Thursday, March 15, 2012

A History of Russian Literary Theory and Criticism, Dobrenko & Tihanov

First off, this is not Russian "lite"...this is a scholarly work from the Pitt Series in Russian and East European Studies, well-known for their focused publications on Russian history.  The focus of this reference work is "the Soviet Age and Beyond", and it covers well-known literary figures as well as a few unknowns.

My favorite chapter had to do with the experience of Russian emigrants into other nations between WWI and WWII.  Since most of the intelligentsia had to leave or be exterminated, an entirely new form of Russian writing, from outside of Russia, began to exist.  This presents two issues that editors Evgeny Dobrenko and Galin Tihanov address.  One is how their substitute home, a "host culture" as they say, contributed to their writing in scope and subject matter.  The remaining issue is what about the writers who did not leave during this time: how were they affected by the works of their comparatively free peers as the emigre writing became accessible in Soviet Russia?  French culture had an enormous contribution to the emigrant writings, as many were handled by Parisian publishing houses.

"Emigre writing was increasingly interpreted as flight from symbolism, toward realism", and the editors designate Ivan Bunin as an example of this "resilient emigre".  But from there the subject gets even trickier, as the function of writing literary criticism about emigre works became "little more than a weapon in settling domestic scores."  This goes into length in examining the nature of the literary criticism by who was writing it:  critics were influenced by political allies and personal friendships, and subject to both financial incentives and self-promotion. 

In another direction, the editors discuss the events resulting from Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Fourth Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers in 1967 where he demanded an end to censorship and was supported by many other writers.  This was late in the period known as "the Thaw", a significant and turbulent time in Russian literary criticism.  During the Thaw, two forms of definitive Soviet literature appeared, "village prose and war prose".  Additionally, this was the time period in which the government went after Boris Pasternak, "aimed at his novel Doctor Zhivago, which had won him the Novel Prize."  The time period was rife with attempts to divide writers by designating who had supported the people and who had been known to "stir up" the political situation, and the result is described in detail, showing how the entire face of Russian literature changed during the time.  Repressed writers were able to develop their works, while other writers were returning home to Russia different from when they had left.  But since writing is the tool that can unite as well as divide, political ideology factored heavily in the work during this period. 

On what appears to be a lighter note (although deeply significant) is the explanation of the reception of the scandalous Strolls with Pushkin, a work by Andrei Sinyavsky that had many worked up as it was considered vulgar.  However, dissing Pushkin in any way is akin to sacrilege, and Solzhenitsyn rips apart Sinyavsky for his treatment of Pushkin in what should have been enlightened times:  "could we have naturally expected that the new criticism, barely freed from the unbearable repression of Soviet censorship, that the first thing for which it would employ its freedom would be a strike against Pushkin?" (from an article by D. Galkovskii quoted in the book).

All the big names of Russian literature are here, in ways not often explained in Western press.  I had no idea that one critic considered Nabokov, Sorokin, Tertz and my beloved Vasilii Grossman as "the virus of Russophobia."  And I think that is what makes this collection of essays so interesting:  it's not so much biographical sketches that we see but the back-room politics of literary criticism in a super-heated environment where classic authors are revered or dismissed, per whatever political ideology is in place.  So I don't suggest this as a collection of Russian literature per se, but an inside view of the process of publication of Russian literature.

Special thanks to Maria Sticco of University of Pittsburgh Press for the Review Copy.

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