Jul 7, 2009

Aksyonov and contemporary literature

Vasily Aksyonov, a Russian novelist, died July 6, 2009. The media described him as one of the people of the 60s (shestedisyatniks). His parents spent decades in the Gulag system, and Aksyonov has been separated from them for years. His background determined his career choice, which he changed later on. His writings were not published at first. He has been described as "unsoviet" and was eventually stripped of his Soviet citizenship. He lived in the US, in Russia and in France. His views were anti-Stalinist and yet he was a Soviet writer. A classic as they say.

I was not particularly impressed by Aksynov's work. I probably read him too early to understand appreciate. When I read "The Island of Crimea" in high school, I didn't care about political regimes, historical consequences of certain actions, and so on. His writing seemed light, somewhat entertaining, but not profound. But while I've been reading some of his obituaries, I realized that I have to re-read him. Not only because I will have a different perspective, but also because I realized why I don't like contemporary literature and prefer re-reading the old books rather than reading new ones.

This essay about Aksyonov's role in literature (in Russian) makes a distinction between writers as storytellers and writers as teachers. The latter write not only interesting stories, but model behavior for writers and, I'd argue, for the rest of us. Was Aksyonov such a writer-teacher? Perhaps. He was part of that generation of intellectuals. But this deeper layer that can move, inspire and teach you is what I miss in contemporary literature. Many interesting stories are being told in books. They can be funny, unusual, mystic, or shocking. But, unfortunately, they rarely teach.

How do the so called classics do it? They use everything - life events, words, meanings, literary forms, and genres - to tell stories and understand something about life. And my pleasure as a reader is to see the workings of all these techniques and maybe understand something about life or myself as well. Nowadays it seems that neither complexity nor simplicity of writing works toward those goals of deeper understanding. At least it takes a lot of effort to find such works.