Russian American Marriage
East and West Fall in Love but Find Coexistence Difficult
Review by RICHARD
You might have to go back to Henry James to find American characters - privileged but uncertain, intelligent but provincial - encountering an outside world that variously instructs, chastens and up-ends them.
The Hemingway-Fitzgerald generation and its literary successors have tended to treat the world, when they did treat it, as a stage upon which Americans could be more heroically or plangently themselves, or (following the generations down to our day) introspectively, narcotically or psychotically themselves.
It may seem far-fetched to haul up Paul Greenberg's first novel, "Leaving Katya," for a Jamesian comparison. Few if any of its sentences go above 30 words, and I didn't spot a single implied subjunctive. It has moments of shivering insight and mournful bicultural comedy, but it stumbles up to them rather than condescending down.
Nor would you conceive James beginning this way. Daniel, a young American studying in Gorbachev- era St. Petersburg, in what his psychiatrist-father calls his "Russian phase," meets Katya, spoiled daughter of a former middle-level member of the Communist nomenklatura. They go to bed.
"The more I undressed her, the more foreign Katya seemed. Beneath her clothes was a whole parallel universe of underwear. Garters and stockings made of an industrial material I'd never felt before snapped together and intertwined."
As they proceed Katya remains motionless in the embroidered sheet she has tightly cocooned them in - no sexy displays, imaginative foreplay or love talk permitted. At the end: "Did you finish?" she asks. "Finish?" "Yes. Finish. Are you satisfied?" Told yes: "Well, well. Time to go."
It is not frigidity but passion in a different language, though it will take the whole book to suggest it. At their next encounter Katya rails at Daniel's imminent departure for New York, considering "the strong way we're feeling about each other right now at this special moment in time."
Thus the tone, dark wit and contradictions in the stormy union and infinite disunion of Daniel and Katya and their two cultures. She comes to New York and marries him. They struggle in their different fashions to get by in a world that is differently alien to each - to her because she is an oddly sheltered Russian parachuted into America; to him because after living as an easygoing drop-out it is time to find a way in. The heart of the story, though, is love's translations and mistranslations.
Daniel, sincere and obtusely inquiring, is narrator and explicator. Katya is tricky, changeable and, until the very end, laconic. Yet she is the more visible and affecting. Mr. Greenberg displays her through Daniel's misperceptions - brightly, that is, through a dark glass.
He maps two opposite coastlines. Having worked feverishly to get Katya her papers, Daniel rushes to the airport to meet her. When she turns and spots him, instead of a fervent embrace "she faced me, smiled, and shrugged her shoulders slightly as if to say, `Well, why not?' "
He hauls four immense suitcases (handles missing) up several flights of stairs to the Lower East Side apartment he shares with two roommates. "You didn't tell me that you lived in a communal apartment," she says, used to her parents' crowded but private flat.
The term shocks Daniel. For all his cosmopolitan outlook he harbors the bacillus of American exceptionalism. What he thinks of as his generation's casual arrangements may not, in fact, be so different from another society's squalor.
Daniel can find no work as a television assistant. Money is short: he wants to discuss it, and she seems indifferent. Noting her crumbling Soviet dental work, he has the zany idea of finding her a job with a dentist so she can have free care. He writes to 30 dentists in her name, boasting of experience (nonexistent) in public health.
One phones back. He is Katya's compatriot, and for two hours they ignore dentistry to talk about Chekhov, American incivility and much else. "Ah, Russia," they periodically sigh. Katya goes to work for him but doesn't last. She was wonderful but not useful, the dentist tells Daniel; then over tea, jam and brandy, the dentist asks Daniel why with all his advantages he doesn't earn enough to take care of Katya.
The couple quarrel, make up, quarrel. She defines him as "a jealous husband with a weak character trying to pretend he has a strong one," a charge that seems to go beyond the personal to suggest binational dimensions.
She walks out, sending postcards. Daniel gets a job scouting Russian television stations for an American company. In an affecting scene he visits Katya's parents in their dacha - a plywood affair that stinks of sewage. The mother offers her light, young American son-in-law words that reflect the Old World's heavy history:
"All you need is patience. You'll make your peace with each other, I know you will. Soon you'll understand that love is just another obstacle."
There is much else: Daniel's travels through Russia, a portrait of other Russians in New York, among them Katya's lover. Daniel meets the lover. Katya returns briefly; he asks for a divorce. The plot has become something of a forced march, and its boots creak.
But Mr. Greenberg, comic and knowing, has done a rare thing supremely well. Instead of America asserting itself abroad, this "abroad" has asserted itself through Katya upon an American. Her last melancholy scene with Daniel illuminates the world's complexities and her own as well.
Perhaps he'd thought coming to America and marrying him was a trick, she says. Yes, but not for money or a green card. He was what she wanted from the beginning. But only by contradiction could she express it.
"Maybe it's our national weakness - that as soon as we Russians see something we want, we're convinced that we won't be allowed to have it. We panic. We cheat. We bend the rules to win. And we get so consumed with fighting that we don't stop to ask ourselves if the fight justifies the prize. But I did want you. Once."
To order the book click here: Leaving Katya
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