fbpx
Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Melancholy Russian soul flourishing in immigrants

Enjoying this article?

You'll love our roundtable.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

The Russian soul, that hard to define, but deep and informed melancholy, is flourishing in Rego Park, Queens, N.Y.

To the title character in Irina Reyn’s new novel, “What Happened to Anna K” (Touchstone), the velikaia russkaia dusha, Russian soul, transplanted to America might be embodied in the way Russians avoid voicing public praise, rebuke strangers in public and show a fondness for politically incorrect jokes.

Shards of it are locked up even in Anna, who wakes up optimistic to a new day, yet loves to drink, even if it makes her argumentative or depressed afterward and tends to see things in binary mode — as either wonderful or terrible. An overall feeling of doom is never far away.

“The Russian soul had come to claim her, extinguishing all that was sanguine and buoyant, all that was American inside her, leaving only the Siberian Steppes, the crust of black bread, the acerbic aftertaste of marinated herring, the eternal, bleak winter,” Reyn writes.

In an interview, the Moscow-born author, who immigrated to the United States at the age of 7, admits that she, too, has a lingering Russian soul. Her well-written and very enjoyable first novel recasts Tolstoy, as its title suggests, observing immigrants from the former Soviet Union, body and soul.

Reyn said in unaccented English that she began writing some stories and sketches that would become pieces of this novel during graduate school, when she reread “Anna Karenina.” As she was thinking about issues of identity for her characters, of integrating tradition and modernity, she realized that Tolstoy had dealt with some of the same concerns, and her questions overlapped with some of his.

“Once I decided that I was going to draw attention to a dialogue with Tolstoy, the challenge was how far to go with this. I didn’t want to literally transpose his story,” she explains, but, rather, wanted to find moments that would inform her novel. She took care to be sure her novel had its own identity, even while calling attention to this other great work.

Readers don’t need to have read the great Russian classic to appreciate Reyn’s novel. She says that many American readers have turned to Tolstoy after reading “What Happened to Anna K.”

Reyn’s Anna K., who had expected great love for herself and that she would shape great art reflecting her emotional life, “waited patiently for the call of the relevant lovers through her 20s and early 30s.”

Single at 36 and aware that her creative inspiration has yet to materialize, she settles into marriage with a successful Russian businessman. Even at her wedding at a Brighton Beach nightclub, she feels an uneasy desire for something more.

She and her husband move from Rego Park to the Upper East Side of Manhattan; their circle consists of his friends and their wives who speak “a Russian-English patois, Americanizing their Russian, Russifying their English. The women dressed themselves and their men and the result was bright pinks, pinstripes, matching necklaces and earrings, manicures, thick, visible lip liner. Gold was favored over silver, chunky pieces that screamed out for attention.”

Anna K. is drawn into an affair with the boyfriend of her Bukharan cousin — first glimpsed at a train station. With him she can talk about books and ideas, and she likes the notion of being his muse. Her cousin Katia marries Lev, a fellow Bukharan, who’s passionate about French film. But Anna K’s life resembles that of Tolstoy’s tragic heroine.

With humor laced into this story, Reyn explores aging, love and marriage, ethnic identity, the power of tradition and the pull of family and community. This may be the first novel, at least in English, to offer a glimpse into the lives of Bukharan Jews in Queens, where many thousands have settled. This is a community with great devotion to memory, which exerts strong efforts to maintain their religious and cultural traditions.

Katia’s father is so happy to be marrying off his daughter that he promises, on first meeting his son-in-law to be, free haircuts for life. Lev doesn’t have the heart to tell him that he has half a dozen barbers in his own family. Food is described in appealing detail, which may inspire readers to board a subway to Rego Park to try out a Bukharan restaurant.

“I think of myself as a Russian Jewish American writer,” Reyn says.

When she came to the United States from Moscow with her parents in 1981, she knew no English and found herself struggling through third grade in a Brooklyn public school. In the evenings, members of the family would quiz one another on vocabulary using homemade flash cards. By fourth grade, Reyn was the class spelling bee champ and, as her parents would say, soaking up the English language.

Her family moved from Flatbush to Rego Park when she was 9, where they lived among Bukharan families. Later on they moved to Fairlawn, N.J. She attended Rutgers University, and earned a masters in fine arts from Bennington College. Now 34, she teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh and divides her time between Pittsburgh and Brooklyn.

Reyn, along with her parents, sister and American husband, recently visited Moscow, and she was doubly struck — by seeing what her life might have been like had they stayed, as they visited family friends still living there, and also by the new wealthy, global and over-the-top Moscow.

Sandee Brawarsky is book critic for The Jewish Week.

Enjoyed this article?

You'll love our roundtable.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

Latest Articles

Print Issue: Aug. 7, 2020

CLICK HERE FOR FULLSCREEN VERSION

‘Yo Semite’ Shirt Makes a Comeback After Trump Mispronounces Yosemite National Park

Trump's verbal gaffe Aug. 4 unintentionally endorsed a pre-existing “Yo Semite” t-shirt, created 15 years ago by Bay Area educator Sarah Lefton.

Is Now a Good time to Panic? Jewish Parenting in the time of Pandemic

I’ve been thinking a lot about how God must be very busy these days. His normal volume of prayers must certainly be at an...

In ‘A World Upended,’ Los Angeles Jews Gathered to Commemorate Tisha B’Av

“It was soothing to see a gallery view of  fellow Jews from across L.A. on a day that is defined by isolation.”

Jewish and Black Historical Cemeteries Vandalized in Virginia With Nazi Symbol

The vandalism consisted of graffiti stating "777," which is Nazi shorthand.

AJC Calls on Washington Post to Correct Op-Ed Calling Israel ‘Ethnically Exclusive’

"Calling Israel ‘ethnically exclusive’ is a lie and an insult to 25% of Israel’s population who aren’t Jewish but are full participants in its democracy."

Israel Offers Aid to Lebanon Following Explosions at Beirut Port

Lebanon is not expected to accept the offer.

‘Harry Potter’ Star Jason Isaacs Opens up About His Struggle With Addiction

"Every action was filtered through a burning need I had for being as far from a conscious, thinking, feeling person as possible."

Can We Save Working Moms and Our Economy?

Working moms in the U.S. already make as little as 69 cents for each dollar earned by working dads. We simply cannot afford a backslide.

Trump Pronounces Yosemite as ‘Yo Semites’

Twitter users responded with various jokes on the matter.

Culture

‘Yo Semite’ Shirt Makes a Comeback After Trump Mispronounces Yosemite National Park

Trump's verbal gaffe Aug. 4 unintentionally endorsed a pre-existing “Yo Semite” t-shirt, created 15 years ago by Bay Area educator Sarah Lefton.

‘Harry Potter’ Star Jason Isaacs Opens up About His Struggle With Addiction

"Every action was filtered through a burning need I had for being as far from a conscious, thinking, feeling person as possible."

Amazon’s ‘Hunters’ Renewed for Season 2

The hit drama from creator David Weil, executive producer Jordan Peele and starring Al Pacino and Logan Lerman, was inspired by Weil’s grandmother, a Holocaust survivor.

LAMOTH to Present ‘The Holocaust & Italy’ Film Series and Panel Discussions

The Shoah-related movies and live Zoom discussions are part of this month's “Teicholz Holocaust Remembrance Film Series: The Holocaust & Italy.”

Latest Articles
Latest

Print Issue: Aug. 7, 2020

CLICK HERE FOR FULLSCREEN VERSION

‘Yo Semite’ Shirt Makes a Comeback After Trump Mispronounces Yosemite National Park

Trump's verbal gaffe Aug. 4 unintentionally endorsed a pre-existing “Yo Semite” t-shirt, created 15 years ago by Bay Area educator Sarah Lefton.

Is Now a Good time to Panic? Jewish Parenting in the time of Pandemic

I’ve been thinking a lot about how God must be very busy these days. His normal volume of prayers must certainly be at an...

In ‘A World Upended,’ Los Angeles Jews Gathered to Commemorate Tisha B’Av

“It was soothing to see a gallery view of  fellow Jews from across L.A. on a day that is defined by isolation.”

Jewish and Black Historical Cemeteries Vandalized in Virginia With Nazi Symbol

The vandalism consisted of graffiti stating "777," which is Nazi shorthand.

Hollywood

Roy Moore’s Lawsuit Against Sacha Baron Cohen Over Being Pranked Can Proceed, Judge Rules

By the time the episode aired, it was widely known that Cohen was punking public figures.

‘Expecting Amy’ Highlights a New Comedy Dynamic of Jewish Mothers Making, Not Being, the Jokes

Jewish moms like Amy Schumer, who were once the material, have become the premier comics of this age.

Podcasts

The Mastermind Behind Netanyahu’s New Media (Topaz Luk)

Even prime ministers can’t do everything by themselves. They must surround themselves with dedicated, smart and excellent people who will help them.

Pandemic Times Episode 75: What is the Secret to Jewish Resiliency?

New David Suissa Podcast Every Monday and Friday. Reflections on the worsening times and how the Jewish approach to resiliency can guide us. How do we...

More news and opinions than at a Shabbat dinner, right in your inbox.


By submitting this form, you are consenting to receive marketing emails from: Jewish Journal, 3250 Wilshire Boulevard, Los Angeles, CA, 90010, http://www.jewishjournal.com. You can revoke your consent to receive emails at any time by using the SafeUnsubscribe® link, found at the bottom of every email. Emails are serviced by Constant Contact

x