs from its initial conception. This always happens (or it should). You begin with the germ, and if it’s a self-developing story, and not just an anecdote, then it will lead to the creation of characters who are more important than the plot. I’ve lived with the people in War and Peace all my life. I’m not referring to the story of their lives, as conveyed by Tolstoy, but to them as human beings, since they seem to be more fully alive than many of the people I have known personally. My teacher, patient, and dearest friend, Father Ilia Shmain, used to say that art is nothing but the self-development of truth — and that’s a definition that I would stand by.


Daniel Medin is an associate professor of Comparative Literature at the American University of Paris and a director of its Center for Writers and Translators.


Note: In the interest of full disclosure, Boris Dralyuk, one of the translators of Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories, is the executive editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.

LARB Contributor

Daniel Medin is an associate professor of Comparative Literature at the American University of Paris and a director of its Center for Writers and Translators. He has been a judge for the Haus der Kulturen der Welt’s Internationaler Literaturpreis (German equivalent of the Man Booker International) since 2018.


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