Book Offers Potent View of Jewish-Russian Immigrant Experience

Article ID: 519771

Released: 20-Apr-2006 10:00 AM EDT

Source Newsroom: Boston College

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  • Credit: Gary Gilbert

    "Autumn in Yalta" collaborators: Noted Jewish-Russian author and former Soviet refusenik David Shrayer-Petrov and his son, Boston College Jewish Studies Program Director Maxim D. Shrayer.

  • Cover image from "Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories" by David Shrayer-Petrov, with translation by Maxim D. Shrayer.

Newswise — Boston College scholar and author Maxim D. Shrayer shares many characteristics with his father, the writer and medical researcher David Shrayer-Petrov --notably a Jewish-Russian heritage, a career in the academy and a love and talent for writing. But the father and son also share something more: a fascination with the transforming experience of immigration, yet another common element in their lives.

These qualities are evident in their new book "Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories" (Library of Modern Jewish Literature, Syracuse University Press, April 2006), written by Shrayer-Petrov, a noted writer and former Soviet refusenik, and edited and co-translated by his son.

The volume includes an autobiographical novel about a Jewish-Russian boy coming to terms with his identity during World War II and three moving and evocative stories about love, Jewish identity, medicine and the immigrant experience.

"The powerful voice of David Shrayer-Petrov's immigrant fiction blends Russian, Jewish and American traditions," notes the book's publisher. "'Autumn in Yalta' brings together the achievements of the great Russian masters Chekhov and Nabokov and the magisterial Jewish and American storytellers Bashevis Singer and Malamud. Shrayer-Petrov's fiction examines the forces and contradictions of love through different ethnic, religious and social lenses with penetrating insight."

David Shrayer-Petrov, considered a powerful presence in Jewish and Russian literature, is a medical scientist and the author of 20 books of prose and poetry in his native Russian and in translation. His works include "Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America" (2003), the first book-length collaboration with his son Maxim D. Shrayer, an author and translator, who is professor of Russian and English at Boston College, and founding co-director of BC's new Jewish Studies Program.

ABOUT "Autumn in Yalta: A Novel and Three Stories"

Offering Russian and American perspectives on Jewish history and identity, Shrayer-Petrov's new book illuminates the subtle yet profound tensions in relationships of Jews and Christians, including marriages, love affairs and rivalries. Compassionate, vibrant and remarkably wise, the fiction of Shrayer-Petrov blends the finest Russian, Jewish and American traditions.

The novel "Strange Danya Rayev" is set in Stalinist Russia and revolves around the wartime experiences of a Jewish-Russian boy evacuated from his besieged native Leningrad to a remote village in the Ural Mountains. The young protagonist returns to his native city in 1944 only to confront the devastation of family and the bitter and harsh realities of anti-Semitism.

In the title story "Autumn in Yalta," the idealistic Jewish protagonist, Dr. Samoylovich is sent to a Siberian prison camp because of his ill-fated love for Polechka, a tuberculosis patient. In "The Love of Akira Watanabe," once again unrequited love is the focus of the central character, a displaced Japanese professor at a New England university. A fishing expedition and an old Jewish recipe make for a surprise ending in "Carp for the Gefilte Fish," a tale of a childless couple from Belarus and their American employers.

In the tradition of other physician-writers, such as Anton Chekhov and William Carlos Williams, Dr. Shrayer-Petrov's prose is marked by analytical exactitude and passionate humanism. Love and memory, dual identity, medicine and healing, and the experience of exile are the chief components.

ABOUT THE AUTHORS Born in 1936 in Leningrad (St. Petersburg), David Shrayer-Petrov, a well-known contemporary Jewish-Russian and American author and medical scientist, has published twenty books including the novel "Herbert and Nelly," which was nominated for the Russian Booker Prize and recently reissued in a revised Russian edition. Shrayer-Petrov's recent works include a novel, "Judin's Redemption," two collections of stories, "Jonah and Sarah" and "Carp for the Gefilte Fish," and a poetry collection, "Form of Love." After Shrayer-Petrov declared his intention to emigrate in 1979, he was unable to publish in the Soviet Union, and spent nine years as a refusenik before he moved with his wife and son to the United States in 1987.

The Providence Journal called Shrayer-Petrov's writing "an irrepressible, powerful voice and a link to a tragic, intensely lived life in 20th-century Russia. . . . [He] reminds us of the rich tradition of Russian literature. A brilliant writer now among us, he is worthy of continued attention."

Dr. Shrayer-Petrov also has published over one hundred scientific articles in the fields of microbiology, immunology and cancer research. His medical background informs much of his fiction.

"Medicine and literature entered my life simultaneously, in early childhood," comments the writer. "During [World War II], after we had been evacuated to a faraway village in the Urals, mother would read to me letters from the front, including those from my aunt, a military physician. These letters were the first literary testimony of the war, and in them the personal and the mythological were intertwined. Growing up I read voraciously, and the great anatomist and writer Rabelais with his carnivalesque novel 'Gargantua and Pantagruel' taught me to perceive the human body in mythic proportions. I suddenly realized that the universe is humanity with its daily expressions of live functions: cognition, digestion, procreation. One would study medicine in order to discover the very essence of life and of its imagination—literature. Thus I became both a doctor and a writer."

Born in Moscow in 1967, Maxim D. Shrayer, his son, is chair of the Department of Slavic and Eastern Languages and co-director of the Jewish Studies Program at Boston College. His books include "The World of Nabokov's Stories," "Russian Poet/Soviet Jew," and the forthcoming "Anthology of Jewish-Russian Literature, 1801-2001." The first book-length collaboration between father and son, "Jonah and Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America," was published in 2003 and selected by the Boston Globe as one of the year's best books. The Jewish leader and author, Rabbi Harvey J. Fields, described Shrayer-Petrov's previous book as "a lively and artful set of stories"¦. Engaging"¦with colorful, unforgettable characters"¦ A triumph." "Jonah and Sarah" was deemed "an excellent collection" by the distinguished author Ray Bradbury and "powerfully inventive and haunting "¦ works of stunning imagination from a profoundly gifted storyteller," by Booklist. Shrayer-Petrov and Shrayer have also co-authored and co-edited books of literary criticism and biography.

"Autumn in Yalta" was edited and fluidly co-translated by Maxim Shrayer, giving a rich and complex portrait of the unique father-son, author-translator relationship.

"A literary translator is someone who couches the original in the words of another language while also interpreting its meaning," Shrayer writes in his Afterword to "Autumn in Yalta." "When an author's son is also his translator and editor, he wants to represent more than his father's voice. Before me on the page were not only my father's words. In my mind's eye was my father's life story."

Shrayer-Petrov calls working with his son both enjoyable and productive. "Because we are friends, not just father and son, we could tell everything to each other and be very open about what we were thinking. When we sat down to work, we could shift from the family relationship to being collaborators."

"Our collaborations are not ordinary projects for me," said Shrayer, of working with his father. "I wanted these stories in English to stand as a memorial to our ancestors in Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania, carrying on Jewish thought through -- and against -- all odds." Shrayer-Petrov further comments on the place of his new book in his literary career: "In Russian literature they say that it's very difficult to publish one's first book, but if it appears, if is often a success. This is, supposedly, because the first book sums up half of one's life. My debut in Russian literature was a slim collection of poetry, which I had a hard time publishing in the Soviet 1960s "¦ My first book in English translation, the collection "Jonah and Sarah," came out in 2003 and was well received in this country. And now, three years hence, a new book in English is appearing, in which I'm featured as both a story-writer and a novelist. The English-language reader will judge whether my long fiction can stand up to my short stories. I'm both anxious and excited about the publication of 'Autumn in Yalta.'"


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