Vladimir Sharov, author of Before and During, tells me “when I was around twenty- five or twenty-six, I ran out of poems, “For me, it was a great catastrophe.” His fiction is filled with ‘great catastrophes’ of this kind, but also with strange magic. In Before and During, the first of his novels to be translated into English, history bubbles up improbably and seemingly without any boundaries.
Sharov, born 1952 in the former USSR, is composed, serene even. He has a prophet’s beard and when he speaks about his vision of the world it is hard not to think of Tolstoy. I interviewed him sitting in his room at St Antony’s College as we drink instant coffee out of little white cups and speak through an interpreter. While we were waiting for the interpreter to arrive, he showed me a book by his father, Alexander Sharov, who was also a writer. It is a book of children’s fairy tales, printed in bold letters and exquisitely illustrated. I squint at the first line and decipher, “Far, far away…”
“In my childhood, I was omnivorous”, explains Sharov. He sits sideways, legs crossed, speaking slowly at first, then faster; a torrent of words. “I read all the fairy tales I could get my hands on and I think, in many ways, it did shape me as a writer”. I ask him how his training as a historian (Sharov has a PhD in Russian history) intersects with his historical fiction and he holds up his hands in swift protest, “I just want to make a small amend. Indeed, I am a historian… but I have never written any historical fiction”.
Born to a science fiction writer in Soviet Russia, Sharov grew up listening to his father’s friends discussing literature and politics and imbibed their understanding of the world on Sharov. He started writing early in life, but under the strict censorship of the Soviet Union, he never thought about publishing them. If history had gone differently, his writing might never have seen the light of day and Sharov is painfully aware of this.
Before and During was originally published in 1993 in the journal Novy Mir, which famously also published Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s A Day in the Life of Ivan Denissovich. The book was instantly controversial, with several of the editors later coming out and announcing they had been against its release.
“What was most important for me to explore in this novel,” Sharov explains, “is that, basically, a whole layer of life was destroyed in Russia. People who were afraid of impending doom and being arrested, burned their diaries, burned their personal documents, being afraid of having implications found in them. And even to their children, they were telling imaginary stories about their lives, because they were afraid their children would be affected. So perhaps what is most important in this novel, Before and During, is an attempt to resurrect this inner life, this inner psychic novel, and to present it to the leader. Because we cannot resurrect the people, they are gone, they are killed, but we can try and recreate the life they lived and their inner life as well.”
In the opening pages of the novel, one of the characters plays with free association, recalling how the “Bolshevik cake factory” across the street made him associate Bolsheviks with sweets for years, a fantastic parody of the way the Soviets used words, imbuing them with their own significance. Unsurprisingly, Sharov thinks words are imprecise “I think that without words, our view of the world is much more complex than with them. And the more complex is this vision of the world, the more accurate, the more careful a human being is. They’re just trying not to harm other people’s lives, not to do something to destroy. Revolutions and dictators are great simplifiers of life. Somehow, simplification of our understanding of the world and violence always stand close to each other. They go hand in hand.”
Breathtaking as Before and During is in England in 2014, imagine the impact it must have had in Russia in 1993. Sharov has worked all the pain, complexity and forgetfulness of Russia’s history into a dark and erudite fairy tale, that confronts the destruction of the Soviet era from a largely introspective point of view. At the launch of Before and During, Oliver Ready declared that many of Sharov’s novels “suggest that the wish to return to childhood is a fatal Russian trait, a wish to simplify things and not face complex questions”.
Sharov though does not shy away from such questions. When I ask him whom he would choose to meet from the past, he clears his throat: “I think probably… this would be my mother and my father”.