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.