Stirring anxiety

Talking with Vladimir Sorokin, perhaps Russia's most influential living writer, evokes the conceptualism that frames his work
| 02-22-2012
headshot of Vladimir Sorokin

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Vladimir Sorokin came to Stanford University in October 2011.

On the eve of this interview, October 19th, Vladimir Sorokin, following tradition, read selected passages from his novella "Day of the Oprichnik" and took questions from an audience believing in the possibility of drawing nearer to the Russian writer who stirs formidable anxiety. I, too, believed in this possibility and wondered, using an unoriginal metaphor, about how Sorokin works on his stories: "How do you grow the flesh of a narrative on the skeleton of an idea?" He answered, "I had a puppy – a greyhound – and once I bought her a hefty bone with meat as a present. I stepped out onto the porch of my house. It was so beautiful outside! Snow was everywhere. I threw the bone to the puppy, and she performed a strange movement around it that evoked in me an association with a kind of a ritual dance. That day I began to write Day of the Oprichnik.

The next day, he started the interview from this answer, even before I could ask him my first question. "Frankly, I don't know why I bought it, but I like to visit markets. And I saw it… it was a huge bone – the tibia of a bull. And I decided to make fun of my dog. The result was a book."

In the process of reading other interviews given by Vladimir Sorokin since 1987, it became clear that this was only a part of the story. He told the full version to the late poet, interpreter, and songwriter Ilya Kormiltsev, in 2007. "Once in winter, in the cold, I came out of my house naked — in winter, every morning, I walk naked in the snow. It was about 30 degrees below zero, and my path was as follows: walk to the gate and turn off the light. I reached it. It was such a quiet and sunny morning. I turned off the light, and on my way back, I suddenly thought, "It's easy to freeze to death…' And the notion sprang up that in Russian life, there has always been this hidden death, white death… And that same day, another thing happened. I had a puppy, a greyhound. I threw him a hefty bone, and he started gnawing it aggressively. And everything somehow assembled in my mind – I sat down and began to write a novel."

What appeared in the end was not a novel, but a novella. The author himself designated it as such in an interview after the book was published in Russia in 2006. In 2011, Day of the Oprichnik was published in the United States along with Sorokin's Ice trilogy. Having read Ellen Barry's New York Times article introducing the books in terms of US intellectual life, two statements caught my attention. In one, the author expressed the hope that the translation of Day of the Oprichnik in English will introduce Sorokin, who is 55 and already popular in Germany and Japan, to the American reader. The second is the quotation from the editor of NYRB Classics, which printed the Ice trilogy: "There used to be a simple story about Russian literature – that we thought the good writers were the ones who opposed the regime. Once we do not have that story about Russia as a competitor, or an enemy, it was much less clear to us what we should be interested in."

The question of whether it actually became clearer, given that Day of the Oprichnik is a harsh criticism of the modern political climate in Russia, can by no means be addressed to the writer. It seems perfectly appropriate, however, to ask how Vladimir Sorokin feels about the fact that Day of the Oprichnik, which feeds America's negative image of Russia, was chosen as the author's introduction to American readers.

"Personally, I think we should thank comrade Putin and his team for this image. I remember the '90s perfectly: my first trips to the West and the huge interest to Russia, and how there was a hope that it would turn toward the civilized Western world. There were lots of expectations, especially in Europe. I hadn't been in America by that time." [In 2002, the University of Pittsburgh invited Sorokin to a conference for a screening of one of his films, but the writer was denied a US visa. Sorokin has recalled this experience in several of his interviews, sarcastically comparing the US bureaucratic machine with its analogue in the collapsed Soviet Union.] "Nowadays, Putin has re-established the official ideology in Russia. Such outdated Soviet bugaboos – the West is an external enemy hungry only for our natural resources, the intelligentsia is the fifth column, and so forth. But let the government clean it up, although it's actually too late. That will lead, I think, to the eventual disintegration of the country. By the way, Day of the Oprichnik caused significant resonance. The book has not just been cited by the lazy. Boris Berezovski, in his open letter to Putin, advised him to read it." Sorokin looked at me and smiled, perhaps due to the naiveté of my question: both of his books were published by respectable American publishing houses that don't exactly specialize in political fast food. He also hopes that in the near future, his story "The Snowstorm," published in Russia in 2010 and recently in France, will appear. Although these books are about Russia, they don't contain overt political satire. Finally, the writer's first novel, The Queue, has been re-published in the United States. It, of course, is a monument to Soviet lifestyle, but at the same time, it, as Sorokin said, it is a classic novel about the salvation of the male protagonist by a woman.

I decided not to ask the writer to develop the theme of "women," probably because I already knew his opinion. Sorokin talked about his perception of women in a 2004 interview for Arba magazine: "Throughout my life, I've received my most significant support from women. A female dentist introduced me to members of the Moscow underground. A woman opened up faith to me and I was baptized at 25. A woman taught me to love music. And many other fateful decisions in my life have been inspired by women. I am, without a doubt, astonished by femininity and depend on it." A woman, by the way, Jamey Gambrell, was the English translator for both of his books that recently appeared in the US. Gambrell's 2011 interview with Nicole Rudick of The Paris Review emboldened me to ask my next question to Sorokin, which I'll get to in a moment. Rudick noted that Sorokin's texts feature lots of repetition, with the same words and phrases being used over and over again. In response, Gambrell confidently contemplated whether there is a need in professional editing for writers who, from her perspective, possess enough mastery to create narration. She also supports her position with the assumption that many Russian writers' resistance to editing may result from the Soviet era, when editing was perceived as a means of censorship. My question to Sorokin, though about problems in his texts, relates to more prosaic issues. The novel Голубое cало (not yet translated into English, but something like Blue Lard), which was published in 1999 by Ad Marginem, contains many misspellings and grammatical errors… "You know what," Sorokin energetically interrupted me, "It was the '90s – the time when proofreaders completely got out of hand… Because of that, the novel was recently re-published by another publishing house. And I think that much has been corrected in it. Let the previous one have its misprints. I don't see any problem with it whatsoever."

Everything about his own life, including details of his psychological traumas in childhood, Vladimir Sorokin recounted in early interviews, when few wanted to ask. Foreigners were the most curious. In a 1992 interview that became a chapter in the book Voices of Russian Literature: Interviews with Ten Contemporary Writers, by the late Sally Laird, Sorokin responded to the question, to what extent he sees his texts as an exploration of his own psyche. Sorokin first noted that the personality of almost all great writers has somehow or another been affected by childhood trauma, and he added, "In my own case, I remember going through different stages of erotic maturation, the nanny catching me playing with myself during naptime while everyone else slept. The nanny threatened to get the scissors and cut off my penis. That is probably what led to me later stuttering so badly. That was only one trauma I remember, but any sort of trauma separates a person from the rest of the world. I had the feeling that I was separated from the rest of the world by a sort of glass wall – and that sensation formed very early, even in preschool. I remember, for instance, when we were putting our coats on at the end of the day, waiting for our mothers to collect us from preschool, I would look at the other children, watch them joking and fooling around, and I felt estranged from them. Even then, I could just become an observer and sort of see things from off to the side."

Sorokin speaks about his own texts reluctantly. "You know, Natasha, to ask a writer about his routines and about his books is usually a hopeless business, because if there is something to add, then it means there is something lacking. It is possible to say something, some general ideas, and sometimes not so general, but I don't think anything can make the situation clearer, because the so-called writer's routine is so fragile and individual that those people who asked questions last night and in the past about what inspired me and which writer influenced me… But as this practice of discussions with writers already exists, I don't mind. Indeed, maybe something useful can ultimately be pulled out of this."

I admit that's just an excuse invented by a person who, whenever he opens his mouth, we expect to see precious stones fall out, like in a fairy tale. Maybe for the person who bears the glory of the most famous contemporary Russian writer, this situation is hard to live up to. It's probably impossible. Maybe that's why in his interviews, Vladimir Sorokin speaks with more and more metaphors. These metaphors nicely surround consciousness, but don't quite satisfy it. Some of them, slightly changed, wander from one interview to another and from one conversation with readers to another. But in the end, all we have are words, and words are all we have. With regard to the writer Vladimir Sorokin, that's an indisputable truth. His books have been translated into 20 languages.