Living the Russian language

For Single Mothers Working as Train ConductorsLaura Esther Wolfson speaks fluent Russian. She’s interpreted for mafia trials and state banquets at the Kremlin. She’s also translated KGB files, diplomatic correspondence and forgotten literary masterpieces. Her new book of essays about this way of life, with its inviting tone and emotional insight, feels more like memoir, and that’s a large part of its charm.

Wolfson’s desire to become a Russianist began with Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina when, at an early age, she felt a need to read it in the original Russian. She studied the language in college and then immersed herself in it while living in the former Soviet Union. She also married a native Russian.

Several essays refer to this first marriage, exploring the tension of cultural differences, especially as it affected their family planning. That’s what the first essay is about – her husband’s perplexing requirement for 24-hour day care. It’s what the Soviet Union gave single mothers working as train conductors. The essay provides a clever title for the book, but it’s a weak start to an otherwise very engaging personal history, where Wolfson delves into the how and why of her life circumstances with probing and often wistful consideration.

In one essay, she writes about being stalked by an author who wants her to translate his book about the last Yiddish poet in Lithuania. In another, she writes about surprising New York City Russians with her knowledge of their language. Several essays refer to the author’s diagnosis of a degenerative lung disease. The condition minimizes her ability to interpret effectively and results in the author taking a permanent job with health insurance. It’s one of the many times this author shines in this, her debut book, taking us into difficult change with sophisticated meaning. She also writes about coming to terms with her Jewish heritage, seeking understanding about a religion her parents didn’t embrace. And then there’s the enjoyable essay about the time she was the dance critic for a local newspaper, when she was 17 years old.

The collection spans events from youth through middle age and while these personal essays aren’t meant to be a connected narrative, a little more chronological distinction would’ve made a big difference. That’s more of a personal request on my part and in no way affects the book’s seductive power, fueled by Wolfson’s “aha” moments of realization, and her feelings of regret, acceptance and uncertainty.

In one of the most memorable essays, Wolfson is offered an opportunity to translate books written in Russian by the Belarusian investigative journalist Svetlana Alexievitch. Given her 9 to 5 job and a rusty distance from translating books, she feels inadequate for what’s required. So Wolfson passes up the offer. Nearly a decade later, Svetlana Alexievitch receives the Nobel Prize in Literature. Wolfson’s essay captures a classic experience — something we all can relate to — about what might have been.

A version of this review ran on NPR member station WOSU 89.7 FM. For Single Mothers Working as Train Conductors won the 2017 Iowa Prize for Literary Nonfiction.