Crypto-Jews and Autobiographical Animals

Maxim D. Shrayer: Papa, I want to ask you about varieties of crypto-Jews—those who conceal their Judaism in order to preserve it (as in your story “White Sheep on a Green Mountain Slope” set in the Caucasus), and also, perhaps, those who conceal their Jewishness to preserve themselves (as the Holocaust survivor, the Polish Jew in “Mimicry”). Why do so many crypto-Jews populate the pages of your stories, and why are there fewer traditional Jews in them?

David Shrayer-Petrov: I think that many Jews used to want to play down their Jewishness, at least in their public conduct… and I myself was sometimes guilty of that in pre-refusenik Soviet life.

MDS: But crypto-Jewishness is also an inherent quality of your stories, your characters. That’s why I contrasted your crypto-Jews with your publically observant Jews.

DSP: Pious Jews don’t usually stray from their public image or literary stereotype. Such model Jews are a source of my great admiration, but as a fictionist I don’t have much to say about them. It’s been done before by Sholem Aleichem, Bashevis Singer… even Singer was writing about Jews who exhibited a shift of behavior.

MDS: Speaking about shifts of behavior, Jewish or otherwise, your stories carry a strong dose of sexual tension; “The Bicycle Race” alone is rife with eroticism. I keep thinking of 
Dinner with Stalin
 and of 
Dark Avenues
, Ivan Bunin’s manifesto of the love story. Can we speak of your book as a book of love stories?

DSP: I would prefer to call it a book of stories about love. In these stories there isn’t only love for a person, but also a subtle, yet powerful love for a Jew’s homeland, for Russia. And this love for—this love of—one’s native Russian language and culture is perhaps even stronger than sexual love in my stories.

MDS: And what about the love of American culture? I remember from my earliest Moscow childhood the framed photographs of Hemingway and Robert Frost on the walls of your study.

DSP: Yes, I was fascinated by them. But they didn’t touch me the way first Chekhov and Bunin, and later Nabokov touched me. Even Hemingway doesn’t touch me this way today. I don’t know what happened… It’s also one’s age.

MDS: Perhaps it’s one’s age. Or perhaps it’s your authorial perspective mixing colors of love and irony. During a recent event at Books on the Square in Providence, in responding to a question by a journalist of Jewish Soviet descent, you stated that everything you write is autobiographical, including your animal characters, be they wild turkeys or hippos. How literally can one take these words?

DSP: Autobiographical in the sense that each bird hum or love call, each sigh or roar of the hippopotamus, each tiny vibration of my story lines has its source in me—because I’ve experienced it. And if I hadn’t literally experienced it, then I thought that I’d lived it. Believe me, in our mind we sometimes live though an imagined life that is as real as the one we experience outside of our consciousness.

MDS: You’ve written some forty-five short stories and novellas and you have also written seven novels. Going back to the secrets of Jewish story-writing, I want to ask you what distinguishes the short story from the novel—and specifically your short stories from your novels?

DSP: As a genre, the short story is more fragile and tender than the novel. The short story does not tolerate falsity or unintended ambiguity. Shortcomings are immediately exposed on the face of the short story. At the same time, the short story does not agree particularly well with overabundant continuous depiction of people and their ways—with the so-called realistic-representational mode. In a successful short story, each line gains the potential to be read and perceived mythologically. For instance, in “Behind the Zoo Fence,” the hippopotamus is mythological in his capacity to send mystical vibes of healing to a young woman fighting a lethal infection at a nearby hospital.

MDS: You speak of your short stories as possessing a fantastical quality. This is, of course, a feature of Jewish fiction, from Sholem Aleichem to Bashevis Singer to Malamud. What are some of the literary sources of your stories?

DSP: I have always been drawn to fairy tales, legends, and myths. This goes back to my childhood, when I spent three wartime years in a remote Russian village hidden in the Ural Mountains. I was drawn to these things, but not so much to what is popularly known as science fiction. In modern Russian poetry and fiction I have admired works that were simultaneously fantastical tales and stories of social fantasy. Think of the Strugatsky Brothers—those Jewish-Russian geniuses of social fantasy.

MDS: Please explain what you have in mind when you call some of your short stories “fantellas”? This is your coinage.

DSP: From the skein of prose, grounded in realistic predicaments, I grow elements of what I call fantellism. I take these elements beyond the limits of so-called real life, and I pour them into the vessels naturally equipped to contain fairy tales. I call such a story a fantella, and through translation, my fantellas have entered American literature.

MDS: But could I please ask you to be more specific about the fantellas in Dinner with Stalin.

DSP: I already mentioned “Behind the Zoo Fence” with its hippo and his healing powers. Let me also mention “Mimicry” (where it’s sometimes impossible to separate the magic kingdom of marionettes from the real lives of puppeteers) and “Where Are You, Zoya?” (with its mysterious appearances of a wild turkey who bonds with an elderly Soviet émigré, she the widow of a Jewish poet who perished in the Gulag). There are other stories to read and think about. But let me stop here because the process of summarizing a new book not only arouses one’s curiosity but also takes away from the pleasures of imagining another life.

The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.

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