Alexander Selin belongs to that rare Chekhovian type of writer who tells a story not straightforwardly but through a series of carefully chosen and cleverly arranged vivid details. Perhaps Selin has even more in common with Gogol - he demonstrates the same kind of healthy humor and rich imagination.
At the same time he derives much of his literary merit from the absurdist writing of Daniil Kharms. Having said that it should be emphasized that Selin possesses a voice all his own and the three great writers mentioned above are only a point of reference.
Some of his stories resemble video-clips in form and are just as visual, sparkling with humor, aphoristic comparisons and wit. They are usually based on some fantastic plot involving fantastic metamorphoses happening to his characters and conveying Selin's wonder at life's inscrutable mysteries and inimitable beauty.
Selin grew up in the little town of Volzhsk on the Volga. He graduated from the Moscow Institute of Physics Engineering and worked as a physicist for eight years, leaving this profession with a number of publications and discoveries to his credit. During that time he wrote prose and plays, which he staged himself with theatre companies in Moscow and St Petersburg. He also writes film and TV scripts and humorous short stories, published in literary journals and recited by comic actors.
He has two collections of short stories and the novel Videountermenschen to his name.
Critics were at a loss to find a category into which Selin's work, full of wit and inventiveness, can be slotted. Gogol and Kharms were mentioned as influences, but not with any certainty. Finally they concluded that Selin is Selin and really his own man. That is good enough for me. Selin graduated in Engineering Physics before becoming a writer. This helps me to confess that this translator graduated as a dentist before becoming a translator/writer. We are both in a sense, playing away from home, and for my part I feel absolved by this from making any attempt at exegetical analysis or ranking of the author within the Russian literary canon. It is probably too early for that anyway, though no doubt somebody somewhere is doing just that.
For my part, I have been driven by sheer enjoyment and continuing curiosity. The themes are the usual suspects: Love, Death, Affliction, Fear, Obsession. But the treatments can be variable. I rapidly became accustomed to his avoidance of the neat ending or twist in the tail. Selin is not for those who want in music "a tune they can whistle" or a signalled coda to finish with, in art they want a picture "that tells a story", and in literature a simple narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end. We are sometimes left in the air, but somehow satisfied.
"The Parachutist" takes us into magic realism of a sort. Magical realist Salman Rushdie's "Satanic Verses" opens with the free fall of his main characters from an airliner over the English Channel, who survive the event. The parachutist Lacis is accompanied in his free fall by "Death", a woman who appears subsequently in a whole wardrobe of disguises, but who operates in an utterly naturalistic world. Remembering how "The Devil" walks the earth in The Master and Margarita we can now add Bulgakov to our tally of influences. Selin's "Death" character is often a skittish female who dresses unstylishly, hitch-hikes and takes tea without sugar. She evolves literally into a "femme fatale", while somehow remaining a simpering, tearful Mills and Boon character. Like all of the females represented she is a pre-feminism caricature.
"The Sniper" is an essay in fear and human frailty. The sniper never actually shoots anybody, but the sense of his menace remains with us after the narrative ends. It left me chillingly conscious of the ambivalent attitude that has always existed between society and its protectors. This message will not be lost on the inhabitants of Washington DC.
"Lolita" tests us similarly. Is she real, or an idealized counterpoint to her husband's squalid sexual exploits? Does she play echo to Nabokov's eponymous nymphet?
In Selin's stories wives can suffer casual physical abuse at the hands of their menfolk. Is this, as the Sotsrealist might argue, typical? The caricaturing seems to be intentional. Selin is a very visual writer. We are offered telling images rather than character analysis. The casual abuse which the wives in "Billy Goat" and "Itching" suffer may not be either stereotypical or realistic, but merely represent an indifference to actuality if it should interfere with the author's pre-occupation with visual presentation.
Magic is also present in "Sablin and Sologub". The characters here live in a world of constant duelling, in which even a surgeon's profession takes second place to it, a world where the surgeon's powers include control of the speed and direction of his opponents' bullets.
Most hilarious for me is "Alpatovka". This is a village where every inhabitant is a liar and a thief, where every described object has been, is being, or will be stolen. Blame for this exuberant criminality is burdened upon the legendary surrounding forest, eternally voracious. The writing is sheer joy. I can't find and don't want a label for it.
But these are sample thoughts. My pre-occupation has been with seeking an authentic English analogue for this extraordinary man's writing. The necessary immersion in it has left me too close to the texts to have any objectivity about it. Selin seems to tell us: "This is the Selin world. Nobody else's. Read it or not." Reading it has given me such huge pleasure that I will merely add a heartfelt: "And enjoy the fun!"