Stories That Travel Well

Stories That Travel Well

Father's tales of life in Russia and America echo for BC's Shrayer

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Prof. Maxim D. Shrayer (Slavic and Eastern Languages) shares many characteristics with his father, David Shrayer-Petrov, notably a Jewish-Russian heritage and a love of, and a talent for, writing.

Prof. Maxim D. Shrayer (Slavic and Eastern Languages) and his father, David Shrayer-Petrov. The two will discuss their co-published book, Jonah & Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America, at next week's "Writers Among Us" event. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
But father and son share something else: a fascination with the transforming experience of immigration, yet another common element in their lives.

These qualities are on display in the recently published book Jonah & Sarah: Jewish Stories of Russia and America, a collection of stories written by Shrayer-Petrov and edited by Shrayer, who also assisted in the translations.

The two will discuss their book as part of the Boston College "Writers Among Us" series on Wednesday, Nov. 19, at 7:30 p.m. in Devlin 001.

Shrayer and his father describe the book - full of evocations of art, love and survival in Russia and in diaspora - as an expression of family love and the power of literature to transcend time and culture.

"The publication of Jonah & Sarah is the happiest event of my literary and academic career," said Shrayer, whose previous works include The World of Nabokov's Stories and Russian Poet/Soviet Jew: The Legacy of Eduard Bagritskii. "As a retrospective of my father's vibrant fiction in English translation, this book validates my experience as a cultural transplant from Russia to America.

"This was no ordinary project for me. The work was not simply that of a living writer, but my own father. So the book had to be just perfect; I wanted to represent his voice, and to have the stories stand as a memorial to our ancestors, carrying on Jewish thought through all odds."

Shrayer-Petrov, a medical researcher at Brown University, says working with his son was both enjoyable and productive [His wife, Emilia, also assisted in some of the translations].

"Maxim is a very good writer himself, and so it was a very professional collaboration," he said in a recent interview. "But because we are friends, not just father and son, we could tell everything to each other and be very open about what we were thinking. When we sat down to work, we could shift from the family relationship to being collaborators."

The stories in Jonah & Sarah were written between 1985 and 1999, comprising the period just before and well after Shrayer-Petrov and his wife and son left Russia for the United States. The family's departure in 1987 was the climax of a long struggle for Shrayer-Petrov, whose use of Jewish perspective and themes in his poetry, essays and other writing brought him into conflict with Soviet authorities.

After being denied an exit visa in 1979, Shrayer-Petrov - a medical scientist as well as a writer - was consigned to personal and professional limbo as a "refusenik." Expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers and fired from his position at a microbiology institute, he was unable to publish in the Soviet Union and had to supplement his work at an emergency room lab by driving an illegal cab at night.

But Shrayer-Petrov continued to write, publishing some of his works abroad - while continuing to incur the authorities' wrath - and accumulating other material he planned to issue at a later date. It was this work he brought with him when he and his family were finally allowed to emigrate in June of 1987, and which provided the beginnings of Jonah & Sarah.

There is a delineation between the earlier, pre-immigration stories in Jonah & Sarah and those written after Shrayer-Petrov's arrival in the US, Shrayer notes. The former group present moving narratives of everyday life, in which totalitarianism and anti-Semitism are ever-present, even in a torrid seaside encounter a pair of friends initiate with two young women.

The latter stories depict an emigrant's alienation, finding in America an anonymity that is both liberating and stifling. Yet the new land also provides new possibilities of renewal: An aging writer named Foreman finds himself identifying with boxer George Foreman, whose unlikely comeback at age 45 drew national attention and helped launch a career as TV pitchman.

"There is definitely a Jewish dimension to these stories, but we don't see the book as being only of interest to those of Jewish or Russian ancestry," said Shrayer. "The stories are as of much of America as Russia, and deal with a major question: What happens to us when we leave our land of birth to live somewhere else? How do we change, and what do we retain?"

Jonah & Sarah also might be regarded as both a real and symbolic transferring of the generational guard, where the respective talents of old and young fuse almost seamlessly. Shrayer-Petrov, who recalls reading poetry to his two-year-old child and hearing him mimic sounds in rhyme, sees his son as having found his own path in the literary world to which he had been born.

"Every father likes to see in his son a continuation from before, but yet to be his own person. I never insisted that he write. I only showed him the different styles, the beauty of prose and poetry, because that was part of our family.

"Maybe, some day, he will be a Russian poet," said Shrayer-Petrov, with a smile in his voice. "Now he is an American writer, but that is a very good thing, too."


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