Oleg Zaionchkovsky – Happiness is Possible

Happiness is Possible
Oleg Zaionchkovsky (translated by Andrew Bromfield)
And Other Stories: £10.00rrp.: 303pp.


We live in a society now where we are expected to give our lives meaning. We never truly step out of work, and we’re led to believe that we can be ‘happy at work’ or that work can be a meaningful endeavour. This no longer feels like a choice, and as Boris Groys notes in In the Flow (2016) “In earlier times, recreation meant passive contemplation. But today’s society is unlike that spectacular society. In their free time, people work – they travel, play sports, and exercise. They don’t read books; they write for Facebook, Twitter and other social media.” It is what I am doing here is it not writing this post? But the ways we make meaning or understanding meaning in our lives has changed. Happiness is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky is about a narrator constantly struggling with the difference between his work and his writing and ultimately how he finds meaning.

The nameless narrator is a writer and the impetus, drive, or energy for his novel, appears to have deserted him. Indeed, he even appears to have been deserted by those he love. He has no inspiration for characters and only his dog remains. We watch him visit parts of Moscow, pick up on threads of conversations and glimpses of lives to try and turn them into stories and narratives, but as A.D. Miller writes in the introduction to the book “the urge to find and keep a place to live in Moscow dictates where and how people choose to work”. There it is: work. We are watching a novelist at work. What is the work that leads to meaning and what is its worth?

He is given an assignment to write about a restaurant. He goes with his ex-wife and his new partner (of course these are the ‘characters of the novel he is not-writing-but-is-writing), who is an important figure in his life as he lends him money to keep him afloat: ““when my indebtedness exceeds my creditworthiness Dmitry Pavlovich doesn’t write it off, he restructures it.” Surely it is the writers job to write it off?

But at the restaurant we, as the reader, see the narrator’s personal reflections and realise how difficult a task this is going to be for him

“What an array of dishes we sampled at his insistence – I can’t recall them all now!”, which is slightly worrying for a writer.

Can he not make it up? Dmitry, noticing his struggle says to him,

“Ah what a Joe Blow you are,” Dmitry Pavlovich put in unexpectedly. “Write something beautiful about all this…about the way destinies are defined. The establishment gets a boost for its image and you, you fool, get paid a fee. There’s a balance for you.”

People know more about the act of writing than the writer himself. The writer who is now at the behest of other forces than his own creations, or than any power of personal inspiration. Tom McCarthy’s Remainder (2005) was one of the finest and recent novels to challenge this idea of creation and meaning in our postmodern age, and particularly the financial forces that Groys suggested above, are caught up in this messy conception of work. The work of the novel and the work of labor are the same thing to Zaionchonsky’s narrator in this postmodern world. Its progenitor is somebody like McCarthy’s narrator, even though  unlike McCarthy’s character he doesn’t have any money, the pressure is still the same, rich or poor: one must find meaning.

That image of a writer in his flat that we see often in Happiness… was reminiscent of Camus’ The Outsider (1942). Although Camus’ novel is not about a writer, it does seem to ask, what is an outsider but a person struggling to find meaning? Camus’ outsider is a man who is struggling to find feeling, meaning, in the death of a loved one: and why? Because he has to? There is a chapter in which Meursault, after seeing his dead mother, retreats to his flat, where he idly sits looking out of his window, observing the world below him. Like Meursault, the narrator of the Happiness… is often ‘boxed in’. Even when he is not in his flat, he carries this image of him being disconnected, of him trying to reach, connect and configure with the outside world. Instead, moments and events stream or filter through his vision and perception, and not in a stream-of-consciousness manner, but as phenomena, gone before he can comprehend it. At the opening he is saying how his air vent functions like an ‘old wired-in Soviet radio speaker'(that important mention of history as well), and he hears other people’s arguments filter into his flat.

“I don’t know their names, I don’t know what they look like but I think about them a lot. When my own text – the one that’s my vocation , the one I’m paid money for – when that text betrays me, then my weary thought mingles with my cigarette smoke and streams out through the air vent.”

Is it the death of the author? A couple of pages later he says “I am mute: my own soap opera has been a silent one since my wife left me.” The author might not be dead, but he is rendered mute. The sole, individual creator seems archaic in this society. This would hint toward Russia’s history of suppressing and incarcerating writers in one or way or another, but this sense of the individual being able, at least, to turn something into a personal, reflective experience is gone. McCarthy’s narrator in Remainder did wield a dictatorial power, but it seemed only meaningful in his life, in a purely solipsistic sense. It is inherently paradoxical, and like Meursault, no matter how much the narrator tries to enter the world, he takes the box with him. He needs others, but others don’t need him. Perhaps this then is The Insider?

Maybe it becomes more about feeling. It stretched beyond tired postmodern debates for me. Where Meursault was given the one, weighty event, in the form of his mother’s death, the world in which Happiness… is, there is a fecundity of meaning, or least potential for creation like in Remainder. Of course the reputability of these creations is the question. The political and ideological criticism is obvious, and in the ways that Groys talks above and in his book, it is how this work is turned into something of artistic value. When the narrator of Happiness…is at the restaurant and cannot find anything to say about the food, is it because he has nothing to say or because he doesn’t want to say anything (the juvenile use of the exclamation mark would suggest the latter to me)? He is under pressure to find something meaningful, something real out of his experience. As McCarthy demonstrates though, no amount, or lack of money can help re-create the real.

Image result for rogier van der weyden the descent of the cross

From Rogier van der Weyden’s (c.1435) The Descent from the Cross

Happiness…is ultimately about art in such an unpretentious way, in a way that would initially be seen as pretentious (self-referential narrator) that you can miss how profound this book is at times. It is primarily concerned with the gaze; that of the gaze outward by the artist and the gaze returned to the artist. Here is Groys again as he talks about the development of art and its practice:

“the division between artists and spectators seemed to be clear cut and firmly established socially: spectators were subjects of an aesthetic attitude, and works produced by artists were objects of aesthetic contemplation. But from the beginning of the twentieth century this simple dichotomy began to collapse” (Groys’ work is timely for this work as he references Soviet art frequently. But his discussions of the art and the avant-garde now in the age of the internet means its a book you should consider visiting if I haven’t persuaded you enough yet).

And what has it collapsed into? As I sit here writing this blog there is perhaps a clue there. The quest you follow in Happiness…is how this narrator can turn himself and his art into something that is worth the gaze of others, and is worthy of spectators. This is of course what all novels are, but you’re in the process and the pursuit, you the reader become the voyeur of the voyeur in Happiness…. For this reason it reminded me of Ben Lerner’s (2012) Leaving the Atocha Station. The similarities are not just startling with each other but with their precursors, as we’ve mentioned here, like Remainder and the The Outsider, as well as one another. For a start Lerner’s and Zaionchkovsky’s work were both published in 2012 and feature nameless narrators. Happiness…unlike Lerner’s work, is not by a debut novelist (yet only Zaionchkovsky’s second), but they are both narrators who have been given a capital to produce something (in Lerner’s; a thesis on the poet John Ashbery). And then, when you open the pages you get both narrators in their apartments, in a cosmopolitan city with the noises filtering, meaning to go out and have an artistic experience. Lerner’s endeavour appears much more of a crisis though; his narrator looks upon somebody else having a meaningful experience of art in a gallery looking at Rogier van der Weyden’s Descent from the Cross. I urge you to visit or re-visit that opening, but after looking at this person, Lerner’s narrator verges on panic and says, “I had long worried that I as incapable of having a profound experience of art and I had trouble believing that anyone had, at least anyone I knew.”

The narrator, whether he knows it or not has received something from his experience, but not from the art. He has ‘discovered’ something, and all that might be, is a lack of an ability to have a profound experience by looking at somebody else. The Other has gotten in the way. The narrator in Happiness…tries to use others to develop his novel by recreating their stories, but it must ultimately come from one-self.

Happiness…is a self-conscious novel; the anxiety doesn’t seem as palpable as something like Leaving the Atocha Station but there is an acute awareness of the self and its lacking – the art is not making him whole. Ultimately, Happiness…like the other novels of its time, is about how do I create meaning from myself? How do I strip the societal, capital investments and pressures to produce something from myself? A question posed but not necessarily created by Woolf: how do I find a room of one’s own?

There is a lesson to be taken from Old Salamano in Camus’ work when his dog escapes. But when does it escape? When the old man is distracted by watching the stalls at the fair, and a performance of “The Escape King”. So, the thing that you are watching could in fact be the thing that is happening to you without you knowing it. In Lerner’s and Zaionchkovsky’s work, we have become the spectator of the dog disappearing, watching the watcher, but the gaze now may also be upon you. Art is not something that renders you entirely unconscious like it did to Old Salamano; art is more than a distraction, it requires somebody to pay attention to your attention.

And so with that in mind I’ll leave you with this passage from Zaionchkovsky’s novel.

“It seems to me that the image of Moscow only exists in the minds of the provincials. It’s the same with a whale for example: look at it from the outside and you see a certain image, but when it swallows you and you end up in its belly, the image disappears.”

Readers of Smith’s essay will have an advantage at seeing the strong claim in Zaionchkovsky’s novel to settle in with some of notable works of recent times, even if, as the narrator continually worries that he is a mute in his own soliloquy, even if he worries, as Prospero foretold, of being but a spirit and melting into thin air.