From Publishers Weekly
Somewhere between Andrey Biely's symbolist St. Petersburg and the 1930s onslaught of Soviet realism lies Vaginov's slim novel of the decline of Russia's Modernist intelligentsia and the rise of crass materialism. Writer Andrey Svistonov dreams of pursuing the citizens of St. Petersburg/Leningrad "as if they were unusual wild game," or trophies to display in his fiction. His name suggests a Russian expression for a sneak-thief, and he has Mephistophelean qualities that pull some of the city's curious characters into his orbit. One is the pompous, middle-aged Ivan Kuku, who has always wanted to be a character in a Turgenev novel; he readily seals a Faustian pact with Svistonov, who promises to make him a character in his next novel. Of course, the resulting fictional Kukureku and his make-believe affair with a younger woman only disillusion the real Kuku. Although Svistonov seems to be waging a guerrilla war against everyone from the city's bourgeoisie to its marginalized mystics, it finally becomes clear that the fragmented portraits he assembles of his compromised acquaintances are only his version of Peter the Great's "cabinet of curiosities." Svistonov's incomplete histories come off well in Shernoff's exacting translation, but this is ultimately an alienatingly oblique satire of Bolshevism's influence on Russian culture and society, the Stalinist future lying outside its scope.
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Andrey Svistonov is a young author in search of a novel. He finds it bit by bit, character by character, and scene by scene. From the serene gardens of the Russian countryside to the stuffy flats of the intelligentsia, we travel with Svistonov as he cautiously finds and selects characters from the real world, which will fit perfectly into his novel as it develops. The story culminates when one of Svistonov's close friends recognizes his exact persona in the manuscript. Readers encounter questions rarely asked about the craft of writing from within: Is a novel merely the mirror image of reality? How do the characters and author react to that transposed reality? Few novels take as its theme the actual creation of a novel and, written in 1929, this is one of the earliest. Upon publication, literary critics, including Mikhail Bakhtin, the highly esteemed Russian thinker, immediately took notice. It is difficult to find English translations of Vaginov, so any addition to the collection should be welcomed. Jeff SnowbargerCopyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved