Book Notes: Dmitry Bykov’s June

I finished June (2017), and I’m very very happy that I have begun my return to Russian literature with this novel. It’s a serious work of literature. Complicated, big, the linguistic mastery is off the chart. Bykov is a famous poet, so the language virtuosity is not surprising.

The novel has 3 parts, and each offers the perspective of one central character – two Jews and one Pole – that’s given in the indirect free style. (That’s when you narrate the character’s thoughts but in the third person). Bykov even manages to give each character a recognizably different voice, which is very unusual with the indirect free style. When I read the first part, I was really thrown off by the cloying, lisping tone of the narrative. But then it became clear that the tone belongs not to Bykov but to the main character, a sheltered, smug Jewish boy Misha. For those of you who will be reading the novel, I highly recommend paying attention to the moment when the narrative switches from Misha to Boris, and the tone changes completely. It’s no big deal to do that when writing in the first person, but in the third it’s rarely attempted, let alone done successfully.

Aside from the extraordinary mastery on the formal level – and believe my expertise as a literary critic, there’s exceptional mastery here – the novel is great on the level of story, characters, and ideas. Big, big ideas about totalitarianism, war, fear, identity – and not in a stupid American way but in the sense of figuring out who you are and why.

June is the second novel in a trilogy, and now I’ll read the first and the recently released third. I’m beyond glad that Russian literature is back.

This is good news even for those who don’t read Russian literature or any literature. Until now, nobody knew what happens to a culture after 70 years of totalitarianism. Can it come back? Or is it dead forever? And how long does it take? Now we have an answer. It can come back (good news) but that takes a few decades (worse news).

For me, it’s particularly great to know that I can read some new books in Russian. I love my collected works of Chekhov but I know them by heart at this point.

8 thoughts on “Book Notes: Dmitry Bykov’s June

  1. I have just got the book, purely on the grounds of your review and recommendation. I have started reading it, and you are right. I am reading it in translation because I couldn’t get hold of the original but I’ll ask a friend to get me a copy in Russian. Thanks for your suggestion, it had been years since I enjoyed reading such great fiction.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. // The second and the third parts are much better than the first because Misha is a bit of a tool.

        I’ve finished the 1st part and just started the second. Personally, I like Misha’s innocence and search for self more than Boris’s cynicism. The one thing I don’t fully get is Misha’s disregard for the character and soul of the woman he slept with, seeing a body, not a person, understanding and accepting this. Is it because the novel was written by mature and cynical Bykov who wanted to write those sex scenes?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Let’s remember that the entirety of Russian literature is filled by a profound disgust towards sex. Tolstoy’s Kreuzer Sonata, Chekhov’s Duel, Kuprin’s Hole, the entirety of Dostoyevsky. Sex has to be horrid no matter what because that’s Russian literature.

          With Misha on particular, this is a Bildungsroman. Misha is very young. He can’t perceive sex as anything other than this completely physiological act. You will see that Boris has a more mature understanding of sex.

          I’m so glad we are all reading Bykov now. A very serious writer. Great literature. I couldn’t be happier.

          I’m.now reading the first novel in the series about the authorship of Sholokhov’s Quiet Flows the Don.

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  2. // With Misha on particular, this is a Bildungsroman. Misha is very young. He can’t perceive sex as anything other than this completely physiological act.

    Actually, I have always thought many young people were more idealistic than they became later in life.

    Regarding gender differences, saying “this woman is too young to perceive sex as anything other than this completely physiological act” does not sound natural (even though Bykov’s young woman does behave thus). I do not think it is inherently ‘more natural’ for men either.

    // Misha is cancelled in a very American style

    Misha’s story should certainly be studied in American wokest universities. 🙂

    Seriously, it’s a great read for a course on totalitarianism, better than reading re Stalin’s camps, since the novel conveys the feeling of general fakeness of such a life perfectly.

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    1. Now you see why I was saying that the novel should be read precisely by the people who won’t read it – Americans – but who need it the most.

      Young people are more idealistic but that’s precisely why they don’t have the kindness and the sense of humor that are needed to see other dimensions of sex.

      As for Boris, he’s a tragic real-life figure.
      Here’s his biography for those who haven’t found it yet: https://ru.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D0%93%D1%83%D1%80%D0%B5%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%87,_%D0%A1%D0%B0%D0%BC%D1%83%D0%B8%D0%BB_%D0%94%D0%B0%D0%B2%D0%B8%D0%B4%D0%BE%D0%B2%D0%B8%D1%87

      And Tsvetaeva’s daughter Ariadna is even more so. Stalin almost never touched great writers. Their families, though, were at a terrible risk.

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