Friday, April 28, 2017

Metaphysical Man

Ilya Kabakov: The Metaphysical Man
Looking around for a concise survey of new Russian writing, I was at first at something of a loss: it's hard to get one's bearings amid the proliferation of new names that have appeared in the book market since the end of the Soviet Union. The names of the fiction authors - Akunin, Bitov, Pelevin, Shishkin, Davydov, Tolstaya - are familiar, of course, but many others remain unknown to me, especially among the poets. I was surprised and pleased to read a recent interview with the critic, poet and linguist Ilya Kukulin, published in the online journal Contemporary Russian Literature, which gives an extraordinarily clear and detailed account of the main trends in contemporary Russian literature.

I think one of the reasons why I've delayed making my acquaintance with this new Parnassus has been my dislike of literary postmodernism, which seems to be particularly favoured by the newer generation of Russian authors. To me, the postmodernist 'perpetual present tense' is an evasion of the writer's task of exploring history and memory - the flattening and erasure of time is something that's hostile to the very act of creation. It was therefore with some interest that I came across Kukulin's thoughts on the development of post-Soviet literature, where postmodernism acquires a rather different meaning from that accorded to it in the West. In Kukulin's opinion, Russian postmodernism began in the 1960s:
...the first Russian postmodernist literary works were Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki and Pushkinskii Dom by Andrei Bitov at the end of the 60s; the roots of Russian postmodernism could be traced back to the works of Daniil Kharms (1905–1942), or to the poems of his friend Alexander Vvedensky (1904–1941), or to radical experimental prose written by Pavel Ulitin (1918–1986) in the 50s, 60s and 70s. His works could be compared, say, with the novels of William S. Burroughs.
In Kukulin's view, postmodernism was for Russian writers and poets a way to confront the looming mass and blind alley of Soviet literature, which he characterises as  "a large-scale system of social and psychological programming". Instead of blocking and dechronologizing the past, Russian postmodernism opened up channels that connected it to the uncensored literature of the Soviet period, the writing that was done in spite of the censor yet with a self-censored knowledge of what was possible and sayable: Kukulin likens it to the American counter-culture of the late 1950s and 1960s, the 'beat generation'. Russian authors found ways to deconstruct the ideological language of Soviet literature and navigate ways around it. This in turn led through to the earlier past - and although Kukulin doesn't mention them by name, there seems little doubt that it was the past of the Russian Silver Age, and of poets like Mandelstam, Pasternak, Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova. In an epigraph, Kukulin's interview is given its key and tenor by a paragraph from an essay by Joseph Brodsky:
If literature has a social function, it is, perhaps, to show man his optimal parameters, his spiritual maximum. On that score, the metaphysical man of Dostoyevsky’s novels is of greater value than (Mr. Kundera’s) wounded rationalist, however modern and however common.
Above all, Kukulin thinks, Russian postmodernism does not include the work of Zakhar Prilepin. Nor is Prilepin, in his opinion, the heir to the Russian classical prose tradition -- instead, he is "one of the brightest representatives of the revival of Soviet literature’s stereotypes at the current stage" - he is a Soviet writer, one who has accepted and internalised the moral nihilism that is often, paradoxically,  considered a characteristic of postmodernists. Prilepin is intent upon reviving the nihilism of Soviet literature:
According to this novel [The Abode: Obitel'], human life has aesthetic meaning, but not ethical. In my opinion, it is breaking with the traditions of Russian literature of the 19th century, if we will interpret them, say, due to the essays of the great philosopher Isaiah Berlin. In Prilepin’s novels, moral reflections are devaluated.
As Kukulin notes, the  most successful modern 'thick novels' (a genre to which Russians are accustomed to turning in order to confront psychological insights and truths) are not the ones that adopt a mimicking and recreation of Russian prose classics, but those that engage in a dialogue with contemporary Western fiction. Asked for a list of important novels of the 2000s, Kukulin mentions the following:

Bestseller by Yury Davydov
Maidenhair (Venerin volos) and A Letter Book (Pismovnik) by Mikhail Shishkin
The novels and short stories of Vladimir Sorokin.
Poluostrov Zhidyatin (The Zhidyatin Peninsula), Novy Golem ili Voina starikov i detei (New Golem, or, The War of the Old Folk with the Children), and the final part, Vineta by Oleg Yuriev
Velikaya strana (2009) by Leonid Kostyukov ("the funniest work ever written about America by a Russian author; unfortunately it’s almost untranslatable, because its language plays with the differences between English and Russian languages.")
The prose of Maria Boteva
Alexander Goldstein's Spokoinye polya (The Quiet Fields)

Among poets:

Mikhail Eremin (whom I met in Moscow in the winter of 1969, and who translated some of my poems into Russian DM). Mikhail Ayzenberg (tr. Jim Kates, with whom I worked on STAND magazine, U.K. in 1979-80 DM), George Dashevsky, Stanislav Lvovsky, Elena Fanailova, Maria Stepanova, Linor Goralik, Polina Barskova,  Eugenia Lavut, Olga Zondberg, Finally, Sergey Zavyalov, Alexander Skidan.Lada Chizhova, Eugenia Suslova, Nikita Sungatov and Nikita Safonov.

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