BOOKS JULY 13, 2011
The Free World
By David Bezmozgis
(Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 356 pp., $26)
To call a short-story writer Chekhovian is among the worst of the book reviewer’s clichés, a lazy shorthand that no longer means anything other than that the person writes very good short stories. But what is often forgotten amid the contemporary adulation of Chekhov as the master of the form—in fact he was the master only of a certain kind of short tale—is that, after a couple of early attempts, he declined to write novels. His mature art was confined to the short and structured forms: the three-act plays whose acts unfold in neatly filtered scenes, the few (and less satisfying) novellas, and of course the stories for which he is justly adored, which fix emotion to the page and compress it there like a flower. The revolution of his fiction was his avowed refusal to transform life, to try to force out of his stories revelations that are absent in reality. “It is time that writers, especially those who are artists, recognized that there is no making out anything in this world,” he famously once wrote to a friend.
This is not, one recognizes at once, a good recipe for the novel, the task of which is precisely to “make out” things that are not already there: not to confine moments beneath a bell jar, as the short story can do beautifully, but to impose its own framework and patterning on the random sequences of events that constitute the lives of human beings. The novel has no necessary structure: while it is a form with styles and conventions, each novelist is at liberty to re-invent it anew in a way that best suits his or her own subject. If the short story is a pearl, a sandy bit of reality polished to a vibrant glow, the novel is more like a chunk of marble awaiting the sculptor who will reveal the figures hidden inside.
And so when a contemporary short-story writer is called Chekhovian, as David Bezmozgis often was after the publication of his first volume of short stories, it is also a kind of curse. The writers who are most often lauded with this epithet—Alice Munro is the most obvious case, but on this list are also Ann Beattie, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Nathan Englander—have proved less successful at writing novels. Lives of Girls and Women, Munro’s only attempt, never gathered the required momentum to take off: in essence it was a collection of linked stories. And the same could be said for the others, whose novels have been weighed down by a certain bagginess that suggests these writers are not entirely in control of their form. Particularly in the MFA programs, the short story is commonly seen as a baby step, a puddle the writer must step over before swimming in the open roiling waters of the novel. But writing a great short story is no indication that a writer can produce a great novel. It is the rare writer—Henry James comes to mind—who is admired equally for fiction both long and short.
A look at the first paragraphs of Bezmozgis’s two books illustrates the basic differences between the forms. Here is the opening to his story “Tapka,” the first piece in Natasha and Other Stories, his debut from 2004:
Goldfinch was flapping clotheslines, a tenement delirious with striving. 6030 Bathurst: insomniac scheming Odessa. Cedarcroft: reeking borscht in the hallways. My parents, Baltic aristocrats, took an apartment at 715 Finch fronting a ravine and across from an elementary school—one respectable block away from the Russian swarm.... Except for the Nahumovskys, a couple in their fifties, there were no other Russians in the building. For this privilege, my parents paid twenty extra dollars a month in rent.
Immediately the story plunges into Bezmozgis’s fictional world, the Toronto community of new Soviet émigrés into which the writer himself was deposited with his family three decades ago, at the age of seven. If these lines, in their abrupt, stuttering rhythm, are perhaps too derivative of Isaac Babel (another extraordinary writer of stories who published no novels), their language is so alive that it hardly matters. The phrases—“delirious with striving,” “insomniac scheming Odessa”—are perfectly original, and the comedic irony of the parents as “Baltic aristocrats” (the rest of the “Russian swarm” is unlikely to perceive them as such) finely tuned. The final notion that the family must pay for the “privilege” of living separate from the other immigrants puts a new-world spin on the old Soviet system of bribery, remaking it into something more subtle but equally insidious. Without ever openly announcing it, these opening lines make clear just how much of the old world lingers into the new.
And here is the first paragraph of The Free World, Bezmozgis’s fine new novel about a family of Soviet emigrants waylaid in Rome en route to Canada:
Alec Krasnansky stood on the platform of Vienna’s Western Terminal while, all around him, the representatives of Soviet Jewry—from Tallinn to Tashkent—roiled, snarled, and elbowed to deposit their belongings onto the waiting train. His own family roiled among them: his parents, his wife, his nephews, his sister-in-law, and particularly his brother, Karl, worked furiously with the suitcases and duffel bags. He should have been helping them but his attention was drawn farther down the platform by two pretty tourists. One was a brunette, Mediterranean and voluptuous; the other petite and blond—in combination they attested, as though by design, to the scope of the world’s beauty and plenitude. Both girls were barefoot, their leather sandals arranged in tidy pairs beside them. Alec traced a line of smooth, tanned skin from heel to calf to thigh, interrupted ultimately by the frayed edge of cutoff blue jeans.
The novel’s slouch into its form is evident from the first sentence, which takes its time in unfurling all its clauses. In “Tapka,” nine words, carefully set in two three-beat clauses, sufficed to fix the moment; here we have thirty-five, arranged with some awkwardness. A novelist, naturally, has the luxury of not jumping straight in: he can pause to establish scenes and introduce characters before setting them in motion. But this greater flexibility can be a handicap if it is an alibi for verbosity. And the bright pungency of Bezmozgis’s language seems to have gotten lost in the transition. In place of the hallways “reeking borscht,” we have more predictable adjectives: “pretty tourists,” “smooth, tanned skin,” “frayed edge.” If Bezmozgis’s stories open up like Russian dolls, each layer peeled off to reveal smaller and smaller nuggets of truth inside, his novel, by contrast, feels a little like its characters: not always certain of where it is going.
NATASHA WAS AN exile’s Bildungsroman, chronicling the education of Mark Berman from a seven-year-old greenhorn into a disaffected young man. As a child, Mark is a sometimes impatient observer of his parents’ upward striving; as a teenager, his new-world innocence is easily punctured by reminders of the life left behind. Bezmozgis, for whom Mark is clearly something of an alter ego, depicts the immigrant culture with sympathy but not sentimentality: it is a world of backbiting, in which one’s social position is constantly assessed and reassessed; a world of a thousand small schemes to get ahead, from menial work in a chocolate-bar factory to humiliating social calls on higher-ups in the community. All the while the Soviet Union hovers in the background, casting its occasional shadow on the immigrants’ sunny Canadian life but rarely discussed, as if to mention it directly might open up a trapdoor leading to Moscow. Bezmozgis finds dark humor in the ways in which Soviet mores spill across the distance, especially in the collection’s moving final story, which turns on the lengths to which people will go for the privilege of occupying a subsidized apartment. But if life in Canada presents particular challenges, there can never be any doubt that things back home were worse.
Seven years later, Bezmozgis has taken a step back to the emigration process itself. Jews who wanted to leave the Soviet Union in the 1970s had to travel first to Vienna; there, if they declined to continue on to Israel, they became refugees and were sent to Rome, the gateway to the West. For those whose sponsorship was in question or whose medical condition was problematic, there could be a long wait before approval. Mark, inNatasha, refers to his family’s stay in Rome as a “six-month purgatory between Russia and Canada.” In The Free World, the Krasnansky family—Samuil and Emma and their sons Karl and Alec, with assorted spouses and children—are in the midst of a similar journey. Their Roman holiday, like Dante’s limbo, offers the occasional moment of beauty but is generally a riot of confusion, from a crowded pensione where a sign declares the elevator “not functioning for Russians” through a dizzying swarm of caseworkers, opportunists, and fellow lost souls. Whatever relief the Krasnanskys feel at breaking their Soviet bonds—and not all of them are uniformly thrilled to leave the old country behind—is quickly swallowed up in the bewilderment of determining the next step. (In one of the many absurdities of the emigration process, the momentous choice of their destination country must be determined in a ten-minute deliberation in the stairwell at the immigration office.)
The novel is told in bursts—short chapters that switch among the three primary characters: the patriarch Samuil, his son Alec, and Alec’s wife, Polina. The family history is narrated by Samuil, who has joined this expedition reluctantly, dragged along by his sons. A true-believing communist, he sees no reason to leave the Soviet Union, and nothing he finds in Italy is going to convince him of the West’s superiority. The chapters he narrates are marked by his bitterness. The cottage the family rents in Ladispoli, a beach town near Rome that has become a hub for the Jewish emigrants, is “the yellow of rancid butter.” By Soviet—that is, by Samuil’s—standards, the appliances are antiquated. At the local Club Kadima, he argues with another émigré who brings up Stalin’s misdeeds. “During a turbulent revolution some mistakes are inevitable,” Samuil says. “But Stalin was a great leader.... The young generation is quick to criticize. It is easy to criticize if you never experienced life before communism.”
“Life before communism,” for Samuil, has been reduced in memory to one horrific incident: as a young boy, he witnessed soldiers from the White Army brutally murder his father and his grandfather. “The Whites are burzhoois,” his brother Reuven told him. “They are the class enemy.” The incident proved to them the inutility of religion: their grandfather breathed the Shema as he died, but “a Hebrew poem never saved a Jew from a pogrom,” as Reuven says. (Alec muses at one point that in Samuil’s presence “only a fool or a masochist would dare question the nonexistence of God.”) When the Soviets invade Latvia, the brothers—who by this time have given up their family name, Eisner, in favor of Krasnansky for its similarity to the Russian word krasny, red—zealously oversee the transformation of the bookbindery where they work into a cooperative. Samuil is so unswerving in his belief that, despite the pleas of his mother and aunt, he refuses to ask for mercy for a cousin who has been denounced as a Zionist and condemned to the gulag as a “dangerous element.” “The revolution’s success or failure depended upon thousands upon thousands of tiny, individual moral dilemmas,” he tells himself. The cousin is never heard from again, but Samuil will carry this absolutism with him for the rest of his life.
Alec, the younger of Samuil’s two sons, is his father’s opposite. Freewheeling and a little bit louche, his primary interest is chasing women. The first scene sets his character: as the rest of his family work to load their belongings onto the train from Vienna to Rome, he indulges in a fantasy about the two sexy girls on the platform. Later he is prepared to sleep with a caseworker in exchange for a job, and is astonished to find that it will not be necessary. Though he believes that he has “the most honorable of marriages,” his relationship with Polina has a shaky foundation: he shamelessly stole her from her husband after she caught his eye at the factory where they both worked. Despite his desire for her, which may or may not equal love, no single woman can entirely satisfy his needs:
Even standing beside Polina didn’t deter him or inoculate him against a consuming interest in other women. Each time a new one appeared she temporarily obliterated the rest of the world. Everything blurred and receded, leaving only the tantalizing possibility. If she walked away unknown, mystery and regret trailed after her like the tail of a comet. The consolation was that she was almost immediately replaced by another woman.... It was repetitive but never dull. However, it made it hard to focus on selling windup toys, linens, and hand-tooled leather goods.
(Notice, incidentally, how the workaday prose of the last sentence—a moment of clunky novelistic exposition that would never have made it through the wringer of the short story—deflates the pleasure of the lines that preceded it.)
With Samuil lost in his memories and Alec distracted by the girls, it falls to Polina to chronicle the here-and-now. Her first observations capture all the wonderment of the new immigrant: looking out the window as the train from Vienna approaches Rome, she marvels that “the predawn countryside she saw was Italian countryside, the black two-dimensional cows Italian cows, and the geometry of houses Italian houses.” Once in Rome, the bustle overwhelms her. Standing on a street corner, she has “the distinct impression that every car and pedestrian was rushing deliberately at her.” Like Samuil, Polina spends much of her time in Rome reflecting on the events of her past, particularly her previous marriage and her affair with Alec.
These sections include some of Bezmozgis’s strongest writing. Maxim, Polina’s first husband, woos her rationally and scrupulously, “as if reading from the pages of a courtship manual”: he buys her a soda, takes her out on dates, and even makes love to her methodically, without passion. “At some point someone had taken him aside and informed him that, in the civilized precincts of planet Earth, there existed certain protocols. At some point, everyone heard a variation of this same speech, but not everybody took it to heart. Maxim had.” Alec, by contrast, is flirtatious and aggressive, and he slowly wins her over. She has no way of knowing that she is just one in a series of conquests that began when Alec was twelve, when his brother sent him on a date with his girlfriend in his stead. As the movie played, she allowed him to explore her body: “He didn’t even know where his hand was going, but like an advancing army, it took whatever territory was conceded to it.” Later his involvement with another woman in Rome will seriously endanger the family.
In Natasha, the Soviet Union, receding into history, retained all its evil potency. Here, by contrast, the Krasnanskys seem to recall it largely as a bottomless source of kitsch. A pivotal scene in Alec’s courtship of Polina plays out against the background of the “Readiness for Labor and Defense Exercises” conducted annually by the factory where they work: “Somewhere, presumably in the Kremlin, a physical culture expert had determined the basal fitness level young Soviet workers needed to possess to establish their superiority over the Americans and the Chinese. Should these foes come spilling over the borders, they would encounter a daunting column ready to repulse them with heroic displays of running, jumping, shot putting, and small-arms fire.” Dull days at work are enlivened by ridiculous celebrations: “Stalin’s first tooth … Brezhnev’s colonoscopy.” Another emigrant they meet in Rome, who lived in Israel for a few years and is now trying to make his way to the United States, says he just wants to settle in the country with “the fewest parades.”
The freewheeling Alec rebels against the Soviet strictures: “‘More freedom to bumble’ neatly described his motive for leaving the Soviet Union.” But Polina discovers in herself a certain longing for the orderliness of her old life. To give her days some structure, she takes a job in a leather-goods store whose owners want to appeal to a Russian clientele. In a letter to her sister back home, she describes herself as “an incorrigible proletarian” who cannot remain idle. And Alec’s bumbling will be his downfall: perhaps they all need the old order more than they thought.
BEZMOZGIS, TOO, MAY require structure in order to thrive. The Free World is an accomplished novel, but it has neither the linguistic pungency nor the psychological acuity of the best moments in Natasha. In “Minyan,” the last and finest story in that book, the narrator reflects on the elderly men who appear weekly at synagogue services: “Most of the old Jews came because they were drawn by the nostalgia for ancient cadences. I came because I was drawn by the nostalgia for old Jews. In each case, the motivation was not tradition but history.” The Free World, too, is marked by this nostalgia, and has something of the air of a history lesson about it.
The point of the novel is not the psychological interest of the story that it tells, which is, in the end, not all that interesting. The point is to encapsulate a particular moment in the history of Soviet Jewry. The family is “obsolete,” Samuil reflects at one point, “a traveling museum exhibit of a lost kind: Stalin’s Jews.” It is no wonder that the characters feel more like pawns in a historical drama than fully fledged personalities. In certain cases, their fuzziness could be by design: Bezmozgis, in one of the novel’s many lovely lines, writes that Polina passes through life “like a knife through smoke.” But Samuil and Alec are more types than individuals. Tantalizing hints are dropped—we learn quite late in the novel that Samuil, like his son, was regularly unfaithful to his wife—but nothing more comes of them. Karl, Alec’s older brother, who takes to capitalism with the zeal of a Soviet black-marketeer, is the most interesting for his genuine corruption, but he is a sidebar to the main events.
Character was not Bezmozgis’s strength in his stories, either. But a short story offers little chance to develop character anyway. Character is revealed through the machinery of plot: we find out who people are by what they do. And so the emphasis in the stories is on what will happen. Will a Soviet weightlifter win the Canadian championship? Will Mark be punished for causing the neighbors’ dog to be hit by a car? Will the slutty Russian teen who comes for a visit succeed in destroying the family? In true Chekhovian manner, none of these stories is neatly resolved, but the outcomes are nonetheless crucial. In the novel, by contrast, the plot is episodic, and there are long stretches where nothing much happens. It is telling that the ten best pages in the novel—describing Polina’s courting first by Maxim and then by Alec—held together unusually well when they were published as an excerpt last year: they read like a short story. There is something to be said for “the freedom to bumble,” to meander along and make mistakes. But the short story may well be Bezmozgis’s ideal form, its limitations spurring him to swell his considerable talent to its maximum.
Ruth Franklin is a senior editor at The New Republic. You can follow her on Twitter @ruth_franklin. This article originally ran in the August 4, 2011, issue of the magazine.