At the End of the World: On Dmitry Novikov’s “A Flame Out at Sea”

August 31, 2021

There is any number of ways in which a reviewer might go about introducing a novelist to an audience of readers, with the topics and quality of his or her writing being the most obvious places to start. In the case of Dmitry Novikov, a Russian writer whose works are now being translated into English, I would like to adopt another approach. I will begin by quoting Mimesis, Erich Auerbach’s classic history of Western literature from Homer to Virginia Woolf, in which he notes that Russia’s novelists tended to depict their country as a geographical and demographic sameness: “With the exception of the two principal cities, Moscow and Saint Petersburg, whose distinctly different characteristics are clearly recognized from literary sources, it is a rare occurrence if a city, hamlet, or province is identified.” And: “The landowners, civil servants, merchants, clergymen, petty bourgeois, and peasants seem everywhere to be ‘Russian’ in much the same way.” Novikov’s writerly practice is different.


Hailing from Karelia, on his country’s border with Finland, much of this author’s prose is set in that starkly beautiful land of lakes, rivers, forests, and old-world wooden houses and churches, and is marked by careful attention to local detail but also to local legend. “The North is the end of the world […] the border between light and darkness,” declares the narrator in the novel A Flame Out at Sea (2016), skillfully translated by Christopher Culver. In this sense, Novikov belongs to a distinctive cohort of contemporary Russian writers — inheritors, in part, of the late-Soviet “village prose” tradition — who bring into their readers’ ken their country’s under-narrated and under-represented (politically as much as artistically) regions and regional communities. In Novikov’s case, he gives voice to the Pomors, ethnic Russian seafaring folk descended from medieval settlers, whose way of life bears many similarities to that of the Vikings. A master storyteller who knows and loves Karelia’s sub-Arctic landscapes and the desolation of its White Sea coast, Novikov constructs magically memorable lives set in those far-flung, austerely scenic parts. His heroes and heroines are defined by age-old traditions and cultural memories, as well as their Eastern Orthodox faith, but find themselves threatened, and sometimes overwhelmed, by the traumas and brutalities of the modern world. Like so many 20th and 21st century novelists, Novikov explores the interface between the settled routines of rural life and encroaching, marching modernity, with his characters struggling to rediscover their bearings, and, often, to survive in a rustic environment where those ancient beliefs and stories may be the only thing they have left.


Novikov chose to become a writer in the challenging circumstances that arose following the collapse of the Soviet Union. Russian culture, which used to be emphatically logocentric, exalting the novel and the poem, was now privileging installations, performances, and digitized artifacts over the written word. Among writers, Realism and Modernism had ceded place to a Postmodernist, totalizing irony and, all too often, to the relativization of the ethical and the national. In this sense, Novikov has always written against the grain. His tales of the North showcase the type of narrative verisimilitude and moral messaging that we associate with the 19th-century Russian classics so dear to Auerbach’s heart. There is also that connection to natural and national spaces, vividly scripted even in his most phantasmagorical passages, which endows his writing with a concreteness — a sense of place — that makes his imagined worlds appear especially rooted: “We had a big church, a beautiful one. It stood high above the water, like a white swan that had spread its wings: the church’s porches. It was a church dedicated to Varlaam of Keret, the patron saint of our White Sea.”


Novikov’s life experiences have been many and varied, and they have informed the structures and textures of his fictions. Before embarking on a literary career he studied medicine, served in the Russian navy, worked as a stevedore, and then went into business for himself. He lives with his family in a timber house he built with his own hands. Novikov broke into print in the year 2000, at the dawn of the new century, and his stories quickly won praise not only from critics but also from fellow literary artists, including such illustrious names as Andrei Bitov and Fazil Iskander. He began as something of an urban writer, with several of his early prose works set in his native city of Petrozavodsk, the capital of the Republic of Karelia. Over the next few years he won a succession of national and international literary awards. A Flame Out at Sea was his first novel, and it was shortlisted for the Russian Booker Prize (2017).


A Flame Out at Sea represents the apogee of Novikov’s artistic aspirations to date. It possesses a majestic sweep. The action moves back and forth in time from the years before World War I, all the way back to the 16th century, and up to the discombobulating realities of Russia’s post-communist here and now. The events of the past are present, sometimes directly and sometimes obliquely, at multiple points in the text, making A Flame Out at Sea as much a work of magical realism as a historical novel. The protagonist, Grisha, is a tough, resourceful, quietly patriotic Karelian whose adventures and tribulations occur across national time and space, but whose sense of self always remains rooted in his beloved North. The narration oscillates between the epic, the mystical, and the historiographical, with affecting descriptions of northern nature that read like exquisitely crafted prose poems. For an American reader, a parallel would be Jack London’s stories and novels of the Great North, but refracted through a kaleidoscopic lens that gives the environments described, as well as their inhabitants, an otherworldly and even supernatural dimension.


Novikov’s meticulous descriptions of places and people and the anchoring of his artistic imagination in the realities of history and the Russian North pack a powerful punch, yet he can also be ingeniously experimental. He knows how to play with narrative methods. He does this, however, not as an end in itself, but as a way of conveying the sadness, the beauty, and the promise of his beloved Russia. Like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, this is an artist who tells stories of individual and family life against the backscreen of epochal national change, in order to make his readers feel, and dream, and reckon with their own ethical choices.


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Richard Tempest is a professor at the University of Illinois who studies the interactions between Russian and Western culture. His latest work if Overwriting Chaos: Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Fictive World Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Fictive Worlds (Academic Studies Press, 2019), His novel Zolotaya kost, about the adventures of a time-traveling American professor, was published in Moscow in 2004. Tempest’s current research focuses on charismatic politics in the 21st century.