David Bezmozgis spent six years writing his eagerly awaited first novel - and he makes no apologies for taking his time with The Free World, the story of a family in transition.
David Bezmozgis took his time in writing the story of a family in limbo
David Bezmozgis came to public attention with the short story collection Natasha in 2004. That book was one of those debuts that seems to establish overnight a reputation both entire and formidable. Stories from it appeared in The New Yorker and Zoetrope, the preeminent literary critic James Wood found much to praise in a review for the London Review of Books, and there were comparisons to the 20th-century literary giant Saul Bellow.
Since then anticipation has been high for Bezmozgis's first novel, The Free World. It tells the story of the Krasnanskys, a Jewish family who escape Soviet Latvia for a new life in 1978. We come across them halfway through their journey, in Rome, the city that becomes for the family - both physically and emotionally - a strange hinterland, somewhere between departure and arrival.
As with Natasha, the book has drawn high praise from critics. It comes nine months after The New Yorker named Bezmozgis on its prestigious "20 under 40" list: published every 10 years, the list announces the arrival of a new generation of North American novelists. "It was a nice thing to have happen," says Bezmozgis - whose family moved from Latvia to Canada in 1980, when he was six - in what turns out to be a characteristic, brisk, considered statement. "I respect the people who put out that magazine. To be recognised by them is meaningful. Beyond that, you still have to work."
In conception, The Free World feels like a prologue to Natasha. That collection presented another emigre, Mark Berman, teenage son of Latvian-Jewish parents who have just relocated with him to Toronto in the 1970s. So did this novel feel a kind of prequel to his short story collection? "Yes. There were certain themes and issues that I couldn't get into in Natasha just by virtue of the way the book was, all this experience I wanted to get into, and in The Free World I address them."
While Natasha, then, examines a young man upon whom cultural dislocation has been imposed via a decision made by his parents, in The Free World we are among adults. The story is told from the viewpoint of three characters: the family patriarch and staunch Communist Samuil, recently denounced by enemies in his country; his son Alec, giddy at the new freedoms available to him in western Europe; and Alec's wife Polina.
"Unlike in Natasha, here I'm dealing with the people who make that decision to give up their lives, and go into the great unknown," says Bezmozgis. "I'm fascinated by that, and I wanted to examine it.
"To feel yourself suddenly liberated can be exhilarating, but it can also be frightening. You discover your true, elemental nature."
The story opens as the Krasnanskys arrive in Rome, and ends as they are leaving. This is a novel, then, that wants to inhabit the state of transition, of journeying but not yet arriving, becoming but not yet being. Bezmozgis says this reflects both a personal fascination and the rich narrative potential of that state.
"Across the period of the novel, everything is up in the air for the Krasnanskys. The story takes place at a pivot point in their lives, which I think is a very interesting place to be narratively. The past has just become past and still exerts an influence; the future is uncertain.
"The book is also set at a moment of great historical transition" - in 1978 Italy was shocked by the murder of the former prime minister Aldo Moro by the communist Red Brigades, while political Islam was about to achieve its most significant victory in Iran - "putting people in this situation of shocking change and seeing how they respond is fascinating to me."
The origins of this fascination, surely, lay in part in Bezmozgis's own early life. He was six when his mother, a mechanical engineer, and his father, an administrator for the sports club Dynamo Riga, decided to leave Riga: like thousands of other Soviet-Jewish families, they sought to escape from the prejudice and economic stagnation that stifled opportunity in their homeland. Reportedly, the Bezmozgis family - much like the fictional Krasnanskys - were initially unsure where to go, and considered Australia before finally settling on Canada. Indeed, Bezmozgis and his family also transitioned through Rome on their way to their new lives. But The Free World was inspired less by direct recollection of that time, says Bezmozgis, than by subsequent conversations:
"I drew very little on my own memories," says Bezmozgis. "My memory of passing through Rome isn't very good, it's only fragmentary. I relied more on things I've heard since, little kernels that became stories that I could build on."
Bezmozgis refreshed his memory of Riga with a visit in 2003:
"I went back partly because I knew I wanted to write this book, and I wanted to refresh my memory of the place. But in general I am drawn to the history of where I come from."
In mining stories from his own family's past, Bezmozgis is one among many young contemporary novelists to examine what has come to be called the "immigrant experience". Why has this terrain proven such fertile ground for fiction, especially across the past two decades?
"I think that for some people in the West, who aren't experiencing war in their own countries, the immigrant experience is the next most dramatic experience they can have, so it makes for good stories," he says.
"It does shape the psyche. I have a sense that I cannot take things for granted in my life because I saw my parents struggle to establish this life for me. I have a freedom that my parents did not for most of their lives, and for which they made tremendous sacrifices."
Still, no one can doubt the seriousness with which Bezmozgis engages in his own struggle to do justice to that experience, the difficulty, absurdity and beauty of it, in his work:
"A six-year novel is a long, hard road. In our culture, where everything happens so quickly, it almost seems embarrassing to spend six years writing a book. But it's not extraordinary: lots of writers spend that long. And I don't think it could have been done any faster.
"I'm not particularly efficient. If a management consultant came to my office, that's what they'd say. But you need time to think, and to reflect. That's just how long it takes.
"I didn't feel pressure, really, because of the success of Natasha. The only pressure is the pressure I put on myself to write well. That's the only pressure I feel."