Sergei Dovlatov, Dissident Sans Idea


Vladimir Yermakov in Eurozine:

In the Soviet Union I was not a dissident. (Being a drunk doesn't count.) All I did was write stories that were ideological strangers. And I had to leave. It was in America that I became a dissident.
Sergei Dovlatov

Central to the primary meaning of a work of art is the person of the artist, especially if the work contains autobiographical material. Sergei Dovlatov (1941-1990) is a special case in this respect. The writer Dovlatov, and his character Dovlatov, are as dependent on one another as the two hands simultaneously drawing one another in Maurits Cornelis Escher's mysterious drawing. This interdependence doesn't imply anything definite about their identity, however. Those who knew Dovlatov from his works merely imagined they knew the man. Those who knew him personally realized they didn't know him very well. The facts of his biography are all blurred, ambiguous, vague. This should be kept in mind when reading his books. Almost confessionary in form, their content is largely invented. As a great mystifier, he was able to unsettle his surroundings. In the field of gravitation surrounding Dovlatov, reality is distorted and loses its plausibility.

But before focusing on the man himself, we should decide on our criteria. The pathos typical of world literature can be seen as a defence of the human being. How do we evaluate a person? Every one of us has a scale according to which we weigh the social significance of a person. This scale runs between two generalizing definitions, namely “the great man” and “the small man”. The megalomania inherent in Russian autocratic rule would acknowledge only statesmen-heroes as great men. Therefore Tsarist censorship was nettled by the entirely inappropriate respect shown for the person of Pushkin in his obituary: what value could there be in a poet, let alone one who, instead of praising absolute power, endorsed mercy toward the fallen? As for the place of the human being in Russian reality, government and society were far from seeing eye-to-eye. Russian literature turned its face from the mighty of this world and gave its heart to the poor, the luckless, penniless outsiders, whom it saw through the magic crystal of art. They were seen as true, genuine people, whereas the lords of life proved to be the charlatans of existence.

The central character in Sergei Dovlatov's prose, the author's alter ego, is a small person. A small man in a great country built by dwarfs. Here is the first confusing point: a great small person.

More here.