October 22, 2019

Melancholy Russian soul flourishing in immigrants

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.