If novels arise out of the shortcomings of history, as German poet Novalis once claimed, then we need a new term for Svetlana’s Alexievich’s writing, which hovers between both forms.
The subtitle of her latest book, Secondhand Time The Last of the Soviets, tells us this is An Oral History, but the term doesn’t properly encompass the scale, magnetic detail and novelistic flourishes that characterize the author’s work. Her histories are built almost purely from testimony but Alexievich’s attention to the cadence of each voice, and her symphonic structure elevates these accounts into another register. Her recent books are closer in style to verbatim theatre, and in scope to the Russian novel with its interest in the internal life and in how individuals are shaped by historical forces. Whether interviewing the grieving mothers of Russian soldiers who fought in Afghanistan (Zinky Boys) or the wives of firefighters sent to manage the Chernobyl nuclear meltdown (Voices from Chernobyl), Alexievich is attuned to the “transformation of life—everyday life—into literature. I’m always listening for it,” she says, “in every conversation, both general and private”.