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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

    

Виктор Вавич

by
Boris Zhitkov


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



Title: Виктор Вавич
Author: Boris Zhitkov
Genre: Novel
Written: (1941)
Length: 944 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Viktor Vavitch - France
Wiktor Wawitsch - Deutschland
  • Виктор Вавич has not yet been translated into English
  • Written in the 1930s, Виктор Вавич was first printed and published posthumously in 1941, but never distributed; the first publicly available edition was published in 1999

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Our Assessment:

B+ : busy, vivid novel of 1905 Russia

See our review for fuller assessment.




Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Les Echos . 18/11/2008 Gilles Costaz
Le Monde A 18/9/2008 Samuel Blumenfeld
Neue Zürcher Zeitung . 30/12/2003 Karl-Markus Gauß
Die Welt A 27/9/2003 Martin Ebel
Die Zeit A 25/9/2003 Alexandra Kedves


  From the Reviews:
  • "(L)e style n'est pas exactement lyrique. Il est méticuleux, descriptif, épris de mots rares ; il change de rythme selon un montage qui se réfère aux différents rythmes du cinéma. L'écriture ralentit, s'accélère, intègre des faits objectifs (les batailles des révoltés contre les cosaques, les communiqués des organisations et du tsar) et s'offre des échappées qui donnent une vie secrète aux choses et à la nature. C'est une fascinante fresque grouillante qui revient toujours à la dimension intime. Le coeur du lecteur n'est pas emporté comme il peut l'être par les grands livres fiévreux du domaine slave. Mais l'esprit est saisi par cette manière si précise d'attraper l'histoire dans ses différentes vitesses et d'être si tendre derrière tant de pudeur." - Gilles Costaz, Les Echos

  • "L'écriture originale, unique, atypique de Boris Jitkov compose un récit éclaté, mosaïque d'une douzaine de personnages dont les destins s'entrechoquent. Cette construction étoilée se révèle un véritable défi lancé aux conventions romanesques, et réclame au lecteur une patience et une attention soutenues. (...) C'est bien le grand roman de la révolution de 1905, mais l'époque n'est qu'un prétexte. Il dérangeait en son temps. Il n'a pas fini de déranger." - Samuel Blumenfeld, Le Monde

  • "Boris Schitkow ist ein souveräner Erzähler, ein Meister der poetischen Beschreibung, in der auch die Elemente, ja die toten Dinge zum Leben erwachen, ein Meister der knappen Skizze und des treffenden Details. Er beherrscht die Kunst, seine Personen wie den Leser in ständiger Unruhe zu halten." - Martin Ebel, Die Welt

  • "Die vielen kleinen Szenen erzählen von den großen Dramen der russischen Gesellschaft jener Jahre, von der Armut, vom Gefälle zwischen Hausknecht und Hausdame, zwischen Mann und Frau, Arbeiter und Firmenchef; von der Orientierungslosigkeit derer, die ausgebeutet wurden, und derer, die ausbeuteten; vom blinden Herumtapsen der Intelligenzija zwischen Anarchie, Sozialismus und Liberalismus. Der Kinderbuchautor Schitkow hat mit Wiktor Wawitsch einen Roman aus historischen Comics gebaut, bunt, bewegt, bildkräft (.....) Nüchtern und unaufgeregt zeichnet der 1882 geborene, 1938 verstorbene Schriftsteller die Doppelmoral, die Unmoral seiner Zeit und seiner Zeitgenossen -- und hat so über das fesselnde historische Panorama hinaus sein zeitloses Opus magnum geschaffen." - Alexandra Kedves, Die Zeit

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:

[Note: this review is based on the German translation by Rosemarie Tietze, Wiktor Wawitsch (2003), and all quotes are my translations of that translation. With the exception of the author's name, I have also used the transliterations of names from that version -- though, presumably, in English the title-character's name would be written: 'Victor Vavich' (or maybe 'Viktor'), etc.]

       Виктор Вавич is set largely in a provincial Russian city (identified only as N.) in the early twentieth century, with the 1905 revolution the centerpiece of the novel. Zhitkov's novel is an historical one, but his focus is very local and domestic: news and events filter down to the characters, and are seen from their perspective; while panoramic, Виктор Вавич is very much a street-level account, rather than concerned with the goings-on in the halls of power.
       The title-character is significant one, and his story-arc the defining one for the novel, but he is not entirely central: in best big-Russian-novel fashion, Zhitkov offers a large cast of characters and in the novel's 150-odd chapters a shifting cast comes to the fore, with Wiktor only getting a similar amount of attention as several of the others characters do.
       Two families dominate the story, the Wawitschs and the Tiktins -- representing also the more provincial (the Wawitsch family is small-town) and the more cosmopolitan (the Tiktins are big-city folk). The story is also generational, the generation of the parents and of the children -- not necessarily at odds with one another, but certainly different in these rapidly changing times.
       Wiktor's father is retired, his mother chronically ill and long bedridden. Wiktor has ambitions to join the military, but sees he might have greater opportunities with the police, and he does join the force (and proves himself quite capable). His father tries to dissuade him, warning him he'll be widely scorned -- the police don't have a great reputation -- but Wiktor is nothing if not stubborn, and his mind is made up (not that he doesn't think of changing course at the drop of a dime again -- he, like many of the characters in the novel, is terribly impulsive). Wiktor's father's letter begging him not to join the police also shows how far apart father and son are in some respects: the father begs him to say, and even offers to sell the family home so that Wiktor can get a start in some career: "There's a lot of talk about medicinal herbs nowadays,' he suggests -- or maybe beekeeping could tempt him ? But such passive pastoral pursuits are unimaginable to Wiktor in these charged times; besides, he dreams of doing heroic deeds (and can visualize his triumphs and the admiration he'll receive ...).
       Wiktor has a sister, Taissa, who is also a bit of a naïve dreamer -- and soon head-over-heels in love with a flautist, Israilson. He is a Jew -- something that is problematic from the start ('Do you know what that means -- I'm a yid ? That means: I am a Jew. So what could we do ?' he tries to gently let her down, understanding the practical impossibility of a relationship), and becomes more so as the political cracks in the country help antisemitism flare up again; Wiktor, in particular, is soon prone to blaming 'the Jews' for everything.
       Wiktor is in love with Grunja, the daughter of the local prison warden, Sorokin, and they marry. Pleased with his son-in-law and the path he's chosen, Sorokin eventually becomes disenchanted; in the political turmoil of the times he eventually also loses his position (for being too soft on political prisoners).
       The Tiktins are an upper middle-class family in N., the father director of a bank and a member of the city Duma. There are two children, enthusiastically Marxistically-inclined Nadja and chemistry student Sanka -- who is in love with Nadja's friend Tanja. In their orbit are also Sanka's friend Alexej, acquaintance Baschkin, and then Filipp, a worker whom Nadja gives lessons to (educating the proletariat) and eventually falls in love with.
       The hapless Baschkin -- hardly taken seriously by Sanka and Alexej in the first place -- comes to the attention of the police, nebulous suspicion enough reason to search his room, take him into custody, and torture him -- all to break him, and force him to be a snitch, a situation he can not escape. Not only do the police have him over a barrel, but he doesn't even have any good contacts to information about any student agitators or the like -- and, in any case, is recognized as a police mole by everyone. (As he amusingly admits when someone asks him who is being terrorized by the unfolding events: 'The government, of course. Nothing can fluster me; I'm already terrified of everything.') Anna Grigorjewna, Nadja and Sanka's mother does, however, do what she can to help him back on his feet after he's released by the police -- barely still alive.
       The country goes to war, against Japan, and there is increased agitation and resistance, including much talk of strikes, as the story builds up to the general strike of 1905 that stopped even the trains across the country and cut the electricity. There's increasing chaos -- and violence. When two policemen are shot, Wiktor uses that as an excuse to act even more indiscriminately; when the Tsar releases the October Manifesto -- that also leads to the release of all political prisoners -- Wiktor sees (and fosters ...) a complete breakdown of law and order; action and reaction culminate in a horrible pogrom. In the lawlessness there are also bigger criminal coups -- a bank robbery, and then a train heist in which Sanka gets himself involved.
       For while it is feared Nadja has been arrested, but instead it is eventually Sanka that the police nabs (and Wiktor tries to connect to one of the policeman-killings), leading to desperate action from his loved ones, including his mother. Other characters also find themselves thrust into dangerous situations, a swarming chaos -- with (some) domestic ports of calm -- all around.
       Locally, Zhitkov ranges widely, from the factory workplaces to local shops, the city Duma, and theaters -- and especially simply the streets, which almost all the characters frequently bustle about. (There's an awful lot of carriage-taking, too -- the taxis of the time, and apparently as numerous and common as yellow cabs in Manhattan.) There's a trickle of news from afar, but only on a few occasions does he see fit to go full-documentary: the Tsar's declaration war, and the October Manifesto are both reproduced in full. Виктор Вавич is conversation-heavy -- with quite a few letters and notes also exchanged along the way. The action is constantly in motion -- even when characters are more or less at rest (bedridden, say), thoughts and the bustle around them remain feverish. The characters, too, seem in a constant state of agitation; rare is the moment of calm -- though, of course, as the story progresses and civil unrest (and official crackdowns) increase there are fewer places offering any safety and calm.
       The close-ups -- and almost everything is close-up -- are vivid throughout, but almost cinematic in their attention to rich color and incidental details of sight and sound, which can sometimes almost push the actual action almost in the background. Two events, in particular, however are splendidly presented: the abuse of Baschkin in prison, and then the horrible pogrom. Both of these are terrible, but particularly well-presented by Zhitkov, as rich and memorable as any of the most familiar memorable scenes from the Russian canon.
       Zhitkov also manages his characters well, as they go down their various often unexpected paths. The enthusiastic activist Nadja finds herself completely waylaid by Filipp as she gives herself completely to him -- and he turns out to have very reactionary ideas about the role of women, effectively sidelining her. Tanja, meanwhile, seems at first almost frivolous, but really comes into her revolutionary own. Sanka, the devoted chemistry student, also undergoes a considerable transformation: when he first open his heart to Tanja he tells her: 'One can't live without knowing what it would be worth to die for, can one ? I constantly ask myself: what could I die for ? What ?' As things heat up, he can't keep himself from becoming more and more involved.
       Then there's Wiktor, always striving for more -- and always finding excuses (or Jews to blame) for his increasingly dubious actions --, and unable to settle down into the domestic happiness Grunja could offer him -- indeed, turning even more strongly away when she becomes pregnant. Always on the make -- for personal success and a kind of glory, and to prove himself (to others) -- he can't help but dig his own grave.
       Appealing, too are some more secondary characters -- notably the concerned and always helpful mother, Anna Grigorjewna, and the wife of the local police chief, Wiktor's boss, a woman who manages to see and sort a great deal. Smaller roles are also very well presented -- especially in the pogrom-scenes, as strangers are thrust together -- giving a great impression of that many various lives affected by the events of the times
       Among the few weaknesses of the novel is just how many of the characters are and act impulsively -- so often. Certainly, these were restless times, and many of the characters are of a just-post-adolescent impetuous age, but the extent to which Zhitkov has them decide (and/or change their minds) at the spur of so many moments, and keeps them rushing and rushing about can get to be a bit much; the indecisive carriage-rides may be symptomatic of the characters' general state but are one of many ultimately irritating (because they happen so often) features of the story.
       Виктор Вавич is, soon, a breathless novel -- though not only because of the characters' restlessness. Zhitkov is very good at pacing, too. Presenting the novel in fairly short, generally discrete chapters, the story jumps back and forth between characters and storylines (with considerable overlap, from an early meeting between Sanka and Wiktor to the police commissioner's wife's seemingly-all- (and everyone-)knowing presence), Zhitkov keeps everything in motion very well: this is among the shortest (i.e. fastest) near-thousand page novels going. All this, too, despite (or also because of) Zhitkov interestingly (and generally effectively) eliding significant occurrences in the characters' lives and only revealing or alluding to them in, say, the conversation of others.
       This is grand-scale classical Russian fiction that excels particularly on the small(est) scale, even as, ultra-bustling, it rushes across and covers so much. Arguably, it is a bit much -- and bit too restless much at that -- and there are times when readers likely wish Zhitkov would show more revealing patience, but Виктор Вавич is a significant and well-worthwhile epic, a(nother) Russian classic, and one that deserves to be better-known.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 October 2018

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Links:

Виктор Вавич: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Soviet author Boris Zhitkov (Jitkov, Schitkow; Борис Житков) lived 1882 to 1938.

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© 2018 the complete review

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