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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Life, Art and the Quest for the Booker Prize

The third annual Russian Booker Prize, for the best novel of 1993, will be awarded Dec. 19, with a cash prize of ?10,000 ($15,600). Five of the six short-listed authors below discuss their attitudes toward life and literature in Russia today.


Bulat Okudzhava, 70, the enormously popular poet and bard, declined to be interviewed for health reasons. His novel "The Closed-Down Theater," is also in the running for the Booker.





To paraphrase Mark Twain, the rumors of Russian literature's death have been greatly exaggerated. A happy sign of that is this years's short list for the 1993 Russian Booker Prize.


The list was a controversial one. Established writers like Andrei Bitov were ignored, to the ire of literary critics. The judges complained about the difficulty of reaching consensus, and even some of the favored authors expressed displeasure at the attention their works were receiving.


But if the list is any indication, Russian writers seem to be emerging from a difficult period of transition.


The process has not been an easy one. The old structures that supported loyal writers have collapsed, and harsh economic reality has forced many authors -- of all convictions -- to forsake their vocation. Those who do persist have a shrinking audience, since economic and political turmoil has left the intelligentsia with less time to read and little money to buy books.


In the pre-perestroika world, writers were defined by their relationship to the regime: official, semi-official, banned. In the heady years of glasnost, authors used to defying officialdom went further and further in their desire to shock. Forced to compete for space in print with long-suppressed works by Solzhenitsyn and Pasternak, lesser lights emphasized the scatological or the surreal.


But, as the five authors below illustrate, today's creative intelligentsia is generally optimistic that Russian literature will weather the storm.





Pyotr Aleshkovsky beat out his uncle Yuz Aleshkovsky for a spot on the Booker short list. A recent addition to the Writers' Union, Aleshkovsky, who is in his mid-thirties, supports himself by renting out rooms, and occasionally driving a taxi.


His novel "Polecat's Biography" is a richly detailed examination of man's relationship to God and nature.


"Literature is a quest for harmony, a new philosophical impulse. Today there is a search for new forms," says the writer. "Soviet literature prettified reality, so then we had the overly black literature that dwelt on our abasement. The post-modernists were a slap in the face of public taste -- but now they are like last year's snow."


A writer is not a teacher, Aleshkovsky maintains: "I am not a prophet or a judge; but I do, in some way, reflect the collective voice."


Russian literature is not dying; on the contrary, he says: "There is now a full flowering in literature." Aleshkovsky believes that "literature is alive, just like society."





Yury Buyda is a representative of the fortyish generation of writers who remember the old days but can adapt to the new. He is a journalist for Novoye Vremya, and writes on political and religious topics for Nezavisimaya Gazeta -- "strictly as a way of making money," he laughs, adding, "It is very difficult to make a living out of literature."


Buyda, whose name means "myth, lie, tale," in Polish, is from Kaliningrad; these two facts, he maintains somewhat whimsically, determined his future: "In Kalingrad, everybody is a transplant. We did not know the ancient history of our land, so we spun tales about it."


Buyda's offering to the Booker committee, "The Domino Player," is a novel that is part fantasy, part psychology, part realism. "Life in Russia is more fantastic than any myth," he remarks.


"Russian life is one long death agony, a series of spasms," he says about the present crises. "One has two choices -- one can either cry and go off to a monastery, or one can try to help. There are not many who try -- it is much simpler to weep."


But Buyda insists that the situation in literature is perfectly normal: "There will always be crazy people who will write. People now are waiting for a new genius to come crashing through the walls. But he is probably already here, having come quietly through the door like any civilized person."





Igor Dolinyak (no photo available), from St. Petersburg, was all but unknown in the capital until his nomination for the Booker Prize. Now nearing 60, Dolinyak published a volume of verse in 1968.


"I very much wanted to be published," he says now. "But a third of my poems were thrown out by the censor. And my editor told me I needed a 'steam engine' -- verses about Lenin and Soviet power -- to push the book through." He sighs. "I would acknowledge maybe five of the poems now. The rest are not me."


Dolinyak's novel "Another World" raises existential questions of morality in the grim world of post-war Leningrad. It has been praised by critics and other writers for its expressive language and subtle psychology.


Dolinyak, educated as an engineer, names Gogol and Bulgakov as his literary predecessors. He loves their fantasy: "That is what life is like in Russia."


Russian literature seems to have lost direction in the economic and political turmoil, says Dolinyak, but things are taking shape:


"Literature is a part of life. Although the publishing industry has hit hard times and the literary journals have decreased their circulations, people still want to read. As the economic level rises, people will be in a better position to appreciate culture."





Mikhail Levitin is best known for his innovative theater productions. His novel, "Total Indecency," owes much to Levitin's professional world: It is the tale of a theater director in the 1920s who is destroyed by the state.


Levitin, who will be 50 next year, has had a long and distinguished career in the theater. He worked with Yury Lyubimov at Taganka before starting the Ermitazh Theater in 1979.


The author is full of praise for Russian literature: "It is the greatest in the world," he says, "and it is no accident that it arose here. In Russia, everything happens vopreki (in spite of) something else. We cannot live without difficulties."


Russia's current problems are to be expected: "Things were terrible before, but they are no better now. Things will never be better in Russia, but they are terribly interesting."


Comfort is an enemy of literature, says Levitin. Suffering is what makes Russia great. But in spite of all the gloom, Levitin calls himself a happy man: "I am grateful for every day. There is nightmare and chaos, but out of it we sculpt forms, books, plays."





Aleksei Slapovsky, from Saratov, is an editor at the literary journal Volga, where his novel, "The First Second Coming," was published.


The author describes his novel as "a fantasy, a myth, full of black humor." It loosely recreates the story of Jesus Christ, transposing the action to 20th century Russia.


"It is my attempt to create a new positive hero. Under socialist-realism this concept earned a bad reputation, and we rejected it; but I missed the positive hero."


Slapovsky, who is 37, has been writing fiction for 10 years. "I was lucky," he says. "My period of literary activity coincided with glasnost. I was never underground, I had no struggle with the government. I am not hung up on social themes; for me the main thing is man himself, up close."


These are tough times for writers, says Slapovsky. They are no longer respected and supported as in the Soviet era. "It is only fanatics who are writing now, or the lucky few who can support themselves with their writing."


But despite the worrying predominance of mass culture, exemplified by cheap detective novels and erotica from the West, Slapovsky discerns hopeful signs: "If you read the literary journals, you see that the traditions of Russian literature have once again taken precedence."


Slapovsky sees a return to "kitchen culture," where people gather late at night around their kitchen tables to discuss art and literature.


"The intellectuals have gone into the opposition again," he says, "but not the political opposition. They are against the way everyday life is going."


But there is no cause for despair, according to Slapovsky: "Russia will retain its special character."