Can anyone of sound mind insist that life lacks a plot?
— Maxim Osipov, “After Eternity: The Notes of a Literary Director”
DR. ANTON CHEKHOV was dead at 44, in 1904, and collections of his short stories didn’t begin appearing in English until 1915. More than a hundred years after Chekhov’s death, in 2009, Dr. Maxim Osipov published his first short story when he was 45. He has published six collections of stories since then. This first book in English, featuring 12 stories from those volumes, is going to make a splash. It’s not his fault, is it, that his readers will be put in mind of Chekhov, but as we meet the sad, amusing down-on-their-luck contemporary characters, whose physical and emotional ailments and histories are diagnosed with a light touch, who else are we supposed to think of?
I’ll let you in on a secret: we experience a thrill, almost a pleasure, upon encountering a serious, rare illness, especially if we’re the first to diagnose it, if it’s curable, or if it’s not directly related to our speciality. This affords us a chance to demonstrate our powers of observation, the breadth of our knowledge. In the case of poor Alexander Ivanovich, however, I experienced no thrill. It’s not that he was in perfect health (he wasn’t, not at all), but that, during our brief acquaintance, I had come to like the old man.
Osipov has a soft spot for the kindly souls that quietly survive on the strength of their humility and goodwill. In “After Eternity: The Notes of a Literary Director,” the doctor-narrator shares with us the notebook of reminiscences “poor Alexander Ivanovich” has left behind in the examination room:
At night, when they’d turn off the upper light, I’d lie in the dark, remembering the little songs my mother used to sing to me, going over the funny phrases and rhymes I’d learned in childhood. How little I know myself: here, it turns out, is what I needed all along! I had singed my fingers on Glashenka and decided not to risk it again. No, in truth, I didn’t decide any such thing — just lived the life I was born to live.
Is Osipov’s attraction to these good folks their generosity of spirit, their modesty about their suffering, or their acceptance that what has happened was what had to happen? Hard-pressed good people are rewarded with life and a deep well of reflection: “I sometimes reflect on how lucky I was, how fortunate … As for the shadows that fell on my life, the dark patches I went through — I’d brought them on myself.” Osipov’s cynical and outraged characters, on the other hand, bumble and stumble into self-pity, but they are few and far between.
My favorite of the stories might be “The Gypsy.” The protagonist, a provincial doctor, resignedly yet dutifully tends to patients at the local clinic. Among his patients is an ornery gypsy woman, whom he has to defend from his snarling nurse. For extra cash, once a month or so, the doctor himself is a weekend gypsy, accompanying ill, emigrating Russian patients on planes to their new homes in America:
At first, when he had just started working for the company, he expected to see the full range of human emotions; emigration was a major step, after all. But he soon realized that this was no different from working in a crematorium or at the registry office: there was a limited set of reactions.
More knowledgeable, he can’t but feel less hope than the patients: “He nods and thinks: You should have left sooner … Now the old woman will die with the help of the finest medical technology. There’s no helping her. But he says: ‘You made the right decision.’”
Once, in a fuss with the American domestic flight attendants about their unwillingness to provide meals for his patients, the doctor decides “he’d show them what Russians were made of!”
But, as usual, the Americans wouldn’t actually learn what Russians are made of. While shouting his stern words, he slips up and makes some kind of grammatical mistake — he himself doesn’t know where, exactly — but, of course, garbled insults, with an accent to boot, are funny. The steward — that son of a bitch — cracks a broad smile; the stewardess turns her back to him, her shoulders shaking with laughter. It’s a lost cause.
How hard it is to curse convincingly in a foreign language! In 1991–’92, Osipov was a research fellow at the UC San Francisco Medical Center, and when he returned to Moscow, he started a publishing company that translated medical books from English. He now divides his time between the two settings of most of the stories, Moscow and a small town two hours south, Tarusa.
I didn’t fully enjoy or appreciate the title story, one of the two longest, until I was summarizing it aloud to a friend. As I laid out the viewpoints that break off one from the other, “Rock, Paper, Scissors,” I finally got it. It was like realizing you liked someone you weren’t so sure about while in their presence. In one section, a high school teacher writes a confessional eulogy about his deceased favorite student:
About Verochka. Verochka was so lovely that every single man — except the most common drunkard — would stop, turn his head, sometimes even follow her down the street. In her gestures, her movements — her hands, her head, her shoulders — there wasn’t the slightest trace of awkwardness or tension, never. She was in my class from when she was fourteen right until she graduated […] “Why do we need negatives — at least explain to me why!” was the first thing I heard her say. “Wouldn’t it be much simpler just to say: I unwant, I unlove?” I looked at her intently, and in that moment I felt a sense of foreboding: here was a classical tragic heroine. Or is what came afterwards interfering with my memory?
The teacher concludes: “Verochka’s deаth served no one. No one. And the crux of it all: life’s there to be lived, but I was too concerned about being good. I should have married her…”
But the person reading the teacher’s lengthy account is Verochka’s mother, and we have forgotten or not known we were reading with her. Just as we have come under its spell, the mother overrides us: “‘Married her … as if,’ sneers Ksenia, ‘you’d have had to grow a pair first, you weed. Ugh.’ She stops reading for a moment, rubs her hand.” The story, like a train decoupled and sent on a new track, rolls onward, as ominously as the plot in one of Andrey Zvyagintsev’s movies, with about the same grim humor.
It’s not clear how the editor, Boris Dralyuk, and the other two expert translators, Alex Fleming and Anna Marie Jackson, selected the stories. I’m guessing it’s to show Osipov’s admirable range of characters and presentations — but soon it should be up to someone to take on the full contents of individual volumes. The marvelous “Kilometer 101,” Osipov’s first published story, has been translated (in Chtenia), but doesn’t appear here. I’m dying to read a translation of “Cape Cod,” about a young Soviet Russian couple in 1989 who, on a tight budget, take their first trip abroad to Boston and visit a friend and a relative. When the protagonist wonders, “Where do you take a girl if there’s no money?” we find out it’s Cape Cod.
Though immersed in his life as a doctor, Osipov is a literary soul, and he regularly quotes from or refers to the classics; maybe the short form and plays just happen to fit the speed of busy doctors. We know he’s not Chekhov, though, who in his early 20s dashed off stories seemingly between patients. And Chekhov didn’t exhibit any of Osipov’s hesitancy about how to do this business of telling a story. Osipov is more deliberate, and a couple of the stories feel overworked, fit for The New Yorker. Like Chekhov, he dates the completion of each story.
His most Chekhovian tales are “The Mill” and “The Waves of the Sea,” the latter of which is about a geologist who became a priest late in life, and who starts to see the long game: “They’re doing his cardiogram. While observing what the nurse is up to, Father Sergius looks at his own bare chest and its sparse fair hair as if it belonged to somebody else. The way you look at your home when you have visitors whom you don’t know very well.” Sharing a room with an expiring, melodramatic writer, Sergius learns “‘what isn’t written doesn’t exist. Like it never happened. Can’t you see?’” He sees, and then begins his first story, “The priest had a dog…”
A few years ago, an English doctor, Michael Honig, published The Senility of Vladimir P., which still seems to me the best biography yet of Putin, even though it’s a novel and takes place in the 2030s when “the man without a face” (as Masha Gessen described him in her biography) is in the midst of dementia. It’s the most informative account I’ve read of dementia, and, to my utter surprise, there are moments where we even feel sorry for Putin, as for any fellow human. Osipov attempts something of the same here in the heartbreaking “Good People,” but with a kindly woman who keeps catching glimpses of her life as if from a distance: “Some of the islands in her mind are safe, solid.”
There are the provincial stories (“Here nobody has any secrets. Just like in heaven.”) and the Moscow stories, wherein if you don’t watch out you’ll rub elbows with a mini-oligarch. “We’re compelled, clearly,” Osipov writes in the introductory “The Cry of the Domestic Fowl: In Lieu of a Foreword,” “to love not only those we are close to — our fellow domestic birds — but our wider surroundings, too: the people and the place. And to do this one must notice, recall, invent.” What most attracts Svetlana Alexievich, the Nobel Prize winner from Belarus who contributes the short preface, is that Osipov’s stories “leave you thinking how difficult it is to love humanity — wonderful, repulsive, and terrifying as it is — but in order to stay human, that’s exactly what you must do: You must love man.”
I don’t jump on every Russian literary bandwagon I see wheeling past, but I’ll jump on this one.
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.