Vladimir Sorokin is often called L’Enfant terrible of the Russian literary establishment.Yet mostly this is envy, as Sorokin’s word-wielding skills got him a reputation of the master of prose and put him on the same level with Russian masters. Sorokin’s command of style is virtually limitless, it seems there is nothing he cannot achieve as a wordsmith.
Sorokin had an unlikely path for a literary fiction writer. He graduated from the Gubkin institute of Oil and Gas as a mechanical engineer, then switched to painting, illustration and design and was one of the leaders of Russian conceptualism. It was his artistic environment that encouraged him to start writing fiction, first short stories and eventually – novels and plays. He published in Samizdat, then in 1985 he published a book in France, and that, considering the Soviet Union was still closed country at the time, tells us something about Sorokin’s influence.
The vulgar times of Perestroika and the following years of the economical chaos in the 90s are all reflected in Sorokin’s writng. This was the time he created his most scandalous books – Four Stout Hearts and Goluboe Salo (Blue Bacon) containing scenes of ultraviolence and bordering on pornography. Sorokin’s books were publicly burned on several occasions in the 90s by groups advocating for literary purity. In 2001 Sorokin wrote a libretto for an opera called Rosenthal’s Children commissioned by the Bolshoi theatre. Protesting against Sorokin’s opera, the activist group Walking Together flushed his books down the massive replica of a toilet.
I sampled Sorokin’s prose in the 90s, no words can describe my revulsion at attempting reading some his books like Blue Bacon. The period of literary exremism had passed and Sorokin shifted his emphasis from the shock factor towards proper literary value. His latest books Day of the Oprichnik and The Sugar Kremlin are dystopian tales describing a future Russian state with paralells between Putin’s era and Ivan the Terrible’s reign. Sorokin here is close to Victor Pelevin in terms of the choice of themes, though the stylistic delivery of their messages couldn’t be more different.
I like the mature Sorokin and can relate to what he said in one of his recent interviews:
Russia is again becoming mostly a country of grotesque as in the times of Gogol and during the Soviet era. This grotesque is different in different eras. There is always a topic to write about in Russia. A good writer is never bored.
I still hold a grudge on Sorokin for the period of his ’literary pornography’, yet, though I hate to admit it, he’s undeniably one of the most interesting modern writers, a sure contender to win a Nobel Prize in Literature.
One of the interesting things Sorokin’s been doing lately is screenplays. I absolutely loved his work in Target, a bizarre Russian scifi film co-written and directed by Alexander Zeldovich, which definitely deserves a separate blog post. I must say that being a devoted cine-maniac I’m particularly interested in this area of Sorokin’s creativity.
Sorokin’s books are translated in many languages. The Ice trilogy, The Queue and Day of the Oprichnik are available in English.