A Day in the Life of a Russian Shirt: reviewing The Hemingway Game by Evgeny Grishkovets4 min read
Sasha, the protagonist of Evgeny Grishkovets’s novel The Hemingway Game (Glagoslav), is a spirited animal; exuberant and energetic, he argues with bartenders and speaks with exclamation points. Sasha is an earnest man. He craves authentic experiences and shirks the conspicuous consumption of Moscow life. Gold watches and trendy cocktails do little for Grishkovets’s hero, whose mind often wanders to railway cars, battalions, and prison cells. It’s not that he’s a simple man but that he values simple, authentic experiences, the kinds that are hard to come by in Russia’s capital.
The Hemingway Game follows one day in Sasha’s life, from the moment he puts on his shirt – “Just a plain white shirt. Nevertheless, my favourite” – to the moment his head hits the pillow at night. (The title of the original Russian novel is simply The Shirt). It happens to be the day when Sasha is visited from out of town by an old friend. Girthy, jolly Max approaches Moscow with the wide eyes of a tourist; unlike Sasha, who resists every thrill the capital has to offer, Max can’t wait to sip expensive cocktails and hunt for celebrities. And, of course, to dress up, meet women, and play the Hemingway Game.
“But the most desirable object is an elegant woman who sits at the table alone, perhaps after a fight with a man or some other trouble. […] You have to create an atmosphere of safety, dependability and unvarnished truth. If you suddenly experience desire or temptation… You have to fight it… without concealing that fight […] Meaning that the better things are going, the clearer it must become that you would never meet again. Never! Yet at the same time, the faintest sound of hope must hang in the air. And at that very moment, when this thin edge is about the breached… you must part ways! Under no circumstance are you to personally take the woman or women home. Because you will know where she or they live. And then the sound of hope will ring either fake or unduly strong.”
The Hemingway Game is, in other words, a kind of performance. Evgeny Grishkovets is best known as a playwright and performer, and The Hemingway Game feels like the culmination of decades of theatrical experience. The author knows that performance is everywhere, that every scarf is a costume, every briefcase a prop. But he understands that the meaning of a performance is defined by its context. The irony of Sasha’s unhappiness is that he loathes the posturing that Moscow requires of its middle class but finds joy and release playing a cosmopolitan heartbreaker with Max.
In the end, it’s a question of audience. Sasha likes playing Hemingway because he does so only with Max, who is there to acknowledge that it’s just a game, just a performance. When Sasha supervises his employees or haggles with taxi drivers, he is playing the part of a tough-talking, big-city manager, a part for which he’s not especially well-cast. But when he’s with Max, there’s always someone around who knows that, deep down, Sasha is the same small-town boy he’s always been. Max doesn’t make Sasha more authentic, but his presence allows Sasha to orient himself within Moscow’s glass, concrete, and deceit.
Sasha and Max enjoy a powerful friendship. Although Sasha claims to be in love with a woman he’s barely met, his would-be romance is by an order of magnitude less interesting than the special relationship he shares with Max. Only Max calls him Sanya (another derivative of Alexander); only Max knows him that way. Sasha, likewise, is furious when Max grows a beard, changing his appearance and breaking the unspoken promise of continuity the two friends share.
The Hemingway Game is a charming and nuanced story of identity, authenticity, and friendship. It is my hope that one day this novel will receive a second English edition, and an opportunity to fix its mistakes. The version currently published by Glagoslav has been badly edited and contains a slew of typographical and translation errors. Some of these mistakes are forgivable, bordering on cute, but most are frustrating. The narrator’s thoughts are expressed in quotation marks, making them indistinguishable from his spoken dialogue; place names are translated when they should be transliterated and transliterated when they should be translated; and the characters speak with broken grammar, making them seem stupid and drunk, even when they are, in fact, intelligent and drunk. When I reached out to the book’s translator, Steven Volynets, he conceded that he had done his best “with a very promising book given a shoe-string budget.”
The Hemingway Game is promising indeed. Light and peppy but full of social and psychological commentary, it propels itself forward with zealous charm from page to page until the last profound spoonful of borscht.