Natasha and Other Storiesby David Bezmozgis
Few readers had heard of David Bezmozgis before last May, when Harper's, Zoetrope, and The New Yorker all printed stories from his forthcoming collection. In the space of a few weeks, these magazines introduced America to the Bermans--Bella and Roman and their son, Mark--Russian Jews who have fled the Riga of Brezhnev for Toronto, the city of their/i>/i>
Few readers had heard of David Bezmozgis before last May, when Harper's, Zoetrope, and The New Yorker all printed stories from his forthcoming collection. In the space of a few weeks, these magazines introduced America to the Bermans--Bella and Roman and their son, Mark--Russian Jews who have fled the Riga of Brezhnev for Toronto, the city of their dreams.
Told through Mark's eyes, and spanning the last twenty-three years, Natasha brings the Bermans and the Russian-Jewish enclaves of Toronto to life in stories full of big, desperate, utterly believable consequence. In "Tapka" six-year-old Mark's first experiments in English bring ruin and near tragedy to the neighbors upstairs. In "Roman Berman, Massage Therapist," Roman and Bella stake all their hopes for Roman's business on their first, humiliating dinner in a North American home. Later, in the title story, a stark, funny anatomy of first love, we witness Mark's sexual awakening at the hands of his fourteen-year-old cousin, a new immigrant from the New Russia. In "Minyan," Mark and his grandfather watch as the death of a tough old Odessan cabdriver sets off a religious controversy among the poor residents of a Jewish old-folks' home.
The stories in Natasha capture the immigrant experience with a serious wit as compelling as the work of Jhumpa Lahiri, Nathan Englander, or Adam Haslett. At the same time, their evocation of boyhood and youth, and the battle for selfhood in a passionately loving Jewish family, recalls the first published stories of Bernard Malamud, Harold Brodkey, Leonard Michaels, and Philip Roth.
“Extraordinary...[Recalls] the work of Babel, Roth, Saul Bellow, and so many others. Yet Bezmozgis makes these characters, and the state of marginality itself, uniquely his. This hysterical, merciless, yet open-hearted excavation of a Jewish family in the process of assimilating gives his literary predecessors a run for their money.” Daniel Schifrin, Los Angeles Times Book Review
“An authority one usually finds only in more seasoned writers.” Meghan O'Rourke, The New York Times Book Review
“Scary good...Not a line or note in the book rings false.” Esquire
“An effervescent debut...A familiar tale of dislocation and assimilation with enough humor, honesty, and courage to make it new again...If the last page of ‘Tapka' doesn't stop your heart, maybe it was never really beating.” O magazine
“A latter-day Bernard Malamud...It's astonishing how Bezmozgis can summon up the émigré community with such clarity and economy. David Bezmozgis isn't almost there. He has arrived, fully mature and wise. These stories aren't just superbly crafted investigations of a particular people and place, but profound illuminations of what it means to grow up in an uncertain, ever-changing world.” Dan Cryer, Newsday
“A stunning first collection, characterized by a painful honesty and clarity of vision....Like Gogol, Bezmozgis is acutely aware of his characters' shortcomings; as Gogol does, Bezmozgis writes with compassion, quietly reminding us of the hidden beauty within human imperfection.” Julie Orringer, The Believer
“Dazzling, hilarious, and hugely compassionate narratives [written with] freshness and precision...Readers will find themselves laughing out loud, then gasping as Bezmozgis brings these fictions to the searing, startling and perfectly pitched conclusions that remind us that, as Babel said, ‘no iron can stab the heart so powerfully as a period put in exactly the right place.'” Francine Prose, People
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Read an Excerpt
Excerpt from Natasha by David Bezmozgis. Copyright © 2004 by Nada Films, Inc. To be published in June, 2004 Farrar Straus & Giroux. All rights reserved.
GOLDFINCH WAS FLAPPING CLOTHESLINES, a tenement delirious with striving. 6030 Bathurst: insomniac scheming Odessa. Cedarcroft: reeking borscht in the hallways. My parents, Baltic aristocrats, took an apartment at 715 Finch fronting a ravine and across from an elementary school-one respectable block away from the Russian swarm. We lived on the fifth floor, my cousin, aunt, and uncle directly below us on the fourth. Except for the Nahumovskys, a couple in their fifties, there were no other Russians in the building. For this privilege, my parents paid twenty extra dollars a month in rent.
In March of 1980, near the end of the school year but only three weeks after our arrival in Toronto, I was enrolled in Charles H. Best elementary. Each morning, with our house key hanging from a brown shoelace around my neck, I kissed my parents goodbye and, along with my cousin Jana, tramped across the ravine—I to the first grade, she to the second. At three o'clock, bearing the germs of a new vocabulary, we tramped back home. Together, we then waited until six for our parents to return from George Brown City College, where they were taking their obligatory classes in English.
In the evenings we assembled and compiled our linguistic bounty.
Red, yellow, green, blue.
May I Please go to the washroom?
Seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenny.
Joining us most nights were the Nahumovskys. They attended the same English classes and traveled with my parents on the same bus. Rita Nahurnovsky was a beautician, her face spackled with makeup, and Misha Nahumovsky was a tool and die maker. They came from Minsk and didn't know a soul in Canada. With abounding enthusiasm, they incorporated themselves into our family. My parents were glad to have them. Our life was tough, we had it hard—but the Nahumovskys had it harder. They were alone, they were older, they were stupefied by the demands of language. Being essentially helpless themselves, my parents found it gratifying to help the more helpless Nahumovskys.
After dinner, as we gathered on cheap stools around our table, my mother repeated the day's lessons for the benefit of the Nahumovskys and, to a slightly lesser degree, for the benefit of my father. My mother had always been a dedicated student and she extended this dedication to George Brown City College. My father and the Nahumovskys came to rely on her detailed notes and her understanding of the curriculum. For as long as they could, they listened attentively and gropled toward comprehension. When this became too frustrating, my father put on the kettle, Rita painted my mother's nails, and Misha told Soviet jokes.
In a first-grade classroom a teacher calls on her students and inquires after their nationality. "Sasha," she says. Sasha says, "Russian." "Very good," says the teacher. "Arnan," she says. Arnan says, "Armenian," "Very good," says the teacher. "Lubka," she says. Lubka says, "Ukraininan," "Very good," says the teacher. And then she asks Dima. Dima says, "Jewish." "What a shame," says the teacher, "so young and already a Jew."
Meet the Author
David Bezmozgis (Bez-MOZE-ghis) was born in Riga, Latvia, in 1973. In 1980 he immigrated with his parents to Toronto, where he lives today. This is his first book.
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