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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Nice Guys Do Finish First

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Four of the seminal figures of Russian literature in the second half of the 20th century -- Vladimir Nabokov, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Joseph Brodsky and Vassily Aksyonov -- became citizens or long-term residents of the United States. Bully for us, Americans might say, flattered that their country was the venue of choice when these world-renowned writers became unwanted by their homeland. Yet little beyond the simple fact of residence actually unites this seeming "Russian-American" quartet, whose very different members worked in very different genres and styles -- and harbored very different feelings about their New World host.

Only one of them really jumped into American life with both feet and genuinely marveled at what he found when he landed -- Vassily Aksyonov, who just turned 75. Askyanov treated the United States and its divergent people with unfeigned interest, all due respect and regular doses of the sort of exasperated yet affectionate criticism that one reserves for close friends and family members. And perhaps family is a key concept here.

Aksyonov's extended U.S. odyssey began one day in 1980, when the ever-vigilant Soviet authorities decided to revoke his citizenship while he was on a fellowship at Washington's Kennan Institute. Suddenly this writer of "suspect loyalty" found himself kicked out of the great dysfunctional family that was the U.S.S.R. and forced to live with a bunch of de facto distant relatives -- Americans, a people he had long admired and even visited once before but about whom he still had mountains to learn. With no real choice, in any case, Aksyonov set about the business of Americanizing himself for what might prove a long haul.

Much of his adaptation is recorded in the 1987 memoir "In Search of Melancholy Baby," a worthy addition to the long line of immigrant-discovers-America chronicles that reveals, as the best of them do, as much about the observer as the observed. Aksyonov's Americanization is initially a headlong charge across a broad front: multiple credit cards and magazine subscriptions, sharp clothes, the American Automobile Association, the United Way and on and on -- after which a certain alienation sets in, and with it, a newly critical authorial persona. While his romance with the New World is tempered by the excesses he finds in it, the hero never stops appreciating the home he has found and the fact that he can criticize that home any way he wants to. Like any other member of the family.

A memoir seldom conveys how others perceive its protagonist, but I suspect that Aksyonov's U.S. friends saw him as both a major writer and major nice guy, which is certainly how I perceived him. Not only did he introduce me, a junior researcher at the Kennan Institute during his tenure there, to several of his friends and fellow writers, he also invited me -- an unpublished novice translator -- to put several of his current works into English. This included a finely tuned seriocomic op-ed piece for The New York Times and a charming short story about a winter-weary Soviet apparatchik who decides to seek asylum abroad -- not political, but climatic.

The story presented a few minor translation problems -- and one major one. Any way you rendered it, the last line still came out smacking of the one denouement categorically forbidden in Creative Writing 101: "So it was all a dream!" I couldn't leave the line there, but neither could I tell one of the masters of modern Russian fiction that I knew better than he did how to end one of his works.

In the end, I gave Aksyonov the completed translation with the last line intact. After reading it over in his office, he came down to my library workspace and told me I'd done a fine job indeed, pointing out several places that he thought were handled particularly well. We went over the spots I needed help with, and everything, it seemed, was ironed out. Except the ending.

After checking to make sure that there was room to duck if he took a swing at me, I said, "Vassily Pavlovich, I think the ending works better in English without that last line." Aksyonov glanced at both texts again, looked up, smiled and said: "You think so? Fine. Hey, you're the translator." And a translator who now believed he really was one.

Here's to Vassily Aksyonov at 75. His continuing success -- in the United States, Russia, Europe and everywhere else -- is heartening evidence that nice guys sometimes finish first. And I suspect that wherever he goes, he's always among family.



Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.