Book Review for “Klotsvog” by Margarita Khemlin (Translated by Lisa C. Hayden).
According to the publisher, Columbia University Press, “Klotsvog is a novel about being Jewish in the Soviet Union and the historical trauma of World War II—and it’s a novel about the petty dramas and demons of one strikingly vain woman. Maya Abramovna Klotsvog has had quite a life, and she wants you to know all about it. Selfish, garrulous, and thoroughly entertaining, she tells us where she came from, who she didn’t get along with, and what became of all her husbands and lovers.”
Well, talk about your unreliable narrators! In fact, in the forward to this book, author Lara Vapnyar goes so far as to actually call Khemlin an unreliable author. While I’m not sure about that, I’m also not sure I should have read her forward before reading the book. This is mostly because I think that it gave me some expectations about this book which it didn’t fully live up to. I think this is mostly because Vapnyar read things into Maya’s character that I simply didn’t find. One example is that she noted how Maya was obsessed with acquiring ever more beautiful clothes, shoes, and jewelry. While there were mentions of these things, they felt more like they were in passing, more as a way to show Maya’s vanity, than any obsession. I’m afraid that makes me think that Vapnyar was somewhat of an unreliable author for the forward, so if you decide to read this book, I’d recommend you wait until you’ve finished the novel to read what she has to say.
On the other hand, since this is a translation from the Russian, I really did appreciate the introduction by Hayden and her notes on what she was trying to achieve here. Apparently, Khemlin’s style in the original was very colloquial, and I believe that Hayden captured that in the English as well. That said, I must admit that there were many times that I was confused by the other characters here. You see, Russians have three names – a first name, a surname, and a patronymic name. The patronymic one comes from the person’s father’s first name. That means that Maya’s father’s first name was whatever is Russian for Abraham, and that is very clear. However, sometimes Maya would refer to someone in one sentence by their first name (with or without their patronymic name, and in the next sentence refer to them only by their surname. This made it very hard for me to keep all of them straight, and sometimes I felt like there were more people in a certain scene than there actually were. I know, this is a very personal problem (and it is well known that it can be a symptom of my mild dyslexia), but it did bother me.
As for the unreliable narrator part, one problem with Maya is that she keeps calling herself a pedagogue, and yet for some reason, her own children don’t seem to improve with any of her pedagogical methods or strategies. Furthermore, her own teaching experience is so limited as to be almost negligible. This, of course, makes her wonder why all the things she does seem to lead to less than ideal outcomes. She’s so certain that she’s doing what’s best for everyone, and yet we can easily see that she’s doing what’s best only for herself. This, of course, makes her very unlikable as a character. Now, normally, if a main protagonist isn’t likeable for me, I usually quit reading before the end. Yet despite the fact that I’d never like to meet Maya in person for a cup of coffee, I kept on reading because, to be honest, I wanted to see if either she changed, and if not, then at least she should get what she deserves. So, although I cared what happened to her, I certainly wasn’t rooting for her. I don’t think I’ve ever had this type of negative response to a character, for which I was still intrigued.
By the way, one very fascinating part of this book is how Khemlin describes the housing situations under Soviet rule (the novel begins not long after WWII, and ends in the early 1970s, before the fall of the Soviet Union). There are these descriptions of how people register where they live, and how one person might be eligible for an apartment of their own, or only allowed a room in a communal place, that feel very cold and bleak. Since Maya moves a whole lot, we get to understand how the housing situations varied, not only by status (marital, or economic), but also in different parts of the country. Add to this the ease and speed in how Maya gets both married and divorced, juxtaposed by other hardships such as long lines to buy everyday products, and we get an overview of the miserable life these people had under communism, which is accepted as inevitable by everyone in the novel. So, while it feels dour, it also feels strangely natural, and almost cheerful. I also have very high praise for the almost offhanded way Khemlin presents being Jewish during this time.
All of this makes me wonder, how can I accurately rate this book? On the one hand, the translation felt very right, and there was an easy, almost conversational style to the book that belied the complex issues about which Maya talks. On the other hand, there was Maya’s personality that was far from endearing, and you’re never sure if what she’s telling us is real or part of her egotistic imagination. Still – like the proverbial train wreck – I found it very hard to turn away from this book. This is one novel that will surely be controversial, but not in a “love it or hate it” way, but rather in a “like to hate her but still hate to like the book” way, if you get my drift. I think I’ll give it three and a half stars, and recommend it to people looking for something unconventional, who aren’t afraid of a work that’s enigmatic.
Columbia University Press will release “Klotsvog” by Margarita Khemlin (Translated by Lisa C. Hayden) on August 27, 2019. This book is/will be available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers for sending me an ARC of this novel via NetGalley.