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Andrei Sergeev

STAMP ALBUM

A Collection of People, Things, Relationships and Words

ISBN 5-7172-0059-5
240 pages, 15 photographs

Translated by Joanne Turnbull

Sample writing Before the War

"I value Sergeev's opinion exceedingly. I would even say that Sergeev's opinion of my poems has always been more important to me than anything on earth: If there existed some higher or last judgment for me in matters of poetry, then it was Sergeev's opinion." — Joseph BRODSKY

"The author of this text-collage is clearly a passionate collector of all sorts of things: coins, stamps, period objects, interesting people, curious words, and anecdotes. Stamp Album is a memoir composed of verbal photographs." —
Ex Libris

"Sergeev's extraordinary memory, the skill of a professional collector, his fantastic sharpness of vision, his passion for details and objects as well as for individuals — all these make Stamp Album fascinating reading." — The Russian Journal

"A true master of time, Sergeev will always be absolutely contemporary. He stands alone..." — Alexander Pyatigorsky in Novoye Literaturnoye Obozreniye

"Stamp Album paints a picture of hitherto unknown 'catacomb Russia'. The communal apartment Sergeev describes is not a typical community of Soviet citizens... They neither fight the regime, nor adapt to it... Sergeev's memory seems to collect mere trifles: children's ditties, counting rhymes, old slogans, newspaper clippings, snatches of conversations, official documents, urban folklore and much else. He fishes various fragments out of this detritus and files them carefully away in his stamp album." — Natalia Pervukhina in Russkaya Mysl

Stamp Album — despite winning the Russian Booker Prize — is not a novel, but a novel memoir. A collector of stamps from childhood, the poet and writer Andrei Sergeev (1933-98) later collected impressions as well, impressions of people, things, relationships and words, here displayed as lovingly yet frankly as coins — another lifelong passion — in glass cases. During his lifetime, Sergeev was better known as a distinguished translator of English poetry, including that of T.S. Eliot, Robert Frost and W.H. Auden. In the 1950s he belonged to the original underground literary group that invented samizdat (hand-production and dissemination of banned books). In the 1960s he became a friend of Joseph Brodsky, who dedicated a major poem to Sergeev. But it wasn't until the 1990's that Sergeev's own poems and autobiographical prose — lapidary in style and full of evocative detail — began to appear in Russian literary journals.

In Stamp Album, Sergeev draws on his extraordinary store of personal recollections as well as on old letters, photographs, family documents, Soviet slogans, street conversations, popular songs, children's rhymes and irreverences to recreate the very texture and perversity of Soviet life in the 1930s, '40s and '50s. Stamp Album is, if you will, Sergeev's Speak, Memory. But whereas Nabokov's memory speaks in complete sentences and long descriptive paragraphs, Sergeev's can be as elliptical and cryptic as the actual scenes it reproduces. Stamp Album is straight memory — with nary a word of retroactive explanation added for the reader's benefit. Thus the reader comes at Sergeev's life as he did himself at the time - particularly in childhood and adolescence.

The first three chapters ('Before the War', 'The War', and 'The Communal Apartment') slip back and forth between the kommunalka in Moscow where Sergeev grew up (the best room is occupied by the eccentric widow of a French merchant, an erstwhile prostitute now bedridden with gout to whom the entire apartment belonged before the Revolution) and the dacha in Udelnaya where he spent his summers and where this collage of verbal snapshots begins ("I'm lying on Mama's trestle bed... A small gland in my neck has become inflamed. The stately surgeon bicycles over from Malakhovka...).

The fourth chapter, 'Father', takes Yakov Sergeev from the village of Zhukovka, where he was born, through military service in the tsarist Army to Moscow where he taught at the Timiryazev Agricultural Academy and married Andrei's colorful and capricious mother.

The fifth and final chapter, 'Bolshaya Ekaterininskaya', takes its name from the ramshackle Moscow street where Sergeev's maternal grandmother (the daughter of a wet nurse to a merchant family) and grandfather (a peasant orphan who came to the city as an apprentice at the age of eight) lived all their married life. It is a rare and amazingly comprehensive portrait of a lower middle class enclave from pre-revolutionary times to the 1950s.

Sergeev's extended family mostly eluded Stalin's murderous machinery. Survivors, they came to see the Revolution as a defeat but, like so many others, stifled any objections to what they could not change. They belonged to the vast and little known recesses of what Sergeev called "catacomb Russia".

Sergeev began writing and assembling Stamp Album (for the drawer) in the 1970s, completing the manuscript only fifteen years later. To Sergeev, the most important aspect of literature was not invention but truth. Stamp Album is nothing if not scrupulously truthful. A painstaking record of the disappearing details of everyday life (sights and sounds; habits and objects; myths and folklore) as well as of the unhistoric acts of ordinary people, it tells us what no history book can.

Sergeev's style is beautifully succinct and purposely terse. This translation — Sergeev's first appearance in English — reflects the spareness of the original and, one hopes, the clarity. But because the world Stamp Album documents is long gone and because it was never open to outsiders to begin with, outsiders now may find themselves at an occasional loss with respect to certain allusions. The Notes at the back should help fill in the blanks.