Alexander Melikhov (real name Meylakhs) was born in 1947. He spent his childhood in Northern Kazakhstan where his father, a historian, fearing a second arrest, fled to avoid persecution for his non-orthodox views on Russian history. Melikhov graduated from Leningrad University majoring in mathematics, later he defended his Ph.D. and stayed on in the capacity of a research fellow. A prolific writer he was unable to get published under the Soviets but in post-Soviet times he soon won a reputation as one of the most important living authors. A typical representative of the St Petersburg literary school Melikhov always focuses on the most conspicuous and painful social problems such as the ages-old Russian-Jewish conflict, the growing suicide problem, the sorry state of the disabled, generation gap, etc. His philosophical-psychological writings closely examine the characters’ inner world and the social-intellectual characteristics of the various sections of society. Melikhov’s books continue the tradition of the great 19th-century Russian literature with its tradition of intense spiritual and intellectual search. Critics also compared Melikhov to Nabokov and Thomas Mann.
Winner of the Nabokov Prize, of the Russian PEN Prize, the Gogol Prize, and a number of other prizes, short-listed for the Russian Booker and the Big Book Prize, Melikhov has some 20 books to his name which are all constantly reprinted.
His best known works include the trilogy on the Jewish theme: The Confession of a Jew. Eviction from Eden. Escape from Retribution. Each of the novels stands on its own and has been published independently. The whole trilogy comes to 600 pages.
Red Sion, a novel presenting the entire history of Birobidzhan: the Jewish autonomous republic in the Far East founded in the 1930s.
The Blessed Land: the Story of a Dream. A non-fiction history of Birobidzhan.
The Plague. Based on his attempts to save his own son from drug addiction Melikhov closely examines this disease plaguing the modern world.
Community of the Feeble-minded + In the Valley of the Blessed. A dilogy set in a home for the mentally handicapped.
Romance with Prostatitis is based on Melikhov’s experiences of the early perestroika years when, to make a living, he had to "shuffle" goods from abroad for resale at home.
His latest novel Rendezvous with Quasimodo, pending publication, is about the fatal role of physical beauty in human relationships.
Rendezvous with Quasimodo
a novel, 300 pp. Eksmo, 2016
This action-packed and thought-provoking novel looks at the fatal role of beauty in human lives and how easily what we take for beauty may show its ugly face and vice versa – the eternal theme of the beauty and the beast. Horrible atrocities have always been committed in the name of beauty, and often beauty was discovered in an ugly guise. The female protagonist called Julia is a young psychologist working at the city court’s forensic-psychiatric department who is fascinated with beauty and its individual meaning for each person and social group. Her whole life is an intensive search for elements of beauty in the ugly world. The author maintains that people want to know only the nice aspects of their nature and turn away from those, which express their true essence, that “love is not a daughter of sexual attraction but a sister of religion, both of them originating from a common dream.”
The novel opens with several episodes of seemingly senseless murders committed in a state of affectation: a woman kills the three rapists who attack her; another woman murders her unwanted child for the sake of keeping her lover whom she kills in court with a shard of glass; a working-class boy kills an upper-class girl for rejecting him. These are just three cases out of many murders Julia has to investigate.
She deals with misfits in situations of their clash with the normal world. But where is the borderline between the norm and pathology, she wonders? The same crimes may be glorified as beauty (Othello, Medea, etc) or appear as sadistic depending on the stage-settings. The romantic-minded Julia must diagnose the murderers’ state at the time of the crime and in normal conditions. She tends to take the side of the accused and always finds exonerating circumstances for which she is criticized by her colleagues. At the end of the novel she is herself cruelly murdered by a serial killer who contacts women by the internet, inspires their pity by describing himself as a Quasimodo with a noble soul, lures them into his den and kills them.
At some point the novel turns into a Bildungsroman as Julia looks back to her early childhood and teenage in a provincial town where the girl discovers the pleasant and unpleasant facts of life, its beautiful and ugly aspects. She encounters very little beauty around and her eyes can feast only on the natural scenery.
She craves for a full and eventful life and genuine beauty as an antidote for the ugliness of provincial existence around her with its petty-mindedness, coarseness and cruelty. And no wonder considering their living conditions and the general squalor. When her classmate from a big family gets a place in the factory hostel he is overjoyed: “There’s only four persons in the room and each has a bed to himself with a blanket and a pillow – can you imagine! But what’s more, bed sheets and pillowcases are changed every week!”
Julia considers herself to be unattractive believing that love and beauty go hand in hand. But gradually she comes to realize that each historical period and each social group have their own standards of beauty, and that in fact “beauty is in the eyes of the beloved”, so she shouldn’t cultivate a dependence on other people’s standards but follow her own path because freedom and independence of mind constitute half of beauty.
Praise for Alexander Melikhov’s novel
“Rendezvous with Quasimodo”
Yakov Gordin, critic, editor of Zvezda magazine:
"I’ve been really impressed with “Quasimodo”. You succeeded in presenting very convincingly your pet idea of the role of beauty as an arbiter in people’s choices, which invariably turn out to be a choice between life and death. And you also showed the relativity and ambivalence of beauty. This is a very powerful and merciless text. The finale is both unexpected and philosophically inevitable. I was expecting a catastrophe in the end but did not think it was going to finalize the story so logically."
Olga Aminova, literary scholar and publisher:
"I’ve gulped your “Quasimodo” – the novel is absolutely unputdownable. The heroine’s life is presented in such convincing detail that you start thinking she is a real person. The exposition of your ideas on beauty is highly interesting and could be a separate treatise on beauty. Your quotes from Rousseau, Georges Sand, Hugo, etc. look perfectly organic in the text. Your insert novellas about convicts are real gems. The novel is simply brilliant. One can see that any personal life is larger than love and beauty, which are only fleeting moments in our lives."
Valery Popov, author:
"How vast is your knowledge of life and how brilliantly you write! Lots of amazing details, such as those about the construction of the elevator, or Kazakhstan, or your full-blooded characters. … But you tend to destroy the wealth of life all the time. Of course, death imparts sublimity to the story, but with your extraordinary understanding of life you could also let life stay alive more often."
Elena Kolina, author:
"I’ve read it at one go. Apart from being a very interesting story, it’s an amazingly frank book in its precise naming of everything. It shows us that there are no chance meetings in life. As usual there are a multitude of apt observations - one enjoy the recognition (yes, yes, that’s exactly how it is!) but it also makes you feel sad, because you realize how lonely each person is, not just you, but everybody, and this is somehow a consolation. Only you as a writer can create this feeling. A very powerful book, a real classic."
Dina Rubina, author:
"You wrote a remarkable novel, integral, merciless, and wonderfully bitter-sweet. I only think that the heroine’s obsession with pure beauty is exaggerated: in real life a woman usually makes concessions. But in your case, you wanted to make a certain point and illustrate your idea. As usual, your bastards of all sorts are very vivid and expressive making a terrifying and mesmerizing mixture. The whole thing makes an impression of the unbearableness of life, fatality of beauty, and easiness of death. You are a great writer."