Last year an editor I’d worked with made what I initially thought was a puzzling remark about my writing. ‘I find your Russian worldview fascinating,’ she said. The work-in-question had nothing to do with Russia. Plus, while I’ve written in two different languages, neither of them is Russian – my mother tongue. Nor have I ever considered myself to be a ‘Russian writer’.
I spent my first 12 years in what used to be the Soviet Union, but never quite felt I belonged there. I was a child of a Jewish mother, born in her native Siberia, but my father was a Ukrainian Jew and when I was six we moved to live in his hometown, Odessa. At the time Ukraine was a Soviet republic and home to many Russians too; the boundaries between them and Ukrainians were fuzzy. However, being a Jew was a clear peril wherever you lived, as my family experienced firsthand, so I’ve always felt ambivalent about my Russian heritage. Not only as a Jew, but also as a refugee of Communism and, later, as an appalled observer of ‘Putinism’ starting from far before the horrors of the Ukrainian invasion.
After we fled to Israel, I published three books in Hebrew. When, later, I moved to Australia, I moved to writing in English. In both languages, I’ve written about my years in Russia and Ukraine, and some of my fiction is set there, but I never felt I was writing like a Russian. I thought of myself as a ‘passionate outsider’ writing about a place that has indelibly imprinted on me its beauty and its brutality. The country, as I remembered it, was a feast – its operas, vaudevilles and books, Siberian snowstorms, Odessa’s sun and salt. The country was a wound too, in so many ways – with its oppressive regime and regime-mandated antisemitism. I bled, but as a writer I didn’t think I was of that country’s flesh.
One recent night and the editor’s remark suddenly made perfect sense. I was watching the second season of The Great, admiring the chutzpah with which the Old Russia there was deconstructed and remade. In one memorable scene there, Peter, the Russian emperor, reluctantly follows an ancient custom: in anticipation of his child’s birth he’s digging two graves – for the mother and for the baby. This way, another character reassures him, if they die you are prepared. And if they survive, your happiness will be enhanced. Peter protests – why would you want to so horribly spoil what should be a joyous time? Because this is Russia, his men, gathered around him, say laconically. Then, as if to end the discussion, they burst into an utterly depressing song. The digging goes on.
For the record, there was no such custom in Russia (although it suffered no shortage of bizarre traditions…). But to my point, watching that scene made me grasp what my sensitive editor already knew. True, with my myriad of cultural and other identities, a true Wandering Jew that I am, I’m forever a passionate outsider no matter the language or subject matter I choose. Still, there are Russian traces in my worldview and hence on my pages – not in a geopolitical sense, but rather they have something to do with that famous metaphysical, but so physical to me, so embodied in me, concept of ‘Russian soul’. That famous Russian sense of fatalism mixed with the absurd, probably nurtured by centuries of suffering under despotic regimes, captured precisely in The Great’s hilarious scene
It must be no coincidence that tragicomedy has always been my preferred genre to write and to read. Whether I intend so or not, my pages are always tinged with melancholy, often of the morbid kind, as well as with laughter in the face of this morbidity. In other words, in whatever I write there is always a group of ridiculously overdressed grown-up men huddled together stiff like choir boys, singing an utterly depressing song while somebody is digging a pre-emptory grave…