Yuri Druzhnikov is most well known for his novel Angels on the Head of a Pin (2003), which was included on the University of Warsaw’s list of the top ten Russian novels of the twentieth century. Though six of his books have been translated in English, he has not received as much critical attention as other contemporary writers such as Victor Pelevin and Vladimir Sorokin. Pushkin’s Second Wife and Other Micronovels (2007) is Druzhnikov’s collection of ten “micronovels,” a term which Druzhnikov explains in the postcript, stating that “in the twenty-first century this new genre has acquired legitimacy, filling a niche for a genre in which large-novel ideas accumulate energy in the space of a mere thirty pages.”
In this collection, Druzhnikov explores the psyche of Russians before and after the collapse of communism, using Russia’s political situation as a background for the broader exploration of the influence of daily challenges and struggles on the human mind.
The first micronovel of the collection, “Pushkin’s Second Wife,” explores the life of Diana, a museum tour guide:
Diana was in love with Pushkin, selflessly . . . She was absolutely certain that Pushkin belonged to her personally and she to him as well, of course. Her love for him and devotion to him brought energy to her life and gave her happiness of always being with him—day and night. But here in the real world she stepped into her communal flat, unlocked the door to her room and was all alone.
Diana, who feels disconnected from everyone around her, begs an artist to cut her life-sized Pushkin out of a piece of plywood. When Pushkin comes home with Diana, she treats him like a lover, imagining entire conversations and interactions with him. She finds comfort in this wooden figure who feels more real to her than anyone else in her life. Her solace, though, is constantly disrupted by people mocking and ridiculing her, which reminds her of the emptiness and inadequacy of her daily life.
This “micronovel” was impressive in its exploration of the human need to fantasize and imagine a different life, especially when the world around them is chaotic and unforgiving, yet the repetitive nature of the story was slightly disappointing. Druzhnikov’s lengthy descriptions of Diana’s devotion to Pushkin are rather excessive and unnecessary at times, which is ironic considering this is a “micro” novel. (A 100-page “micronovel,” but nevertheless.)
His shorter “micronovels” are much more poignant and compelling, especially when Druzhnikov weaves stream-of-consciousness passages into his writing. The shorter stories are very diverse in their subject matter. In “The Man Who Read Me First,” a middle-aged man meets the wife of his former boss, a censor at a Russian newspaper, and is forced to revisit his complicated relationship with a man whose job was to restrict his ideas. In “The Death of Tsar Fyodor,” an elderly actor who is extremely attached to his job in the theater has an identity crisis when the theater director begins to faze him out of the company. In “Money Goes Around,” a cab driver brings his daughter Masha to work. As they drive people around, a cynical discussion about money ensues, and Masha’s curiosity and interest in the power of money in the world is set against her dad’s criticism of the process of monetary circulation. The balance of description and dialogue makes this one of the strongest works in the collection.
Druzhnikov lets the conversations among the characters speak for themselves, forcing readers to think about their meaning without tying them up into general, tidy conclusions. However, on a larger scale, these works are, at least in part, used to expose the failures of the Soviet Union, and Druzhnikov’s writing can feel propaganda-esque at times. Though it may be difficult to move past this weakness of the work, it is also important to recognize its strengths: Druzhnikov’s skillfully explore the ways in which individuals continue to cope in the midst of confussion, oppression, and corruption, and the ways in which interpersonal relationships change and develop in the midst of national chaos. Aside from the utilitarian feel that sometimes surrounds these “micronovels,” this is a thoughtful and interesting work that is worth a read.
Linn Ullmann’s The Cold Song, her fifth novel, is built much like the house about which its story orbits: Mailund, a stately white mansion set in the Norwegian countryside a few hours drive from Oslo. The house, nestled into the. . .
Karel Schoeman’s Afrikaans novel, This Life, translated by Else Silke, falls into a genre maybe only noticed by the type of reader who tends toward Wittgenstein-type family resemblances. The essential resemblance is an elderly narrator, usually alone—or with one other. . .
In Joris-Karl Hyusmans’s most popular novel, À rebours (Against Nature or Against the Grain, depending on the which translated edition you’re reading), there is a famous scene where the protagonist, the decadent Jean des Esseintes, starts setting gemstones on the. . .
There are books that can only wisely be recommended to specific types of readers, where it is easy to know who the respective book won’t appeal to, and Kristiina Ehin’s Walker on Water is one these. What makes this neither. . .
Imagine the most baroque excesses of Goethe, Shakespeare, and Poe, blended together and poured into a single book: That is The Nightwatches of Bonaventura. Ophelia and Hamlet fall in love in a madhouse, suicidal young men deliver mournful and heartfelt. . .
In 1899, Maurice Ravel wrote “Pavane pour une infante défunte” (“Pavane for a Dead Princess”) for solo piano (a decade later, he published an orchestral version). The piece wasn’t written for a particular person; Ravel simply wanted to compose a. . .
Fiston Mwanza Mujila is an award-winning author, born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, who now, at 33, lives in Austria. From what I could find, much of his work is influenced by the Congo’s battle for independence and its. . .