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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Life of a Bishop's Assistant

Viktor Shklovsky

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Title: Life of a Bishop's Assistant
Author: Viktor Shklovsky
Genre: Novel
Written: 1931 (Eng. 2017)
Length: 136 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Life of a Bishop's Assistant - US
Life of a Bishop's Assistant - UK
Life of a Bishop's Assistant - Canada
  • Russian title: Житие архиерейского служки
  • Translated by Valeriya Yermishova

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Our Assessment:

B : obscure, but entertainingly lively

See our review for fuller assessment.

The complete review's Review:

       Life of a Bishop's Assistant is a biographical novel, about Gavriil Dobrynin (1752-1824), presumably based on Dobrynin's memoirs. Rising from humble circumstances mainly through service in the Church -- one of the few avenues open to those not born in the nobility in the Russia of those times -- he ultimately achieved a comfortable position.
       Literate and well-read, he also had a fine voice, and in his youth was almost sentenced to be a choirboy, but managed to more or less evade that (dead-end) fate and insinuate himself into more valued positions. He was: "an avid reader of novels in translation", and Le Sage was an early favorite; when the Bishop wants to make him a choirboy he laments:

     So long to the dream of becoming the Bachelor of Salamanca, good-bye to the dream of a sword and a feathered hat.
       But things work out, and Dobrynin reaches Le Sageian heights -- literature continuing to be an important measure of things, for him as for author Shklovsky:
     As for Dobrynin, he stood up, bowed politely, and waved his hat like his hero the Bachelor Don Cherubim de la Ronda, and went home to drink evening tea under the lilacs.
     Because a holy man blooms like a date tree.
       Life of a Bishop's Assistant chronicles Dobrynin's circuitous path to success, in almost anecdotal form. Shklovsky often writes in rapid-fire paragraphs of only a sentence each, skipping along rather than describing at any length. There's lots of dialogue but limited discussion -- but Shklovsky is often snappy and sharp:
     They began to irrigate a peace treaty.
     They drank, drank, and scolded.
       Dobrynin is not quite a novel-adventurer, though some of the experiences and events that are recounted could easily fit in his favored sort of fiction:
     But above all, he loved Mr. Chulkov's The Comely Cook, Kurganov's Letter Writer, and even the works of Voltaire and Montesquieu, which instilled in him a definitive contempt for monastic writings.
       Typically, though, advancement depends more on connections and luck than any actual qualities -- and Dobrynin recognizes as much, even admitting:
I wish to obtain a rank and position on the basis of mercy rather than merit.
       Published without any sort of supplemental material beyond a paragraph of back-cover copy ("Life of a Bishop's Assistant is a 'rewritten' biography [...] a notable example of experimentation with narrative form", etc.) -- no introduction or the like, no notes -- the novel sinks some in its own obscurity, with only the occasional name (Catherine the Great; some of the authors) recognizable figures, and the period and circumstances it describes likely unfamiliar to most readers. Published in the Soviet Union in 1931, it also reflects on that time and circumstances, literary freedoms already more constrained -- but there are still passages and incidents that seem to reflect -- often playfully critically -- on the (then) present-day Soviet conditions.
       Life of a Bishop's Assistant is also, in no small part, about class -- albeit of entirely different categories than in the then-Soviet Union: the 18th century Russian class structure which Dobrynin struggles in hardly fits the Marxist playbook (notably with the centrality of religious culture, and the Church as provider -- including of employment and standing), but Dobrynin's unusual course and exceptional success also highlights how limiting and stultifying the class structure of the times was.
       Quick and fairly short, and certainly varied -- occasionally too much, as Shklovsky skips speedily forward in his familiar style --, and with a fair amount that is gently amusing (Shklovsky's humor seems generally under-appreciated, or at least remarked upon ...), Life of a Bishop's Assistant is an odd but intriguing little entertainment. Presumably, also, there's more to it for those particularly interested in or knowledgeable about its subject and times -- and Russian Formalism.

- M.A.Orthofer, 7 August 2017

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Life of a Bishop's Assistant: Reviews: Viktor Shklovsky: Other books by Viktor Shklovsky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Viktor Shklovsky (Виктор Борисович Шкловский, Victor Chklovski, Viktor Sklovskij) (1893-1984) was a leading Russian Formalist.

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© 2017 the complete review

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