Waiting on an endless line for booze at the Brooklyn Academy of Music on Wednesday night, Russian and English speakers alike got liquored up before being seated. They were here for BAM’s Eat, Drink and Be Literary event, where siblings Keith Gessen and Masha Gessen would each be reading from their newest, unreleased, and seriously anticipated books. The event was sponsored by the Mikhail Prokhorov Fund, named for the Brooklyn Nets owner, former Putin running mate, and 58th-richest man in the world.
In the lobby, glamorous graying women and their dates in casual suits shared glances at Irina Korina’s “Chapel” installation, while a younger attendee asked me if the art, which was complete with green shrubbery, fake fire made from cloth, and a stained glass center, would ever be freed from the four steel walls surrounding it. I had no idea really, but the program did say it was a work that “intentionally makes confusion and frustration a part of the viewer’s experience.” Success! Pozdravlyayu, Irina.
Dinner (and more wine) was served at 6:30 p.m. and at 7:45 p.m. an opening group of speakers/benefactors/promoters introduced the night’s featured guests. Moderator Phillip Lopate, author and director of the graduate nonfiction program at Columbia University, brought up Keith Gessen, one-half of the evening’s guests. Gessen, editor in chief of n+1 and author of All The Sad Young Literary Men, made the crowd laugh lightly and then progressively harder as he read a chapter from his newest fiction “work in progress,” in which he goes sweater shopping with his grandmother (Ruzya Solodovnik, who was a Soviet censor) in Moscow.
After her brother finished his warm and personal prose, Masha Gessen, journalist and author of The Man Without A Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, read from her new book about the incarcerated Russian band Pussy Riot. With a tone jarringly different from her brother’s, Gessen’s writing was as strong as her reporting; that hard-to-reach equilibrium where nonfiction reads like a novel.
During the Q&A session afterwards, Lopate asked the siblings if they think about Russian literature when they write. Masha explained sardonically that her brother was the one who thought about literature—to which, with an innocent sibling jab, he responded that his sister was the one who “lives it.” They discussed how writing had always been “a family profession,” and Keith explained that these days, “all the cool kids are Marxists.” Asked by an audience member if her life had ever been in danger, Masha laughed, saying this was always people’s first question. Because of her prominence in the West her safety was generally guaranteed, she explained, while journalist friends of hers who “don’t have the eyes of the world on them” are in far greater danger.
At 9:15 p.m., the two Gessens left the stage as I seeped and sipped my aged earl grey and listened to the intelligent people discuss the intelligentsia on their way out.