By José Vergara
In Evgeny Vodolazkin’s literary universe, time is always out of joint. His novels feature medieval wanderers who glimpse events centuries in the future, narrative structures that contrast vastly different periods of Russian history, and Tolstoyan ruminations on the nature of time itself.
This curious blend of topics, along with the weighty themes and deeply engaging style that characterize Vodolazkin’s work, has led to his remarkable popularity, both in his native Russia and abroad, where he has been widely translated. So far, three of his novels—Solovyov and Larionov, Laurus, and The Aviator—have appeared in English, all translated by Lisa Hayden, and Marian Schwartz’s translation of his fourth, Brisbane, is underway. These books have also been awarded or short-listed for all of Russia’s top literary prizes, including the Big Book Award and the National Bestseller Award. Though he began writing prose only in his mid-forties, Vodolazkin, a scholar of medieval Russian culture by training, has become prolific. In late 2020, he published a new novel in Russian about a mysterious island that doesn’t appear on any maps, and his recent coronavirus-inspired play is available in English translation here.
Last semester at Swarthmore College, I scheduled a number of Zoom conversations with authors for which my students developed questions. These included one with Vodolazkin in a course on the twentieth-century Russian novel in which we read his novel The Aviator. (Technically, the novel belongs in the twenty-first century, but, again, time is disjointed in Vodolazkin’s orbit.) This book details the experience of Innokenty Platonov, a man who is cryogenically frozen in a Soviet labor camp and recovered only in 1999. As the amnesiac time traveler struggles to recover his memories, he must also make sense of the Soviet century with all its horrors and historical omissions. Vodolazkin’s work explores why and how certain events, but not others, are remembered, and in our conversation, we used The Aviator as a way to discuss the author’s views on the relationship between individual responsibility and social consciousness, a central theme in his writing.
A screenshot from the Zoom interview.
José Vergara and Students (JV): I’m curious about your writing process. Was there any particular event or idea that motivated your writing of The Aviator, or was it more of a culmination of ideas, a plan to express certain philosophies that have evolved over time?
Evgeny Vodolazkin (EV): I once spent two weeks in Paris. There, at the National Library, I studied manuscripts. Every day, I walked along the narrow Rue de Richelieu, where a modern-looking house with a commemorative plaque stands. It says that there was a house there in which Stendhal lived and in which he wrote The Red and the Black. I then pictured Stendhal coming around the corner. He doesn’t find his home, doesn’t find relatives, friends, red or black. And I imagined this man’s longing. Years later, I found a metaphor for this state, and I wrote the novel The Aviator.
My novels do not begin with philosophy, not with ideas, but with the desire to write the text in a particular rhythm. Or, let’s say, with the desire to write in the first or third person. Between narration in the first and third person is an abyss. The first person is confessional; the third person is an extremely external position.
JV: Up to perhaps two-thirds of the way through The Aviator, I’d expected the book to at least imply a pro- or anti-cryonics position, but I’m not sure it does. Instead, it seemed like the vessel or facilitator of the story. Was that your intent? Either way, what is your opinion on cryonics and related ideologies and technologies, particularly given the development of cryonics and transhumanism in Russia in the last decade or so?
EV: I’m afraid I may disappoint you, but I’m absolutely indifferent to cryonics. It doesn’t solve any of the issues that are really important to me. For me, cryonics is only a means of transferring the protagonist through the decades to come. In fact, I could have translated the protagonist in time without explaining anything at all. I realized this when I read Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go, which describes some kind of unthinkable boarding school for children who are raised for organs. The place is highly unreal, but the emotions there are so real that you cry when reading. So I confess that I don’t use cryonics quite seriously. I treat it without any sympathy. It gives rise to problems that are too big, the solutions to which I do not see yet: philosophical, religious, and legal. We don’t use current technology in the right ways yet, so why would we pursue cryonics?
JV: We see many moments in the novel suggesting that the underlying theme of justice may not stem from a governmental authority, but from a higher being, that in fact, for example, prisons can be seen as a karmic punishment for a personal sin that one has committed. What role do you see prisons serving in the real world, and what did justice mean for you as you were writing this novel?
EV: For the novel, the key conceptual pair is justice and mercy, where mercy is higher than justice. There is one more traditional pair for Russian literature: law and grace, which links to Hilarion, the eleventh-century Metropolitan of Kiev, and his sermon on the subject. There is also a third pair: the Old Testament and the New Testament. In all three pairs, the division goes along the same line: obligatory and ideal. The first is based on the fear of punishment, the second on the free pursuit of perfection. In this context, prison does not inspire much enthusiasm; it hasn’t done anyone better yet. Prison is not even a restoration of justice: it is revenge and deterrent. Humanity must come up with something that can make criminals change. Such ideas have been proposed, but no efficient system for making people better has been developed.
JV: On the subject of prisons, part of The Aviator takes place on the Solovki Islands, site of the first gulag labor camps and a place well-known for its brutality, both human and environmental. You also quote Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Varlam Shalamov, implicitly and explicitly, on their views regarding art about the gulag, as well as the potential for salvation through suffering and incarceration. How do you see your novel fitting into the tradition of Russian prison literature?
EV: Of course—I know this tradition well. What my novel does is translate the experience of the gulag camps with or through a modern perspective. It effectively represents the experience with contemporary elements. To my mind, it stands alongside the tradition of Russia’s great prison literature, because I tried to retell the experience of people who lived, suffered, and died there. It’s the energy of truth.
Dmitry Sergeevich Likhachev, the famous Russian scientist, thinker, and my mentor, played an important role here. He died at the age of ninety-two, and he spent almost five years at the Solovki concentration camp, so I knew his stories well. In addition, with the help of the staff at the Solovetsky Museum, I collected and published the memoirs of Solovki prisoners, A Piece of Land Surrounded by Heaven. The publication of such a book required enormous emotional costs. It was hard for me to live with this experience, and I was empty after working on the book—and then I wrote a novel.
The experience we receive from books is also our experience. This was one reason why I wrote The Aviator. I didn’t need to turn on my imagination to picture Solovki. It’s not fiction in that sense.
“To one degree or another, history is always a myth.”
JV: Innokenty describes his writing as a new form of history, one that is not just about important events, but also about daily things. Is one of your goals as a writer to capture aspects of history that are not often captured? Furthermore, do you think that the emotional aspect of history is more important than facts and dates?
EV: There is a general history and a personal history. A general history consists of epoch-making events, and a personal history is that everyday life that you are talking about: emotions, family jokes, cozy evenings, and long conversations. General history is only part of personal history. Despite the fact that the events of personal history are “small,” they sometimes matter more than epoch-making events for the formation of personality.
I’m a poet of this small history. To give you a short metaphor, imagine a flower on a windowsill. There’s a huge forest ten kilometers away. We must take care of the flower, which is really more important.
JV: Continuing along this train of thought, writing is limited when transcribing smells, sounds, and life itself onto paper. What did you wish to speak about in highlighting this limitation of history and writing through Innokenty’s reflections?
EV: Small details are not only personal in the proper sense. They accompany big events, but unlike these events they are completely erased from memory. It’s not fair. Often an era can be conveyed precisely through details. My mentor, Likhachev, often spoke about Petersburg sounds and smells before the “disaster.” (He would never call it the “Revolution,” only the “disaster.”) All memories are, to some extent, common memory.
After his unfreezing, Platonov had to remember everything himself. Otherwise, they would not have been his memories. In fact, a person has nothing but memory, and each human memory is unique. Geiger [Innokenty’s doctor and friend] could tell Platonov about certain events, but he didn’t know the main thing: the emotions and thoughts that accompanied them. And without this, events are worth nothing.
In writing the novel, I read many memoirs. In addition, a couple of books on the everyday life of St. Petersburg in the early twentieth century were published recently. I consider the authors of these books my associates. They described what was very important to describe, namely, those details that were known only at that time.
JV: Returning to the idea of common memory, at a certain point in the novel, all the thoughts of the characters become streamlined, and there’s no way to determine who is narrating until you read into each passage, as opposed to earlier, when there are headings with the characters' names.
EV: Even the most personal memories at some high level are combined into a kind of common fund. The biogeochemist Vladimir Vernadsky called it the "noosphere." It’s interesting that in medieval Russian texts the speaker of the utterance is not very important—only the truth of the utterance is important. The statements of some people are attributed to others, or the author is simply not indicated. This approach seems to me largely justified.
JV: How do you understand history in relation to memory? Where do the two intersect or veer off from one another?
EV: History is memory. And memory is not necessarily equal to what “happened in reality.” What “happened in reality” is one of the weak points of history. This is the ideal state to which one can only approach. To one degree or another, history is always a myth. In these circumstances, we can judge the historian only by the tasks that he sets for himself: clarification of the truth (no matter how illusory it may be) or the solution of contemporary political problems. The latter is a completely unacceptable task for a true historian.
JV: Innokenty is frozen right before the very worst of the Soviet Union’s Great Terror, and he is thawed out during the 1990s, which was a rough period for Russia and, some would argue, led to the re-emergence of strongman authoritarianism under Putin. Innokenty comes out with great hope (Russia post-USSR) but eventually deteriorates and (presumably) dies again (Russia going right back to authoritarianism under Putin). Did you intend this fantastical metaphor for Russia in the form of your protagonist?
EV: I wouldn’t compare the era of Stalin with the era of Putin. The very fact that we are talking, and can calmly discuss everything that we consider necessary to discuss, suggests that these are different eras. What seems obvious to me is that the story of our lives is undulating. More and more, I’m convinced that it’s determined not by cause and effect, but by rhythm. This rhythm creates a social consciousness that is unpredictable, because it includes millions of wills. For the same reason, it is unmanageable. Only personal consciousness is predictable. It's the rhythm of history that determines whether society has a soft, almost chaotic structure or a rather rigid one. What happens in a country depends not so much on the authorities as on the people, on their desire or readiness to accept this or that type of power.
Social psychology and personal psychology are determined by completely different laws. This distinction between the personal and the collective doesn’t allow me to regard Platonov as a metaphor for Russia: Platonov is completely individual and therefore cannot be a model of social processes. The Aviator is largely about the fact that only personal consciousness can save people from social cataclysms. In any situation, they should try to preserve this sense of individual consciousness.
Twenty, thirty years ago I was a very social person. I was naive. Now, it seems to me, the real fight is the fight against the darkness in one’s soul.
“Sometimes I feel longing for times in which I haven’t lived.”
JV: I’m wondering about Innokenty’s agency as a character. Most of what he does, both before and after being frozen, lacks agency: he begrudgingly attends ceremonies, films commercials, and so on. He says that his choice to be frozen, too, wasn’t really a choice. Does this behavior connect with Innokenty’s assertions about problems with personal liability?
EV: There is a way of relating to life that can be defined as contemplation. To some extent, I represent this type myself. This is an attempt not to provoke being, to give it the opportunity to act on its own. My experience shows that contemplators achieve no less than active people. So it is in life. In literature, such a protagonist plays the role of a video camera that is sent into a sunken ship and moves from compartment to compartment. A typical example of this kind of protagonist is Hans Castorp in Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain. Such a person doesn’t have to be either active or bright, because he has other tasks.
JV: Speaking of literary models, why did you choose to weave Robinson Crusoe so prominently into Innokenty’s narrative?
EV: Innokenty is a kind of Robinson Crusoe. His uninhabited island is a modern reality. He tries to somehow adapt it for his life, but he succeeds no more than Robinson. And he is lonely, like Robinson, because his new contemporaries have a completely different experience and understand him no more than Friday understood Robinson. To understand a person’s experience, it is not enough to know the events of his life. We've already said that they do not really matter for personal experience. Experiences are events that have been processed by mind and feeling. And this is impossible to convey. Robinson Crusoe is the story of the prodigal son. Yes, he returns home, but he returns already changed. And he, apparently, will never be understood. Platonov realizes this about himself.
JV: What is it like for you to write about someone who exists in a different time, and how does it change your perception of living in this era?
EV: Sometimes I feel longing for times in which I haven’t lived. Not because they were good, but simply because they were, and now they don’t exist. There is in this some kind of orphanhood of past eras. Sometimes I feel the urge to “adopt” someone else’s time. It seems to me that every historian should have this feeling. Such a person begins to live in that time, and of course, it changes him. Because every experience changes a person.
JV: The novel ends on such an emotional high, but there’s no real resolution. Did you find closure with Innokenty, or do you also feel left in the wind with what happens to your hero?
EV: Readers often ask: How did Platonov’s story end? The best answer I’ve heard comes from the Italian scholar Gabriella Imposti: Platonov’s plane is still circling over St. Petersburg. Literature is arranged in such a way that even if nothing bad happens to the protagonist, for the reader he still dies. He probably leads a ghostly existence somewhere, but for literature he is dead. I decided to part with Platonov before he crashed. At the last moment, he solved very important problems in his life, and the tragedy would distract the reader from these decisions. I think, better to let it fly further, eh?
Evgeny Vodolazkin (1964–) was born in Kiev, Ukraine. In 1990, he began working as a researcher in the Department of Old Russian Literature at the Institute of Russian Literature (Pushkin House) of the Academy of Sciences in St. Petersburg. In the early 2000s, he began publishing journalistic and literary works alongside his scholarly books: Dmitry Likhachev and His Era (2002, 2006), The Rape of Europe (2005), A Piece of Land Surrounded by Heaven: Solovky Texts and Images (2011), and Instrument of Language (2011). His first novel, Solovyov and Larionov, was published in 2009 and was a finalist for the Andrei Bely Award (2009) and the Big Book Prize (2010). His other novels, which collectively have been translated into more than thirty languages, include Laurus (2012), The Aviator (2015), Brisbane (2019), and Justification of the Island (2020), and have also been nominated for or won the Big Book, Yasnaya Polyana, Russian Booker, and National Bestseller awards, among others. He lives in St. Petersburg with his family.
José Vergara is Visiting Assistant Professor of Russian at Swarthmore College, where he teaches courses on Russian language and culture of all eras. He specializes in prose of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, with an emphasis on experimental works. His first book, All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature (Cornell University Press, 2021), examines Russian literary responses to James Joyce. He has also published articles on authors including Vladimir Nabokov, Mikhail Shishkin, and Sasha Sokolov in a variety of journals. His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books and Asymptote. More information can be found on his website: www.josevergara.net.
Student Participants: Hannah Bartoshesky, Richard Chen, Faith Becker, Rose Gotlieb, Sara Laine, Ariel Overdorff, Sandy Shen, Vir Shetty, Rachel Sinex, Anwyn Urquhart, and others.
Published Feb 4, 2021 Copyright 2021 José Vergara