One has to be pretty dedicated to Russian literature to run across Alexander Grin (1880-1932). Nor, if this newly translated collection of (long) short stories is any indication, once one has found him, does Grin fit any expected mold.
Several of Grin’s stories take place in some vague tropical location, perhaps the South Seas or Southeast Asia, perhaps Australia—lands of monkeys, palm trees and durian, about as climatically and culturally as far from Russia as one can get and a place dubbed “Grinlandia” by his followers—and have protagonists with English-sounding names like Strock, Horn, Guppy and Tart. There’s a feel of Robert Louis Stevenson about them—ships, travelers, inns, dusky maidens, guns—except that Grin, unlike Stevenson, never made it to the tropics: the closest he got, other than Crimea, was Alexandria during a short stint as a sailor.
Grin’s life and writing are outlined in an excellent (and necessary) introduction by Barry P Scherr. The son of a Polish exile, Grin’s career has ups and downs, mostly downs during his lifetime. He was a drifter in his youth: he ran away to sea, or attempted to, in 1897 at age sixteen. He found little work, and joined the army in 1902; that didn’t take either and he tried to desert soon after enlisting. He was caught and fell into revolutionary politics, and spent two years in jail. He began writing in 1906, was exiled to Siberia, whence he escaped and then again to the northern province of Arkhangelsk. He was known as unruly and unsociable. But he wrote, a lot:
The pay was poor, so that to earn enough to survive, Grin wrote scores of short pieces: in alone, he published more than stories and poems. Many were eminently forgettable and not republished for many decades…
World War I and the 1917 October Revolution came and went; Grin kept on writing.
Grin is best known today, at least within Russia, for the novella Scarlet Sails, of which there are adaptations for film, opera and ballet. “The title has become ubiquitous,” writes Scherr,
appearing as the name of not only restaurants and hotels but also enterprises ranging from a trucking company in St Petersburg to a sauna in Nizhny Novgorod and an apartment complex in Moscow. Perhaps most famously, it serves as the name of an all-night festival in St. Petersburg that marks the end of the school year; a highlight of the celebration is the appearance on the Neva River of a ship rigged with scarlet sails.
The collection starts with the 1907 “Quarantine”, which is perhaps the most traditional of the stories, with echoes of Turgenev, perhaps Chekhov, and perhaps drawn from his own experience: a young man with revolutionary tendencies lodging in a country house. There is a great deal of introspection and a confused, mishandled courtship.
The detours into the tropical fantasy lands are interesting—if English writers can set stories in Siberia and fill them with Russians, then surely Russians are entitled to populate their stories with imagined English colonials—but nonetheless strange: one can’t help wonder what Grin was thinking. They are not however all that engaging: somewhat formulaic—one uses the “tell me a story” lead-in—and close, too close in my view, to the Western European and American writers that influenced him. “It is easy to understand,” writes Scherr, “why some of Alexander Grin’s contemporaries within Russia assumed that he was a foreign writer.”
The stories are nonetheless unexpected: despite Grin’s early work as a revolutionary propagandist, little if any of the writing makes reference to the sorts of socialist—or even social—themes one would have expected from a writer living through those turbulent times. Indeed, the collection spans a decade before and after the Revolution, yet there is nothing in the writing to indicate such a momentous watershed.
The most interesting, and perhaps best, story in the collection is the title work, dating from 1927, which also closes out the book. It is a fantastical tale, with a mysterious painting, a delegation of Spaniards bringing bales of mostly useless gifts to the House of Scholars, a group of fortune-telling gypsies, a turbot, all culminating in a sort of time-warp which might just be delusion. Almost absurdist, it’s about as far from socialist realism as one can get, and given the references to lack of food and fuel, rather critical of the actual social reality from which the protagonist seems to be escaping.
A 1987 review in the New York Times of a previous collected translation was of the opinion that
Grin is a writer of considerable charms, but also of considerable limitations. Plot is clearly not his forte, and many of the stories have a schematic, prefabricated construction. The clumsily motivated characters, like those in elaborate costume dramas, rarely come alive.
Despite the recent collection of stories doing little to cause reassessment, there are nevertheless in Grin’s stories glimpses of a different sort of Russian writer, one who—as far back as the first decade of the last century—looked toward Asia, even if he never really reached it.