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Maxim Osipov: New Face of Russian Literature

Literary Review
by Kevin T. McEneaney
Thu Sep 26th, 2019

Maxim Osipov signing at Bard; photo by Tonia Shoumatoff.

Most Americans remain aware that Russia is the sprawling home of great novelists and extraordinary poets, yet few Americans read Russian short story writers. Perhaps they might have sampled a few stories by Anton Chekhov—the greatest short story writer of all time—but most Americans haven’t really read much of Pushkin, Leskov, Sologub, Kuprin, Bunin, Babel, Zoshenko, Zamyatin, Platonov, Sokolov, Shalamov, Shukshin, Shishkin, Voinovich, Pelevin, or Dovlatov, to name just a few distant galaxies. Americans recall that Chekhov is the man who produced the template from which most important American playwrights descend from.

Maxim Osipov has been a cardiologist since he was twenty-two. He began writing medical articles and textbooks as a young doctor. When asked by a student at Bard College what makes a writer, Osipov replied that the “feeling of being a writer precedes the work because that feeling drives you” and that writing becomes “a strange duty.” In other words, Osipov has acquired what in mythical parlance is called a demanding Muse. In the past twelve years he has published six volumes of short stories. He is now being translated into many languages. His first English language book (comprised of twelve stories by three translators) has come out a few months ago from New York Review of Books and that collection is now in its second printing.

Introduced by Professor Olga Voronina as a writer who sometimes flaunted “galling grotesques,” Voronina spoke of his satiric and sardonic inclination. Yes, that is certainly there, but his writing is much more complicated than that as Voronina hinted. In the Q and A that followed Osipov’s reading in Russian his story “Objects in Mirror,” he answered a student question by saying that he writes about “What I love in Russia and what I love about being there.” The reading in Russian, which I do not speak, was exciting because Russians still write in a way that is meant to be read aloud, so the colors and textures of the language are celebrated, while most American writers expect readers to read their work in bed before they fall asleep.

As a storyteller his fictions are dense with incongruities, amusing ironies, absurdist plots, literary quotations, folk sayings, poetic images, and, my favorite: a sense of time in flux between the present, memories, cultural changes. Characters have some knowledge of the world they live in, yet the reader becomes more aware of their limitations and their own narcissistic cocoons—most of us don’t know our limits. Above all, Osipov has a deft and adroit sense of humor, from the droll to exuberant laugh, which makes his stories such a pleasure to read. There is something of a Matryoshka doll in his work that permits perceptions and jokes to be both small and large. One might say there’s an element of new-dimensional chess in his stories where the reader is delightfully checkmated, yet he strives for transparency where “Everything should be understandable to the reader.”

I’ve read him: Osipov himself is a new dimension; his sense of time breathes the bric-a-brac of postmodern angst. As with Chekhov, his stories are populated from a large sociological sampling of society, yet he remains more of an urban than rural writer. While he’s rooted in Russia, there is also a broad global, cultural sensibility. Previous Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich has penned a savvy and propitious introduction.

As a writer who is so absent-minded that I frequently find myself without the necessary tool of a pen and attempting to memorize lines in my head, I was delighted to discover that he did not have a pen to sign copies of his books. I was happy to have a decent pen to give to him for the book signing organized by Oblong Books. By the way, the manner of Dr. Osipov's signature concludes with a downward squiggle in imitative homage to Dr. Anton Chekhov.

I encourage anyone who loves literature to read Maxim Osipov. He won’t put you to sleep, even . Previous Nobel Prize winner Svetlana Alexievich has penned a savvy and propitious introduction. translation!