The best autobiographies have a tentative, provisional, even exploratory feel. They acknowledge that introspection isn’t a privileged process. After all, little that we know about ourselves and others is certain, and we’re all too aware that our friends and family sometimes know us better than we know ourselves.
And whether it’s autobiography, fact or fiction, the best kind of writing is alive on the page, fizzing (or just simmering) with thought and feeling, every word apt, every construction reflecting the twists and turns of the writer’s mind as they occur. That’s why cliché and predictability kill our interest so decisively.
Both of these qualities can be found in Elena Gorokhova’s Russian Tattoo, a memoir of her life first in Leningrad and then, before the demise of the Soviet Union, as an immigrant in the USA, struggling to understand the American way of life and its language. In fact it’s hard to believe that someone who writes so imaginatively, subtly and beautifully, could ever have struggled with English. Indeed, she admits that the English language was her obsession as a student in Leningrad. Her lightness of touch, in a second language acquired only as an adult, is hugely more astonishing, for example, than Joseph Conrad’s profound but ponderous and humourless prose (Polish was his first language).
Russian Tattoo is as much about Elena’s mother and daughter, as about herself. It describes the impact on all three generations of their cultural dislocation, and their differing willingness to surrender one set of values for another. For Elena, emigration is more of a personal escape than a political liberation, and though, after a few false starts she finds work, love and happiness in the USA, there is always nostalgia for the sounds, smells (especially of mushrooms) and making-do of Russia.
Her mother, a professor of anatomy who patched up soldiers on the frontline during the Great Patriotic War, joins Elena’s family in her retirement, shortly after the fall of Communism. She lives an entirely Russian way of life in Elena’s basement, in passive, but presumably regretful, acceptance of the complete failure of the socialist dream she’d once believed in. She never learns English and is permanently bewildered by the material wastefulness of her family’s American lifestyle.
For Elena’s American-born daughter, to Elena’s great distress, Russia is initially an irrelevance, a culture and a language that have no great meaning for her, at least initially.
In the end, Elena’s mother belongs forever to Russia, Elena’s daughter almost entirely to the USA. Elena, herself, a permanent immigrant, feels at home in both countries, and in neither. This is a fascinating, instructive and moving account of the cultural implications of immigration. Read it.