The Soviet Emigré Experience

Author David Bezmozgis emphasizes the Jewish in the Soviet-Jewish equation.

(photo credit: DAVID FRANCO)
CANADIAN AUTHOR DAVID Bezmozgis insists on differentiating himself from the characters he has created, the young Soviet Jewish émigrés who populate his fictional works. Yet, he is able to inhabit them so well and completely, that for his many readers and admirers, this highly talented 38-year-old writer and filmmaker has become the foremost literary voice of the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Canada.
With the publication this past spring by Farrar, Straus and Giroux of his first novel, “The Free World,” following his highly acclaimed 2004 collection of short stories titled “Natasha” and his 2009 feature film “Victoria Day” – all chronicling the lives of Soviet Jews in various stages of immigration to Canada – it is evident that Bezmozgis has drawn copiously from his own personal narrative. Bezmozgis immigrated to Toronto at the age of seven with his parents from Riga, Latvia, in 1980.
Unlike other authors who are eager to venture into new territory with each work, Bezmozgis feels that he has yet to finish exploring and interpreting the Jewish Soviet émigré story. “I think there’s a lot to be said about that experience,” he tells The Report, as he explains the pull he feels toward writing about what he knows and feels most emotionally connected to.
“The first book, ‘Natasha,’ talks about what it’s like to arrive in a new country, what it’s like to arrive in North America and the experience of Soviet émigrés – Jewish émigrés – which I hadn’t seen anybody write about… I was fascinated by the story and it meant a lot to me. And there was a whole other part of that story, which preceded it, which I couldn’t really address in ‘Natasha,’ but I wanted to. So that is the reason for ‘The Free World.’ I see the two books as complementing each other, as together telling the story of that experience – backwards, I guess, because ‘Natasha’ came first.”
“Natasha,” winner of the Canadian Jewish Book Award, the City of Toronto Book Award, the Commonwealth First Book Prize, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, the JQ Wingate Prize, and shortlisted for many others, is a collection of interrelated stories about young Mark Berman, his parents and extended family, who fled Brezhnev-era Riga for Toronto. They chronicle Mark’s development from a little boy to a young man, and his family’s progress from a stressful, confusing and financially-strapped arrival in Canada to a comfortable middleclass existence.
THE CULTURAL DIFFERences, misunderstandings and tensions between the newly arrived Russians and the established Toronto Jewish community punctuate almost every one of the seven stories in the collection. “I was struck by the fact he writes as an insider and an outsider. He writes as an insider about the Canadian Jewish Soviet community, about a community that is foreign but right in the middle of the wider Jewish community.
He writes as a detached outsider observing the Canadian Jewish community and its foibles,” notes Edward Trapunski, who sat on the Canadian Jewish Book Awards jury that voted “Natasha” best work of fiction for 2004.
Trapunski vividly recalls in an e-mail interview with The Report that Bezmozgis “brought three generations, a whole contingent, with him to bask in the glory of this award. For the first time ever – and I think since – a winner of the Canadian Jewish Book Awards stood on that stage and spoke in Russian. It was moving for everybody.”
These stories, though set in 1980s and 1990s suburban Toronto, draw upon the Eastern European and Soviet Jewish literary tradition. Indeed, there are moments when some of Bezmozgis’s characters – both in “Natasha” and “The Free World” – seem as through they could have wandered in from Babel’s Odessa. “David is an Old World writer in contemporary North American letters… the sheer unhurried expansiveness of his narrative is reminiscent, in particular, of the Eastern-European mode of Jewish- American storytelling, in the vein, say, of Bernard Malamud, Henry Roth or the late great Leonard Michaels, whom David himself counts as one of his strongest influences,” remarks Mikhail Iossel, associate professor of English and Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal, and the founding director of the Summer Literary Seminars international program, in an email interview with The Report.
Iossel, a former active member of the underground literary samizdat movement in Leningrad and author of the 1991 novel “Every Hunter Wants to Know,” the first book in English by a Soviet Jewish émigré of the new wave of immigrants, explains further, “It is, to my mind, [Bezmozgis’s] the choice of characters, rather than the style in which the narrative of their placement is rendered, that his singularity primarily stems from. His literary antecedents wrote, by and large, about the no-nonsense, nonhighbrow, striving, practical-minded, hardworking, go-getting Jewish immigrants from the Pale of Settlement-bound outskirts of the former Russian empire – and he, alone among the small cohort of other talented and energetic Soviet-born North American authors of Jewish descent… writes with the clearest sense of empathy about the same essential type of Jewish immigrants from the Russian-occupied ethnic outskirts of the former Soviet empire.”
Iossel is quick to point out that Bezmozgis emphasizes the Jewish in the Soviet-Jewish equation more than his peers in the “Soviet émigré children” generation (such as New York’s Gary Shteyngart, for example), likely as a result of his family having come from Latvia, rather than the Russian parts of the Soviet Union. Thus, “the difference… most Soviet Jews living in the Russian part of the country… the ordinary Soviet citizens of Jewish descent, were the products of the self-created Soviet mythology, Soviet version of history and outlook on the world,” Iossel theorizes.
“David’s protagonists [from Latvia] are made of whole other cloth: they are the steadfastly immutable, tenacious Jews of the Old World, left largely unscarred by the accident of their having been born and brought up within the ugly Soviet fold…” THIS OLD WORLD JEWISH SENSIbility is front and center in Bezmozgis’s new novel, “The Free World,” about a family from Riga waiting months in Rome, in 1978, for immigration visas to Canada. Recounted deftly in third person from the viewpoints of three different members of the family – the Communist Party functionary and Red Army veteran Samuil Krasnansky at its head, his playboy younger son Alec, and Alec’s non-Jewish wife Polina – it is a story that had, to the author’s knowledge, never before been fictionalized.
“I wanted to write about what happens before a family arrives in North America… I had always been fascinated about what I had heard about Italy. I had been there as a boy, but I remembered not a lot, just a few things,” he shares. “I wanted to explore this idea that people from the Soviet Union, from the East, from behind the Iron Curtain – who thought they would never come West – find themselves in the West, in Rome of all places, and what that experience was like… That sense of discovery and excitement and anxiety and all of those things.”
Bezmozgis decided this transitional stay in Italy was the best place and time to position the story, as “it would justify going back [in flashbacks to what the characters’ respective lives were like in Latvia], because their past is so recent and still exerts its influence on them. And then their future is imminent, but unknowable. It’s just a fascinating moment in people’s lives, and also a representative moment about that immigration.”
In order to portray the fictional Krasnansky family’s limbo-like sojourn in Rome as accurately as possible, the author lived in that city for several months in 2004.
He made sure also to spend time in Ladispoli, the nearby town in which so many Soviet émigré families whiled away the time as they waited for their visas.
“While there, I managed to find a few people who had worked for the Jewish agencies, HIAS and the Joint, and I spoke to them,” Bezmozgis tells The Report. “I spoke to a lot of friends of the family, people who had been through that experience. I interviewed them. I’d heard what I’d heard from my own parents. I read whatever I could find [about the Italian experience], which wasn’t very much. I read a lot about Soviet history, about WWII, a great deal about Italy during the war and post-war…When you write a novel there’s an entire library –- especially for a book like this –- that kind of sits behind it. Only a small portion of it ends up in the book, but I needed all of it to inform me so I could write confidently about a place I didn’t experience firsthand as a grown-up.”
THE RELEASE OF “THE FREE World” to wide acclaim, as well as Bezmozgis’s being named one of the top 20 fiction writers under the age of 40 by “The New Yorker” last year, attest to the author’s storytelling gift that animates the Jewish Soviet émigré theme so dear to him.
“I think David is one of the most remarkable writers of his generation. I love his prose because it’s fabulously clear – crystal, really – and incredibly precise. He writes with an almost old-fashioned elegance and control… When I read him, I feel wonderfully alive. I find his work moving, challenging, and beautiful,” says Jared Bland, Managing Editor at “The Walrus,” the prestigious Canadian literary magazine that ran excerpts of “The Free World” prior to its publication.
According to Iossel, Bezmozgis “works in clean, evolved, thoroughly detailed declarative sentences, [and] limns his characters with sharp realistic specificity.” The author’s contemporary and friend, the Canadian poet, playwright and author Jonathan Garfinkel (who first got to know Bezmozgis as they spent a night talking about their favorite writers and drinking Irish whiskey at the Vancouver Jewish Book Fair in 2007) also characterizes, in interviews with The Report via Skype and email, Bezmozgis’s writing as “old,” in the sense that “he writes careful, graceful sentences.
Words and characters brim with an internal tension that is difficult to teach. His thoughts are not rushed.”
Like others, Garfinkel compares his friend to Babel, because “he does not shy away from the darkness and cynicism of the world – nor is he afraid to laugh at it, either.”
He goes on to describe Bezmozgis’s attitude towards the world and writing. “He has a strong moral authority; he commits to his moral vision,” Garfinkel says.
THE AUTHOR’S TURN AS A screenwriter and director of a feature film provided another avenue for people to appreciate his intimate and finely honed storytelling technique. Bezmozgis, a graduate of the University of Southern California’s film school, had the opportunity in 2008 to make a movie from a script he had written concurrently with the “Natasha” stories.
Bezmozgis filmed “Victoria Day,” a coming of age story about Ben Spector, the teenage son of a Jewish Soviet émigré family, on location in suburban Toronto on a modest budget.
“We got a cast that didn’t have movie stars in it. We cast people who were right for the roles. We cast teenagers who played teenagers, Russians played Russians and some of the people who were in the film had done very little or no film acting before. In that sense, it felt very authentic and organic.
Everyone was in it for the right reason, so I liked it a lot. It was done on the same sort of intimate and emotional scale that I think the stories were written in, just for the screen,” Bezmozgis recounts.
“Victoria Day” debuted at Utah’s Sundance Film Festival in 2009, and was screened at a number of international film festivals before being released in theaters in Canada. “It played for a few months. For an independent Canadian film it did quite well… and it was nice to see it out in the theater available to an audience in Canada and Toronto who knew that world,” he proudly notes.
Bezmozgis would welcome the opportunity to make another film. In fact, the collaborative, social atmosphere involved in that would be a nice change from the solitariness of writing a novel, as he has been doing for the past year as a Dorothy and Lewis B.
Cullman fellow at the New York Public Library. According to the Library’s website, the new novel, “The Betrayers,” is about a famous Russian Jewish dissident who, after the fall of the Soviet Union, meets the man who denounced him. Bezmozgis, however, is circumspect about the book. All he will say about it, as he gets ready to move back home to Toronto with his wife and two young children, is that “it’s the same and different.
It has characters who could never be confused with me and my family and our experience, but it’s still dealing with that history, but just in a very different way.”
It seems, then, that for the foreseeable future, Bezmozgis still has what to say about the Soviet émigré experience. “So for as long as there are stories about this community that engage me, I will be telling them,” he explains. “This is what I feel an emotional connection to, and for me in order to write, that’s the most important thing.”
“At the beginning of my career, those are the things I feel most acutely that I need to write about,” he says. Judging from his success thus far, it appears that for Bezmozgis, it is, indeed, just the beginning of what will likely be a long, lauded literary career.