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Set in a psychiatric clinic in Moscow in the long decades of late-Soviet stagnation, Before and During sweeps the reader away from its dismal surroundings on a series of fantastical excursions into the Russian past. The novel invokes real historical events and people (Tolstoy, Madame de Staël, Saint John of Kronstadt, Alexander Scriabin, and Stalin, among others), swirling them into a phantasmagoric alternative chronology. Stories germinate within other stories, unfolding in astonishing variations.
We meet Leo Tolstoy’s twin brother, eaten by the great writer in his mother’s womb, only to be born as Tolstoy’s ‘son’; the philosopher-hermit Nikolai Fyodorov, who believed that the common task of humanity was the physical resurrection of their ancestors; a self-replicating Madame de Staël who, during her second life, is carried through plague-ridden Russia in a glass palanquin and becomes Fyodorov’s lover; and the composer Alexander Scriabin, who preaches to Lenin on the shores of Lake Geneva.
Out of these intoxicating, darkly comic fantasies – all described in a serious, steady voice – Sharov seeks to retrieve the hidden connections and hidden strivings of the Russian past, its wild, lustful quest for justice, salvation and God.