One of the greatest writers of the twentieth century is Iurii Dombrovskii (or Dombrovsky). There, I said it and I stand by it. The title of this blog is taken from his great novel The Faculty of Useless Knowledge/Things and I have spent many hours, days, weeks, and now years enjoying this novel. However, I am currently writing a short biography on him and find this a very frustrating experience. One of the reasons for this is that there are still some inconsistencies and gaps in his biography. (Peter Doyle’s book is so far the best and only summary of Dombrovsky’s life in English.) But what is more frustrating, and I think is the reason for many of the inconsistencies, is that Dombrovsky was such an inspiring character that the factual side of his biography is overshadowed by the interest in him personally.
Many articles on Dombrovsky (especially in Russian) focus on his extraordinary intelligence, humour and power. His life was not an easy one: he was arrested four times, exiled, imprisoned in camps and threatened and assaulted. Yet, the people who met him, and remember him, all point out that he remained unbroken by his experiences. This is precisely what makes his novels so amazing; whilst they depict the very stifling and dangerous life during the Stalinist 1930s, they also challenge this atmosphere with light, love, laughter and above all, creativity. Reading about Dombrovsky for the past few years I have found that many people who write about him, write anecdotally and this has to do with his inspiring and interesting character. So I thought that I would launch a little series on the blog called “The Dombrovsky Stories”.
Before I launch into that, here is a VERY brief biography of Dombrovsky.
Iurii Dombrovskii (Yury/Iury Dombrovsky) was born in Moscow in 1909. His mother was a biology teacher and his father a barrister and lawyer. Already in his youth he became known for his rebellious behaviour and defiance of authority. His father died when he was only ten years old and four years later was replaced by an authoritarian father with whom Dombrosvky often clashed.
In 1926 Dombrovsky decided upon the career of a writer and attended literary courses in Moscow until he was arrested in 1932 and exiled to Alma-Ata, the capital of Kazakhstan at the time. This first arrest is perhaps a good indication of both Dombrovsky’s character and the nature of Soviet legal system at the time. He was arrested for drunkenly tearing down a few flags from a building, leaving them in his room, and then failing to inform the authorities that he was in possession of stolen goods. He was sentenced with “political hooliganism” and exiled to Alma-Ata.
In Alma-Ata Dombrovsy worked as a school teacher, a museum keeper and script-writer and translator. He was exiled to Alma-Ata for twenty-four years, was arrested a further three times and spent around eleven years in prison and in camps. As soon as he managed to get any stability in his life he was again arrested. Although exile from Moscow was a punishment for Dombrovsky, he fell deeply in love with Alma-Ata and its history. Reading his two major novels, The Keeper of Antiquities and The Faculty of Useless Knowledge, one gets a clear sense of how much Dombrovsky admired the area. Both novels are based on his experiences in Alma-Ata and depict his arrest and interrogations. During this period Dombrovsky also wrote The Ape is Coming for its Skull, a novel about a Nazi invasion of a peaceful Western European town.
Between 1949 and 1955 Dombrovsky was incarcerated in a hard labour camp (Taishet Ozerlag). Upon his release he moved back to Moscow and received full rehabilitation in 1956. He continued translating Kazakh literature, writing articles on Russian and World literature, and focusing on his own writing. In 1961 he started writing his major novel The Keeper of Antiquities, which depicts the 1937 terror and is based on the time that Dombrovsky spent working in the Central Kazakhstan museum in the beautiful Zenkov Cathedral (more on that later). The book was finally published in 1964 in Novyi mir and was a great success with readers, however, it was treated to a silence by the critics as the anti-Stalinist sentiments of the Khrushchev era were no longer officially supported.
Despite the quiet response to The Keeper of Anantiquities, Dombrovsky received an advance for the sequel to the novel. (This is mainly due to the fact that his novel was greatly admired by the editorial committee at Novyi mir (with Aleksander Tvardovsky in charge), who would support his publications in private even if they couldn’t do so public.) Dombrovsky kept writing the sequel in secret for eleven years with no realistic hope of publishing it.
During this time Dombrovsky lived in a communal flat in Moscow and was under the watchful eye of the authorties. In 1969, after years of writing letters and hesitating, he married Klara Turumova. She was thirty years his junior and Dombrovsky was worried that she should commit herself to an ex-camp inmate with bad health and little income. However, their romance grew into a lifelong committment and love for each other. Today, she continues to promote Dombrovsky’s works and in 2010 she published Dombrovsky’s novel The Birth of a Mouse, which was thought to have been lost.
Having finished his novel after eleven laborious years, and knowing that he could never publish what he saw as his most important work, Dombrovsky made arrangements to publish it abroad. In 1978 The Faculty of Useless Knowledge was published in Paris, and was a great success. This triumph (indirectly) cost Dombrovsky his life. Only a few days later he was assaulted and severely beaten up at the Central Writer’s Club. He died soon after from an internal haemorrhage.
Dombrovsky not only wrote three incredible novels, but also a great collection of articles on both famous and long forgotten artists and writers (Shakespeare was one of his main interests). His knowledge of history and literature was encyclopedic and suffused with his love for these subjects. He also wrote many poems in which he depicts his experience of the Gulag, something that he otherwise doesn’t mention much. I shall discuss many of his works in future posts.