Quick Study: Vladimir Sorokin is known for writing postmodern fiction with elements of satire, the Soviet past, and dystopian futures plus sex, scatology, and violence. He also writes plays and screenplays, and wrote a controversial libretto for the opera Rosenthal’s Children at Moscow’s Bolshoi Theater.
The Sorokin File: Sorokin began writing before perestroika, when his underground work could not be officially published: he was first published in the early 1980s in Paris, where his novel The Queue, consisting of conversations among people waiting in line, came out in Russian. His books also began to reach Western readers, in French, German, and English during the 1980s, through translations of novels including The Queue, The Norm, and Marina’s Thirtieth Love. Sorokin’s writings in the post-Soviet period include 1999’s Blue Lard, which created tremendous controversy by depicting Stalin and Khrushchev in compromising positions and resulted in pornography charges and an infamous toilet incident, in which protesters dumped copies of Sorokin’s books into a giant commode in central Moscow. His 2006 Day of the Oprichnik, with a setting that combines futuristic technology with the oprichina of Ivan the Terrible’s day, is distinctly political, and his The Blizzard, from 2010, is a short metaphysical novel that is distinctly literary, with references to Russian classics. Sorokin won the Big Book Award’s second jury prize in 2011 for The Blizzard; his work has also been shortlisted for the Russian Booker, and he won a 2001 Andrei Bely Award for his contributions to Russian literature.
Psssst………: Sorokin has also worked as a book illustrator... Vladislav Davidzon reports in Bookforum that Sorokin once “[dressed] as Batman for a glossy magazine cover.”
Sorokin’s Places: Born in Bykovo, just outside Moscow. Studied engineering at the Gubkin Institute of Oil and Gas in Moscow. Lives outside Moscow.
The Word on Sorokin: Articles and reviews often mention the controversies that Sorokin’s work generates. Ken Kalfus, for example, begins his review of Ice for The New York Times with, “Controversy chases the Russian writer Vladimir Sorokin the way a dog chases a stick.” In a piece for Bookforum, Vladislav Davidzon aptly summarizes Sorokin’s career as he reviews Ice Trilogy and Oprichnik, beginning his final paragraph with, “Sorokin’s fiction both draws upon and stands up to the farcical situations he observes in real Russian life, which are often far stranger than anything most novelists could concoct.”
Sorokin on Sorokin: Sorokin said in an interview that he tries not to repeat himself as an author, always “diving into some new space.” He added later that life was his writing teacher and said routine tasks like chopping wood, cooking, and walking dogs help keep him from becoming a “literary addict,” unable to find anything new.
On Writing: A 2011 article in The New York Times by Ellen Barry quotes Sorokin as having said, “I do not overrate literature as such. For me, it is just paper with typographic signs.” Barry notes the evolution of Sorokin’s goals, too, writing that, “He would like his work to change things.” Sorokin also told Der Spiegel in an interview that violence is his primary theme because, even as a child, he saw violence “as a sort of natural law” and recognized “the sinister energy of our country.”
Sorokin Recommends: In a 2007 interview with the Russian magazine Medved’, Sorokin referred to Viktor Yerofeyev as his only literary friend in Russia. In another interview, from 2002, Sorokin called Boris Akunin a conceptualist who is like an ice breaker cutting through the ice of trash as he examines, through the detective genre and mass culture, Russia and the nineteenth century in new ways. Sorokin also credited Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which he read in 1979, with helping form his anti-Soviet views.
Translating Sorokin: When asked in a 2011 interview with The Paris Review about the difficulties of translating the three volumes of the Ice trilogy, Jamey Gambrell answered by saying, “The difficulties of translation are many, but as different as the books are, the task of the translation is really very similar, because you’re dealing with very different voices. In Ice Trilogy there are a lot of them, and they’re extremely varied, and some of them are actual out of Russian life–type voices, and then of course there’s the strange mechanized, dehumanized voice of Bro and others when they start talking about meat machines, which drove me nuts at first when I started reading it. It’s like, This is so boring, this is going to sound so weird. But then I stopped working on the translation, and reread the whole thing in Russian and realized, Well, yeah, it’s extremely strange in Russian. And so, there’s nothing else to do it with. You have to go with that weirdness.”