Contemporary Russian literature is suffering an identity crisis. Lesley Chamberlain describes how post-Soviet writers are struggling to escape the legacy of both 20th century repression and 19th century mastersby Lesley Chamberlain / February 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
We’re back where we started,” mourned an ?migr? Russian writer in the literary press recently, observing that three generations of Soviet writing looked like wasted effort. “Ask people what they mean by Russian literature and they will say Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov.” He has a point.
Russian literature has virtually skipped the intellectual and artistic 20th century, and if there are any anti-modernists out there who think that might be a good idea, may they think again. Despite the paternity of those eternal avant-gardists-Dostoevsky and Gogol-Russian literature has remained in a 19th century condition, closest to Tolstoy. Socialist realism continued the line from Marx’s favourite novelist, Balzac, through to Solzhenitsyn. The style just happened to be the communist requirement, but it was practised by Soviet and anti-Soviet writers alike and, with few exceptions, is now also the province of post-Soviet writers. Long isolation from the world at large, coupled with a straightforward and traditional style, can make the product seem amateurish and provincial. The word “new”-pace the requirements of journalism and publicity-is not appropriate.
The work surfacing now was often written up to 20 years ago. Some of the most promising contributors to the recent Penguin Book of New Russian Writing, such as the gay writer Evgeny Kharitonov and the humourist Sergei Dovlatov, are already (in good premature Russian fashion) dead. In other cases the writer is alive but his fable has passed on. Vladimir Makanin’s Baize Table with Decanter, which won the Russian Booker prize in 1993, describes a frightened man not knowing why he is facing inquiry. In style, Baize Table is in the “school of Dostoevsky,” but with no artistic life of its own-and as documentary it’s old hat. The most interesting thing to come out of the debate about the book was the comparison Russian critics made with Kafka. It suggests Russians can’t understand Kafka: they never had an individualist tradition based on a strong sense of self-identity, so they can hardly grasp its undermining. That Kafka’s world looks like Stalin’s, or even Brezhnev’s, is a coincidence.
In any case, there’s a lack of artistry in this offering from the usually superior Makanin. The work belongs to a miserable process of expiation, for which Viktor Erofeyev has coined the phrase “Russia’s Fleurs du Mal.” These poisonous blooms have to be picked, dried and displayed, and the Hell on which they fed must be buried, before new growth can reach light. But the result is not much fun, nor particularly enlightening. The notes of eccentrics, the diaries of madmen and the chronicles of prisoners are all vehicles of expiation, but the realist historical novel is the favoured genre. The school of Tolstoy caters to today’s need to square the injustices of official history. Two of the Russian Booker’s four winners to date have been of this kind, with mainly non-aesthetic virtues, and many more have queued up on the short lists. “Out, out, damned history,” one wants to cry. But the traditionalists strive to maintain a morally responsible tradition. Belinsky, the founder of the civic critical school, codified the attitude in 1848: “Russia will forgive a bad book, but not a harmful one.”
Russia continues to wage war against art for its own sake. The traditionalists argue that Russia cannot catch up with the absorbing world of bourgeois individualism, cannot give birth to a Proust, a Joyce or a Thomas Mann. One might reply: if History has been deposed, by what right does Cultural History rule? But the Russian thing, or being a good thing for Russia, is pervasive.
The traditionalist formula ? la Tolstoy requires a family around which great historical events and human truths unfold. Probably no one will outdo Vassily Grossman’s epic treatment of Stalingrad, Life and Fate (1960), recently reissued here by Harvill in Robert Chandler’s fine translation. The Soviet regime found that book harmful. Mikhail Suslov, the chief ideologue of the Brezhnev age, recommended a 200-year ban on its publication, which was only undone when the satirist Vladimir Voinovich smuggled a microfilm to the west. Now that Russia is a free country the criteria for harmfulness have shifted.
Georgy Vladimov, best known in the west for his novel of 20 years ago, Faithful Ruslan, won the 1995 Russian Booker for his second world war novel The General and His Army. All three shortlisted books dealt with the army and the Gulag. In 1994 the laurels interweaving the cheque for ?10,000 went to another veteran prosaist, Bulat Okudzhava, for a four-generation tableau of his Armenian family, The Show is Over. A year earlier, when Makanin won, the odds-on favourite was Oleg Yermakov’s The Sign of the Beast, which focused on Afghanistan. His previous Afghan Stories has generated more western interest than all the Booker winners together.
Last December Stanislav Rassadin, one of the Booker judges, stressed that Russian literature mattered more than the generous Booker prize money- which constitutes a fortune for winners who still live in Russia. But as the Russian Booker gradually moves from Anglo-Russian into entirely Russian hands, it seems to be retreating into Russian self-obsession. Spurning mere money and judging books on “moral” grounds is part of the self-limiting, self-flagellating past. And Vladimov himself, who has lived abroad since 1983, pointed out that the Booker’s stress on army novels and the idea of a “just war” in 1995 has had everything to do with Chechnya.
Vladimov may have won, but he incurred such obloquy for a book even he considers not his best that he received a visa to attend the prize ceremony only at the last minute. (He was one of only two laureates ever to attend the ceremony-still resented by Russian critics.) Vladimov weaves his tale around those Russians who, while the Germans had no faith in them, fought against Stalin. The novel rehabilitates the hitherto vilified leader of the Liberation Army, General Vlasov. That re-evaluation, and the overthrow of the last emotional bastion of the old regime-the idea that the war-stricken Soviet people pulled together-brought furious attacks in the press. Plus ?? change. Vicious backbiting has always been the stuff of sectarian Russian literary life. But if the “new” is ever to take hold in the form of a real diversity of popular and intellectual traditions, then the whole literary scene, and its 19th century utilitarian and political criteria, must be revamped.
Andrei Sinyavsky, deported from Russia 25 years ago and now very much a Paris-based European writer, says in his contribution to the Penguin volume: “How much longer can we go on writing prose which is no more than an endless complaints book about the central committee of the Communist party of the Soviet Union?” His ensuing dialogue “The Golden Lace” is made of sentences without subject and object, in an attempt to confront old Russia with the shock of post-modernism.
Sinyavsky represents “abroad.” Whether they accept it or not, Russian writers have always been helped by going or being forced abroad. The great tradition begins with Gogol and Turgenev and Dostoevsky and enters the 20th century with the Nobel prize winner Ivan Bunin, the brilliant anti-utopian Zamyatin, and the one who finally sloughed his Russian skin, Nabokov. Sinyavsky has literally followed in their footsteps-where Russian Booker’s first winner, the translator, philosopher and novelist Mark Kharitonov, could only go in his mind. Long ago he emigrated mentally to an apolitical German world defined by Thomas Mann, Franz Kafka, Herman Hesse, Stefan Zweig and Elias Canetti. Kharitonov challenges old Russia with modernism.
With so much missing from the recent cultural history, this challenge is almost as shocking as Sinyavsky’s throwing down of the post-modern gauntlet. The private library, lovingly maintained until the hour of crisis, is a happy modernist metaphor for a desperately attenuated faith in life, to judge from Canetti’s Nobel-winning Auto da F?, and Kharitonov’s Lines of Fate or Milashevich’s Trunk. Lines of Fate concerns how a man understands his life, not through the state or the national destiny at all, but through literature and writing. “Unreadable,” cried envious fellow Russian writers and critics, stuck in their Tolstoyan groove, when this novel won in 1992. By all accounts it’s difficult, but then modernist literature is-often rewardingly so. The American publisher New Press’s translation into English has been a long time coming.
Radically different from Mark Kharitonov and Sinyavsky, Viktor Erofeyev believes that the Russian example shows that civilisation is a thin veneer everywhere. It is an idea I would normally subscribe to, yet the reality of this “new” literature, over and over again, demonstrates the uniquely pathological Russian case. Contemporary Russian literature strikes me as the kind of traumatised child for whom play is impossible. Bruno Bettelheim, by comparing such children to the survivors of concentration camps, completed the circle which links the resources of 20th century psychology to the 20th century experience of extreme violence. From the constants and the parallels we’ve come to understand the limits of the living human. This is the historical and psychological perspective on their plight which the Russians need in order to understand the full extent of their horror, beyond a specifically Russian fate. But to my knowledge it is not yet in intellectual currency.
In practice, the battle for the future of Russian literature and self-understanding is obscured in the general panic to catch up. It is as if a vast literate public, the excellent product of the classical Soviet education system, had suddenly been allowed into a library containing certain truth, after years in the unreliable dark. Where to start? What to read next? Grossman’s Life and Fate is a case in point. The post-Soviet public is just catching up with it, 30 years late. The same is happening with classical Russian works, long forbidden, of the 1899-1929 period. Enthusiasm, greed and bitterness abound. Publishers are turning out with heroic speed translations of western philosophy, psychology and avant-garde literature on which we-and our parents’ generation-grew up.
Lists in the thick journals such as Novy Mir, devoted to literature and social interests, look wildly eclectic. Jung, Freud, the contemporary Estonian novelist Jan Kross, Thornton Wilder, the formalist and Freudian literary critic Mikhail Bakhtin, JP Salinger, the novelist of the west German postwar conscience Heinrich B?ll, the poetry of exile Joseph Brodsky, the childhood of the Biblical Saul, are sandwiched together with all manner of literary and wartime memoirs, speculations on unsolved conundrums of history, such as who killed Stalin’s henchman Kirov, and how the dissident Bukovsky came to be swapped for Chilean communist Louis Corvelan.
One way out of the frenzy for creative writers is haphazard imitation. But wild experimentation in pursuit of new shock values is quicker and easier. Those young writers such as Vladimir Sorokin-and not so young, such as Viktor Erofeyev himself-relishing their freedom after years of official prudishness, have given voice to pimps and whores, set up abortion tables and orgies, and hurled fistfuls of obscenities and excrement into the literary arena. Erofeyev, who wrote the bawdy libretto for last year’s Schnittke at the English National Opera, featuring Lenin in the bath, has sold tens of thousands of copies worldwide of A Russian Beauty, made into a film and to be presented this year at Cannes. Whatever the celluloid version does to it, the original is a rollicking, sexy novel from 1992, alive with human texture, and with something serious to convey about the anarchy of Russia. Sorokin as yet seems too grotesque for export. And so battle is rejoined. If filth is required to appeal to western translators and publishers, then the pressure on post-Soviet literature is “nonsensical and even degrading,” said Lev Anninsky, the 1994 Russian Booker chairman.
If I were a publisher I’d be looking at the new Russian writing to find humour that translates. I liked a line in Aleksei Slapovsky’s Booker shortlisted The First Second Coming, about the kind of women who provide men with the experience of an entire arts degree in one brief affair. Yes, we do know each other. But just look. A local lad reluctantly realises he is Christ; questions his mother; gets his neighbours to follow him; comes under investigation by the local council. It could happen anywhere. Slapovsky’s humour is ebullient, and his street language in Arch Tait’s translation for the magazine Glas, which features new Russian writing, is just right. A prize-winner in Germany for his plays, Slapovsky writes brilliantly of the late and post-Soviet condition, but he is free from Russian obsessiveness.
Nor would I have ignored Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Literary publishers in the UK evidently got wind of the fact that the notorious poet-survivor of every regime from Stalin to Gorbachev could expect at best a hostile press here. But the charge of being a KGB informer has never stuck, and those reviewers who take him to task for his cars and wives echo Yevtushenko’s Moscow enemies. Would the same reviewers take a British novelist’s material life into aesthetic account? Yevtushenko stood up for Solzhenitsyn, if you’re looking for moral brownie points. On the aesthetic side, he writes fairy tale realism with charm and vision and felicity. Even if you find such a vision sentimental, you can rest assured that it expresses the love-hate sentiments of many Russians for their wretched country. Don’t Die Before You’re Dead is an enjoyable middle-brow read from a professional writer, skilfully weaving fact and fiction around the anti-Gorbachev coup in August 1991. It gives even antipathetic figures a fair hearing.
Meanwhile, the best hope for today’s experimental Russian writing is to rediscover its roots from early in this century. The circle around the linguist Roman Jakobson and the psychoanalytic literary critic Bakhtin helped introduce the Russian public to the aesthetic quality of literature before their “formalism” became a term of Stalinist abuse. These were the critics who recognised the writers who are most interesting to rediscover today, among them the poets Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky, and the so-called Russian Nietzsche, Vassily Rozanov. The literature which ran parallel to the music of Skryabin, Shostakovich and Prokoviev (and Stravinsky, abroad) is where new beginnings are sought. The names of Babel, Zoshchin and Platonov (and Nabokov, abroad) defined the psychological territory that every genuinely new post-Soviet artist wants to absorb.
Some names from that period have never been published uncensored before; some manuscripts are still being pulled out of drawers. Anatoly Mariengof’s short novel Cynics is a thrilling account of social breakdown among the stylish classes after the Revolution, by a writer captivated by the new business of cinema. Mariengof, a friend of the poet Esenin, went to ground in the 1930s and stayed silent for the rest of his life. He is not a first rate talent, but he is better than most today. A contemporary exception is Victor Pelevin, who shows a stunning literary and philosophical imagination in Omon Ra and The Yellow Arrow, two novellas published by Harbord.
No poet has emerged to equal the exiled Brodsky, to whose 1970s work it is particularly thrilling to return. In the end it may be ?migr?s such as Edward Limonov and Zinovy Zinik who write the best novels as we understand them. They entertain us, and yet, coming from Russia, they do so much more. Through them you can begin to see Russians for what they are: an indefatigably talented, improvisational people who, once unfettered and no longer sore from their chains, stand to give the world a great cultural boost in the next century. Skipping a 100 years need not mean going back.