ELKOST International Literary Agency

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A Gloom Descends Upon the Ancient Steps, 2000

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Rights sold: France - Christian Bourgois (2003), Macedonia - ANTOLOG, Poland - von Borowiecky, Spain - AUTOMATICA, Russia – Olma Press (2001), Vremya (2011)

2001 RUSSIAN BOOKER Award nominee
2011 RUSSIAN BOOKER OF THE DECADE Awared winner

 

Set in Chebachinsk, a fictitious town in Northern Kazakhstan inhabited by political exiles, its panoramic narrative focuses on the relationship between Anton, a Moscow historian of the vital “1960s generation,” and his grandfather, a titan of physical and intellectual rigor from a hardy line of Vilnius clerics. The lucid and forthright prose style was described by critics as “clear, rich, glowing with good-natured humor, and free”. The novel’s overall effect is uplifting despite its unflinching presentation of the human toll of Stalinism. Chudakov told Radio Russia that his concern was to show that despite “all that,” Russia in this period actually continued to live a variegated and even positive national life.

In Chudakov’s novel, a series of discrete sketches, scattered reminiscences and barely interconnected episodes create a stunningly vivid image of the past. The novel’s structure is more “modular” than linear. Each chapter contains any number of chronological leaps from the Chebachinsk of about 1968 backward to Anton’s childhood and youth and forward to the present. Portraits of Anton’s family and other figures from various periods of his past are created along the way; many are given chronologically free-ranging chapters all to themselves.

In the novel’s opening, Anton returns to Chebachinsk in about 1968 as an established Moscow historian to visit his maternal grandfather, who is dying at age 93. As he contemplates Grandfather’s great physical vigor, evident even now in his sinewy arms, Anton’s thoughts plunge deep into the past. Grandfather is Leonid, a graduate of a Vilnius seminary, agronomist and director of a weather station. In scattered dialogues, we learn of Grandfather’s conservative, anti-Soviet and anti-statist views on political economy, religion and the arts, views which often bring him into conflict with his son-in-law Pyotr, Anton’s father. Although in many respects a naively loyal Soviet citizen, Pyotr nevertheless quite consciously saved his entire extended family from the repressions in Moscow by volunteering in the late 1930s for engineering work constructing a plant in Northern Kazakhstan. As Anton tours the Chebachinsk of the late 1960s, place after place triggers voluminous reflections on the previous decades. In the main, these reflections recreate the idyllic natural environment of Chebachinsk (“a Kazakh Switzerland”), the material hardships that his family of vigorous intellectuals must overcome there, Grandfather’s demanding program of home schooling for the precocious Anton, Anton’s overall development, and the social consequences of the family’s hard-won relative prosperity.

Chudakov’s novel is an example of both “prose of scholars” and the larger genre of the post-Soviet “memoiristic novel,” though, in contrast with much of the Soviet-period memoiristic literature already available in English, it is not predominantly the story of decent, flawed personalities perishing by the Communist system, but rather the story of decent, flawed personalities negotiating and surviving that system in its many “negative spaces,” its interstices and peripheries, its places of “silence, exile and cunning.”

What survives is not merely — and not always — individuals, but their cultural pattern and values. The novel is thus an extraordinarily concrete, first-hand witnessing of the limits and failure of the Soviet totalitarian project. Chudakov’s novel is a Bildungsroman of a boyhood and youth under totalitarian regime. It should appeal strongly not only to Russia specialists, for whom it will provide an artistic counterpoint to recent historiography of Soviet Russia, but to all readers interested in twentieth-century European history as lived experience.

 


 

The major discovery of 2000 for me was the novel by Aleksandr Chudakov, the preeminent literary scholar…. As a rule, the prose outings of famous scholars are indigestible: they are either lifeless philological exercises or flat, leaden chronicles. Chudakov’s book is a different story altogether: This is an authentic memoiristic novel, free of both impenetrably “meta-cerebral” passages and a dreary fixation on the everyday. The book has the sort of natural, human intonation that contemporary prose seemed to have lost long ago.

—Aleksandr Arkhangelsky, Izvestia, Dec. 28, 2000

 

The best book to come out in Olma-Press’s “Original” series to date. Imagine a small Kazakh town where members of the country’s various ethnic groups and socio-economic strata are forced to co-exist—all during the 1930s to 1950s, with additional elements of late 1950s Moscow university life, plus reflections on this experience from today’s perspective, all of it written in classic, intelligible Russian for a change. In short, plop down on the couch with it, and you’ll find it impossible to put down.

—Unsigned notice in Ex Libris, the literary supplement of

Nezavisimaya gazeta, Dec. 6, 2001

 

Now this “novelistic idyll” is one of the favorite contenders for the 2001 Booker Prize, with reviewers writing of a striking, authentic and unique type of positive hero.

—B. Kuzminsky, Vecherny klub, Aug. 31, 2001

 

GRANDFATHER WAS VERY STRONG….” From the very first line, the novel sets its tone of indirect but uncompromising polemics with our clichéd image of traditional culture as a hothouse of exotic specimens always about to wilt or freeze, and with the image of men and women of traditional values as invariably weak, incapable of making their way in the world, doomed to be victims…. Chudakov’s novel is the story of a man of prodigious physical and moral strength who without lying or compromising manages to maintain his beliefs, his habits, his faith, his encyclopedic knowledge, his aesthetic tastes—to survive and help others survive as well, to his very last breath…. Grandfather’s house is an oasis of creation, common sense and the affirmation of life.

—Andrei Dmitriev, “Snatching Russia Back: A Prose Work That Was One of This Year’s Major Events,”Izvestia, Jan. 10, 2001

 

The resolving power of Chudakov’s memory is so great, the details of his past so astonishingly well preserved, that what we see here is not just one of his qualities as a writer, but a gift: the gift of long memory.

—Alla Marchenko, Novy mir (2001), № 5, p. 195

 

Aleksandr Chudakov’s A Gloom Descends… was in my view the major literary event of 2000. In it, a series of discrete sketches, scattered recollections and barely interconnected episodes create a stunningly vivid image of the past. And without editorializing digressions, global generalizations or great scientific discoveries by the main character. It turns out that all it really takes is good taste, an observant mind, attention to detail, a sense of comedy and tragedy, and the understanding that in literature, indirect characterization is far more powerful than direct authorial commentary—and black will emerge of itself as black, white as white, sanity as sanity, and madness as madness.

—Mikhail Edelshtein, Russkaya mysl

(La Pensée Russe) № 4389, Dec. 20, 2001

 

Chudakov … has defined his book in terms of genre as a novelistic idyll…. It could also be called a poem in the spirit of Hesiod’s Works and Days. Or, recalling Belinsky’s remark that Eugene Onegin was “an encyclopedia of Russian life,” it could be called an encyclopedia of Soviet life: how exiles survived during the Stalin period…. It is a book about the indestructibility of life itself.

—Boris Paramonov, “Russia in Life and in Art”

Broadcast on Radio Liberty, Jan. 1, 2003

 

Chudakov’s novel—indisputably one of the freest, most noble and most vitally necessary Russian books created since Russia’s liberation from communism—affirms the abiding significance of such simple and elusive values as family and ancestral tradition, labor and culture, mercy and responsibility, freedom and faith, and hope in our future—in our children and grandchildren.

—Andrei Nemzer, “In Memoriam. Aleksandr Chudakov”

Vremya novostei, Oct. 5, 2005