Art by Gregory Klassen
The task of the artist is to make the human being uncomfortable.
When a stark-naked Jude Law, his penis dangling, walked onto the stage in all his luminous youthful glory during the Royal National Theatre’s production of Jean Cocteau’s “Les Parents Terribles” in 1994, the shock I experienced was visceral. I was nineteen. I was with my class. The world went completely dark before my eyes and it took me several minutes to recover my vision. I suppose my reaction said less about the play than about myself at the time: I was a young person who’d grown up in the Soviet Union under all kinds of taboos and repressions. A naked man on the stage of a palatial, publicly-funded official theater was unimaginable to me.
The second time a work of art knocked me over happened just a short time later. I was at a Russian bookstore in New York City where I bought a nondescript volume by an author I’d never heard of named Vladimir Sorokin. The plain black cover just said “Roman” in white letters. Roman is a common male name, but the word also means “novel” in Russian, as in “a long work of fiction.” When I bought the book, I assumed that Sorokin had been an obscure late-nineteenth-century author. His language and sensibility were reminiscent of Turgenev or perhaps Chekhov.
In elegant Russian prose, the narrator speaks about this certain young gentleman named Roman who gives up his career in law and comes to his uncle’s country house to pursue his dream of becoming an artist. For several hundred pages, Roman has long lavish meals, talks to nice people, does various heroic things, falls in love with a woman, and then marries her. Nothing out of the ordinary here, except perhaps a certain heightened register of spiritual gravity:
There was one trait in Roman’s character that placed him in the ranks of rather inhabitual, perhaps even strange people. Even as a child, he’d noticed that it gave him enormous pleasure to, so to speak, illuminate events that interested others such as to stun them as assuredly as possible, to instill in them their sought-after spiritual awe, which also set him to trembling. This wasn’t remotely to suggest that Roman was a liar and a dreamer––on the contrary, he’d retell everything accurately down to the smallest detail, but in a way that nobody else could.
Everything seems to be going amazingly well for Roman––until the night of his wedding, when there are only fifty or so pages left. He finds an ax among the wedding presents, asks his beloved uncle to step out of the room where he’s still entertaining the wedding guests, and then he splits his uncle’s head open. Reading that passage, I jumped as if it had been me who’d been hit by the ax blade. I was completely disoriented. I started gulping for air and looking around wildly. More gruesome things follow: Roman proceeds to kill all the wedding guests, then goes around the village and murders all of the peasant families with all of their many children. In a church, he slaughters his wife, dismembers her, chops her entrails into tiny pieces, and then eats them. He masturbates, passes gas, vomits, defecates, and then eats his own vomit and feces. The narrator’s language disintegrates. The sentences become shorter and more primitive.
This is how the novel ends:
Roman twitched. Roman stirred. Roman rocked. Roman stirred. Roman groaned. Roman twitched. Roman stirred. Roman twitched. Roman rocked. Roman twitched. Roman rocked. Roman stirred. Roman twitched. Roman groaned. Roman stirred. Roman winced. Roman twitched. Roman stirred. Roman twitched. Roman died.
Roman absolutely turned my world upside down. I discovered that there were truly no unbreakable boundaries when it came to art. Researching Vladimir Sorokin, I learned that he’d been a member of the Moscow underground art scene, both as a visual artist and as a fiction writer. He wrote Roman between 1985 and 1989, when he was in his early thirties. Literary scholars considered it a postmodern work that revealed the death of the Russian realist novel (hence the book’s last words). Many of Sorokin’s early short stories, which he referred to as “binary bombs,” were constructed according to a similar principle. They would begin in a boring social-realist style, the prevalent mode of Soviet literature, and then erupt into graphic violence or pornography by the end. Obviously none of these texts could be published in Russia until the collapse of the USSR. In the early nineties, however, Sorokin’s books slowly found their way into print, which was how I came across the little black book in that NYC shop.
After this first experience of reading Sorokin’s fiction, I tackled his other long works. Even though I knew what to expect by now, he always found a new way to blow my mind. In the frame narrative of his novel The Norm, written between 1979 and 1983, a teenage boy has been enlisted by a KGB officer to read a manuscript which consists of eight dissimilar pieces. The first part of the manuscript is made up of thirty-one realistic scenes in which Soviet citizens of various occupations and backgrounds eat a daily required “norm” that has been distributed by the state.
Nikolai cut open the packet and dumped the norm onto a plate.
Crumpling up the packet, he threw it into a trash can, took a spoon out from a drawer along with a jar of cherry jam, opened the jar, and sat down.
The norm was old with cracked and blackened edges.
Nikolai upended the jar over the plate. Jam poured down onto the norm. His father-in-law looked in from the hallway for a third time, entered, then, putting his thin arms behind his back, shook his head.
“So, we’re pouring it over with jam now, are we?”
Nikolai brought the viscous stream over the last of the dark-brown islets, then put down the jar. The brick of norm was completely covered over in jam. A cherry puddle was spreading all around it on the plate and shriveled berries were slowly sliding down its sides.
“You’ve turned it into a cake,” his father-in-law’s narrow face went pale and his lips tightened. “You should be ashamed of yourself, Kolya! It disgusts me to even look at you!”
“If it disgusts you, then don’t look.”
“Oh, that’d make me real happy! But, like it or not, I’m stuck with you two! She’s dumb and he’s dumber! God, how sick I am of you! You oughta take a good look at yourself in the mirror!
Gradually it dawns on the reader just what exactly “the norm” might be:
“Mother of Ga-a-awd! I totally forgot!”
Leshchinsky walked over to the cupboard, opened it, took out the briefcase, and shook three portions of norm out onto the table––two full and one PhD portion.
“They totally lost it…”
Zak sat down at the table and furrowed his brow:
“I’ll have heartburn again all day tomorrow… and I’ve gotta play with Tukmakov…”
“OK, OK, quit your moaning…” Leshchinsky unwrapped the norms.
Yawning, Kalmanovich watched him attentively.
“I forgot too.”
“That’s forgivable coming from you.”
The unwrapped norms were distributed and they began to eat them without removing them from the cellophane.
As he chewed, Zak muttered:
“These aren’t too bad.”
“Well, they’re on their way to the first league, so of course… they got supplied to the top league by the VTsSPS kindergarten last year––they were like goose pâté.”
Kalmanovich took a tiny bite from his norm and chewed quickly.
“Leonid Yakovlevich, is it true that Botvinnik made his own norms when he was in England for a tournament?”
“It’s true. But it wasn’t norms, there was just one norm.”
“He molded it himself too?”
“Gradually it dawns on the reader just what exactly ‘the norm’ might be”
Some people believe these descriptions of obligatory coprophilia are too on the nose as far as a metaphor for living in a totalitarian state, but I think The Norm has aged well. The first part of the manuscript, which is still the most famous, was distributed among the Russian intelligentsia as samizdat. The second part is composed of 1,562 lines, each of which has only two words:
normal baby food
This chronicle describes the life of a regular Soviet person from birth to death. Occasionally, the narrative is interrupted by swear words or nonsensical phrases that break the flow, creating a temporary disjunct.
Part 3 begins with a Bunin-style short story, at the end of which the main character copulates with the Russian soil itself. This is followed by a dialogue in which an unnamed reader and the unnamed author discuss the story. The reader is unsatisfied with the story, and the author writes another one in a completely different style, but the reader still doesn’t like it and suggests burying it in the earth.
Part 4 is made up of twelve poems written in the respective styles of twelve acclaimed Russian poets.
Part 5 is epistolary, a series of letters written by an unnamed old man living in an abandoned dacha. He is writing to his distant relative, a professor in the city and the owner of the dacha. Gradually, the letters become more hostile, devolving first into nonsensical sentences and then into a bunch of random letters.
Part 6 is composed of slogans, all of which have the word “norm” in them. Part 7 is a transcript of the speech of the chief prosecutor at a trial plus a cycle of short stories written by the defendant, who is a dissident art critic. Part 8, the final part, describes an editorial meeting that turns into a chaotic glossolalia.
From this mosaic of text emerges a portrait of Soviet society, where the primacy of the collective over the individual is exemplified by these so-called normal values, which are in fact always absurd. While this theme might be Sorokin’s main objective, he also deconstructs the whole of Russian literature in the process by taking its fake, formulaic language and turning it on its head. Some critics have therefore called The Norm a post-realistic novel. “Norma” (“the norm” in Russian) is also an anagram of “roman” (“novel”), a fact which anticipates the later book Roman.
Here’s an excerpt from Blue Lard, which is perhaps the most well-known among Vladimir Sorokin’s novels and was published in 1999:
Khrushchev carefully undid the leader’s pants, pushing down his semi-transparent black underwear, and freeing his tumescent, brown phallus. Having wet his fingers with saliva, the count began to gently tug at one of Stalin’s nipples with them, while also moving his lips down the leader’s body––all the way to his engorged phallus.
“Oh… how often I think of you…” Stalin murmured. “How much space you’ve come to take up in my boundless life…”
“Masculinum…” the count’s lips touched Stalin’s burgundy glans.
Stalin cried out and grabbed Khrushchev’s head with his hands. The count’s lips teased the leader’s glans tenderly at first, then more and more carnivorously.
“A spiral… a spiral…” Stalin moaned, digging his fingers into the count’s long, silver hair.
Khrushchev’s strong tongue began to move in a spiral around Stalin’s glans.
In this book, blue lard is a unique substance produced by clones of famous Russian writers somewhere in 2048 Siberia. The project of making it is interrupted by a sect of Earth-fuckers, who get their hands on the substance and send it to the past. In 1954, Stalin and his lover Khrushchev appropriate the blue lard and, together with their friend Hitler, inject it into their bodies, which then leads to colossal changes in the world. This novel includes texts written by the clones of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Nabokov, Platonov, and others. Being an exquisite stylist, Sorokin mimics the artistic languages of these writers with loving precision. He also invents several languages of his own. The future people, for example, speak in a tongue that has lots of regular Chinese and Russian swear words.
Over the course of his career, Vladimir Sorokin shattered all conceivable Soviet and Western norms. He was sued over selling pornography and promoting cannibalism. He was called a “poop-eater” and a pervert. The printing-press staff refused to work on his books. In 2002, the pro-Kremlin youth movement “Nashi” put up a huge toilet bowl in front of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow and pretended to flush his books down the drain. As the result of this performance, Sorokin’s fame increased overnight.
After a lifetime of gleeful bomb-throwing from the margins, he eventually got himself a reputation as a prophet after publishing the novel The Day of the Oprichniks in which he predicted Russia’s current slide toward medieval governance, violence, and willful ignorance. These days, people approach him at readings in Berlin––where he’s been living since the start of the war in Ukraine––and ask him when the war will stop. The pervert has become a pundit.
Despite being a titan of contemporary Russian literature, Sorokin has been relatively unknown among Anglophone readers until last year, when he came to the US to promote two of his novels that have been recently translated into English. Ten more of his books are scheduled to be published over the next few years, all of them translated––just like the two books that came out in 2022––by the translator Max Lawton, who also provided the excerpts in this article. Sorokin is incredibly difficult to translate because of the diversity of his styles, but I do hope that Mr. Sorokin––a true visionary––will soon get the wide Anglophone readership he deserves.
The Rest of Us.
Why is Sorokin in a class by himself? Why is he the only contemporary Russian writer who takes these kinds of risks? If we imagine Russian literature as earth with the sky above, Sorokin would be sitting up on a cloud together with Tolstoy and Chekhov, while the rest of us––his Russian contemporaries––would be confined to the earth’s surface, maybe some of us having risen as high as the tenth floor of a building. Present-day Russian literature isn’t very original and is forever ripping off Anglophone fiction. This matter is personal to me, since I’m a Russian writer myself or at least I was before I made the United States my home and started writing in English.
So I don’t mean to praise Sorokin as much as I mean to ask: why are we as a whole not more interesting? There must be reasons for this that have to do with the soul, with imagination, and with courage––and also with history and the current milieu. What has prevented me from being a writer like Sorokin? Would I even want to be?
I don’t even know why I turned to writing. My father worked in shipping and my mother worked in accounting. They were a typical Soviet family who tried to make a normal life for themselves. We did have some books at home, but I never saw any adults reading. Neither my parents nor anyone else I knew were engaged in any kind of intellectual pursuit, and yet, at eleven years old, I wrote my very first novel. It wasn’t original: I’d stolen the idea from a cartoon. There were things we weren’t supposed to talk or write about and, even at this young age, I was mindful of them. Unsure about certain words, I turned to my father for advice: he told me it was better to replace the foreign-sounding word otel (“hotel”) with gostinitsa, which was definitely ideologically correct. I inherited my parents’ sense of not being free and then I compounded this with my own habits of unfreedom. I began a more or less regular writing practice when I was twenty-one, but for years I was totally alone with my fiction and had no one with whom to share it.
There were two episodes in my writing life that could’ve been turning points and that illustrate some particulars of the new Russian writing world. At twenty-five, I wrote a short story in which two old ladies had sex with each other because they were lonely and unfulfilled. At the time, it seemed bold. I entered the story into a contest with a lot of prize money––ten thousand dollars. Russia was swimming in oil money then. When the finalists were announced, I was one of them. All of our texts were published on the contest’s website. Having read them, I concluded that the grand prize would be mine––if only because, according to the contest rules, the stories had to be about the physical aspect of love and mine was the only one that qualified. But I didn’t get the prize. I wasn’t even a runner-up, which made me so resentful that I stopped writing for a while. A couple of years later, I spoke with a certain Alexander M., who had been one of the jury members. He told me that the contest had been rigged and that the winner was a protégé of the jury chairman.
If I had won, could I have ripened into an author who took risks like Sorokin? He may not have won any contests himself, but I didn’t have his innate contrariness: I was clearly someone who needed affirmation or at least a push in the right direction. Instead, I shrank into my old conformist ways.
In addition, I was a working single mother, with next to no time to write fiction. Soured by the response I was getting from the world, I chose to believe that I didn’t care much about success. The second turning point came when I made a chance acquaintance with Anatoly Brusilovsky, a visual artist in his seventies who decades earlier had been responsible for starting the career of Eduard Limonov, a controversial author and political activist. He took a liking to me. Anatoly told me he would make me into a sensation, but he said there were two conditions: I had to write provocative stuff and I had to devote myself completely to literature by sending my son away to live with my parents. This was the only way to be a writer, he said. It’s possible that he wasn’t wrong, but I wanted to be with my son. Predictably, Anatoly and I drifted apart. Russia isn’t the only place in the world where the demands of domesticity can prevent women from pursuing an artistic path.
I’d like you to know that I’m not delusional: if I had been childless and if I had won that ten-thousand-dollar prize, there’s still a good chance I wouldn’t have been able to make a name for myself by creating singular and disturbing stories. But it’s also true that it’s only in the past few years that I’ve started asking myself probing questions about literature that shocks the same way as naked Jude Law. No one likes artists who scandalize merely for the sake of scandalizing: what comes out is often cartoonish and tells us nothing about the world that we didn’t know already. “Writers, whose main move is to make their prose freaky, make prose that is only freaky,” George Saunders reminds us. The greatness of Sorokin isn’t only in his plots, but also in his virtuosic language and in his experiments with form. However, now that I’m in my late forties, I’m finding myself more drawn to realistic fiction that represents the world as I know it. Is it possible to be interesting within the confines of traditional fiction? Is it possible to write a stunning psychological novel without experimenting with form? For Sorokin, the answer is no. He’s said as much in many interviews.
In any case, it’s unlikely that writers in Russia will be taking risks in the foreseeable future. As increasingly more repressive laws are being passed there, people are self-censoring in defense. No one would think to submit a story with a sex scene between two old ladies to any contest: it’s now against the law to even publicly mention nontraditional sexual relations unless you denounce them. There’s another reason I don’t expect new Russian books to make a splash in the West: the Russian book publishing industry lacks professionalism because there’s laughably little money in it. Here’s another anecdote from my writing life: my latest novel, People and Birds, came out utterly unedited despite the fact that my publisher, Eksmo, is the biggest publisher in Russia. After signing the contract, I’d been under the impression that an editor would soon reach out to me and we would start working on my manuscript together. Instead, a couple of months later I got an email telling me that my novel was already being sent to press. I demanded to see the proofs and found that the proofreader had introduced a large number of typos. It didn’t even occur to me to complain. I knew how overworked and abysmally underpaid these editors are. If you take a look at the Russian books that are popular, you’ll see that most of them feature stick-figure characters and melodramatic plot turns, all of which could be improved with careful editing. But there are no incentives to create quality work when the shoddy work still pays the bills and the government is watching.
As important as Sorokin was to my development as a writer, I am moving away from his influence. I’m currently working on my first novel in English––a realistic novel which aims to acquaint Anglophone readers with the life of ordinary Russians in Moscow. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t care for success, and yet the kind of success that comes with controversy doesn’t appeal to me. I’ve discovered that literature with any kind of fantastical or distinctly exaggerated element doesn’t speak to me anymore. It could be that I’ve grown more conservative over the years. Or maybe this is an effect of the post-truth world we all live in now, the world in which the real and the true have become rare or at least hard to identify. A lot of people I know have stopped reading fiction altogether: when every fact is already suspect, anything that’s clearly fabricated seems not worth their time. For me, fiction must be fully grounded in reality to hold my interest. When a writer intimately examines the minutiae of someone’s experience––offering sharp and sometimes devastating insights into the human condition––it has more of an impact on me than any dazzling flights of scatological imagination.
I do want to make my readers uncomfortable––but I want to do this with honesty and my ability to expose what people try to hide about themselves. I don’t want to inflame indiscriminately, to make people hate me and call me names. Don’t we have enough of that in the world already? Despite the glamour of it, my dream is not for someone to set up a toilet bowl in a city square and throw my books into it.
The truth is that real life shocks me nearly every day. It’s possible that the kind of writing that made Sorokin famous has been co-opted by the state itself: anarchist, irrational obscenity with the purpose of con-tradicting itself and baffling the reader. If your goal is to truly shock, why not learn from the mature spirit of Sorokin and jettison the juvenile method: why not try writing realistically––with care and precision––about what must be going on in Putin’s head these days?
Fall / Winter 2023
Svetlana Satchkova is a NYC-based writer and journalist. Raised in Moscow, she published three novels in her native Russian and writes in English as her second language. She holds an MFA in fiction from Brooklyn College, where she was a Truman Capote fellow and won the Himan Brown Award, and a BA in philosophy from New York University. Her nonfiction has appeared in the Rumpus, Catapult, Meduza, and the Independent. Svetlana is completing her first novel in English, a family drama with an explosive ending that seeks to evoke the upside-down, post-truth climate of Putin’s Russia.
Gregory Klassen is a visual artist. He received a BFA from the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh and continued his training in painting and drawing under Gerhard Richter at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Germany. Gregory's work has been exhibited nationally and in Europe, including the Rosenberg Gallery in Zurich. A major exhibition, Perishable Atlas, was staged at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s Institute of Visual Arts, and most recently at eyes never sleep in New York. He resides in Wisconsin and enjoys restoring vintage motorcycles.