I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.
Vladimir Sorokin on writing, pets, and questions that would make Nabokov ask you to leave the room.
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Berlin is full of opulent gates and splendid staircases. It is the kind of place where history licks you in the ear. Novelist Vladimir Sorokin splits his time between here and a mustard-coloreddacha located about thirty miles outside of Moscow. A household name in his native Russia since the 1990s, his international breakthrough came later with the publication of Ice Trilogy, which has since been followed by Day of the Opritchnik and The Blizzard. He has been compared to Houellebecq and Gogol, known for his use of pastiche and satire.
Sorokin, who was among this year’s nominees for the Man Booker Prize, claims to be “a shy guy.” His intonation jolts slightly, which installs a gap between his utterance and the moment it becomes a sound. He likes to begin sentences in English then continue in Russian. He looks like he is made of silver—his hair, shirt, and trousers. We spoke in his Berlin office, which is almost empty.
Kathrine Tschemerinsky Your books have been called anti-utopian. Do you think this is a good concept to use when aiming to describe your work?
Vladimir Sorokin Well, with Ice Trilogy, one can call it anti-utopian. I don’t have anything against that. Although, in fact, that was never really my intention. The aim of the book was to look at the history of the twentieth century from an unexpected perspective, even from a bit of an inhuman perspective. First and foremost, I wanted to make a gift for myself … because the history of the twentieth century involves so much cliché. A lot of things are now just a blur. It was necessary to find a way to examine it anew. For that, the Tunguska meteor helped me a lot.
KT In an interview with Der Spiegel, you mentioned that in the Moscow underground scene of the 1980s, where writers worked outside of the government’s strictures about literature, it was common to be apolitical and that this influenced your storytelling. The ideal personage in this regard was Picasso, who sat and painted apples despite German troops entering Paris. You went on to say: “I held onto that principle until I was fifty. Now the citizen in me has come to life.” I can’t help but wonder what happened. Why did you change your mind?
VS It happened after Ice Trilogy. We all change. What is happening in Russia has, of course, also influenced my position. It all brings me back to the time of Brezhnev. Frankly, I just can’t stand to breathe this stale totalitarian air anymore.
Also, with every book, I want to open up something new for myself. That is why they are so different from one another—that is, so to say, my principle changes. With every new book I am a little bit changed. (pointing to an edition of Day of the Opritchnik) I am not going to write this way from now on. After this one, I wrote something completely different—The Blizzard, which is a quiet book, like a long and hopeless Russian winter.
KT When did you begin to write?
VS (laughter) I started in school. It happened quite unexpectedly, actually. The thing is, my grandfather was a forester. We were a family of hunters, and every summer I would go to the distant Kaluga Oblast and immerse myself in life there, in hunting, in the forest … . My first story was about a wounded black goose. Wait—
(drawing on a piece of paper) Leg black. White there, then red.
KT A black grouse?
VS Yeah, that’s it. It was a story about this grouse that was wounded by a hunter and had to survive the winter. Later, he flew again.
Parallel to this, also at school, there was this one guy— wait, you know that in the Soviet Union then there was censorship right? Well, this guy brought a notebook to school, which was completely filled with hand-copied erotic stories. Everyone was eager to read them, so he earned some good money. I wanted to sabotage his accumulating wealth, and so I wrote my own story—erotic, of course—and told everyone I had translated it from English. The most unbelievable thing about it was that everyone believed me. It became very popular. That notebook disappeared. There was only one copy. That was the first recognition my work ever got.
KT How ironic, considering that you, back in 2002, were accused of being a pornographer by the Putin-friendly youth organization Iduschie Vmeste. What was the title of that particular story? Do you remember?
VS Apple. It is odd. It happened quite easily. Back then I thought of becoming a painter. I was so busy drawing and painting. I forgot all about literature and only remembered it when I was in the Underground. That was when things got more serious.
KT Is your work received differently outside of Russia?
VS Lately, the amount of readers has grown in the West. Of course, the most important readers for me are in Russia, but still, I can’t say that I only think about and value their opinions. My books have been translated into twenty-five languages now, and it is very interesting how, for example, the Germans read The Blizzard. Next year it will come out in the States.
KT How do the Germans read it?
VS It became quite popular here in Germany. But that is also how it’s supposed to be—universal. Literature, like currency, should be able to be converted everywhere. For example, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. I was once at a book fair in Guadalajara, Mexico. I passed a small bookshop. There, in the shop window, I saw, among Mexican and American bestsellers, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina. That is what we must strive for.
KT I’ve heard people suggest that postwar Europe was a remarkable historical period characterized by an absence of war and a valorization of regional integration, whereas what we are experiencing now—say, a growing polarization and the return of brown-shirt ideologies—is in fact a return to status quo. Can one say the same thing about Russia?
VS It’s a question best answered from a little distance. Russia, unlike Germany, for example, didn’t bury its past. (making digging motions with his hands) After the Second World War, the Germans dug a big hole, then threw everything in there and rolled asphalt over it. They built a new world. Now, Germany is the strong man of Europe, the most democratic. Even my French publisher says so—and he is French! That is a sign.
Russia, on the other hand, didn’t do this. During the Yeltsin years, there might have been a chance. In other words, people from the KGB or from the party would have been moved away from the government apparatus, but they didn’t leave. They will do anything to hold onto power. That’s why it ended as it did. They are all back again. So, what will happen? On the one hand, there are a lot of strong young people who travel to the West and see how other people live. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who are, in their essence, Homo Sovjeticus and today’s power in Russia relies on them. The inertia of the past proves to be very persistent.
KT In Orwell’s Why I Write, he lists four motivations: 1) Sheer egoism. 2) Aesthetic enthusiasm. 3) Historical impulse. 4) Political purpose. Which of these might fit you?
VS (laughter) Orwell was always a journalist at his core. There is a fifth point, of course, and that is the beauty of the literary process—literature as drug. If you take Nabokov, or Kafka, or Joyce—they were entirely charmed by literature. But the thing is, though it’s just literature, it teaches people much more. In fact, it sometimes has a much bigger effect than social criticism, journalism, or even protest literature.
I simply wish for each book to just ask a question, then live its own life. There must be a another motivation: the question. Actually, I don’t believe a writer should give any answers. He must only ask questions. Big questions.
KT It is funny you should mention Nabokov and the question of meaning. I recently read an essay by Zadie Smith where she compares Barthes and Nabokov. When she was younger she was intrigued by Barthes and his invitation to ascribe one’s own meaning to the text. Nabokov, on the other hand, she describes as a writer who with each new book invites his reader to enter a house of meaning—his house, that is—full of traps, hints, and irony for the reader to discover. The possibility of appropriation spoke to her as a reader, while, as an author, she likes to think one can still communicate with one’s reader, that the author is not completely dead, so to speak.
VS The ideal reader understands these things, but the thing is that every single person can read every single book exactly as they like. There are always a lot of layers. For example, this one time in Moscow, I got into a taxi. A young guy was driving. He had a book—Lolita by Nabokov. So I asked him, “What do you have there?”
“My girlfriend gave it to me. She’s a student.”
“Did you read it?”
“What’s it about then?”
He said, “Well, it’s about a professor who fucks an adolescent girl.”
That was when I realized that you can also read Lolita that way and that he had every right to do so. (laughter)
Do you know Gogol? Back in Soviet Russia we were forced to read Gogol only as a satirist, but he is much more than that. He’s a metaphysicist. You have to aim for that kind of reading.
KT In 2011, PEN America organized a conversation between you and the Russian-American writer and journalist Keith Gessen. He pointed out how difficult, and hilarious, it is to describe your books to someone who has never read them. How do you, for example, explain this scene from Day of the Opritchnik:
The oprichnik caterpillar gathers, coupling. Behind me I hear groans and screeches. The law of the brotherhood requires that the left wingers and the right wingers alternate, and only then do the younger ones join together. That’s Batya’s rule. And thank God … By the cries and muttering I sense that the youngsters’ turn has come. Batya cheers them on: “Don’t be scared, greenhorns!” The youngsters are trying, they long to burst into each other’s tight assholes. The dark bath attendants help them, they direct them, support them. The next-to-last cries out, the last groans—and the caterpillar is ready. It’s complete. We stay stock-still.
VS When Ice Trilogy came out in Russia I went to the hairdresser. It was a stylish salon. One of the girls working there recognized me during the haircut, and she suddenly asked, “Mr Sorokin. Tell me, is it true that if you make a hammer out of ice and hammer it into your chest, then you will wake up your heart?”
I told her that I hadn’t tried it yet. She was serious. That’s the power of literature. In Russia there is, thank God, still some very sincere and open-minded readers. It’s wonderful.
KT In Persecution and the Art of Writing, Leo Strauss, the political philosopher, examines how medieval philosophers made use of certain literary techniques to blur claims that were controversial and therefore might put them in danger. He calls it “writing between the lines.” You’ve described how you used to sit in the Russian metro reading Orwell’s 1984, which was banned at the time. This made you feel as though he was speaking to you directly. Does the idea of “writing between the lines” still appeal to you?
VS It’s a very serious question. So, twenty years ago I would have completely agreed with Leo Strauss, but with time I have come to prefer transparency. The more transparency the better. In other words, I now believe there should only be emptiness between the lines. That was what I was trying to do with The Blizzard—in that you only have the text.
Nowadays I can’t read Umberto Eco—that is, if we talk about the connection between philosophy and literature. I think everyone should keep to their own work. I am no longer preoccupied with the hermeneutics, but rather with the quality of the world one creates.
KT To return to the idea of “writing between the lines,” wasn’t that what you were doing inDay of the Opritchnik?
VS Yes. Of course. Absolutely. Between the lines. (demonstrates a large gap between his hands) Absolutely. There was plenty of room between the lines. (laughter)
KT According to Leo Strauss, this strategy is necessary in illiberal societies. What about in the liberal ones?
VS The idea of “writing between the lines” was very popular during Soviet times because of the censorship that existed. Writers ended up trying to decipher everything. It became a collective psychosis of the intelligentsia. Very often I was told to “read between the lines.” But what if there is nothing there? So that is why I wouldn’t overvalue it in a liberal society. After all, a writer must know what he wants to say and then be able to express it clearly.
KT Do you feel you can express what you want these days?
VS (deep sigh) In Day of the Opritchnik I asked the following question: Why are the Russian authorities in power so dependent on violence? This is a very important question. I grew up in a totalitarian society, where everything was saturated with violence. Violence was everywhere. One thing was the physical violence in its various manifestations, but that was not the most terrifying.
(pointing to his head) I examine Russian metaphysics.1
KT Of all places in the world where you could have chosen to settle, why did you decide on Berlin?
VS The first time I visited the West was in 1988. I went to Berlin, stayed here in Charlottenburg. I really liked it here. (laughter) I fell in love with Berlin. Here is Lebensraum. Neither small nor cramped. It is an incredibly democratic city and so that was my choice: Berlin. It was unforgettable.
KT A final question. Can you say something about your working process?
VS (laughter) Nabokov would send the interviewer home when he was asked that question! Please understand that it is a very delicate matter. But, okay. I can tell you how I was inspired for Day of the Opritchnik.
I have a dog. It is a wonderful dog—a whippet. It is very small. Graceful. I was at a market one day and saw a very big cow’s bone covered in blood. I thought I would play a trick on my dog and get him this big bone. How would he react? I drove home, then threw the bone out onto the snow. To my surprise the dog started to make a kind of magical ritual dance around it. It was not only beautiful but also kind of threatening.
That day I began writing Day of the Opritchnik. How do you explain that?
1After this interview, Kathrine Tschemerinsky received an email from Vladimir Sorokin with an attachment named Russian Metaphysics. This image is included above. She notes: “It is a pleasant photograph of his dog just outside his home. But there is, predictably, always something that disturbs such bliss, and upon a closer look, I realize the dog is busy taking a piss on a snowman.”
Kathrine Tschemerinsky is a freelance writer currently based in Copenhagen, Denmark. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia University, where she studied social anthropology and creative writing.
I have changed a few names to protect not the innocent, but myself.