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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction



The Works and Days of Svistonov

by
Konstantin Vaginov


general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase The Works and Days of Svistonov



Title: The Works and Days of Svistonov
Author: Konstantin Vaginov
Genre: Novel
Written: 1929 (Eng. 2001)
Length: 167 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Works and Days of Svistonov - US
The Works and Days of Svistonov - UK
The Works and Days of Svistonov - Canada
Werke und Tage des Svistonov - Deutschland
  • A Novel from the Post-Revolutionary Bolshevik Years
  • Russian title: Труды и дни Свистонова
  • Translated and with an Introduction by Howard Shernoff

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Our Assessment:

B : fascinating ideas, uneven presentation

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Rev. of Contemp. Fiction . Fall/2001 Paul Maliszewski
World Lit. Today . Winter/2002 Bonnie C. Marshall


  From the Reviews:
  • "In the manner of Pirandello, Svistonovís works and days could be summed up as one author in search of a novel. (...) Vaginov, writing under considerable political pressure, conceals his complexity-his subtle parody and satire, his barbs and dismay for his present day-beneath an innocuous, almost unremarkable surface." - Paul Maliszewski, Review of Contemporary Fiction

  • "In search of immortality via authorship, he stalks his characters like a hunter stalking prey. He lures the future subjects (eccentrics, stuffy conventionalists, and decadents) of his works in a heartless, perfunctory manner, gaining their trust and friendship with a display of false sympathy. By transforming the present into the past with his pen, he confiscates the reality of his so-called friends and places them under his control. Like a vampire, he saps real people of their lives by scripting them before they get to live them, thereby committing spiritual manslaughter. (...) Vaginov utilizes modernist methods that were innovative at the time. His prose, sprinkled with ordinary (even coarse) words and Soviet acronyms, is calculated to debunk and satirize Soviet culture. Coupled with a cinematographic construction of scenes, his unique language results in the creation of grotesque characters and events. The translator Howard Shernoff has wisely resisted any inclination to beautify Vaginov's language." - Bonnie C. Marshall, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Works and Days of Svistonov describes the working life of Andrey Svistonov -- and a working life it is: everything revolves around his art, and specifically the novel he is writing. Vaginov's inspiration is to have Sistonov not at a remove from life like so many authors, scribbling away cloistered in their cork-lined chambers, but rather in the thick of it -- and yet no closer to real people.
       Svistonov chides a friend for describing a scene in literary terms (suggesting the establishment they go to is a veritable Auerbach's Tavern (from Faust)):

     "Come now, Ivan Ivanovich," retorted Svistonov, "always literary recollections. You ought to approach life more simply, more directly."
       But though Svistonov's approach immerses him in life, he's also there only to use it -- and, specifically, the people he gets close to -- as raw material for his writing:
     There was, to be honest, nothing for him to write about. He simply would take someone and transfer him. Because he possessed talent, however, and because to him there was no principle difference between the living and the dead, and because he had his own world of ideas, everything turned out in a strange and unprecedented light. Musicality in art, politeness in life -- these were Svistonov's shields.
       He engages with others, seducing and befriending them, but he has only one very limited use for them:
For Svistonov, people did not divide into good and evil, pleasant and unpleasant. They divided into necessary for his novel and unnecessary.
       The backdrop of early Soviet society -- with it's pre-Stalinist mix of opportunity and haphazard (but not yet completely stifling) bureaucracy -- adds an unusual colour to the novel. There's an aimless uncertainty in the air -- Vaginov early on offers a hilarious account of a typical writer's day, much of which is spent in idle chit-chat at the Writers' Club -- and it's still a society in which a variety of characters can, if not exactly thrive cetainly make do along the fringes.
       Despite taking the essence of his characters from Svistonov isn't above relying on the literary as well -- though it's telling what he turns to:
    "Yesterday I was thinking up a female character," Svistonov continued. "I took Maturin's Melmoth the Wanderer, Balzac's The Magic Skin, and Hoffmann's The Golden Pot, and concocted this chapter. Listen."
    "Disgraceful !" Iya exclaimed . "Only in our uncultured country would it be possible to write by such means. Even I can do that ! Frankly speaking, I don't really care for your prose. You neglect contemporary life. You might reply that I don't understand your novels, but if I don't understand, then who does ? What kind of reader are you counting on ?"
       Much of The Works and Days of Svistonov does, in fact, read like the work of an author who is deeply torn by what he writes -- and by his distance from his fellow man (and inability to see anyone as anything other than a potential character), a world reduced (as he writes it is for Svistonov) to a "kunstkammer, a collection of fascinating monstrosities and freaks, and he was something like the director of this kunstkammer". Vaginov obviously had deeply felt concerns, and it's the weight of these that give the novel its resonance -- in part also because, though he recognises the personal failure this approach represents he is also not willing to renounce (or completely denounce) it, because he understands that it's the only possible foundation of his art. And so there are also some very nice moments when Svistonov has 'taken' yet another life -- and, not surprisingly, it happens that:
     Svistonov, having committed spiritual manslaughter, was at peace.
       The Works and Days of Svistonov isn't anywhere near your usual writing-a-novel-novel, and instead offers a very different type of character-study. It doesn't unfold particularly neatly, but there are some fine bits and asides -- including the newspaper clippings Svistonov calls "novellas" and the stories from them, notably the "novelist-experimentalist" tailor, whose own method suggests why writing 'from life' can be problematic as well ..... The novel feels a bit uncomfortably self-conscious, as if Vaginov weren't entirely (or at least consistently) willing to admit to himself how much he resembles Svistonov -- and then, in moments of self-loathing, has him act out horribly again.
       The writing and presentation isn't polished enough to make for a particularly pleasing read, but many of the ideas behind it -- and some of the scenes -- are truly impressive, making for an interesting piece.

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Links:

The Works and Days of Svistonov: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Konstantin Vaginov (Константин Константинович Вагинов) lived 1899 to 1934.

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