Understating Exile: Sergej Dovlatov's Ours: A Russian Family Album

Val Vinokurov, Princeton University

This paper examines Sergej Dovlatov as a corrective voice in the midst of a hyperbolic Russian discourse on exile and immigration. Writers as diverse as Gercen, Dostoevskij, and Eduard Limonov have fostered a literature that mystifies the "forsaking" of the native land, a mystification that is especially voluble when the place of exile happens to be America--"the land for forgetting one's own" (Garibaldi, in Gercen).

In Dovlatov's Ours: A Russian Family Album, a memoir dedicated to his American-born son, the author implicitly mocks the conventions of Russian diasporic writing, ruefully recalling his attempts to convince his wife not to quit the motherland: "I talked about the ... benefits of enduring intense social pressure, about the linguistic and cultural range available to us. I even spoke of birch trees--something for which I will never forgive myself." I suggest that Dovlatov's casual and irreverent attitude to the articulation of the displacement and desires common to writers in exile is related to his wish to avoid "sounding over-literary."

My reading of Ours also introduces a critique of the rhetoric of the theory of exile. As articulated by such figures as Conrad, Iosif Brodskij, and Edward Said, exile is a precious wound, lending the writer a voice that can't stop talking about its uprooted voicelessness. According to David Patterson, the "poet in exile" becomes the "poet of exile" by undertaking the movement of literary "return," an endless yearning for the sacred unity of word and meaning. Indeed, the writing "of" exile often over-reaches in literary seriousness, while insisting on having things both ways, that is, latching onto exile as creatively transgressive and transcendent on the one hand and as alienation and rejection on the other (David Bevan). Said himself cautions: "To think of exile as beneficial, as a spur to humanism, is to belittle its mutilations." Does Dovlatov's attitude suggest a kind of anti-poetic and anti-epic "theory" of exile? If so, what would this understated notion of exile be? Where Conrad insists on the "unnaturalness" of being a transplant, perhaps Dovlatov implies that, notwithstanding patriotism and nostalgia, it is only natural for most people (and not just writers) to be unnatural anyway.