Pushkin Hills is an open air museum preserved in all its 19th century glory around Alexander Pushkin’s family mansion in Pskov, 120 kilometres from Moscow. Sergei Dovlatov worked there as a tour guide for a short period, just as his central character, Alikhanov, does in his novel, Pushkin Hills. Like Alikhanov, Dovlatov was a struggling writer who could not get published in Russia, eventually immigrating to the USA in 1979 where he wrote a number of novels until his death in 1990. In the last couple of years Alma Classics have issued translations of three of his novels: The Suitcase, The Zone, and, most recently, the aforementioned Pushkin Hills.
Pushkin Hills, then, already has one of the main ingredients of a 20th century Russian novel: a writer. A writer, that is, who has never been published. As his wife says:
“You lead the life of a famous writer without fulfilling the slightest requirements.”
This immediately sets up an ironic contrast between the safely dead and revered Pushkin, endorsed by the state (it was the Bolsheviks who preserved the house and surroundings), and the impoverished, unpublished Alikhanov, who must now lead parties of tourists around the estate in order to make a living. The museum becomes a monument to the USSR’s hypocrisy towards writers:
“And that…is how it always happens. First they drive the man into the ground and then begin looking for his personal effects. That’s how it was with Dostoyevsky, that’s how it was with Yesesin, and that’s how it will be with Pasternak. When they come to their senses, they’ll start looking for Solzhenitsyn’s personal effects…”
He discovers a fellow tour guide was once a published writer thanks to writing stories that were “extraordinarily unremarkable.” All this changes, though, when he moves to Leningrad and can no longer be praised for his “backwater origins.”
“What was forgiven in a provincial novice affronted in a cosmopolitan writer.”
As well as allowing an extended meditation on Russian writing, the museum also reflects the state in its lack of authenticity. A portrait turns out to be of someone else, a duelling pistol is simply of the period. When Alikhanov asks one of the curators whether the objects are authentic, she replies, “Is it important?
The novel’s plot, such as it is, concerns Alikhanov’s wife’s decision to immigrate to the USA with their child. Alikhanov refuses to go with her:
“But my readers are here. While over there…Who needs my stories in Chicago?”
However, while this creates a certain amount of narrative tension, the novel as a whole reads more as a surreal succession of eccentric characters. Alikhanov also gives as a reason for remaining in Russia that he detests “active behaviour of any kind” and that he lives in the “passive voice”, and that very much reflects his function as the protagonist. Much of this passivity is create by alcohol – at one point a character forecasts that vodka will bring about the end of Soviet rule. (I’ve always wondered whether the astonishing drink-intake of Russian novels is a genuine reflection of life or an elaborate in-joke by Russian writers).
The most Russian line of all, however, comes on the novel’s final page:
“Love is for the young. It is for soldiers and athletes… Things are much more complicated here. It’s beyond love. It’s fate…”
That’s a line, you feel, which could have come from Pushkin himself.