Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 6, 2019

The Hemingway Game, by Evgeny Grishkovets, translated by Steven Volynets

The Hemingway Game might seem like an odd title for a contemporary Russian novella, but it’s an allusion to the way post-Soviet Russians are aping American culture.  Two young men, Sasha (a.k.a. Sanya) and his friend Max, have adopted this ‘Hemingway Game’ as a strategy for being manly and supercool and attracting young women without forming any commitment.  Sasha has been married and has a son but is now solo while Max’s relationship status is a bit dubious.  Since they drink prodigious quantities of alcohol in their night on the town, they are in fact conforming to the stereotype of heavy-drinking Russians, but they’re sculling cocktails not vodka shots so perhaps there’s a difference.

The Hemingway allusion also extends to Sasha’s sleepy fantasies about himself in various heroic adventures, though sometimes these interruptions to the narrative seem a bit forced.

By coincidence, Sue at Whispering Gums has posted a review today of Chekhov’s famous story, ‘The Lady with the Dog’, and although I haven’t read it, it seems to me that The Hemingway Game treats the same theme, that is, a story of a young man discovering what true love really is.  Set over a single day in Moscow, Grishovets’ story shows us two men having relished their carefree dalliances only to discover that real love matters more.  Sasha, who’s an architect, is suddenly infatuated with Her, the unnamed object of his new and overwhelming affections, and for most of the novel he carries on like a silly teenager, waiting on phone calls, and stressing about whether and when he should call and what he should wear and all that nonsense.  It is not until late in the story that a catastrophe makes him understand that it’s real love and not infatuation that he craves. At the same time Sasha’s preoccupation with Her annoys Max who still wants to play around — until he too realises the error of his ways.

Along the way, Grishkovets has some fun satirising the new Moscow.  Both the young men are from the provinces, and are a little smitten by the 24/7 anything goes Big City lifestyle.  They are particularly attentive to the style of the taxi drivers who negotiate Moscow’s atrocious traffic, but they take the glory of Stalin’s ‘gift to the people’ metro stations for granted.

This is what they were looking at: the Kremlin fortress walls and cathedral

There’s a droll moment when, both horribly drunk, are taken aback by the majestic symbolism of the Kremlin:

We were standing on fresh snow. A frozen river lay before us, and farther ahead, beautifully lit, rose the Kremlin.  The snow covered the battlements of the wall along with the slopes and ledges of the towers. And soaring above it all, like outlandish air balloons, were the domes of the cathedral…

It was cold.  Behind us, cars passed from time to time. We stood in silence.

‘You’re right,’ Max said, It’s not right to barf here.’

‘Yes. You know, Sanya, we’re already used to this view. Postcards, posters, TV. From childhood — the Kremlin, the Kremlin! And here it is! Imagine how amazing it must be for some Japanese or Australian to see it. (p.147)

I can vouch for that.  It is amazing.  But they (a-hem) relieve themselves anyway…

Grishkovet also pokes fun at the Russian preoccupation with foreign style, and not just American concepts of masculinity.  Sasha has a French friend called Pascal who’s also an architect, and Pascal has no qualms about poaching a new commission to build an ostentatious mansion for a horrible vulgar man whose only concern is that the design be the latest fashion.  Similarly, Sasha has learned English at school and university, but his English isn’t good enough to get the jokes…the implication being that the jokes aren’t actually funny.

The story could just be the ravings of a besotted and rather vacuous young man except for the presence of an ominous Black Mercedes which follows Sasha everywhere he goes.  This symbol of Soviet surveillance is past its use-by date, and Sasha doesn’t take it seriously and neither does its driver, though it would be a spoiler to tell you how the reader discovers that.

There are a few disconcerting typos in this paperback edition, but the translation is excellent.

At a time when our media is reverting to the old Cold War rhetoric and images about Russia, it’s refreshing to read that urban romances can take place in Moscow, just like in big cities anywhere.

Author: Evgeny Grishkovets
Title: The Hemingway Game
Translated from the Russian by Steven Volynets
Publisher: Glagoslav Publications, 2019, 175 pages
ISBN: 9781911414513
Review copy courtesy of Glagoslav Publications, London

Available in all formats from the Glagoslav website or from Fishpond: The Hemingway Game


Responses

  1. I must admit to a strong liking for Russian literature and film. The novella form is an excellent introduction too so it may be one to explore. As you say the day to day life of other places is not quite as the dominant discourse portrays. The importance of books…

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  2. Ooh, a contemporary Russian novella! Sounds interesting Lisa.

    And, thanks for the link!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Sounds great, I’ll check if it’s available in French.

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    • Well Glagoslav are based on Holland, so maybe it is?

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  4. Hemingway seems an odd choice for these two guys to take as a template; I suppose it’s the macho pose they hope to emulate. Interesting to see Chekhov adduced as a comparison; doubt those two authors have been yoked in such a way before!

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    • I thought it was odd too, especially in the beginning, but when the fantasy and dream scenes of macho heroism came along, it made sense. Plus, it’s also possible that Russians are not exposed to many American authors in translation so the author has chosen a stereotypical one that Russian readers will recognise?
      I’m going to have to read that story to check that I haven’t made a fool of myself with that comparison!

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      • I didn’t intend to disparage your combining aspects of Chekhov with Hemingway; I’m sure it’s a legitimate comparison here. I simply meant that they have such totally contrasting images – as men and as writers. I guess it’s the ‘true love’ aspect in particular, especially in a man previously given to erotic philandering, that’s the thematic link in this case.

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        • Oh, no, I didn’t think you were doing that, don’t worry!
          It was more that I am not in the habit of referring to books I haven’t read. I know it’s common for people pretend they’ve read certain books but I never have, and it feels risky to compare the themes on the basis of Sue’s review, excellent though it is.
          So it’s a good inspiration to read the short story for myself:)

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          • And I haven’t read this book, so I can’t really comment on whether the link is a useful one or not! But, I didn’t think you were linking Chekhov to Hemingway but to Grishkovets? Or, have I misunderstood Tredynas?

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            • Oh yes, I meant that Grishkovets is rewriting (consciously or otherwise) Chekhov’s theme…

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              • That’s what I thought but I’m not sure that that’s what Tredynas was thinking you meant.

                Liked by 1 person

  5. I haven’t stood in front of the Kremlin but I have stood at other overseas sites and been disappointed that they weren’t new, I’d seen them all on film. (I wonder if Emma felt the same way about the Outback). On the other hand, being immersed in foreign places, even as a tourist, WAS amazing.

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    • I know what you mean, but there is something different about the Kremlin. It’s because of its Cold War associations. We grew up with that low level fear of annihilation in a nuclear war and the Kremlin was the hard-faced symbol of that. So when you get there, and the touristy crowds are milling about, and the sun is shining, and there are lookalikes of Stalin and Lenin for you to have your photo taken with, and people are queueing up to see Lenin’s body … to check that he’s really dead, they say… and then you go inside the fortress walls (inside!) and you’re in a beautiful garden, and there’s a palace and a stunning cathedral, it feels bizarre, and joyous. The weight of all that propaganda lifts off your shoulders and it’s wonderful.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. […] the theme of post-Soviet Russians aping Western culture, as in a Russian novel I recently read, The Hemingway Game by Evgeny […]

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