Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 8, 2022

Klotsvog, by Margarita Khemlin, translated by Lisa C Hayden

With thanks to Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings for my discovery of this book, my choice for #WITMonth turned out to be compelling reading. Margarita Khemlin’s Klotsvog, (2009) was translated by Lisa C Hayden in 2019 for The Russian Library at Columbia University Press and was shortlisted for the Russian Booker, as was Khemlin’s The Investigator (2012, translated by Melanie Moore for Glagoslav in 2015, see my review).  Information at Wikipedia about Khemlin is sketchy but it seems that her international profile blossomed in the post-Soviet era and reading these two novels confirms my opinion that Khemlin (1960-2015) was an outstanding author of subtlety and style.

Klotsvog, with its unprepossessing title, is subtitled Notes from the Jewish Underground but its portrayal of secular Jewish life is confined to the mental landscape of its central character, the narrator Maya. Like a Soviet version of Becky Sharp from Thackeray’s Vanity Fair (1847-8), Maya is on a quest to better herself.  In the Stalinist USSR, upgrading from cramped and overcrowded housing becomes an all-consuming quest for Maya who engineers successive relationships to achieve an apartment of her own by the novel’s end.

Like Becky, Maya is shallow, selfish, manipulative and cruel, but unlike Becky, her motivation is not merely materialistic.  As noted in the Foreword by Lara Vapynya, Khemlin, the catalyst for her outrageous behaviour is fear.

Maya, like all the secular Jewish characters in her milieu, lost most of her family when they perished under the German Occupation of Ukraine during WW2.  She and her mother survived through ‘the evacuation’ (the mass migration of 16 million western Soviet citizens to the east) during the Soviet retreat.  They were among about 1.5 million East European Jews—mostly from Poland, the Ukraine, and Russia—who, in contrast to near annihilation of the Jews in the rest of German occupied Europe, survived behind the lines. Wikipedia tells us, however, that in the postwar era, Stalin reignited anti-Semitism, with campaigns against ‘rootless cosmopolitans’ (i.e. Zionists), among whom were writers and intellectuals arrested for ‘espionage’ and ‘treason’ beginning in 1948 and culminating with the Night of the Murdered Poets.

The surviving fragments of the Jewish community had good reason to fear a Soviet version of Hitler’s Final Solution, and they were also haunted by the long history of pogroms in Ukraine, Poland and Russia. In the novel, Maya—who gradually becomes aware of how her suppressed Jewish identity impacts on her life—thinks that catastrophe is inevitable.  She determines to live as well as she can in the meantime.

My romantic infatuation with Viktor Pavlovich had overshadowed my thinking, leaving me with just enough awareness to think only of my love for him, especially since this was my first love. But the horrible assumptions hovering all around literally drove me into a corner and forced me to return, again and again, to the days in evacuation that had brought so many deprivations.

Of course, the problem of the future fate of the Jewish people—of which I was a constituent part due to my birth—rattled me.  But things were working out from that angle, too: I could live pleasantly and with dignity alongside a reliable person, at least for an allotted time, until new ordeals.  Be that as it may. (p.14)

Khemlin, as I said, is a subtle author, and Maya, as I said, is shallow. So with only occasional insights into Maya’s mental landscape of fear, the novel romps through her energetic efforts to improve her lot while she awaits her fate.  Her first lover Viktor, (her maths teacher at the technical college in Kiev where she is studying to be a teacher and the father of her first child, Mishenka) is soon ditched because divorce from his wife Darina would leave the ex-wife registered to live in their accommodation.  Maya upscales to Fima, manager at her workplace.  (She has ditched her studies as they are incompatible with her plans but continues to claim that she is a pedagogue throughout the novel.)

Maya tricks Fima into thinking that Mishka is his child, and moves into his slightly more spacious rooms.  But Fima is grieving the loss of his entire family and his excessive drinking is a symptom of his fragile mental state.  Maya moves on to her second husband, also a manager and offering better prospects.  Meanwhile, Maya’s mother is also upscaling her status, income and accommodation.  She marries Gilya, a widower who lost family too, enabling Maya to spirit Mishka off to live with her mother in rural Ostyor in Russia, where Maya’s only concern is that he is learning Yiddish, which makes him vulnerable.  Speaking it outside the home could lead to his death. 

Alas, Maya does not know that Miroslav has something to hide too: his paralysed mother, who is dependent on nursing that Maya is expected to provide.  Nonetheless, the indefatigable Maya intends Miroslav to adopt Mishka, and before long offloads the nursing and the laundry to a young woman with whom Miroslav finds some consolation. Things are not working out as Maya had planned.  Soviet life is complicated.

Readers who know The New Moscow Philosophy by Vyacheslav Pyetsukh, translated by Krystyna A. Steiger, will remember how family homes were subdivided after the October Revolution to accommodate numerous unrelated residents. The New Moscow Philosophy…

… is set in late Soviet-era Moscow, in Apartment 12 where numerous people are crammed into a space which was once home to just one family, of whom the elderly Alexandra Sergeyevna Pumpianskaya is now the sole surviving remnant.  After what Russians call the Imperialist War (i.e. World War 1) ‘at the time of the so-called consolidation of the Moscow gentry and bourgeoisie’, the apartment was subdivided by soviet decree and the Pumpianskaya family ended up with only the dining-room.  The rest of the apartment became home to a disparate group of people, who now form an uneasy kind of extended family, bound together by the intimacies of daily living at the same address and – over the years – a shared history of life under the Soviets. (See my review)

What with the Soviet rules for allocating households to accommodation, the residency rules, the complex adoption process and her adroit management of her lies, concealments and self-deceptions, Maya’s personal life is such a complicated mess that she even thinks of the impending deportations as a solution to her problems.

But Maya does not allow setbacks.  There is another husband, another lover, another neglected child, along with Maya’s self-justifications in pompous Soviet-era bureaucratese.  She is in complete denial about Ella’s delayed development, about her estrangement from Mishka, and she takes no responsibility for neglecting what remains of her family or the trail of broken people she leaves behind her.

Sombre notes occur only intermittently in Klostvog. Some could be easy to miss, such as the gift of a Mazuzah (Mezuzah) for Marik’s birthday.  Maya catalogues all his gifts as a measure of her status, and she is very cross when her daughter Ellochka removed it from its hiding place to show her friend that it’s ‘true’ that ‘Jews have expensive jewels’, and then threw it away.  What is unsaid in the novel is that it had to be hidden because to display it on the front door would identify theirs as a Jewish household and invite peril.  It was made of silver, and very valuable—and a ‘souvenir from the war’ a delicate inference that it was looted from an abandoned Jewish home.

Klotsvog is a remarkable novel and Lisa Hayden’s translation is excellent.  She provides a helpful translator’s note too, giving context to the work and explaining a couple of historical references that clarify Maya’s survivor’s fear.

I read this book for #WITmonth, initiated by blogger Meytal Radzinski and now an international movement to celebrate the work of women writers in translation.  Visit Women in Translation for more information.

Image credit: Mazuzah:  https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=21226814

Author: Margarita Khemlin
Title: Klotsvog, Notes from the Jewish Underground, (Клоцвог)
Translated from the Russian by Lisa C Hayden
Publisher: The Russian Library, Columbia University, 2019, first published 2009
ISBN: 9780231182379, pbk., 245 pages
Source: Personal library


Responses

  1. Thank you for this thoughtful and detailed review, I’ll definitely get a copy!

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  2. Both the books you mentioned sound really interesting. I’m currently reading Maria Tumarkin’s memoir Otherland where she returns to Russia and Ukraine with her 12 yr old daughter. Part of the journey meant finding out what her grandparents (Jewish) had experienced during WWII when Ukraine was occupied by Germany. I have read a lot about the Polish experience, but didn’t know as much (very little in fact) about what happened in Ukraine.

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    • What I know about Ukraine and the Jews during WW2 stems largely from that literary hoax The Hand That Signed the Paper, about a Ukrainian family that collaborated with the Nazis. I haven’t read the book, and I don’t want to, but I’ve read a lot about it, including Robert Manne who tackled the anti-Semitism in the novel. It makes very interesting reading in the context of the current situation in Ukraine. (http://australianhumanitiesreview.org/1996/04/01/the-strange-case-of-helen-demidenko/)

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  3. Wonderful review Lisa – you really capture the book so well. Khemlin writes so brilliantly and I wish there was more of her work available in translation.

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  4. Oh, I didn’t think about the Becky Sharp parallel… yes, there is something in that!

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    • Hi Davida, I also thought about Madame Bovary, not so much in terms of trading in one man after another, but in terms of the wilful selfishness and the sadness left in her wake.

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      • Interesting. I don’t know Bovary well, but yes I can see that.

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        • *chuckle* I’ve been a card-carrying feminist since 1969 when they wouldn’t promote me into the job I’d been acting in for months, because it was a ‘man’s job’ but I still spare a thought for Madame Bovary’s hapless husband…

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  5. That title does’n’t do a lot to attract attention does it. A shame because the novel does sound rather unusual and special

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    • I agree. Truth be told, I probably would have passed it by except that it was written by a woman, and I’m always on the lookout for titles for #WITmonth…
      I kept wondering if it meant something in Russian… but I don’t think it does.

      Liked by 1 person


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