This week father and son, neigh­bors in Brook­line, Mass­a­chu­setts and long­time col­lab­o­ra­tors, David Shray­er-Petrov and Max­im D. Shray­er dis­cuss Din­ner with Stal­in and Oth­er Sto­ries in a three-part con­ver­sa­tion con­duct­ed for the Vis­it­ing Scribe series. They will be blog­ging here for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing all week. 

Max­im D. Shray­er: Papa, let’s start with a basic ques­tion. What are the sto­ries gath­ered in Din­ner with Stal­in about?

David Shray­er-Petrov: Above all else, Din­ner with Stal­in is about Russ­ian Jews who found them­selves abroad, first emi­grat­ing and lat­er graft­ing them­selves onto Amer­i­can soil. My char­ac­ters per­ceive them­selves, espe­cial­ly when over­seas, as Amer­i­cans — even though at home in the US they may think of them­selves as Rus­sians. But if you pressed them on the sub­ject, You’re Russ­ian?” they would answer, Yes, we’re Russ­ian. Russ­ian Jews.” As a writer I weave the fab­ric of my sto­ries from dif­fer­ent balls of yarn: my char­ac­ters appear as Amer­i­cans at work, as Rus­sians at home, while in fact they have Jew­ish souls. 

MDS: If we take the title sto­ry, Din­ner with Stal­in,” as a sym­bol of the whole col­lec­tion, how does it express the essence of your book?

DSP: The title sto­ry doesn’t only encap­su­late the Jew­ish ques­tion. This group of émi­gré friends is vis­it­ed by Stal­in who has come from the oth­er world. It’s actu­al­ly an actor who mas­ter­ful­ly plays Stal­in, bring­ing the whole thing to the point of absur­di­ty; the audi­ence begins to believe him — the way they tem­porar­i­ly believe the actor play­ing Hitler in Ray Bradbury’s Dar­ling Adolf.” Present among this mot­ley group are rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a num­ber of nation­al­i­ties of the for­mer USSR, includ­ing Arme­ni­ans, Azeris, Ukraini­ans, Rus­sians, and Jews. Here Jews enjoy par­i­ty, and the émi­gré pro­tag­o­nist and his wife, Mira, end up ask­ing Stal­in the most blunt ques­tions about Sovi­et and Jew­ish history.

MDS: So in fact Din­ner with Stal­in” is a fic­tion­al mod­el of the for­mer Sovi­et Union?

DSP: …yes, that’s right. And also a mod­el of a Unit­ed Nations session…

MDS: …con­ven­ing in post-Sovi­et times…

DSP: …exact­ly. At this ses­sion rep­re­sen­ta­tives of dif­fer­ent post-Sovi­et nations tes­ti­fy about Stal­in­ism and oth­er har­row­ing aspects of the past.

MDS: Let’s digress for a moment and talk about your path as both a writer of fic­tion and a Jew­ish author. You start­ed out as a poet, and you hadn’t become a writer of sto­ries until the 1980s, hav­ing already writ­ten three nov­els and two books of non-fic­tion. The short sto­ry became one of your cho­sen forms. Why do you think you embraced the short sto­ry lat­er in your career?

DSP: I believe this had to do with what I demand­ed of myself. I had been regard­ing the short sto­ry as a gem that not every writer gets to cut and pol­ish. For me the sto­ries of Zweig, Thomas Mann, Bunin, Nabokov— Chekhov above all — and of the ear­ly Sovi­et writ­ers such as Ole­sha and Babel—rep­re­sent­ed the high­est mas­tery of the craft. As a younger writer I had sto­ries to tell, but I hadn’t fath­omed how to com­pose short sto­ries until I became a Jew­ish refusenik and was liv­ing in iso­la­tion from the offi­cial Sovi­et cul­ture. And already as a refusenik I under­stood that there is a mag­ic device of fic­tion-mak­ing, which one needs to real­ize in order to com­pose a sto­ry — to con­jure it up rather than copy it from so-called real life. This mag­ic fic­tion­al qual­i­ty — an inim­itable vibra­tion of feel­ing — is some­thing Chekhov’s sto­ries exhib­it in the fullest sense. 

MDS: You had a very ear­ly piece of short prose titled The Sun Fell into the Mine Shaft” from the ear­ly 1960s, which was about a young Jew’s real­iza­tion that he could nev­er be ful­ly inte­grat­ed into the Russ­ian main­stream. I find it very intrigu­ing that you hadn’t begun to write short sto­ries until you became a refusenik. 

DSP: The Jew­ish ques­tion had been a source of much trep­i­da­tion. As you can imag­ine, by the ear­ly 1960s, I had already lived through a lot. The Doc­tors’ Plot [of 1952 – 1953], when Jews had again expe­ri­enced a near­ing abyss, occurred dur­ing my senior year in high school. The Jew­ish theme had stung me. But before we applied for exit visas, I had been dis­tanc­ing myself from writ­ing fic­tion about Jews. I had been tying my own Jew­ish hands. But I couldn’t sup­press these urges.

MDS: Your sto­ries, almost all of them, fea­ture Jew­ish char­ac­ters. Is writ­ing almost exclu­sive­ly about Jew­ish char­ac­ters what makes a writer-Jew a Jew­ish writer?

DSP: I think that’s impor­tant. At least there’s a Jew­ish cal­cu­lus at work. If you’re a writer of Jew­ish ori­gin but you nev­er write about Jews… hmm…I don’t know. 

MDS: And if this is not only a mat­ter of Jew­ish themes or char­ac­ters but some­thing else, can one then speak of a Jew­ish poet­ics — or specif­i­cal­ly of the Jew­ish short sto­ry? What is that Jew­ish some­thing else in writing?

DSP: It’s a secret, and I don’t think you can iso­late it the way sci­en­tists iso­late a gene. Oth­er­wise one could take this Jew­ish some­thing and trans­fer it onto any mate­r­i­al. Luck­i­ly, it does­n’t work this way. Each writer has his or her own Jew­ish secret. Babel has his own, and we imme­di­ate­ly feel it. Or take Ilya Ilf and Evge­ny Petrov and their clas­sic nov­els The Twelve Chairs and The Gold­en Calf. Even though most of the char­ac­ters aren’t Jew­ish, the autho­r­i­al grin is very Jew­ish. Or con­sid­er Grossman’s Life and Fate… the way the author mourns the Jew­ish fate as he sets it against the back­drop of the entire country’s dev­as­tat­ing fate.

MDS: Yes, but I think that in Gross­man there’s also a dis­tinct­ly Jew­ish intel­lec­tu­al com­men­tary. I was actu­al­ly won­der­ing: To what extent is a Jew­ish writer a child of Juda­ic civ­i­liza­tion and to what extent is he a prod­uct of his own epoch and language?

DSP: I’m not a great fan of the notion of genet­ic Jew­ish mem­o­ry. There are uni­ver­sal human genes, and there are genes high­ly preva­lent in the Jew­ish geno­type, but I don’t think this has much to do with Jew­ish writ­ing. What does mat­ter is that writ­ers grew up in a Jew­ish fam­i­ly — even in post-rev­o­lu­tion­ary Rus­sia — where they were exposed to Jew­ish conversations.

Check back tomor­row for Part 2: A Jew­ish-Russ­ian Writer as New Eng­lan­der

Born in Leningrad in 1936, David Shray­er-Petrov emi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States in 1987. He is the author of twen­ty-three books in his native Russ­ian and of sev­er­al books in Eng­lish trans­la­tion, includ­ing Jon­ah and Sarah: Jew­ish Sto­ries of Rus­sia and Amer­i­ca and Autumn in Yal­ta: A Nov­el and Three Sto­ries. His lat­est book is the col­lec­tion Din­ner with Stal­in and Oth­er Sto­ries. Din­ner with Stal­in was edit­ed by the author’s son, Max­im D. Shray­er, a writer and a pro­fes­sor at Boston Col­lege. Two sto­ries in the col­lec­tion were trans­lat­ed by Emil­ia Shray­er, Shray­er-Petro­v’s wife of over fifty years and a for­mer refusenik activist. The oth­er trans­la­tors include Arna Bron­stein and Alek­san­dra Fleszar, Mol­ly God­win-Jones, Leon Kogan, Mar­gar­it Ordukhanyan, and Max­im D. Shrayer.

Copy­right © 2014 by David Shray­er-Petrov and Max­im D. Shrayer

Relat­ed Content

Max­im D. Shray­er is a bilin­gual writer and a pro­fes­sor at Boston Col­lege. Born in Moscow in 1967 in the fam­i­ly of the writer David Shray­er-Petrov, Shray­er emi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States in 1987. He has authored over ten books in Eng­lish and Russ­ian, among them the mem­oir Wait­ing for Amer­i­ca: A Sto­ry of Emi­gra­tion, the sto­ry col­lec­tion Yom Kip­pur in Ams­ter­dam, and the Holo­caust study SAW IT. Shrayer’s Anthol­o­gy of Jew­ish-Russ­ian Lit­er­a­ture won a 2007 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award, and in 2012 he received a Guggen­heim Fel­low­ship. Shrayer’s lat­est book is Leav­ing Rus­sia: A Jew­ish Sto­ry, a final­ist for the 2013 Nation­al Jew­ish Book Awards. A recent review in Jew­ish Book World called Leav­ing Rus­sia a stun­ning mem­oir” and rec­om­mend­ed that it should be assigned read­ing for any­one inter­est­ed in the Jew­ish expe­ri­ence of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.” Read addi­tion­al blog posts he’s writ­ten for the Vis­it­ing Scribe here.

Young Jews Lost in Leningrad: Part One of a Two-Part Blog

Notes of For­give­ness: Part Two of a Two-Part Blog