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Between Memory and Babi Yar. . . There's Klotsvog! AND Discussion Questions!

Updated: Sep 30, 2023

Sunday, October 1, 2023, 3-4:30 pm Pacific

SPECIAL GUEST: Lisa C. Hayden, Translator

Discussion Facilitator: Igor Mikhaylov

Question for Igor and Lisa:
“Klotsvog” doesn’t sound like any Jewish name I’ve every heard, and not like the other Jewish surnames in the book. To a Ukrainian and Russian speaker, what do you make of this name? Is it supposed to be comical? What is its specific “feel" or connotation?

Question for Lisa and open to the group:
Would you consider Klotsvog to be a book in the Russian literary tradition? I’m reading George Saunders’ wonderful book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, in which he characterizes the 19th and early 20th century Russian literary tradition (using examples of stories by Chekov, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Gogol) as focused on moral questions—the “big questions,” such as the meaning of life. How does the author speak in, to, or against this tradition?

Questions for all:
1. What passages, episodes, moments, quotes, etc. grabbed your attention? Can you share one and talk about why it spoke to you?

2. Klotsvog is described as “darkly comical.” Is it comical? In what sense? Examples? Why is it possibly NOT comical, to you?

3. How would you characterize the narrator Maya’s relationship to her Jewishness? When you think about the turnings in the story (e.g. changes in her relationships with Jewish and non-Jewish husbands or lovers, her son’s preference for his grandmother over mother, her daughter’s hostility and rejection), does Maya herself change?
4. What do you understand—or not understand about the Jewish experience in Soviet Ukraine—through readingKlotsvog? How does it build on your previous understanding through Shmoozer readings, especially Isaac Babel (Red Cavalry, Odessa Stories) and Oksana Zabuzhko (Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex), but perhaps but also Serhiy Zhadan (The Orphanage) and Andre Kurkov (Grey Bees).

5. Novelist Lara Vapnyar writes that in Underground Man, Dostoevsky judges but then empathizes with the narrator. With regard to Klotsvog, Vapnyar asks us, the readers, to “approach the book with maximum empathy and a maximumly open mind.” Were you able to do that? Why or why not?

The Yiddish Shmoozers welcome Ukrainian-born Igor Mikhaylov to the podium! Igor was born in Kiev in 1978 and emigrated to the United States with his family in 1989. An electrical engineer in mid-career living in southern California, he has been an indispensable asset in our discussions this year of books by and about Jews in Ukraine. Igor will lead the conversation about Margarita Khemlin's brilliant book, Klotsvog, of which few of us (including Igor) had any inkling until now. Excerpts of a conversation with Igor appear below, followed by the announcement of our upcoming shmoozes in November and January.

First, a few words about the context in which we are reading Klotsvog. Our last book, In Memory of Memory by the poet Maria Stepanova, examined four generations of a Russian Jewish family, beginning with its unusually emancipated bourgeois late 19th century life outside the Jewish Pale. Returning again and again to the story of her teenage great-grandmother Sarra Ginzburg, a Bolshevik sent out of the reach of the secret police to study medicine in France until after the revolution, Stepanova stitches together stories and reflections on her maternal, Jewish family and also her paternal, mixed, Jewish and non-Jewish side. The author carries this story from pre-revolutionary to Soviet and her own post-Soviet times.

At the same time as narrating a family story, Stepanova carries out a relentless intellectual and critical inquiry into the construct of memory itself. Her tools include memoir, historical reconstruction based on documents and interviews, her own finely tuned sensibilities and exquisite use of language, and the informal first-person narrative style known in Russian as skaz. Stepanova's book "blurs" genres in the sense discussed in anthropologist Clifford Geertz's important piece, "Blurred Genres: The Refiguration of Social Thought." Published in The American Scholar in Spring 1980, Geertz's piece refers to a "culture shift" in the literature of both the sciences and humanities. This "refiguration of scholarly thought" turns toward interpretative, analogical thinking that include "philosophical inquires looking like literary criticism (think of Stanley Cavell on Beckett or Thoreau, Sartre on Flaubert), scientific discussions looking like belles lettres morceaux (Lewis Thomas, Loren Eiseley)," and a long list of other compelling, albeit dated examples.

Like Stepanova's book, written in Russian and translated into English, Margarita Khemlin's book, Klotsvog, follows a Jewish (and partly mixed) family's experience under the Soviet experiment. Again, we have Jewish woman as first-person narrator, this time in Soviet Ukraine, circa 1930s to 1960s. Klotsvog is a complete contrast to Stepanova's blurred, hybrid, genre-bending work. Khemlin's story unfurls entirely within the literary genre of the modern novel, one that is exceptionally well-crafted and effective, especially concerning its narrator and protagonist, Maya Abramovna Klotsvog.

In her September 9, 2019 piece on Klotsvog in the Los Angeles Review of Books, reviewer Phoebe Taplin compares Maya to the character Becky Sharp in William Makepeace Thackeray's Vanity Fair. Both characters, Victorian and Soviet, are avid social climbers, hoisting themselves into more favorable circumstances with each new man, whether by marriage or extramarital affair, or both. Reviewer Taplin zeroes in on the character's materialism and manipulativeness.

[Maya's] a kind of Soviet Becky Sharp, in a 1950s version of Vanity Fair, trying to survive in a hostile world. Becky’s mantra in Vanity Fair — “I want tomorrow to be better than today” — would suit Maya well. She lists her husband’s birthday presents in inventorial detail; she cares that her stockings stay up properly (it’s one of the first things she tells us); she seems more upset at abandoning her best dress than her best friend when her family flees her childhood home during World War II.

But, along with the fiction writer Lara Vapnyar, who subtitled her foreword to the book, "Klotsvog: Notes from the Jewish Underground," reviewer Taplin digs deeper into this question of collective trauma and survival for a generation that "saw too much ugliness":

Klotsvog is a devastating, bleakly comic novel about life in the Soviet Union. . . . [The translator, Lisa] Hayden perfectly reproduces the awkward, traumatized clichés with the help of which Maya narrates her own life in one long, strange, chapter-less confessional. Maya, born in 1930, lived through World War II and the late Stalin era. She tells us her generation “saw too much, things that weren’t pretty.” The choice of words — as ever — is revealing. Having lived with war, fear, repression, and the corrosive impact of antisemitism, part of Maya’s reaction is to take refuge in superficial pleasures, in things that are 'pretty.'

Lara Vapnyar (b. 1975, Moscow) represents a "new" generation of Jewish writers from the former USSR living in North America and publishing works in English, including Gary Shteyngart (b. 1972, St. Petersburg) and David Bezmozgis (b. 1973, Riga). Their influences include Russian literature (especially, I think, Gogol) and their content spans the experiences of Jews in and from the Soviet sphere. We would need to dig deeper to compare the Soviet-born writers' choices of locale, form, and thematic content to their American-born contemporaries. Vapnyar, Shteyngart and Bezmozgis's characters inhabit Eastern European spaces. Michael Chabon (b. 1963), who according to Wikipedia (!) mentions Philip Roth among his influences but not, like Nathan Englander (b. 1970, New York), the quasi-mystic storytellers Isaac Bashevis Singer and Bernard Malamud, with their storytelling tied to the old world of Eastern Europe. Chabon writes stories about Jews set in America and even imaginatively relocates the Soviet Jewish Autonomous Region experiment to Alaska rather than Birobidzhan in his 2007 novelThe Yiddish Policeman's Union.

'But that is not the point," as the character Maya reminds us in Klotsvog.

I would be hard pressed to call Klotsvog, a realist novel. It's a dark comedy, satire laced with exaggeration, falling just short, however, of absurdity. But in conversation with our Ukrainian-born facilitator, Igor Mikhaylov, it is clear that author Khemlin's portrayal of the overall abject condition of Jews in Soviet Ukraine does not stray from the truth.

GELYA: How realistic did you find the book Klotsvog? Your own experience as a child took place in Soviet Ukraine. When your family left when you were about 11 years old. But you would have heard family stories.

IGOR: This book was very difficult for me to read, because it is way too close to truth. Pretty much it describes everything my grandparents went through in post-war Soviet Ukraine. And when I say everything, I mean everything from the description of communal apartments (where I was born and lived with grandparents and parents up until 1984). Even lexicon that they speak. It's funny, reading it English, and knowing what the Russian equivalent is, I can feel the language. This whole jealousy and social climbing that Maya is describing is also familiar to me. Although, neither of my grandmothers was climbing the social ladder the way Maya is, I can hear them complaining, reasoning and saying same exact things.

GELYA: The author Marguerite Khemlin describes antisemitism as affecting interpersonal relationships between Jews and non-Jews, as well as official policies. What do you think of the character Maya's downplaying her own Jewish background and her children's visibility as Jews?

IGOR: The post-war period in Ukraine was objectively one of great hardship. In addition to other obstacles that the population needed to overcome, Jews had one more. Antisemitism was at its peak. Every Jew was in fear that the pogroms will repeat themselves, and they did. There was the Night of the Murdered Poets (August 12, 1952), The Doctors' Plot affair (1951-1953) in which Jewish medical specialists were charged with conspiring to kill government officials, and the execution of thirteen members of theJewish Antifascist Committee (1952). All Jewish literature in Yiddish was banned. In 1953, Stalin was about to relocate all Jews from Ukraine and Russia to the Far East, in the Jewish Autonomous Region of Birobidzhan, but he died the night before the order could be carried out. This affected my family, too--both sides of my family. In 1947, my maternal grandfather was arrested and served as a political prisoner from 1947 to 1953, the year of Stalin's death. My paternal grandfather went on trial for embezzling funds from a construction project, a crime that he didn't commit. And even though he was found not guilty, he was stripped of all his rights and privileges as a member of the Communist Party. The character Maya is acutely aware of these events and she is trying to hide as much as possible behind her non-Jewish husbands and lovers. With her third husband, Marik, a Jew, she is also trying to get away from Ukraine as far as possible. With Marik, in Moscow, she thinks she will have a possibility for a better life. Antisemitism in Soviet Union pretty much destroyed Jews morally and physically. In the post-war society, everything that the Holocaust didn't get to achieve, the Soviet Union was going to finish.

GELYA: You mentioned the general conditions of hardship in post-war Ukraine. Can you elaborate?

IGOR: Let's talk first about the war and then the post-war period. When the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, Ukraine received the brunt of the destruction. Kiev was the largest of the cities in Soviet Union that were destroyed. In Klotsvog, Maya's father dies in "forcing the Dniepr," the battle where the Russian army attempted to retake Kiev in 1943 by crossing the river into the city. This was a huge military blunder resulting in tremendous loss of life. Stalin demanded that the largest city under occupation should be retaken in time for the Anniversary of Communist Revolution (November 7). The generals did not spare any lives. I read a story about Battle of Dniepr that the soldiers had water canteens on the belts that were white in color. By the end of the battle, the entire river was white as if covered in ice. There were so many dead soldiers that you could cross the river by walking on their floating bodies.

GELYA: So that was World War II or, as Russians refer to it, The Great Patriotic War. What about after the war?

IGOR: Life in post war Kiev was very difficult and very competitive. With all the nearby villages destroyed, migration to the city was tremendous. Combine that with people returning from evacuations in Central Asia and the Caucasus and you had a multi-million population crammed into relatively small area. Places to live were scarce; supplies and food are scarce. Crime was rampant. Veterans were returning from the war, many of them shell-shocked. This was as much of a Wild West as it can get in modern times. In fact, I have even heard people commenting that it was easier to survive during the war than in the post-war period, because during the war at least things made some sense. And people were more understanding of each other's pain.

GELYA: So you are describing the environment in which we find Maya, right? Does this explain her characterization as a social climber?

IGOR: In a sense, yes. Partly. She is doing everything possible to survive and find a living for herself. Post-war, everyone was for themselves. So here is Maya, young woman, relatively no education, a member of KOMSOMOL. Komsomol is abbreviation for young communists was an organization which principles were based on no alcohol, no cigarettes, no sex, all prudence for the party. Maya being raised in that, has absolutely no knowledge of things. She is attracted to a handsome teacher-veteran and gets pregnant right away. Now she has to fend for two people, herself and her child. But I think she is also a somewhat abusive (based on our standards) and absent young mother that pawns her son on her parents and husbands. There is a comment that is said by one of her husbands, "You hung your son on me." By the way, these men are not very much all there too, many of that generation suffered from PTSD. The Jewish veteran husband Fima Surkis, for example, who is an alcoholic and has succumbs to mental illness, wants some more acknowledgement from Maya regarding the loss of his family that was murdered by the Nazis at Babi Yar.

GELYA: Thank you so much, Igor. Looking forward to our live conversation on Zoom, October 1.



Margarita Khemlin's book Klotsvog mentions the massacre at Babi Yar that took place within days of the Nazi invasion of Kiev in 1941. Our next book describes the Soviet Jewish world in which the invasion and genocide took place:

Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel; New, Complete, Uncensored Version by Anatoly Kuznetsov, with Introduction by Masha Gessen. Picador, 2023.

As described on the Yad Vashem website: "In the course of two days, 29-30 September (Yom Kippur Eve), 33,771 Jewish men, women and children were murdered at Babi Yar by Einsatzgruppen C soldiers with the assistance of local collaborators." It was one of the largest mass executions of the Holocaust.

Author Anatoly Kuznetsov was twelve when he began keeping a diary following the Nazi invasion of Kiev. We have reserved two sessions for his 500 page book, so put November 12, 2023 and January 7, 2024 on your calendar.

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