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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Before and During

Vladimir Sharov

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To purchase Before and During

Title: Before and During
Author: Vladimir Sharov
Genre: Novel
Written: 1993 (Eng. 2014)
Length: 348 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: Before and During - US
Before and During - UK
Before and During - Canada
Before and During - India
Avant et pendant - France
  • Russian title: До и во время
  • Translated by Oliver Ready

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Our Assessment:

A- : impressive, despite the shrouds of mysticism

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 27/1/2014 Anna Aslanyan
The NY Rev. of Books . 9/7/2015 Rachel Polonsky
TLS . 9/4/2014 Caryl Emerson

  From the Reviews:
  • "If Russian history is indeed a commentary to the Bible, then Before and During is an audacious attempt to shine a mystical light on it, an unusual take on the 20th century’s apocalypse that leaves the reader to look for their own explications." - Anna Aslanyan, The Independent

  • "Before and During remains a disorienting read. (...) The clarity and directness of Sharov's prose -- wonderfully rendered by Oliver Ready -- are disconcerting, almost hallucinatory. His writing is at times funny, at times so piercingly moving, so brimful of unassuaged sorrow that it causes a double-take." - Rachel Polonsky, The New York Review of Books

  • "Before and During is not a historical novel. Rather, it is closer to one of Mikhail Bakhtin’s carnivalesque venues, a Menippean satire in which historical reality, in all its irreversible awfulness, is for a moment scrambled, eroticized, permitted impossible juxtapositions and illuminated by hilarious monologues of the dead. Sharov’s characters do not make eye contact, but rather talk into the cosmic void." - Caryl Emerson, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Set in Soviet Russia half a century ago, Before and During is narrated by a forty-five-year-old character identified simply as Alyosha. For most of the novel he is (voluntarily) institutionalized, in the Korsakov Psychiatric Institute, having recognized that he's not quite fit for everyday life -- but by and large, and except for some soporific fits, he seems reasonably well-grounded. Even before he went to the psych ward Alyosha had been working on a 'Memorial Book' (inspired by Ivan the Terrible's own 'Memorial Book of the Disgraced'), and it's in the institution -- which is largely populated by: "Old Bolsheviks or former Party bosses" -- that, after an initial adjustment period, his 'Memorial Book' really begins to take shape. It is the record of others' tales, a variety of often fantastical (life-)stories, many of which go back to earlier Russian history, and which also share certain features -- especially mystical features, with, for example, forms of resurrection a recurring theme.
       Deep in the layers of stories Alyosha records comes an explanation from the composer Scriabin, trying to explain one variation of what he and many others in Alyosha's mystical quest-tale are after:

     '"The Mystery" he said, "is remembrance. Every man will have to remember everything he experienced since the creation of the world. We all have this experience, its preserved in each and every one of us -- you just need to learn how to summon it.
       Among the first characters Alyosha writes of in his Memorial Book is an old relative, apparently senile and dying when he visits her a last time, who has spent her last years writing her memoirs -- a memory book of her own that, however, stands in contrast to her conversation with Alyosha: it is only what she hasn't fixed on the page that remains vivid in her mind, while what she's carefully recorded is now, at best, hazy to her. Alyosha wonders whether: "whatever is not written down really does drift away and die" -- or will it, in some way, transcend death, something stronger than a mere written record.
       These issues of human memory -- in its broadest sense -- are exemplified incarnate in several examples, notably those of Leo Tolstoy and Madame Germaine de Staël, as Alyosha comes to learn stories about them from acolytes and others close to them. Tolstoy's late mysticism is compared to Bolshevism itself:
     Essentially the Tolstoyans pursued almost identical aims to those of the Bolsheviks, though by very different, incompatible means: absolute freedom.
       In the first instance in the novel of what amounts to cloning, Sharov claims Tolstoy's eldest son, Lev Lvovich, was not really his son but rather an identical (if time-delayed) alter-Tolstoy, Tolstoy's monoovular (i.e. identical) twin, matured a generation after Tolstoy's own birth in Tolstoy's wife's womb. The biology may be a bit fuzzy, but the concept(ion) is inspired -- as is then the description of the second Tolstoy's sad fate, making for a neat (if creepy) alternative explanation of familiar historical facts.
       A different form of resurrection is attributed to the more central figure of Madame de Staël, who, in new forms, remains a major Russian presence several times over, long after her original passing in 1817. Indeed, de Staël -- or an after-de Staël -- is fundamental in shaping the Soviet state, creating, in more than one way, Stalin. Sharov's twisted reimagining of Stalin's origins and path -- and de Staël's maneuvers, which at one point include rejection of the man, as only jealousy can rouse the necessary instincts and actions for Stalin to assume complete power -- are a brilliant if deeply disturbing fantastical revision of history.
       The overlap of genius and madness -- the: "extraordinary coupling of pathology and genius" -- also figures prominently in the book, with the institute where Alyosha winds up having once also housed the Institute for Natural Genius. Different fanatical factions and their leaders -- from the Tolstoyans to dominant Fyodorov (de Staël's not-quite-soulmate) -- reflect various forms of absolutism (as does, of course, the Bolshevism that is a backdrop to much of what happens). 'God' is a dominant notion to many of these figures and the ideas that motivate them -- but it is god as an absolutist concept, adapted to their beliefs, ultimately a mystical figure/concept beyond much reality.
       The dangers of absolutism are made clear in the necessary consequences of these belief-systems taken to their extremes. So, for example:
Communism would be formed by perfect people; imperfect people would never manage to build it -- they would only get in the way.
       And if trying to perfect the flawed was too time- or energy-consuming, well then, they could and should just be done away with .....
       So too the story leads to a biblical-scale apocalypse, the coming of a flood (this being cold Russia, the rains are snow) and the creating of a preserving Ark -- which, unsurprisingly in Sharov's dark and twisted vision isn't welcoming but amounts to almost an anti-Ark.
       With its multilayered narrative -- stories within stories, at times reaching back more than a century -- and its very determined but obscurantist fanatics and semi-madmen, Before and During is far from straightforward fiction; summary, or even just attempts to describe some of what it is about (as above) can only give a very limited sense of what this novel is. It shimmers in shrouds of mysticism -- yet for all that it is remarkably lucid. There's a crispness to Sharov's writing (and Oliver Ready's translation) that cuts through what otherwise seems foggy, and even as the narrator fades in and out of his own story, Alyosha's account, and his recordings in his Memorial Book, remain firmly grounded and relatively clear. The mysticism can be confounding (as mysticism always seems to -- or is meant to ? -- be), but this is in part offset by Sharov repeatedly stunning with invention: conceptually this is an often brilliant novel.
       Before and During is very much a novel from and of and about Russia, highly allusive and steeped in Russian history and literature. The real-life figures can serve as reassuring touchstones for foreign readers, but there's clearly (and/or unclearly) much more to it; nevertheless, even just superficially -- without closer familiarity with Orthodox and Bolshevik history and creeds, for example -- Before and During is rewarding, a rare work of fiction that is, on several levels (including literarily and philosophically), provocative as well as simply exhilarating. An impressive achievement.

- M.A.Orthofer, 6 June 2015

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Before and During: Reviews: Other books by Vladimir Sharov under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Vladimir Sharov (Владимир Александрович Шаров) lived 1952 to 2018.

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