Slender, allusive novel of clerical foibles by Russian/Soviet novelist Shklovsky (1893-1984).
Gavriil Dobrynin is born into the Orthodox Church—literally, his father a priest, both grandfathers priests. Social mobility being what it was in the age of Catherine the Great, Gavriil might have done worse, though the churchly world he falls into is full of politics and intrigue; his introduction is a coup against an archimandrite who “was an enemy of God and should be squealed on under the first and second articles,” as one of his denouncers, an altar boy, has it. The first article, explains Shklovsky (The Hamburg Score, 2017, etc.), concerns slanders against God, the second slanders against the state; either one brings pain on the heads of those found guilty of violations. In this sort-of biography, novelized with invented dialogue and episodes, Gavriil falls under the tutelage of a bishop named “Kirill Florinsky, or Fliorinsky, as he whimsically called himself,” who’s a little more frivolous than his office might tolerate—though he’s no weakling and not afraid to throw a punch. As the story progresses, the master outfoxes the student, and then the student the master; fortunes wax and wane, though Gavriil soon learns that ambitions go far when matched with wine and fireworks. There’s some enjoyable cat and mouse here, but in the end the story is a touch arid, written as if to conform either to the censor or the requirements of the reigning literary theory. At its best, though, Shklovsky’s short novel serves up some subtly funny, suggestively subversive resonances that might remind the reader of his contemporary Mikhail Bulgakov. Had the edition included good notes and an introduction, these resonances and how the book fits into Shklovsky’s broad-ranging body of work might have been made more comprehensible to readers new to the writer or, for that matter, to literature of the Soviet era.
Readers with a background in formalism and its successors will find this of interest, though Bulgakov, Sholokhov, and Pasternak remain the cornerstone writers of the era for nonspecialist readers.