If you’re a fan of 20th century Russian literature the name Sergey Dovlatov will surely need no introduction. For those who have not yet heard of him, we’ll gladly tell you why it’s worth picking up one of his books as soon as possible and about the influence he’s had on literature.
Dovlatov was born on 3 September, 1941 in Ufa and is, until this day, one of the most popular Russian writers of the late 20th century. Dovlatov’s books are full of real places and names - everything in his prose is set where the writer himself lived, whether that be St. Petersburg, Vienna or New York. In the writer’s life, literature and destiny were closely interwoven.
Dovlatov was a master of the tragicomic literary tradition and found inspiration in the works of Anton Chekhov, Arkady Averchenko and Mikhail Zoshchenko. He gained fame for his stories and novels including “A Suitcase”, “An Underwood Solo”, “A Reserve”, “A Compromise” and many others.
He started his career as a journalist at various newspapers in Leningrad and then as a correspondent of an Estonian newspaper. In the Soviet Union, Dovlatov's works were not published because the magazines did not want to print the bitter truth of Soviet life he wrote about. In 1979, Dovlatov emigrated from the USSR to the U.S. He lived in New York for more than 10 years and dedicated his writing to witty and colorful stories about the lives of Soviet émigrés in the U.S.
During his New York years, he was friends with many émigré writers and often met with poet Joseph Brodsky, always thoroughly preparing himself before their encounters. Dovlatov’s close friend Alexander Genis once said: "I think that Brodsky was the only person whom Sergey was afraid of." But "everyone was afraid" of Brodsky and everyone venerated him, admitting the unique scale of his personality.
Genis also wrote that Dovlatov was convinced Dostoevsky was the funniest author in Russian literature. It may seem outlandish at first but to Dovlatov humor was not the end or the means, but an instrument to understand life.
In February of this year, the world premiere of a biopic dedicated to Dovlatov (directed by Alexey German Jr.) was screened at the 68th Berlinale. The film – simply called “Dovlatov” – portrays several days of his life as a writer in Leningrad in 1971. Writing honestly as a journalist, his tense relationship with his ex-wife and daughter, and other pressing issues are brought to the fore by German Jr., who reveals the inner world of the writer amid a totalitarian regime.
The film is already considered one of German Jr.’s best films and has won many accolades including a Silver Lion Award at the Venetian Film Festival. Serbian actor Milan Maric plays Dovlatov and has an uncanny resemblance to the writer, making the movie even more convincing.