Interviewed by Anastasia Kozak
When did you start working on your memoir, Mosaic[from which The Seaweed Mattess is excerpted]? If it was after your immigration to America, what are the advantages, if any, to writing about one’s childhood and the past so far away from Odessa?
To be perfectly honest, I prefer listening to talking. It’s easier and, surely, more useful. But I’m happy to answer your questions and as succinctly as I can. I wrote Mosaicfar away, abroad, in America. Is there any advantage to that? Different writers would probably give you different answers. For me, there was at least the advantage that I always remember my homeland fondly. Sergei Esenin wrote that “the big picture is seen at distance.” I wouldn’t disagree.
Childhood, in general, is a rewarding theme for the memoirist, because he can write about it candidly. What writer could be impassive recalling childhood and all the dear faces! Not everyone would do the same describing of the later years. Rousseau’s Confessions is the famous exception.
How much of your memoir is dedicated to childhood?
You can’t put a time limit on childhood. In bad conditions, we grow up faster. In good ones, we spend more time in blissful oblivion. My childhood was happy. My parents were well educated. Father was strict and demanding; mother surrounded me with love and care. It was she who taught me to read early on. I’d say that childhood is the time when you prefer playing on the floor until you start school, which is when the daily responsibilities begin.
Your scene in “Scarlet Fever” made quite an impression on me—the children running around the wards when the doctors weren’t around.
We Russian children, who had just recovered from scarlet fever, weren’t the only ones disregarding doctors’ orders and running around the hospital ward in spite of the danger of heart complications. Even in America, grown men just out of serious surgery, still Scotch-taped with sensors, somehow hobble to the bathroom for a secret smoke or a swig from a flask, and they’ll tell you that way’s “much healthier.”
Your reminiscences especially evoke our senses of touch and smell. The rust on the balcony railing, the texture of rough washing soap, the smell of a new book.
And color. Color shows rather than tells. There’s a huge difference.
The title of your work is so appropriate. The past, especially your childhood, is recalled as a series of distinct snapshots, or slivers.
Not only childhood memories, but fiction, too, is called into existence by vivid impressions from real life. Think of Leo Tolstoy, whose Hadji-Murat was inspired by a trampled thistle. As for poetry, poems are written for the sake of the last line. These may well be your “slivers.”
Can you talk more about this notion of the last line in fiction?
I think the last lines of Hemingway’s “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” hold the essence of this. Also, the deliberately banal last lines in Chekhov’s “The Grasshopper,” which only highlight the true tragedy. He didn’t just say: “Well, he died. Everyone dies sooner or later.” The same effect is achieved by the last lines in Solzhenitsin’s First Circle and in Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front. At least that’s what I think. I don’t know. But I can say that, in Mosaic, “The Argument on the Road” was written for the sake of the last line, for the sake of the horse, which is standing too close to a parked automobile and being hit in the face by the steam coming from the radiator.
Your memoir ends in June 1941, at the beginning of World War II in the Soviet Union. Why this particular historical event?
Historical events such as the total warfare in modern history break human lives and society in two: “before” and “after.” So I continued Mosaic in another book, which was published serially in the St. Petersburg literary journals Neva and Zvezda.
What are you working on at the moment?
I wish you would ask where I’m going to get this published. Writing isn’t easy, that’s for sure, but the real problem is getting into print. This reminds me of Ilya Ehrenburg’s words, in Moscow: “It’s tough getting published anywhere.” He tapped the manuscript stack on his desk with the end of his pipe in his somewhat shaky hand and said: “If it hadn’t been for Tvardovsky, I never would have published this.” Tvardovsky was the editor of the only progressive literary journal in Moscow in the 1960s. He was the first to publish Solzhenitsyn. That cost him his job. “This” was the memoir, People, Years, Life. And that was Ehrenburg talking! The only thing worse than running from one publisher to the next is a visit to the dentist. That’s what I think.
But that’s not everything. The golden rule of another author, Sergei Dovlatov: “If you want to get published in America, find a good translator.” I’ve been lucky; I found Marian Schwartz. As far as actual writing, I am working in turn on a short story, “Anatomy of Betrayal,” and a novel, Genghis Khan with a Telephone, which was how Nikolai Bukharin referred to Stalin.