Alexander Genis: English is easiest for children, taxi drivers and idiots

Alexander Genis.

Alexander Genis.

Yelena Shubina publishing house will release Russian-American writer Alexander Genis's new book The Return Address at the start of August.

Alexander Genis, who has lived in the United States since 1977, has compiled a book of anecdotes and memories about his friends and idols, including Sergei Dovlatov, Joseph Brodsky, Vladimir Sorokin, Tatiana Tolstaya and many more. RBTH presents a few extracts from this work, The Return Address.

On the difficulties of translation

Alexander Genis. The Return Address. Yelena Shubina publishing houseAlexander Genis. The Return Address. Yelena Shubina publishing house

"When I emigrated I realized that English is easiest for children, taxi drivers and idiots. Taxi drivers needed it for their job, while the others did not even notice its existence. In their attempts to socialize, they jabbered everything that came into their heads until they were finally understood.

‘Language,’ I consoled myself, ‘is a means of transportation for them – like a jeep that gets you from one place to another without the additional flourishes of grammar that leave me mute.’

As I began a phrase, I felt like a centipede that didn’t know which leg to start walking with and which one to finish with. It is no surprise that only noise and fury came out of my mouth instead of English. It was even worse with a dictionary. Once, having dented my first car, I went to a mechanic to get the fender repaired.

‘Wing, fix, please,’ I said, flapping my hands to convey my thought better. [The word for ‘wing’ and ‘fender’ is the same in Russian.]

‘You need to go to the zoo for that,’ the mechanic replied, laughing.”

On Russian-American journalist Peter Vail

"Vail and I had a creative principle: if you couldn’t say what you wanted, no one would be interested in your good intentions. Immersed in our work, we exchanged manuscripts, made notes and kept minutes, without noticing the surrounding world. But the surrounding world took notice of us. On weekday mornings the cafe would be teeming with women – pensioners and mothers with their children – while the men were at work. We were the only men on the café terrace and, what is more, we spoke a strange language and always sat at a secluded table. Noticing the suspicious stares, I once told Vail that everyone thought we were spies.

‘Seems unlikely,’ he replied.”


Socialism marked its eras by General Secretaries. We designated our epochs by tenants’ rules, although the word tenant conjures a temporary renter or leaseholder. Under the system of collective living citizens were assigned rooms in communal flats like ours. Each of our tenants composed a historical period and each poisoned it in their own way.

Our first was by far the best. Silva may have hated the Russians, but she loved us. Especially Grandma, who taught her to appreciate borsch but not the balalaika. With time, Silva grew up and acquired Karl, a tall blonde Latvian. In school we referred to those type as Nazis.

Karl worked as a loader at the national candy maker Laima, which means ‘luck’ in Latvian. Actually, at one point Laima was the Latvian Fortuna, pagan goddess of chance and windfalls, celebrated whether they were deserved or not. Pre-christian  morality in a nutshell, or a bonbon. In the middle of Riga stood a monumental clock from the bourgeois days engraved with the name. That was where lovers met. Enterprising old ladies sold flowers nearby, while the state built a public toilet. A survivor of the good old days existed across the street, an open cafe. One could get a creme-schnitte there, the best pastry east of Brest.

Karl, however, specialized in stealing boxes of chocolates, particularly the famed Prosit. This was considered the second-best bribe for low-level administrators across the Soviet Union. The first was also a local product, our Rigan Balsam. The narrow Prosit box held eight chocolate bottles filled with exotic beverages like rum, chartreuse and banana liqueur. The result was a god-awful medley that took you off your feet after a few boxes. Factory workers like Karl were hit worst of all, because they consumed the stuff without a chaser: they crunched down on the sugar bottles as soon as they were filled, but before they received their chocolate coating.

With the appearance of Karl, our life became sweet. The adults drunk the candy and I ate the packaging. Jealousy destroyed this glucosic  Eden. With a head full of Prosit, Karl caused a scene with Silva, accusing her of collaborating with us invaders, including Grandma.

The next tenant was the she-barber Olga. She introduced herself with a warning: ‘If anything, the police will be called’. Olga was not exaggerating. Every Sunday began with a party and ended in the precinct.

Growing accustomed to this, the local constable would come without being called and rarely left without a drink. This irritated Olga to no end and she wound up taking us to People’s Court. The regular guests were allowed to appear as witnesses, so they did. Decorated in medals and orders, some for war service, most for technological achievement, they paraded before the magistrate. Engineers, doctors, scientists and a clever cobbler, they represented the city’s intellectual elite despite being able to drink half a liter for breakfast and do a jig on the table for dessert. The People decided in favor of these excellencies, and Olga ceased speaking to us.

In the meantime, winter arrived and she bought a fur. She never ventured out in it, though, for fear of robbery. Compelled by her loneliness, Olga would lure Grandma into her room with friendly waves and welcoming smiles, and then proceed to model her fur coat from the table to the dresser. She never did warm to the rest of us, but we certainly made her wonder.

 ‘Before I thought Jews didn’t drink vodka,’ Olga pondered out loud in the kitchen, ‘but now I’m sure of it. They guzzle it.’

The next tenant did not see this as a problem. Raya weighed in at 300 pounds and spent her days puttering over the stove. Until she’d go on a diet, at which point she would suffer through the day and eat at night.

This personal Ramadan became a problem because of Raya’s propensity to fall asleep wherever she landed, like on the toilet of our single bathroom. Heading out to work she would sit down to pull on her boots and not wake until evening. I would swerve around her rounded bulk when I come home from school. If I had friends in tow, I’d warn them not to be alarmed, because Raya seating in wait in that dark corridor was just as frightening as the sentinel idol in ‘King Solomon’s Mines’. I read it to this day and think of her.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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