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 Scribes series. Read the first install­ment, A Fic­tion­al Mod­el of the For­mer USSR,” here and the sec­ond install­ment, A Jew­ish-Russ­ian Writer as New Eng­lan­der,” here. They have been blog­ging here for the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing all week.

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.

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