There Are Jews in My House by Lara Vapnyar
There are Jews in My House
by Lara Vapnyar
Pantheon. 160 pp. $17.95
Twentieth-century Russia produced and drove out enough writers, artists, and intellectuals to staff several small American liberal-arts colleges and at least one large research university. Among writers alone, the so-called “third wave” of émigrés in the 1970’s and 80’s gave this country two Nobel laureates in literature, Joseph Brodsky and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (the latter having won the prize while still in the Soviet Union), as well as any number of lesser-known figures, among them Vassily Aksyonov and Edouard Limonov, author of the 1983 novel It’s Me, Eddie.
In recent years, as Russia has become a place where writers and intellectuals are much less afraid to speak their minds, the emigration of the thinking classes has slowed somewhat. But America still exerts a pull, and if the “fourth wave” has been quieter—no Nobels so far—its members have certainly succeeded here in material terms, and their children, including some born in Russia, have begun to make themselves heard, forging a literary name for themselves on what is essentially still foreign soil.
For anyone interested in sampling this new development in American writing, Gary Shteyngart’s 2002 novel The Russian Debutante’s Handbook could serve as a primer. It is, appropriately enough, the story of a child of successful émigrés and of his search for a place in his adopted country. Like his creator, the protagonist, Vladimir, is Jewish, which adds a complicating factor to his search. But he is at least as much Russian as Jewish, and the novel, a rollicking picaresque, is as full of darkly absurdist shenanigans as anything in Bulgakov or Gogol.
Vladimir’s mother, a high-powered banker, and his father, a wealthy but vaguely criminal doctor, have been vainly attempting for years to press-gang him into a profitable, domesticated life (when we meet him, he is serving as a lowly clerk in a resettlement agency). But when a psychotic fellow Russian enlists him in his own quest for citizenship, Vladimir, hopelessly adrift, embarks on a series of adventures that take him from New York to the imaginary city of Prava, where he leads a raucous life hawking a bogus investment scheme to a group of expatriates with literary pretensions. Along the way he encounters an amateur dominatrix, the libertine daughter of a pair of university professors, an aggressive, homosexual importer of cocaine, a group of disaffected Slavic terrorists, and various other characters living at the margins of society. At novel’s end he returns to America a sadder and a wiser young man, married now and an expectant father, resigned to the uninspiring safety of the life his parents imagined for him.
Shteyngart’s novel is on the whole impressively realized, and it justifies nearly all the praise that was heaped upon it when published. Now, astonishingly, less than two years after its appearance, another young Russian-Jewish immigrant, Lara Vapnyar, has produced a work that equals and surpasses its achievement. Her collection of stories, There Are Jews In My House, could not be more different from The Russian Debutante’s Handbook. Where Shteyngart is manic and effusive, she is supremely calm and subtle. Where Shteyngart is working out his protagonist’s ambivalent relation to America, Vapnyar is still preoccupied with the society she has left behind. And where Shteyngart worries about Jewishness, only two of the six stories in this somewhat misleadingly titled collection are explicitly about Jews, and they are not the best.
Of the six, “Lydia’s Grove” and “Mistress” offer extended glimpses into the incomprehensible movements of the (Soviet) world of adulthood as seen through the eyes of a child. Both are accomplished and highly engrossing; but the two stories that truly stand out are “Love Lessons, Mondays, 9 AM,” with which the volume ends, and “Ovrashki’s Trains.” The young woman in “Love Lessons,” dragooned into teaching sex education at a Russian primary school, is as naive as her charges, relying for her lesson plans on the advice of a hard-bitten aunt and a clinical treatise she has managed to put her hands on. Meanwhile, she herself pines for the local lothario and suffers the browbeatings of the school’s repulsive principal. Both problems are resolved for her when Sergey at last notices her, liberating her from her erotic innocence and instilling in her an ecstatic self-confidence that simultaneously breaks the power wielded by her principal.
If “Love Lessons” is remarkable for its subtle rendering of sexual repression and awakening, “Ovrashki’s Trains” is something else entirely. It recounts the summers of a very young girl from Moscow as she waits every evening at the fence of her family’s country cottage, possessed by the idea that her father “will come home on one of the suburban trains.” The father’s repeated failure to materialize soon lends an ominous tone to her vigil, and to the reader, at least, it comes as no surprise when her uncle discloses at last that her father has been dead for the entirety of her six years on earth, her mother having lacked the heart to tell her.
The way in which Vapnyar handles the details of this revelation, seen from the viewpoint of the girl, is extraordinary:
My father died in a little town on the Black Sea, where the sky and sea were of the same cobalt-blue color, and where the ships that came into the harbor looked startlingly white in a blinding southern sun. The coffin with my father’s body traveled to Moscow on a freight train, in a dark car made of thick red boards knocked together, along with some factory equipment in plywood boxes. When the train moved, the car tilted and the boxes slid down to the side, knocking against the coffin’s edge with a hollow sound muffled by the rumble of the train.
And that is that. In its serenity of tone and its cold lyricism, in the painful clarity with which the physical details of the landscape are made to speak for the inner landscape of the overcome girl, this passage recalls the early stories of Tolstoy, like “The Wood-Felling,” perhaps, or “The Raid.” All six of the stories collected in this volume are polished and substantial, and some of them are psychologically brilliant, but “Ovrashki’s Trains” is a singular accomplishment, a work of lasting value.
The remaining two items in There Are Jews In My House, the title story and “A Question for Vera,” are distinctly inferior. Both, as it happens, deal directly with anti-Semitism in Russia, past and present. Stories about “issues” are rarely any good—usually, the fictional elements are forced to play second fiddle to the animating idea, with a consequent loss of narrative power—and these are no exceptions. In addition, Vapnyar seems less than entirely familiar with the situations she means to evoke. But if the two do not live up to the standard of the others, that standard is, admittedly, very high.
Gary Shteyngart has been a resident of America for considerably longer than Lara Vapnyar, and his ease with his new country’s cultural idiom shows to good effect in his novel. Vapnyar, by all accounts, learned English less than a decade ago, when she was in her early twenties, under the joint tutelage of television and the novels of Jane Austen. But both of these writers, in their very different ways, seem remarkably free and unencumbered. They write “purely,” without any hint that they are either imitating or struggling against literary models, or groping madly, like so many of their native-born American colleagues, to say something “new.”
With her surgical economy of means, Vapnyar in particular has made a compelling statement against the sterile and self-obsessed excesses of much modern American writing. All the more appropriate and satisfying, then, that this blessing, like so many others, should have come to us from the old country.