Authors: Vladimir Sorokin
Tags: #Fiction, #Science Fiction, #General
New York Review Books
Vladimir Sorokin was born in a small town outside of Moscow in 1955. He trained as an engineer at the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas, but turned to art and writing, becoming a major presence in the Moscow underground of the 1980s. His work was banned in the Soviet Union, and his first novel,
, was published by the famed émigré dissident Andrei Sinyavsky in France in 1983. In 1992, Sorokin’s
was nominated for the Russian Booker Prize; in 1999, the publication of the controversial novel
, which included a sex scene between clones of Stalin and Khrushchev, led to public demonstrations against the book and to demands that Sorokin be prosecuted as a pornographer; in 2001, he received the Andrei Biely Award for outstanding contributions to Russian literature. Sorokin is also the author of the screenplays for the movies
, and of the libretto for Leonid Desyatnikov’s
, the first new opera to be commissioned by the Bolshoi Theater since the 1970s. He has written numerous plays and short stories, and his work has been translated throughout the world. Among his most recent books are
Day of the Oprichnik
. He lives in Moscow.
Jamey Gambrell is a writer on Russian art and culture. Her translations include Marina Tsvetaeva’s
Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917–1922
; a volume of Aleksandr Rodchenko’s writings,
Experiments for the Future
; and Tatyana Tolstaya’s novel,
. Her translation of Vladimir Sorokin’s
Day of the Oprichnik
will be published in 2011.
New York Review Books
Out of whose womb came the ice? And the hoary frost of heaven, who hath gendered it?
And so, brethren, let us lay aside works of darkness,
and turn to works of the light.
Saint Gregory Palamas,
Bishop of Thessaloniki (1296–1359)
I was born
June 30, 1908, on the estate of my father, Dmitry Ivanovich Snegirev. By that time my father had made his name as the largest Russian sugar producer and owned two estates — in Vaskelovo, near Petersburg, where I was born, and in Basantsy, in the Ukraine, where I was destined to spend my childhood. In addition, our family had a small but comfortable wooden house in Moscow on Ostozhenka Street and a huge apartment on Millionnaya Street in Petersburg.
Father built the estate in Basantsy himself during the “troglodyte era of the sugar business,” when he bought about two thousand hectares of fertile Ukrainian land for sugar beets. He was the first Russian sugar producer to acquire his own plantations rather than buy up beetroot from the peasants in the old way. He and Grandfather built a sugar factory there as well. There wasn’t much need for a large house since the family was already living in the capital. But Grandfather, cautious as always, insisted it was necessary, repeating that “in hard times like these, the master should be closer to the beetroots and the factory.”
Father never liked Basantsy. “The land of Ukie flies,” he often said.
“Those flies are swarming to your sugar!” Mother would laugh.
There were flies enough for everyone, that’s for sure. Summers were hot. But the winters were wonderful — mild and snowy.
Father acquired the estate in Vaskelovo later, when he had already become truly wealthy. The house was stern and old-fashioned, with columns and two wings. It was there I was destined to appear in this world, prematurely as it turned out: Mother gave birth to me two weeks early. According to her, the reason was the extraordinary weather that day, June 30. Despite a cloudless sky and no wind, claps of distant thunder sounded. This thunder was unusual: Mama not only heard it, she
through her fetus, that is, through me.
“It was as though the thunder gave you a push,” she would tell me. “You were born easily and weighed as much as a full-term baby.”
The following night, July 1, the northern part of the sky was unusually and brightly illuminated, in fact there was not really any night at all; the evening dusk was followed immediately by the dawn. It was very strange — usually the white nights begin to shorten by the end of June.
My mother joked: “The sky lit up in your honor.”
She gave birth to me on the hard, always cool leather sofa in Father’s office: the labor pains caught her in the middle of “a silly conversation about an old flower bed and a new gardener.” Directly across from this sofa there was a floor-to-ceiling wall of oak shelves laden with cones of sugar. Each cone was poured from the sugar of its crop and weighed a pood. Each bore the stamp of its year. These massive white cones of hard sugar were probably the first thing I saw in this world. In any event, they entered my childhood memory on par with images of my mother and father.
I was christened Alexander in honor of the Russian saint and military commander Alexander Nevsky and in memory of my great-grandfather Alexander Savvich, the founder of the Snegirev family’s merchant trade. Everyone called me something different: my father called me Alexander; my mother, Shura; my aunt, Sashenka; my sisters, Shurenka; my older brothers Vasily and Vanya called me Sanya; Madame Panaget, the governess, called me Sashá; the horse trainer Frol, Liaxander Dmitrich; the groom Gavrila, the young master.
There were seven children in the family: four sons and three daughters, one of whom, Nastya, was hunchbacked. Another boy died from polio at the age of five.
I was a late child — the oldest of my brothers, Vasily, was seventeen years older than I.
My father was a tall, balding, gloomy man with long, powerful hands. His personality combined great energy, thoroughness, melancholy introspection, crudeness, and ambition. Sometimes he reminded me of a machine that periodically broke down, repaired itself, and once again began working properly. He worshipped progress and sent the managers of four of his plants to study in England. But he didn’t like to go abroad himself, saying that “over there you have to walk a tightrope.” He had no ear whatsoever for languages and knew only a few dozen memorized phrases in French. Mother said that he became disoriented abroad and felt ill at ease. Father came from an old merchant family of Saratov grain traders who gradually became manufacturers. The large Snegirev family owned four sugar plants, a confectioner’s factory, and steam ships. In his youth, Father studied in the Polytechnic Department of Saratov University, but he dropped out after the third year for unknown reasons. He immediately harnessed himself to the family business. Once every two months he would descend into a depressed drinking binge (fortunately, never for more than three days), often smashing furniture and cursing Mother ferociously, but never raising his hand against her. When he sobered up, he would ask her forgiveness, go to the bathhouse and then to church — to repent. But he wasn’t particularly religious.
He didn’t deal with the children at all. We were in the care of Mother, nurses, governesses, and the endless relatives with which the two estates teemed.
My mother was an example of the self-sacrificing Russian woman who ignores herself in order to take care of the children and see to the family’s welfare. Endowed with remarkable beauty (she was half Ossetian, half southern Cossack), an ardent heart, and an open soul, she gave her selfless love first to my father, who fell head over heels in love with her at the Nizhny Novgorod fair, then to us, the children. Moreover, Mother was hospitable to a fault: any guest who happened to drop in was never allowed to simply leave.
Although I grew up as the youngest in the family, I wasn’t the most loved: Father favored clever, obedient Ilya, designating him as his successor; Mother adored handsome, gentle Vanyusha, who loved cherry dumplings and books about kings. Father considered the athletic jester Vasily a rake with nothing but “imps in his pea brain,” and me a loafer. The personalities of my three sisters were almost indistinguishable: energetic, life-loving, moderately egocentric, and impressionable, they could shed tears and giggle with equal ease. All three of them were passionately musical, and in this area hunchbacked Nastenka excelled, preparing for a serious career as a pianist. My sisters differed only in their relations with Father. The eldest, Arisha, worshipped him; the middle sister, Vasilisa, was afraid of him; and Nastya hated him.
The family lived in four places: Vasily in Moscow, where he was endlessly struggling with his law studies; Vasilisa and Arisha in Petersburg; Vanya and Ilya in Vaskelovo; and Nastya and I in Basantsy.
I lived and was educated at the country manor until age nine. In addition to the French governess, who taught me foreign languages and music, I had a tutor, Didenko — a homely young man with provincial manners and a soft, ingratiating voice; he taught me everything he knew. He liked to talk about great warriors and the heavenly bodies most of all. Speaking of Hannibal’s campaigns and solar eclipses, he was transformed and his eyes shone. By the time I entered the gymnasium I knew a good deal about Attila the Hun and Alexander of Macedonia, and the difference between Jupiter and Saturn. Russian and arithmetic were more problematic.
My pre-gymnasium childhood was quite happy. The warm, abundant nature of the Ukraine rocked me like a cradle: I caught birds and fish with the sons of the estate managers, traveled along the Dnepr on an English launch with Father, collected a herbarium with the French governess, had fun and played music with Nastya, went to the sugar-beet fields and to watch the haymaking with the horse trainer, went to church with Mother and my aunts, learned to horseback ride with the groom, and in the evening observed the stars with Didenko.
In August the whole family would gather in Vaskelovo.
The southern Ukrainian landscape gave way to the Russian north, and instead of chestnut and poplar trees our white house with columns was surrounded by stern, gloomy fir trees, between whose centuries-old trunks the lake glinted. A long stone staircase led from the house to the lake. Sitting on its moss-covered steps and hanging my legs over the water, I loved to toss stones into the lake, watching how a circle is born and, widening swiftly, slips across the glassy surface, heading for the stony banks.
The lake was always cold and calm. But our large family was raucous and vociferous, like a flock of spring birds. Our morose, taciturn father seemed the only ominous crow in the flock. I felt comfortable in this circle of relatives, which, like the circles on the water, widened every day, filling both estates with newly acquired relations and relations of those relations. Father’s wealth, Mother’s hospitality and tenderheartedness, and our domestic comfort and prosperity all attracted people like honey. Dependents, both men and women, traveling monks and alcoholic actors, merchant widows, and gambling majors down on their luck buzzed about the parlors and outbuildings like a swarm of bees. On weekdays, when we sat down to eat, the table was usually set for about twenty people. On holidays and saints’ days, three tables were moved into the dining room at the northern estate, while in Basantsy the tables were taken out into the garden, under the apple trees.
Father didn’t object to this. Most likely he enjoyed this style of life. But I never saw any pleasure on his face during these family feasts. He only laughed or cried when he was very drunk. I never heard Father say the word “happiness.” Was he happy? I don’t know.
My mother was unquestionably happy. Her bright, creative spirit, overflowing with love for mankind, floated and soared above us all, though she often said that “happiness — is when there’s so much to do there’s no time to think.”
I grew up healthy and happy in this human hive.
Like Mother, I didn’t think about things much. I was too busy jumping off the groom’s dusty two-wheeled cart on a July afternoon and racing through a suite of cool rooms to the sound of Barcaroles with a bouquet of wild strawberries I’d just picked in distant glades and tied with grass to present to Nastya at the piano; at the same time I’d place a snail or a beetle on her hump, which made her scream and spray me with milk while beating me with the score of
The Four Seasons
. Then we would make up and eat berries together on the sun-warmed windowsill.
Only one thing scared and attracted me in childhood.
I had a recurring dream: I saw myself at the foot of a huge mountain, so high and boundless that my legs grew
. The mountain was
big. It was so big that I began to sweat and crumble like dried bread. Its summit disappeared into the blue sky. The summit was
high. So high that I was entirely bent and fell apart like bread in milk. I couldn’t do anything about the mountain. It stood there. And waited for me to look at its summit. That was all it wanted from me. But I
raise my head. How could I? I was all stooped and crumbling. But the mountain
wanted me to look. I understood that if I didn’t look, I’d crumble altogether and turn into bread pudding. I took my head in my hands and began to lift it. It rose, and rose, and rose. And I looked, and looked, and looked at the mountain. But I still couldn’t see the top. Because it was high, high, high. And it ran away from me something
. I began to sob through my teeth and choke. I kept lifting my heavy head. Suddenly my spine broke and I collapsed into wet pieces and fell backward. That’s when I saw the summit. It shone WITH LIGHT. The light was so bright that I
disappeared in it
. This felt so
that I woke up.