Maxim Osipov: “You write a poem and a window breaks—such is the strength of your word.”


Translator Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk alerted me to Joshua Yaffa‘s “A Doctor’s Literary Calling,” in the New Yorker this month. The article is a profile of Russian writer and cardiologist Maxim Osipov. Boris’s enthusiasm is understandable: he is one of the early champions of Osipov’s  writing, and his translator as well. Osipov’s rueful reaction to his newfound fame and the controversy it’s caused in Tarusa, the small provincial town that is his home: “It’s any author’s dream … You write a poem and a window breaks—such is the strength of your word.”

According to Yaffa, “Osipov’s legend grew, and so did the inevitable comparisons to Chekhov, who, in the eighteen-nineties, at his estate outside Moscow, often treated peasants for free and helped contain a cholera outbreak. ‘Both anatomy and belles-lettres are of equally noble descent,’ Chekhov once wrote to his publisher, adding that they share ‘identical goals and an identical enemy—the Devil.’ Osipov bristles at the comparison. ‘All it illustrates is the inclination to typecast people,’ he said. But it is hard not to find something Chekhovian in Osipov’s precision and pitiless honesty.”

“Precision and pitiless honesty.”

More praise: “In the past two decades, Russian literature has been dominated by surreal, dystopian tales—an appropriate genre, perhaps, to describe the convulsions that followed the Soviet collapse. Osipov’s stories, by contrast, are quiet, almost documentary. ‘There’s something of the late nineteenth century in Osipov,’ Anna Narinskaya, one of Russia’s leading literary critics, told me. ‘He allows himself a certain moral judgment. He knows what’s right, in life and in literature.’”

Varya Gornostaeva, who has published Osipov’s books with Moscow’s Corpus Books, told Yaffa: “Russian society is sadly marked by a certain infantilism. Maxim isn’t so much a liberal—though he’s that, too—as he is an adult, a person who can answer for himself. He’s one of the few grownups.”

“A year and a half after his first essay appeared in Znamya, he published an elegiac follow-up called “Complaining Is a Sin,” in which he describes receiving an early-morning summons from the hospital. “Cold, fog,” he writes. “Ten minutes later, you run into the office, shove the plug into the socket, everything is noisy, you put on a robe, look at the canvas-colored twilight outside the window, and say to yourself, ‘One, it won’t get any better, and, two, this is happiness.’ ”

Yaffa’s profile includes the fascinating history of Tarusa, a city 101 kilometers outside Moscow, the nearest former prisoners were allowed to get near the capital. It became a refuge for dissidents:

“As the camps emptied out after Stalin’s death, in 1953, Tarusa became increasingly populated with former prisoners. In 1955, Konstantin Paustovsky, a mid-century Soviet Thoreau, who was an officially recognized writer and was not a dissident himself, sought to escape the distractions of the capital and settled in Tarusa. In his small blue house at the end of a dirt lane, he began hosting the kinds of cultural figures who were treated with varying degrees of suspicion by the Soviet authorities—among them Arkady Steinberg, a poet and a translator who spent eleven years in the gulag, and Bulat Okudzhava, a talented folksinger whose parents had been arrested as ‘enemies of the people,’ in the thirties.”

The town became a sort of “sanctuary city” for those out of favor, “including, in 1959, Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of the poet Osip Mandelstam, one of the great lyricists of the twentieth century, who disappeared into the gulag in the thirties. Nadezhda had spent years evading arrest, moving from one provincial town to the next. In Tarusa, she found a place of refuge. ‘It’s Heaven,’ she wrote in a letter inviting another poet to visit her. ‘It’s wonderful here. I live well.’”

“It was in Tarusa where she began to work on her memoir, which circulated in samizdat copies in the Soviet Union and was first published in the West in the nineteen-seventies. ‘I knew she was writing something,’ [translator] Viktor Golyshev … who is now in his eighties, recently recalled. ‘But at the time I was honestly far more interested in lying on the beach by the Oka and getting a suntan.” …

“A young, relatively unknown Joseph Brodsky came to visit; so did his fellow future Nobel recipient Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the chronicler of the gulag. Rumor had it that as many as eleven K.G.B. agents were assigned to the town to keep track of all the political undesirables.”

Read the whole thing here.

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