Where the Action Is
VLADIMIR VOINOVICH wants to go home. Oh, next month he'll leave Washington, where he's been spending a year on a fellowship from the Kennan Institute, to go back to the village near Munich where he's lived most of the past decade. But even though his wife and daughter are there, and even if he's a West German citizen, that's not the home he means.
The writer commonly labeled the greatest living Russian satirist -- and certainly the best known in the West, where seven of his books have been published -- wants to be back in Moscow, where the action is. He was expelled in 1980 and lost his citizenship in 1981. Since then, he's been back on two trips, but it's not the same as living there.
"I still feel myself Russian," Voinovich declares in his richly accented and idiosyncratic but quite good English. "Everything that's going on in Russia is for me very important, extremely important, much more important than what's going on here."
There's also the emotional aspect. "In the Soviet Union almost everybody on the street knows who I am. And of course it's an encouraging element. I feel they need me. And I feel I need them too. Here, nobody needs me, but" -- and he laughs just a bit -- "I need somebody."
After years of being banned, all his books have either been published in the Soviet Union or soon will be, he says. As recently as three years ago, he refused to concede such a possibility. "They publish only dead writers," he was quoted as saying then. ". . . If you poke fun they can't tolerate it."
Voinovich specialized in such poking, although his usual pattern in interviews has been to deny being a satirist. He started out wanting to be a realist. The problem, he soon realized, was that in the Soviet Union, "We have a satirical reality. Reality is satire itself."
An example? As smoothly as any PR-conscious Westerner, Voinovich turns the discussion to his latest novel, The Fur Hat. "The plot was invented by me, and characters and so on, but the situation not. In the '70s, the authorities of the Writers' Union decided to supply their members with hats according to their rank." When Yefim Rakhlin discovers his headpiece is made from the common tomcat, he is outraged, and sets a chain of events in motion that ends with being celebrated overseas as a great dissident.
The Writers' Union was also known for ranking its members: All treats and perks, from dachas to cemetery slots, were doled out according to a graduated scale. Voinovich was classed as a "talented young writer" until he was 42, in 1974. "Then I was expelled, and I became 'Anti-Soviet Writer.' It was new rank, yes."
Moscow 2042, a parody of Orwell's 1984 that is generally considered his best work, is being republished this fall by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. In a new introduction, he writes: "Grounding my fantasies in the realities of the Soviet life I knew, I tried, if only on paper, to find a way out of the situation. I found none."
All the more reason, then, to be in the Soviet Union. "There's a new world revolution, and the center is in Moscow," Voinovich believes. "As a person with curiosity, I would like to be a witness of this process -- if it's successful or not." Revolutions can be messy, but he professes not to be concerned for his own safety. "For a Russian writer," he declares, "all of life is dangerous." Back to the '60s
IF YOU cast your mind back to the books and articles that appeared in the '60s and early '70s, not much would seem to bear extensive reexamination. This is especially true of the nonfiction. Do you have any urge to curl up with The Greening of America or The Making of a Counterculture or The Agony of the American Left? Yesterday's problems, yesterday's solutions, yesterday's noise.
So the idea of a paperback series devoted to reprinting "books identified with the American counterculture" would seem fraught with foolhardiness. The surprise is that Citadel Press, at a time when most publishers are cutting back or canceling the paperback series they began with such hoopla in the mid-'80s, has started its Underground line and made both the material and the packaging look impressive.
The idea came to editor Daniel Levy at a Grateful Dead concert. "I think of Citadel Underground as the antidote to nostalgia," he explains via press release. "We're not trying to resurrect the '60s -- we'd just like to help make the '90s a bit more interesting."
He's also not adverse to using '90s technology to seek out '60s fans: a card in the back of each book asks not only for a fax number but an electronic mail address as well. Just where does Citadel think these potential readers are? Wall Street? Silicon Valley?
Three books are now available: Terry Southern's Red-Dirt Marijuana, about which more in a moment; Moving Through Here by Don McNeill, a collection of fragmentary but dead-on reporting by a very young Village Voice reporter during the tumultuous period 1967-68; and Ringolevio, the lengthy, indulgent but intermittently fascinating autobiography of head Digger Emmett Grogan. (Sixties memory tip: The Diggers were a San Francisco group that took the idea of guerrilla theater into the streets through such venues as the Digger Free Store, where everything really was free.)
Based on the initial batch, this is a model paperback line: excellent new introductions set the works in context; the design is efficient and handsome; in two out of three cases the books even reprint a black-and-white of the original dustjacket. Seven more titles are slated to appear by the end of the year. The series slogan: "Take Back Your Mind."
Unlike Moving Through Here and Ringolevio, Red-Dirt Marijuana is a title that never really disappeared. McNeill, who died before his book was published, and Grogan, who died a few years after his, didn't publish anything else, while Southern is still recognized as the coauthor of Candy and the film "Dr. Strangelove." A collection of two dozen sketches first published in 1967, Marijuana doesn't really reveal as much about the decade as about the author's rather uneven state of mind.
Much of it is still amusing. Trying to pass himself off as an amiable local in 1962 Mississippi, Southern says to a row of men on a bench, "Howdy, whar the school?" Finally one of the men replies, "Reckon you mean, 'Whar the school at?', don't you, stranger?" And then there's the piece on Mickey Spillane, which is most notable for its extended introductory fantasy where Southern imagines that philosopher king Jean-Paul Sartre had "gone mad, had written a ballet -- and then, despite his lack of formal training, his unwieldy girth, and the wise counsel of friends notwithstanding, he had insisted on dancing the leading role himself."
Whatever happened to Terry Southern, anyway? Blue Movie is old enough to vote, and it was his last book. A call to George Plimpton, who wrote the introduction to this edition of Red-Dirt Marijuana, elicited a few answers. "I wish he hadn't been quite as quiet with his pen, but he's very much around. He lives in Connecticut and is working with others on a study of the '60s." Firing Line
GUNS have this way of making people shoot their mouths off. Mystery writers, who often have a professional acquaintance with firearms, should know this, but that didn't stop the Mystery Writers of America from getting embroiled in a small but angry controversy.
It began when Donald Hamilton, author of the Matt Helm series, published a piece in last December's edition of the MWA bulletin. Titled "Who's Paranoid?," the article contained lines such as this: "When I hear people fulminating about guns, usually displaying complete ignorance, I'm filled with resentment and a bit of panic -- what if these self-righteous, uninformed crazies manage to get my guns declared illegal?" (Italics in the original.)
Barbara Mertz, who lives in Frederick and writes under the names Elizabeth Peters and Barbara Michaels, took strong exception. In a letter to the MWA, she argued that Hamilton's article was presented as if it were the organization's official opinion. If there were no apology or clarification from the MWA, she said she would resign.
Much discussion, many explanations, but no apology. So Mertz carried through on her threat. Except -- and this is the odd thing -- they wouldn't let her: The bylaws of the Mystery Writers of America state that any resignation is to be held in abeyance for six months. Consequently, a flier was drawn up by Mertz's supporters offering T-shirts in all sizes, including "at-large." Despite the fact that the cost was $47.95 -- presumably a tip-off that they didn't exist -- orders were actually received. Ode to Booksellers
VIKRAM SETH's 1986 novel in verse, The Golden Gate, was not only a critical success but at least a modest commercial one too. This last was due largely to the efforts of the independent booksellers, who hand-sold it to their customers. On the occasion of the publication of his new, somewhat more conventional book, All You Who Sleep Tonight (reviewed on page 4), Seth wrote a poem specifically for booksellers. It begins like this:
Authors -- yes, poets too -- must live.
Some may have patrons who can give
Food, drink, warmth, shelter, clothes and books;
And some with wit or charm or looks
Contrive to turn up on T.V.
To swell their sales -- but as for me,
Unphotogenic, boorish, crass,
You are my only hope, alas!
Only through your unstinting aid
Can my first billion be made. In the Margin
SOMEONE was half asleep when Nora Roberts' Public Secrets was prepared for publication. On the title page there is a large asterisk after her name, to no apparent purpose. A Bantam spokesman explains this was "an oversight" incurred while preparing the pseudonymous Maryland romance novelist's manuscript for publication. At the top of each typed page, it seems, was the name Roberts followed by an asterisk, which directed attention down to her real name at the bottom. When the title page was laid out, that pattern was maintained . . .
Other misadventures in the publication process: Carroll & Graf's reissue of Christianna Brand's classic whodunit, Green for Danger, promises a preface by H.R.F. Keating and an introduction by Otto Penzler, but delivers neither. An even more embarrassing problem concerns Dan Simmons' The Fall of Hyperion, which is missing a whole page of text. The computer must have done it.