Can Russian Lit Be the New Jewish Lit?

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The title of Nadia Kalman’s promising debut novel, The Cosmopolitans (Livingston Press, 2010), refers to an internationalist — even global humanist — sensibility that her characters see as deeply Jewish and Russian. As one member of an avant-garde cadre of young Russian-Jewish writers, the author makes an undeniable case for the vibrancy of this cosmopolitan approach to literary expression.

Kalman traces the lives of a Russian emigre family that has settled, finally, in the dreary suburb of Stamford, Conn.: Father Osip Molochnik, an engineer and lover of Jewish Russian dissident poet Alexander Galich; his wife, Stalina, who holds deep, dark secrets and training as a lab technician; their eldest daughter, Milla, an obedient child and accountant whose marriage to Malcolm Strauss masks her own lesbian longings; strident middle daughter, Yana, who strives to be a Marxist and feminist in a world that seems to truly value neither; and the youngest, Katya, who hides behind silence because, when excited, she speaks in sound bites from Leonid Brezhnev’s public speeches in a “strangely mannish voice.”

The book’s plot ostensibly centers on the marriages of the Molochnik sisters, each unconventional in its own way. The language is descriptive and fresh, eschewing the hackneyed Yiddishisms of earlier generations for colorful Russian idioms — and the tortured English of native Russian speakers.

That cultural sensibility extends to the story’s thematic overlay, adapted from a familiar Russian literary conceit, that suffering is a means of redemption.

But the book is, at its core, a story about what makes this proudly Russian family so recognizably American. Some of this is the result of the book’s humor, a mash-up of Russian absurdist influence and a Jewish-American magic realism.

Katya’s disability provides consistent humor and, later, pathos.

More funny, and recognizable, is Yana’s courtship by a Bangladeshi Muslim student. The resulting wedding, a comedy of errors, is drawn as a series of failed moments of cultural detente between two ethnic communities — whose intense awareness of their own “outsider status” is not enough common ground to bring them together.
The novel is structured as a series of vignettes from alternating points of view from multiple characters. It works well because it makes the book very readable, and the format is perfect for satire and critique.

Kalman’s withering portrait of Strauss family members, like Milla’s husband Malcolm, who is portrayed as a selfish, Ivy League-educated man-child who wants to be a rock star, seems an indictment of both East Coast privilege and a previous generation of Jewish immigrants who now proudly boast their pedigrees, jostling to announce their children’s marriages in the New York Times.

The alternating narrator-style technique Kalman uses is not without its weaknesses, however. Some may be frustrated by the book’s episodic structure and dearth of character development. Certain players are left frustratingly mysterious, especially Osip’s older brother Lev, a dissident who spun false family stories for Osip in order to inspire and sustain the younger Molochnik in Russia.

Lev’s shifts into first-person narration are gripping, but he seems too much a cipher because our glimpses of him are few and far between.
Perhaps this is precisely Kalman’s point, of course. Lev is a relic, a loner. And, while perhaps Lev — and what he embodies — is the philosophic soul of the novel, it is not its heart.

The Cosmopolitans is Kalman’s literary Declaration of Independence from needing to address explicitly and exclusively “Russian” and “dissident” themes: As asked pointedly by Lev at the novel’s midpoint, “What … is the point of immigration, if not new stories?”

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