Torn Like a Veil Before Me: On Elena Chizhova’s “Little Zinnobers”

By Yelena FurmanJune 8, 2019

Torn Like a Veil Before Me: On Elena Chizhova’s “Little Zinnobers”

Little Zinnobers by Elena Chizhova

DESPITE THE WEALTH of literature by contemporary Russian women writers, there have only been five female winners of the Russian Booker — among the nation’s most prestigious literary prizes — in the 26 years of its existence. In 2001, nine years after the prize was established, Lyudmila Ulitskaya became the first woman to win for The Kukotsky Enigma (Kazus Kukotskogo). In 2006, the award went to Olga Slavnikova for 2017. Elena Chizhova joined the small club in 2009 for The Time of Women (Vremia zhenshchin). Just two more women writers have won since: Elena Kolyadina in 2010 and Aleksandra Nikolaenko in 2017. The English-language translation of The Time of Women, by Simon Patterson and Nina Chordas, came out in 2012 from Glagoslav Publications, who have now released Chizhova’s earlier novel Little Zinnobers (Kroshki Tsakhes, 2000). Translated by Carol Ermakova, the volume includes a translator’s note and a very useful critical essay by Rosalind Marsh.

It is not surprising that Glagoslav chose to include these materials with Chizhova’s novel. As Ermakova writes in her note, “Elena Chizhova’s Little Zinnobers is not an easy read, and translating it has been no easy task either.” The difficulty does not lie in the plot. Reminiscent of Ivan Turgenev’s First Love (1860), in which the aged narrator recollects an occurrence from his youth, the novel is a retrospective account by the 40-year-old unnamed female narrator of her time as a student in the prestigious “Middle School Teaching a Range of Subjects in a Foreign Language” in 1970s Leningrad. Her story centers on her intensely close relationship with a brilliant teacher of English and theater, now dead, to whom she refers as F., because her sense of love and loss is such that she cannot utter her name. There is some buildup of suspense as the narrator hints at an event that changed their class dynamic, and which she only discloses well into the novel, but this is not central to the book. Little Zinnobers is, at heart, a commemoration of F.’s life, in which the narrator acts as “The Witness” — the title of the first chapter — to F.’s remarkable achievements as a gifted pedagogue and authentic human being committed to the pursuit of art.

One of the reasons this novel “is not an easy read” is that the highly personal narration is turned inward, as it were, with dialogue buried inside long paragraphs of description and psychological analysis; Ermakova notes that she chose to add quotation marks in many places because the Russian original’s “curt phrases and lack of punctuation made verbal exchanges hard to follow.” But the main reason for the novel’s complexity for a Western readership is the number of allusions to people and events that may be unfamiliar to those who do not have a background in Russian culture. While the most notable intertext here is William Shakespeare, whom F. chooses for the school plays and poetry recitals, Western readers may not be as familiar with, for example, the poetry of the Russian Symbolist Aleksandr Blok (1880–1921). Unsurprisingly, and helpfully, there is a wealth of footnotes throughout, which explain these references as well as historical events such as the “blockade” that F. survived as a child — that is, the siege of Leningrad by the Germans from September 1941 to January 1944, a defining moment for Leningrad-born Chizhova that features even more prominently in The Time of Women.

The title Little Zinnobers, as Marsh explains, is a reference to Klein Zaches genannt Zinnober (1819) by E. T. A. Hoffmann, a German Romantic writer whose Gothic tales were extremely popular in early 19th-century Russia. Zinnober is a person who others mistakenly believe deserves praise and is thus lauded for being someone he isn’t. “Little Zinnobers,” the title of both the novel and one of the chapters, refers to F.’s students at the elite school. The children are lavishly praised: due to F. rigorously training them in English and drama, they perform Shakespeare in the original, while scores of domestic and foreign visitors come to observe their class or watch them on stage. Yet as F. tells her students afterward in her tough-love manner, the praise is not always deserved nor is it important. Rather, their job is to “keep the bar” by staying true to their art and thereby to themselves, something that takes on particular importance in a totalitarian state.

As in many post-Soviet works, the theme of individual versus collective looms large in Little Zinnobers, with F. being a prime example of someone who has, through dedication to her craft, preserved her individuality. In an early chapter about F.’s background, the narrator relates that F. had been different from the beginning. Her mother was from a “distant, non-Russian village,” spoke bad Russian, and was forced to do menial work in Leningrad; despite the hardships of her childhood — or rather, because of them — F. pushes herself, obtaining a university education and a spectacular teaching career. She dislikes Soviet society, referring to the Soviet Union as a “great Zinnober,” a country that requires from its citizens blind praise of which it is monstrously undeserving. At the same time, she also does not align herself with the anti-state intelligentsia, as a reader might expect her to do. When one of her students tells her that writers like Solzhenitsyn are highly prized by the “intelligentsia,” F. angrily counters, “I don’t understand this word.” Her reaction stems partly from her distaste for what she considers modern, and thus passing, trends: writers who are in vogue because they speak to present-day concerns, but who have not stood the test of time.

F.’s allegiance is to art that endures, represented most directly by Shakespeare. In describing the atmosphere in their class, the narrator emphasizes “a quality our world embodied to the full, a quality the big world cannot boast of: integrity.” The most important thing in F.’s class is commitment to craft, which is the way to a genuinely authentic life. She not only gives her students good English-language skills but, crucially, tries to teach them about the creative process. The student with whom F. bonds most is the narrator; more precisely, the narrator falls in (platonic) love with F. over a shared understanding of the significance of art. The narrator sees herself as “a freak, an ugly daughter”; in childhood, she is terrorized by nightmares. The first time F. teaches her to recite Shakespeare’s sonnets is like a spiritual awakening: “Slow shiver, and there, on high, everything is being torn like a veil before me.” The narrator becomes F.’s best performer and most fiercely devoted student, a relationship that outlasts their time at the school and extends into the latter part of the novel.

Given that the students perform Shakespeare in the original, the artistic process is inextricably linked with the English language. (While it is never explicitly addressed, this may be a kind of rebellion on F.’s part against a system that demonizes the West.) More intimately, English underlies the bond between F. and the narrator. The narrator recalls that their “dialogues were usually Anglo-Russian: my Russian oil painting and her English like a fine drawing etched on top.” However, it is English — the language of art and of F. — that has pride of place. The narrator says, “I always memorized whatever she said in English.” English is thus also a repository of memory, a vehicle through which to remember F. after she dies. This kind of bilingualism is visually more pronounced in Chizhova’s Russian original, where direct quotations from the sonnets, as well as some of F.’s words and phrases, are given in English, with Russian translations in the footnotes.

One of the main themes in the novel is the process of aging. Young people passionate about art turn into adults preoccupied with quotidian matters. As the narrator says, F.’s enemy was “Time.” Despite her best efforts, F. remains aware that most of the students will abandon their artistic pursuits in favor of career and family. In her youth, the narrator swears that she will defy this aging process, and at the time of writing she views herself as having done so. Whether this self-perception is wholly accurate remains an open question — but the narrative itself, which pays homage to the artistic life of a unique individual, serves as partial proof.

At the same time, Little Zinnobers is one of those novels that, despite its narrator’s — and author’s — best efforts to convince the reader that its protagonist is extraordinary, presents a more complicated view. F. may be a talented pedagogue, but her classroom tactics border on cruelty and manipulation. She demands total allegiance from her students, shutting down those who disagree with her views. The narrator, like all the others, is always desperate to please her, whether by memorizing difficult poetry or “[c]rawling on my knees after her” washing the floor in F.’s office. The narrator has poor eyesight from childhood; while this is not developed in the novel, it is tempting to read it symbolically as her failure to see F.’s flaws. Still, in the end, Little Zinnobers wins over its readers. It is a lush and intricate celebration of the artistic process, which may not be an easy read, nor a fast-paced one, but offers ample rewards.


Yelena Furman teaches Russian language and literature at UCLA. Her research interests include contemporary Russian women’s literature, Russian-American literature, and Anton Chekhov.

LARB Contributor

Yelena Furman teaches Russian language and literature at UCLA. Her research interests include contemporary Russian women’s literature, Russian American literature, and Anton Chekhov.


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