ON A CLEAR WINTER MORNING, VASSILY Aksyonov visits L.L. Bean, a prep's paradise with three huge floors of Pendleton plaids, chamois shirts, collapsible duck blinds, iridescent mittens, lime-green slacks, smiling decoy geese and recipes for gorp. He takes it all in with an astonished smile, gazing at the displays, savoring it as if he were in a foreign museum. Such plenitude is the "most amazing reflection of American imagination," he says, plodding down the aisles. He walks with a heavy step, as if he were crossing a mile of taiga in a pair of snowshoes. "Such variety and imagination is a form of genius."
What an American-born customer sees here is the infinity of its potential pleasures: mornings on the bass lake, nights by the fire. Country matters. What Aksyonov sees is Russia, his ex-wife and son still in Moscow wearing bad plastic shoes and freezing. He inspects the endless footwear with the eerie attention of a fetishist. Brandishing an American Express gold card, he buys for his first wife a pair of fleece-lined boots. "Perfect for slush," he says. "Moscow has much slush."
He was once among the two or three most famous novelists in the Soviet Union. Stripped of his citizenship by the direct order of Leonid Brezhnev in 1980, Aksyonov and his second wife Maya have lived ever since as exiles in Washington, first in Southwest, then in Adams-Morgan, and now off MacArthur Boulevard in a four-story town house with a VCR and a PC inside and a royal-blue Mercedes out front. The voices in his head still murmur in Russian, and his memories are of cities thousands of miles to the east: Moscow, Magadan and Kazan. Aksyonov says he "could not be happier here, but the life can be weird. I was 49 when I came and I brought a suitcase of memories with me. They are inexhaustible. They never disappear."
The strangeness never stops. Aksyonov was the preeminent writer of his generation, a wooly, funny figure, as much a literary cult figure in his time and place as Kerouac and Salinger were in theirs. Few serious American novelists dare dream of Aksyonov's popularity. In the '60s, a Soviet journal with a press run of 2 million featuring one of his stories would sell out in less than a week; an edition of one of his new novels had a run of 100,000 in a couple of days. In exile, his work has grown richer, if less celebrated. The Island of Crimea dares to fantasize what life would be like if a part of Russia were free; The Burn describes five former prisoners of Stalin's camps and still manages paragraphs of high comedy. Able to combine an avant-garde style (rich with different voices, digressions, puns and jokes) and a sharp point of view (ironic, rebellious and visionary about the future of Russia), Aksyonov has secured a place in literature with Thomas Pynchon, E.L. Doctorow and William Gass. He is an innovator with heart. His achievement is such that he is now arguably the best and most popular writer this city has seen for ages. And almost no one knows it.
In Washington, Aksyonov leads a layered life, writing in the sunlit aerie of his town house about his peculiar American existence. There are days when his Russian past overlaps his Washington present like two negatives projected at once on the screen of his mind. L.L. Bean over Gorky Street. The images are often jumbled, disturbing, haunted. Even a drive up M Street brings on a kind of psychic disequilibrium:
It is raining in Georgetown. We inch along elegiacally in our Baby Benz past houses with brass doorknobs and picture windows displaying comfortable-looking fireplaces, past ethnic restaurants and stylish boutiques, over a canal that still has its wooden sluices . . . Suddenly Maya turns to me and says, "Look at that woman sitting on the steps. Doesn't she look like Galya Gruzdeva?"
During the first few years after we emigrated, familiar Moscow faces kept popping up everywhere. A senator in the papers looked just like Zhenka, a bartender like Vitka, a bank teller like Irina, and so on. But this time Galya Gruzdeva's double stood up and turned into Galya Gruzdeva. The comrades had finally let her attend a scientific conference in America. No, she hadn't tried to phone; she didn't have the number. Oh, she could have found it in Moscow, but she was afraid: a visa had to be treated like porcelain.
"And now we meet. I was just thinking about you, and here you are. No, no. I'm not afraid now: I'm in America."
So we head back to Georgetown for dinner. She stares out of the window beyond the splashes of rain, until I spy a man going up to his Camaro. I roll down the window and ask, "Are you leaving?" He smiles.
"How odd it is to hear you speak English," says Galya.
"It's an odd way of life," we agree. "Alone, we speak Russian, but roll down a window, and the whole world changes." -- FROM AN UNPUBLISHED MEMOIR, "IN SEARCH OF A MELANCHOLY BABY" CRITICS HAVE COMPARED THE BURN --
a fantastic and encyclopedic novel about the post-Stalin generation -- to the works of Gogol and Dostoevsky in Russian, Hemingway and Faulkner in English. John Updike has called Aksyonov's stories of bohemian life during the Khrushchev era a "breath of fresh air" over the stagnant sea of official Soviet literature. His production since emigrating has been staggering. Random House plans to follow The Burn with a memoir of his years in exile, In Search of a Melancholy Baby, and two novels, Say Cheese and Paperscape. And now each morning Aksyonov wakes and writes in Russian a novel about his new home -- "It's set here, but I'm not ready to talk about it." The elusive Great Washington Novel may yet be written with Cyrillic characters.
So why, then, do we hardly know Vassily Aksyonov? There are reasons. For one, Washington is not a capital of literature. Journalism reigns. The morning paper speaks of martyrdoms and betrayals, simpletons and demons that even Dostoevsky would have strained to create. Washington does not need its own Ahab or Gatsby or Hester Prynne. Characters here are of the flesh. They are real and they amaze. In his time, Richard Nixon rivaled the raging Lear; Haldeman and Ehrlichman were no less than shadows of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern. Washington seems to tell the novelist, go elsewhere, we do not need you.
Perhaps it is part of the city's strangeness that the first novelist of exceptional quality to live in D.C. since Henry Adams published Democracy in 1880 is a Russian. In Search of a Melancholy Baby is a portrait of a novelist determined to live not in the house of his own Russian memories and melancholy but rather in the open -- exploring, criticizing, even celebrating a life of American exile. "It is hard to accept the idea of a total cutoff from your native land, and many writers never do," Aksyonov says. "But step by step I've grown used to America, and now I find it impossible to accept the idea of ever living under Soviet authority again."
He revels in America, worries over the uncertain fate of Ronald Reagan ("our great president"), grows happily exasperated with the intricacies of baseball, and, in general, loses himself in the cheerful anonymity of democracy. Unlike his fellow e'migre' Solzhenitsyn, Aksyonov never feels the need to retreat to the solitude of a place like Cavendish, Vermont, to write of Mother Russia. He has plunged headlong into American life -- consumer life, literary life, professional life -- and yet he is rarely recognized here, even in his own neighborhood. He and Maya can walk their spaniel, Ushik, in Montrose Park in peace. No fans, no spies, no acolytes. "I am rarely found out," he says. "Not many people here know I exist." WHEN WE NEXT MEET OUR HERO, HE
is slumped in a plastic scoop chair at National Airport. Like Nabokov's befudded e'migre' hero, Timofey Pnin, Aksyonov is forever on his way to a lecture engagement in some sleepy New England town. This time he is off to Bowdoin College in eastern Maine where he will speak "on the usual topic" -- the e'migre' writer in America. In his pocket is a contract from Bowdoin for $1,500.
A burly block of a man, Aksyonov wears a bristly brown mustache, a blue Polo dress shirt and a mossy Italian suit -- a well-dressed walrus. Through a pair of gold half-glasses he is re-reading Dostoevsky's The Possessed in Russian. His lips are pursed in concentration. The chattering at the gate does not bother him. English is a foreign language, white noise.
Among all the skiers in their can't-bust-'em jeans, all the businessmen working their way through a briefcase full of anxiety, he is an alien figure, a distinctive, foreign one. Aksyonov -- pronounced Axe-see-OH-nov or, as he says, "anyway you manage it" -- was born in Kazan, 450 miles east of Moscow. His father was a loyal party member and mayor of the city. His mother, Evgenia Ginzburg, was an equally ardent revolutionist, an intellectual and a Jew. In 1937, when Vassily was 4 years old, the police came to the door. His parents were arrested and charged with "terrorism," "Trotskyism" and the like. "Absurd, laughable charges," says Aksyonov. "No one believed in our fearless leader Stalin more than my parents did." Only with time and endless suffering did his parents understand that Stalin was leading a purge and they were just two of millions of victims.
The family was fractured. While his parents were locked up in separate franchises of the Siberian gulag, Aksyonov lived first in an orphanage for "Children of Enemies of the State" and then in Kazan with an aunt. His older brother Alexei, who had gone to stay with relatives in Leningrad, died at the end of the Nazis' 900-day siege of that city in 1944. For a long time he could not understand his parents' absence: "I was told by my aunt that my parents were on a long-term assignment. She called it 'exploration of the north.' "
When Aksyonov turned 16, the authorities allowed him to travel to the Siberian city of Magadan where he joined his mother in her internal exile. The place was a Potemkin village surrounded by the barbed wire rings of hell. At its center were grocery stores, schools, playgrounds, gardens, four- and five-story buildings where KGB officials and their families lived. All around was a sea of shacks, barracks and watchtowers.
Aksyonov was schooled in Magadan in the worlds of reality and fantasy, one blurring into another. Magadan haunts his novels, especially The Burn. A portrait of the artist as a young man, prisoner and visionary, The Burn brings that blurring of nightmare and everyday life to an excruciating climax when the story's hero, Tolya von Shteinbok, peers into a purgatorial part of Magadan:
Tolya bent down and saw an underground tunnel in which a whole colony of people were encrusted vertically and horizontally along hot pipes, like underwater coral. Some were asleep, some were smoking, some were eating food out of cans; someone was drinking a thick, sticky black liquid out of the spout of a teapot. A gentleman wearing a tie was reading a book. Two women, undressed down to their bras, were cursing angrily but not despairingly. A little to the side, some people, grouped in starfish formation, were playing cards. An old woman was cooking something on a kerosene stove.
A young man was combing lice out of his thick hair onto a sheet of newspaper, where he squashed them with his fingernail. A dog sitting beside him was also engaged, in its own way, in a battle against parasites. At the very lowest level a pair of knees could be seen, bent and spread wide; there, copulation was in progress. No one seemed upset by living underground; on the contrary, Tolya had the impression that all these people were blissfully content in their refuge.
Later he learned . . . that this tunnel was called the Crimea, and that ex-convicts released from prison lived there while waiting for a steamer to take them back to the "mainland." There were several such underground heating conduits in the town, and indeed the people were not distressed or suffering in any way: After the camps, it was a thoroughly good place to live. -- TRANSLATED BY MICHAEL GLENNY AKSYONOV'S LATE MOTHER, EVGENIA Ginzburg, was a hero of literature and of human survival. Her memoirs Journey Into the Whirlwind and Within the Whirlwind are companion volumes to Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. In the gulag and in Magadan, Ginzburg stayed alive as millions around her died. To keep herself sane and attached to the realms of beauty and language, she memorized countless poems, the works of Mayakovsky, Pushkin and Blok. Her son Vassily learned the poems, too, and they recited them to each other in a kind of heavenly conversation. Poetry was their bond and their nourishment, an element of life as essential as air.
Ginzburg had not seen her son in 11 years. For a long time, she called him "Alexei" instead of Vassily or Vasya, mistaking him for her older, lost child. All she could do was make life slightly more comprehensible in grotesque circumstances. Words were what they had. And so, she wrote, "we went on living. Vasya, who was already displaying signs of literary talent, his acute power of observation, and his interest in people who were characters in their own right, was sometimes happy just to listen to debates and conversations he hadn't had the occasion to hear before. He had spent all his conscious life with the Aksyonov family, where they all spoke and thought of nothing but their daily bread. He was delighted with the sort of people he was meeting for the first time in Magadan, people who were stimulated by things outside themselves despite the scarcity of daily bread in their own lives."
Soon it came time for Aksyonov to think about a career. His relatives did the thinking for him. Be a doctor, they said. "They told me doctors have the best chance to survive in the camps," says Aksyonov. "Staying alive was an ambition of sorts, and I did become a doctor. But, of course, I soon dropped it and decided on literature. I chose to poison people rather than cure them."
A surprising number of fictional characters in current American fiction are authors. The neophyte writes a novel about a neophyte novelist. His first hit prompts a book about a first hit. Disillusioned with the glamour of fame, he writes about a writer's disillusionment. And with the advent of domestic disorders, betrayals, adulteries and divorces comes a novel of a writer's betrayals, adulteries and divorces.
The temptation is great. I know from experience. Every morning I sit down at my desk, look out over the rooftops of Washington, and yearn to write: "V. Axolotl, writer in exile, sat down at his desk and looked out over the rooftops of Washington." But I restrain my narcissism: Mustn't set a bad example for the young|
The first commandment for professional writers is to move outside themselves. But when young American writers look at their older confreres and see them writing about their hemorrhoids, they naturally wonder, "Why can't I?" And so the Atlantics and Esquires of the land are littered with practically indistinguishable stories:
"Seated on her porch on a September evening, Sheila waited for her dinner guests . . . Calmly and sadly she mused over her literary successes and the failures of her sex life. Her first book of stories had recently led to a sizable grant from the National Endowment, yet Bruce, who had just left her, had slept with her no more than twice a year during the five years they spent together -- 10 times, all told. Other people slept together 10 times at one go, and every day at that, which came to 3,650 times a year or 18,250 times in five. What was the cause, she wondered, of our curious dysfunction?" -- FROM "IN SEARCH OF A MELANCHOLY BABY" ONCE ON THE GROUND IN PORTLAND, Aksyonov is met by a figure in American academic life known to some as "the driver of famous lecturers." This figure -- encountered in the works of Bellow, Updike and Nabokov -- is frequently a pale junior academic draped in faded corduroy and possessed of a working automobile.
We are thus met.
"I am Boris," the young lecturer says, and we are off to visit the sea before dinner. The landscape, shaggy with birches, seems Russian, and Aksyonov is once more experiencing that overlap of negatives, the double image of here and there all at once. At the shore the water is the color of lead and the rocks are the color of copper and steel. Gulls wheel in the gold of an opulent sun.
Speaking of a warmer shore, Aksyonov says, "I went to St. Maarten for a week, and the people on the beach were reading all sorts of terrible stuff. People magazine, home improvement manuals. But I spotted a man reading The Burn. I could tell from the book jacket. I fell instantly in love with him| For three days I just observed him, smiled at him. I was ecstatic every time he seemed to be enjoying a particular paragraph. Once I noticed he was swimming and he had left his book on his towel. So I wandered by just to see what he was up to -- what he was enjoying. My God| It wasn't The Burn at all. It was Lee Iacocca."
Yes, even in literature, a car dealer's fulminations sell more than the real thing. Hence, Aksyonov's American predicament -- he makes more of his living through his stumbling, adequate lectures than his sublimely fluid fiction. Royalties on difficult novels with a litany of Russian names do not a Mercedes and mortgage continued on page 47 AKSYONOV continued from page 24
payment make. But as with most American customs, the life of a gypsy scholar is a pleasure to Aksyonov. Lecturing on the road and a regular stint teaching Russian literature at Baltimore's Goucher College earn him a living and "a chance to get out of the house."
To his American audience he is more curiosity than oracle. In Moscow things could not have been more different. Aksyonov's life was frenetic. He and his friends worshipped the Western writers who were available in translation -- Dos Passos, Steinbeck, Erskine Caldwell, Faulkner and, above all, Hemingway. The sort of bohemian freedom of The Sun Also Rises was like a creed to them. When Aksyonov published his novel A Ticket to the Stars in 1962 he became an immediate celebrity. The story of four young Soviets and the unconventional lives they lead, the novel was read by millions of Russians. It was their Catcher in the Rye. His characters -- as well as his friends -- were creatures of the thaw under Khrushchev, the shestidesyatniki, or people of the '60s. In their own cramped, paleolithic context, the Russian '60s were a period of liberation after the Stalin era, and Aksyonov and others such as the poet Joseph Brodsky were the Beatniks of their country, celebrators of the raw and the open. They asked questions. They were rude. They were aficionados of jazz, bugi vugi, viminslib and the Beatles. They wore jeans and Keds. They drank, had sex and read forbidden books. They even prayed.
"For one extended moment," Aksyonov says, "there were promises."
Although his mother was not fond of his books after Ticket to the Stars -- "too avant-garde," she told him -- Aksyonov was famous. Almost absurdly so. He was in the knotty, public role of Author. "They demand so much from writers in the Soviet Union. Too much. They all want something more than just the books," he says. "They want you to be a Master of Thoughts. You give a reading or a lecture and students will come up to you and ask, seriously, 'What should I do with my life?' Writers are considered the most advanced people in society. My ego enjoyed it, but it became exhausting."
For Aksyonov and his peers, the '60s and early '70s were a period pickled in liquor -- "vodka, brandy, anything we could get our hands on" -- and when it all ended, when Khrushchev tightened restrictions again and Brezhnev ossified them, the '60s generation, says Aksyonov, "entered what you could call the era of the great hangover.
"The '60s ended for me in 1968 with the invasion of Czechoslovakia. The illusion of the thaw ended. I was in terrible shape, and so were a lot of other writers and artists. I had a lot of opportunities to defect when I was traveling in Western Europe and around the world since 1963, but it was much more interesting for me to be there during a time of development. Even as late as 1975 I didn't have thoughts of defection."
Where once Aksyonov was applauded in some quarters and tolerated in others, he was suddenly, like his parents, an enemy of the state. His writing, now more charged by a sense of betrayal, became fragmented, Western, fantastic, sexual and wild. His politics were more openly defiant. In 1979 he edited and organized the printing of Metropol, a collection of underground Soviet writing that infuriated the authorities. For his attempt to publish that anthology, he was thrown out of the Soviet Writers' Union, an event that made life as an artist almost impossible. Between 1968 and 1980 he wrote fiction solely "for the drawer." Publishing anything but screenplays was impossible. He says now, "I was officially warned against publication by KGB officials. They made it clear that if I published abroad they would have to say goodbye to me." There were nights he heard strange clicking noises on the phone, mornings when he found his tires slashed. One night, Vassily and Maya were driving from Kazan to Moscow. A truck swerved into their path. "Eto konyets|" Maya shouted. "This is the end|" Aksyonov barely avoided the truck.
"Who knows whether the incident with the truck was deliberate or not," he says, "but when I went to the authorities about all the strange things that were happening to us, they stopped. It was made clear to me that emigration was going to be the only solution."
Five years ago, Aksyonov and Maya packed a couple of suitcases and, with the government's wholehearted permission, "visited" the United States. They had been here once before, but this trip was entirely different. "We never really expected to go back," he says, and the government was quick to fulfill their expectations. At a friend's home in Pacific Palisades Aksyonov was informed that the Soviet Union had stripped him of citizenship. His son from his first marriage -- set designer Alexei Aksyonov -- stayed in Moscow.
Aksyonov joined other great Soviet writers in exile: Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky and Yuz Aleshkovsky in the United States; Viktor Nekrasov, Georgi Vladimov, Vladimir Voinovich and Lev Kopelev in Europe. To this day his most prized Soviet souvenir is his certificate of expulsion, "signed personally by Comrade Brezhnev himself."
Like a couple of characters in a picaresque, Aksyonov and Maya wandered America for months in their new Oldsmobile Omega. Finally an offer from the Kennan Institute, a D.C. think tank for Soviet studies, brought them to Washington. His fellow e'migre's expected him to settle in New York, where there are Russian nightclubs, markets, mobsters, writers and, above all, speakers. But he refused to live his new exiled life "in a dreamworld. Anyway, I don't like New York. There's a quality of urban nostalgia there -- those streets and lofts and fire escapes -- that doesn't speak to me. In Washington I found some of the past. There's an eclecticism of style here, strange-shaped corners and unexpected parks."
Life was difficult for the Aksyonovs, especially for Maya. It took her much longer to learn English and she is still not entirely comfortable with the language spoken outside the car window. Slowly things have gotten better. She teaches Russian at Goucher, and, says her husband, "she doesn't want to go back to Moscow any more than I do."
If there is anything that irks Aksyonov about his new country it is its parochialism: Sports fans declaring "world" championships of games never heard of in the Urals. Writers obsessed with domestic crises. Aksyonov found something more here, a city of "cosmopolitan delights," a place where "an e'migre' writer is another spice in the soup." He is delighted when national identity, especially his own, grows comically jumbled:
"I had a very strange experience as a new American. I was in Tokyo for an international conference and I was with William Styron. We were both wearing our U.S.A. badges, they were like our uniforms. 'My God,' I thought, 'I never thought I'd end up on the same team as William Styron|' The whole idea of 'us' and 'them' had become confused." IT IS A WEARY SUNDAY NIGHT IN MAINE, and the crowd of 200 who have taken seats in an oak-encrusted hall at Bowdoin have an exhausted look about them. As he tests the acoustics -- "Can the people in the back hear?" -- wild cheering blows in from down the hall. The Raiders, it seems, have scored a touchdown. Aksyonov, for his part, is a Redskins fan and could not care less.
He speaks tonight of ancestors in the enterprise of writing and the imagination, and in the act of emigration, voluntary and not. If he has a direct precursor, it is the tragicomic author of Dead Souls, The Overcoat and The Nose. Nikolai Gogol's sense of the absurd is everywhere in The Burn. What's more, Aksyonov sees Gogol's life as a negative instruction:
"Gogol, in spite of 18 years of self-imposed European exile from Russia, failed to make out. Desperately changing stagecoaches on Italian, French and German roads, he didn't make any attempt to come closer to the life of the European nations.
"Vexed by the sounds of foreign speech, he was always making fun of foreign languages, customs and fashions. He cherished his 'Russianness' as if he had a stock of Russian air on his back like an astronaut on the moon.
"It was a steadily leaking tank. In his numerous letters, he urged his friends to send him in Europe as much Russian authenticity as possible -- anecdotes, quips, rumors, diaries, notes on politics, culture, agriculture, religion. His quest for Russian authenticity was part of his desperate attempt to remain a Russian writer without physically being on Russian soil. All these attempts turned out to be in vain. Having robbed himself of any real impressions, he didn't succeed in getting artificial authenticity. Dead Souls Part II was not written by the great author who wrote Part I."
Aksyonov has prescribed his own medicine. He welcomes the great mix of language, memory and image that assaults the exile. "The exiled writer is none other than an amphibian, and even more importantly he should stay this way, maintaining a delicate balance between his 'lungs' and his 'gills.' "
After the lecture, Aksyonov and some of his listeners retreat to the campus "Russian house." There are Aeroflot photographs on the wall and copies of Pravda and Soviet Life (featuring folk dancing in Omsk and tractor statistics) in the magazine bins.
Aksyonov is tired. Still, he fields any question ("Are you still a communist?"), nods with every well-intentioned comment ("I saw your book in a store once. Do you know Solzhenitsyn?").
After a while Aksyonov is cornered by a slender, winsome man with a dun-colored beard, Birkenstock sandals and a sweater reeking of its previous position on a yak's back. "Excuse me, Mr. Aksyonov, I was just in the Soviet Union and the people there, they seemed perfectly nice to me. It's like, well, you know they don't want a war any more than we do, and I was just wondering, well, don't you think that if we all got together and just sat down over dinner or something that we could all live in peace?"
Aksyonov is half-laughing, half-moaning inside. "Not really . . ." is the way he begins his patient, yet stern answer. In the morning he will board a plane and head toward a place that is strange, uncomprehending, kaleidoscopic -- a place he now calls home. ::