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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Solovyov and Larionov

Eugene Vodolazkin

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To purchase Solovyov and Larionov

Title: Solovyov and Larionov
Author: Eugene Vodolazkin
Genre: Novel
Written: 2009 (Eng. 2018)
Length: 405 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Solovyov and Larionov - US
Solovyov and Larionov - UK
Solovyov and Larionov - Canada
  • Russian title: Соловьев и Ларионов
  • Translated by Lisa C. Hayden

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Our Assessment:

B+ : appealing double-story

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Herald Scotland . 24/11/2018 Shirley Whiteside
TLS . 22/3/2019 Justin Warshaw
Wall St. Journal . 9/5/2019 Sam Sacks
World Lit. Today A Spring/2019 J. Madison Davis

  From the Reviews:
  • "With its humour and philosophical reflections – do we ever learn from our past mistakes, as humans and as nations ? -- this is an ambitious undertaking for a first novel. It is to Vodolazkin’s credit that he pulls it off, creating a substantial, beguiling work that engages the reader on several levels. It encompasses a detective story, historical events, and even a little romance." - Shirley Whiteside, Herald Scotland

  • "(A) wry and whimsically humorous historical detective story. (...) The central narrative is Solovyov’s journey of discovery and it is there that Vodolazkin develops his often very funny comedy, some moments of it pure slapstick. (...) Some of the comedy is more refined and reminiscent of David Lodge’s Campus Trilogy." - Justin Warshaw< times Literary Supplement

  • "The novel is more than a beautifully written coming-of-age story. The story of Solovyov’s growth is interspersed with his research into Larionov’s life, and the variations in the written history demonstrate the elusiveness of historical biography. (...) All this sounds very serious -- and it is -- but Solovyov and Larionov often has a comic tone that keeps it from becoming more than a philosophical bildungsroman. (...) From the first page, I knew this was going to be a very well-written book, and then, because it did not seem translated, had to remind myself that indeed it was. I cannot read Russian and have no idea if the original manuscript is as well written as the translation, but Solovyov and Larionov as I read it is one of the finest novels I have read in years." - J. Madison Davis, 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 title characters of Solovyov and Larionov have entirely distinct lives, with Larionov having died (in 1976) around the time of Solovyov's birth, but, with Solovyov as budding historian, devoting himself to the study of Larionov, their stories do become entwined. Solovyov is pursuing has graduate studies, working on his dissertation on White Russian General Larionov. This general had been involved in the battles against the Bolsheviks, including during the period when the Bolsheviks pushed them to defeat in Crimea, in 1920; he was a widely studied Russian Civil War figure -- with the biggest mystery about him remaining: why wasn't he shot ? Not only was he not executed by the Bolsheviks, but he survived for over half a century of Soviet rule, living out his life in Yalta.
       Solovyov was born in the Russian outback, in a place so obscure it's known only as Kilometer 715. He studies in Petersburg -- and a supportive French researcher, author of the sole monograph on Larionov, arranged for him to receive a stipend for his studies; it is also she who suggests that he head to Yalta to pursue their common interest: "If there's something new to be found anywhere, it'll be in Yalta". This, then, is where most of the novel is set, as Solovyov finds himself trying to hunt down the general's memoirs (as well as attending a conference about him in Kerch).
       So Solovyov and Larionov is, in part, an academic-on-the-hunt novel, as Solovyov digs into Larionov's past, learns about the circumstances of his life in Yalta -- including his housing arrangements and neighbors over the years, and the aftermath of that (as possessions and rooms were divvied up and claimed over the years) --, and explores different reports as well as other scholars' findings and theories. But the novel also shifts back to Larionov's times, piecing together his life -- and then especially those final battles and the final retreat in 1920, vivid scenes of the Russian Civil War and near-inexorable Bolshevik advance (though the general does inflict considerable damage along the way).
       The novel is particularly good in this casual shifting back and forth between the two protagonists' lives, and between present-day and pasts in general. The experiences of the two main characters are very different, Solovyov seeking and learning -- not just academically: there are also scenes of his finding love in his youth with neighbor-girl Leeza, for example, or getting drawn into a relationship with Yalta-guide, Zoya -- and Larionov leading his troops (as well as other snippets of his life) -- but Vodolazkin stage-manages this back and forth very well.
       A professor tells Solovyov: "No matter what a person studies, above all he is studying himself". It is an idea that is repeated several times -- as if emphasizing it were actually necessary ..... Vodolazkin makes it very clear: Solovyov's path might be in pursuit of Larionov, but it is a voyage of self-discovery and -recognition. It takes Solovyov longer than readers to realize: "It was no longer coincidence but a coalescence", but the way Vodolazkin sets that up, and the path he leads Solovyov down, is very nicely done.
       As to Larionov, the mystery surrounding him long remains, of course, why he survived. Vodolazkin has academics weigh in -- if not quite campus-novel, the academia-scene does figure prominently in much of Solovyov and Larionov --, including one who counts no less than twenty-seven reasons why the general should have been shot (and only two possibilities for escaping that fate, neither of which the general used), and Solovyov's adventurous, near-comic hunt for the general's memoirs, and the possible answers therein, long keep the puzzle front and center. The detailed description of the Whites pulling back and then out of Crimea, with the notorious Rosalia Zemlyachka and Béla Kun closing in, -- what should have been Larionov's final days -- are then a very fine account of that tumultuous time and those events (and, yes, provide something of an answer).
       On both its tracks, unfolding the lives of both its protagonists, Solovyov and Larionov is very appealing. The somewhat stylized and wry tone is fitting, and the adventures -- from Solovyov's adolescent sex-experiences with Leeza to his and Zoya's break-in in search of elusive manuscript-pages to the general on the freezing battlefield -- are thoroughly entertaining, as Vodolazkin tells a good story. Indeed, Solovyov and Larionov is both in the grand and smaller Russian traditions, a novel of fairly large (though admirably circumscribed -- Vodolazkin doesn't try to bite off too much) scope, as well as one that captures small scenes-from-life very well. The two main characters are particularly well-drawn, while many of the secondary ones -- including chaos-bringing Zoya -- are beautifully fit into the story. Incidental tales, such as that of the general's later living-situation, and how his rooms and possessions fare, or the incidental happenings on Solovyov's second, final quest -- for Leeza -- are also very enjoyable.
       With its revolutionary-times drama, descriptions of varieties of Russian life and places -- Kilometer 715, Yalta, and Petersburg among them --, scenes from academic (and student) life, and no small amount of romance (with quite a bit of surprisingly entertaining sex along the way), Solovyov and Larionov is a thoroughly enjoyable read.
       It should be noted, however, that in her Acknowledgements translator Lisa C. Hayden acknowledges there are:

several passages that we changed significantly, often because translated humor and irony just aren't very funny when they have to be explained
       Not only that, but:
I also adapted the hundreds of footnotes that appeared in the Russian Solovyov and Larionov. Eugene warned me from the start that he was pretty sure I'd need to get rid of them and I confess that that I (foolishly) told him most of them could likely stay. That meant it took an epiphany (in the shower) to realize I was wrong and that the novel would maintain its tone, not to mention its continuity, best if I incorporated the footnote information into the text.
       This certainly seems to have worked -- the novel reads very smoothly in translation, with nothing coming across like bits of information-dumps and the like, and yet ..... As an originalist-purist (and footnote-loving one at that !) I would have much preferred re-presentation of the book in faithful-to-the-letter-of-the-original form; I understand (sigh) that translations are tailored to their audiences, and maybe US/UK readers are less tolerant of footnote-heavy fiction, but it kills me when this kind of thing happens. As is, only one footnote remains (or was added) -- translating: Sapienti sat; that may be: 'Enough for the wise' -- but not for me .....

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 December 2018

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Solovyov and Larionov: Reviews: Eugene Vodolazkin: Other books by Eugene Vodolazkin under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of literature from Russia

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About the Author:

       Russian author Eugene Vodolazkin (Евгений Водолазкин; Evguéni Vodolazkine, Evgenij Vodolazkin) was born in 1964.

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© 2018-2022 the complete review

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