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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

BOOKWORM: Tales of Two Wits




"And when in Leningrad, don't forget to introduce your American scribblers to those two old Jews!"


Such was the advice given me by my older colleagues at Novosti Press Agency, where I worked in the 1970s and '80s, when they heard of my plans to accompany a group of U.S. and Canadian writers and newspaper editors to Leningrad.


These "two old Jews" were Izrail Metter and Alexander Volodin, both very popular men of letters in the northern capital. Charming and witty in conversation, they displayed all the best elements of Jewish humor.


The author of several collections of short stories, Metter (1909-1996) became a national celebrity following the film "Ko mne, Mukhtar" or "Come Here, Mukhtar" based on his story - a cross between Chekhovian prose and the Hollywood adventures of the police dog K-9.


Earlier this year the St. Petersburg publishers Blits released a book of Metter's autobiographical prose. Here is a taster:


"He lived like a 220-volt bulb plugged into a 127-volt socket. However much the stress in the circuit, he shined at only half his potential."


Russia's greatest living playwright Volodin reached 80 this spring and his birthday was very widely celebrated in the country, despite all his efforts to hide from the spotlight.


To mark the event, Petropol Publishers have printed an expanded edition of his legendary autobiographical "Notes of a Nonsober Person" (Zapiski netrezvogo cheloveka). At first sight naive, the "Notes" give a profound and exceptionally sincere confession of an old wise man.


The opening is worth quoting at length:


"Everybody went mad. Everybody went mad. Everybody went mad. Went mad everybody. Testing the pen.


Fish now get rotten not only from the head, but from the tail too.


More and more vampires, less and less donors, there is a lack of blood.


People who love us suck us more intensely than others. And they love us because of that.


Before Russia was famous for its fur, timber and women. Women now are businesslike and strong willed. Before, when things became repellent, one woman could substitute for everything ... Now it's impossible to find the one. Maybe it's because the eye got tired (or accustomed), feelings became dull, and vigilance weakened. She flashes by, but you don't notice her."


Metter's selected autobiographical prose ("Izbrannoye") sells for 20 rubles; Volodin's "Notes of a Nonsober Person" sells for 35 rubles.