I've just finished the best book I've read in years, and I want to recommend it to everyone. It's called SECONDHAND TIME: The Last of the Soviets, and the author is the Belarusian writer Svetlana Alexievich. She is sometimes called the first "journalist" to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, which she did in 2015, but she is much, much more than a journalist. Her work is literature of the highest order.
Alexievich's books are "oral histories" and her subject is the people of the former Soviet Union. SECONDHAND TIME, chronicling the end of communism in the Soviet Union, is her longest book and "magnum opus." Based on her interviews with ordinary people from 1991 to 2012, she creates with SECONDHAND TIME a great prose tapestry, a narrative of immense power as she renders the "emotional history" of an entire nation.
I am a huge fan of oral histories. I've read and enjoyed several of the great Studs Terkel oral histories: THE GOOD WAR (about WWII), HARD TIMES (about the Great Depression), and WORKING (about working) – all highly recommended. I constantly dip into OFF THE RECORD: An Oral History of Popular Music by Joe Smith and BULLWHIP DAYS: The Slaves Remember, the Federal Writers' Project oral history. I have many others. There is nothing like the sound of real people talking. I'm always looking for the "real" in my reading ... and in my writing, for that matter.
But Alexievich takes the oral history to a new level of artistry. She doesn't just interview and edit; she weaves her interviews – some long, some short – into kaleidoscopic, almost symphonic works that have the impact of the greatest of novels.
What is it about Russian writers? (Technically, Alexievich is Belarusian. Though she was born in Ukraine, since she writes in Russian, so I'm including her with them. There is a separate Belarusian language, still spoken by about three million people.) Tolstoy is probably my favorite novelist and Chekhov is probably my favorite dramatist, though there are a few other contenders. I have Russian ancestors, but even if I didn't have Russian blood in me, I think I would still be drawn to the deep, brave, tragic work of their greatest writers. And I think that Svetlana Alexievich is among them.
Check out some of these reviews:
"Like the greatest works of fiction, Secondhand Time is a comprehensive and unflinching exploration of the human condition. . . . Alexievich's tools are different from those of a novelist, yet in its scope and wisdom, Secondhand Time is comparable to War and Peace."—The Wall Street Journal
"Already hailed as a masterpiece across Europe, Secondhand Time is an intimate portrait of a country yearning for meaning after the sudden lurch from Communism to capitalism in the 1990s plunged it into existential crisis. A series of monologues by people across the former Soviet empire, it is Tolstoyan in scope, driven by the idea that history is made not only by major players but also by ordinary people talking in their kitchens."—The New York Times
"The most ambitious Russian literary work of art of the century . . . There's been nothing in Russian literature as great or personal or troubling as Secondhand Time since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's The Gulag Archipelago, nothing as necessary and overdue. . . . Alexievich's witnesses are those who haven't had a say. She shows us from these conversations, many of them coming at the confessional kitchen table of Russian apartments, that it's powerful simply to be allowed to tell one's own story. . . . This is the kind of history, otherwise almost unacknowledged by today's dictatorships, that matters."—The Christian Science Monitor
Her work is explosive and incendiary. In 2000, she had to go into exile in France after persecution by the repressive Lukashenko administration. But she was able to return to Belarus in 2011.
I was constantly reading bits of SECONDHAND TIME to the Tiny Goddess or recounting some absolutely horrific event from the book – and believe me, there are plenty of horrific events. There is some hardcore suffering in this book, some of the toughest stuff I've ever read. And it's all completely riveting. I should have guessed it, but I had no idea that life in the Soviet Union was that hard. Or that all of Russian life could be reduced to two things: VODKA and SALAMI.
This book just knocked me out. I took a short break with another "oral history" – IT HAPPENED ON BROADWAY-- but now I'm back, deep into another compelling book by Svetlana Alexievich, VOICES FROM CHERNOBYL. Another cheery excursion into the dark history of the Soviet people.
And I've bought a copy of ZINKY BOYS: Soviet Voices from the Afganistan War, an early Alexievich work, for after that, so I can learn about Russia's "Vietnam." Sounds like fun too.
After you read my novel – WHAT IT WAS LIKE – read SECONDHAND TIME.
Meanwhile, here are some great Russian things:
Galina Vishnevskaya – Tatiana’s Letter Scene from Tchiakovsky’s EUGENE ONEGIN – Part I (from the Paris Opera, 1982). The legendary Russian soprano’s farewell performance in one of her greatest roles, conducted by her husband Mstislav Rostropovich
Letter Scene – Part II
Anna Netrebko and Dmitri Hvorostovsky sing “Moscow Nights” in Red Square