Category Archives: russian

I cannot find “The Invisible Book”

In her LRB review of Sergei Dovlatov’s Pushkin Hills and The Zone, Sophie Pinkham referes to another of Dovlatov’s novels, The Invisible Book. It looks like it contains interesting comments on Soviet publishing, but, as I cannot find an affordable copy of this book (AbeBooks has one listed at £313.42!), here is Pinkham’s reference.

The Zone is a contribution to the long tradition of Russian and Soviet prison memoirs, from Dostoyevsky to Varlam Shalamov. But Dovlatov is an odd man out. The book is framed by letters to Dovlatov’s real-life publisher at a Russian émigré press about its repeated rejection on the grounds that ‘the prison-camp theme is exhausted,’ and that ‘after Solzhenitsyn, the subject ought to be closed.’ (In a rejection letter included in The Invisible Book, a Soviet editor tells the narrator: ‘We don’t want anything tragic or gloomy. We want to sing and laugh like children!’) Dovlatov says that even if he isn’t Solzhenitsyn, he still has the right to exist; that his book is about criminal camps, not political ones; and that unlike Solzhenitsyn, he believes that the problem isn’t that the camps are hell, but that hell is inside us. The difference between previous camps and Dovlatov’s is the difference between the USSR under Stalin and the USSR under Brezhnev. Terror gave way to bored misery; moral absolutism to irony. Things stopped looking so black and white.”

Perhaps someone will publish a new edition of this interesting sounding book.

Sergei Dovlatov, The Invisible Book, 1977

Unfinished business

Charles Kinbote, opinionated editor of John Shade’s final and longest poem, “Pale Fire”, distrusts publishers and editors immensely. Having stolen the manuscript of Shade’s unfinished poem from the recently widowed Sybil Shade, Kinbote believes he is the sole gatekeeper and interpreter of the poem. Of course, this is only so he can ensure that his narrative can be sneaked into his notes of the poem.

Despite this mistrust of publishers, Kinbote constantly offers small hints in his commentary that he remains dependent on their help. This is no more apparent than in the Foreword, where three lines reveal the extent of his dependence: “I alone am responsible for any mistakes in my commentary. Insert before a professional. A professional proofreader has carefully rechecked the printed text of the poem […] that has been all in the way of outside assistance” The note in italics demonstrates that while Kinbote wants to present himself above editorial intervention, his desire—and subsequent inaction—to acquire professional help has resulted in compromising the quality of his manuscript.

This proofreading failure is just one of Kinbote’s many editorial blunders in a novel that plays with the complex interdependence and required trust between author, editor and publisher.

Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire, 1962

(Guest Post by Simon Rowberry)

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We hold a dead book in our hands

In Vladimir Nabokov’s The Real Life of Sebastian Knight being published is what the narrator yearns for, when, in Paris, he first sees his half-brother’s new book “The Doubtful Asphodel announced in an English paper”.

“And as I sat there alone in the lugubriously comfortable hall, and read the publisher’s advertisement and Sebastian’s handsome black name in block letters, I envied his lot more acutely than I had ever envied it before.”

As is the case with many books about writers there is little mention of publishers and publishing, although we do hear something of Sebastian Knight’s lackadaisical dealings with the profession. What a lark that “The Funny Mountain was published simultaneously in two American magazines, and Sebastian was at a loss to remember how he managed to sell it to two different people”. The first publisher of The Prismatic Bezel spotted an obvious libel and “advised Sebastian to modify the whole passage, a thing which Sebastian flatly refused to do, saying finally that he would get the book printed elsewhere – and this he eventually did”. When the book was published it “fell completely flat” and “was appreciated at its true worth only when Sebastian’s first real success caused it to be presented anew by another firm (Bronson), but even then it did not sell as well as Success, or Lost Property.” Bronson is the only publisher mentioned, and the author’s successes are not attributed in any way to publishing expertise.

Books are central to the story V unfolds, and his view of The Doubtful Asphodel obliquely presages now overworked predictions of the death of the book: “The man is dead, and we do not know. The asphodel on the other shore is as doubtful as ever. We hold a dead book in our hands. Or are we mistaken?”

Vladimir Nabokov, The Real Life of Sebastian Knight, 1941

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Crime fiction for the journey to Odessa

The publisher in Chekhov’s early story wonders if readers of crime fiction are becoming bored by the formulaic plots on offer, and tells the budding author, Ivan Petrovich Kamyshev, so.

‘It’s not a question of truth…You don’t necessarily have to see something in order to describe it – that’s not important. The point is, for far too long now our poor readers have had their teeth set on edge by Gaboriau and Shklyarevsky. They’re sick and tired of all these mysterious murders, these detectives’ artful ruses, the phenomenal quick-wittedness of investigating magistrates.’

This story uses the plot device of narrator-as-murderer used by Agatha Christie in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd written 45 years later (a couple of years after The Shooting Party was first translated into English in 1926).

As the publisher discovers on reading the manuscript some months later on the train to Odessa, the text was certainly “worth reading“. It looks like Chekhov’s publisher may have been wrong in his initital estimation of the diminishing market for detective fiction.

Anton Chekhov, The Shooting Party, 1884-5

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