Russian Minimalism: From the Prose Poem to the Anti-Story

By Sundaram, Susmita | Canadian Slavonic Papers, September-December 2007 | Go to article overview

Russian Minimalism: From the Prose Poem to the Anti-Story


Sundaram, Susmita, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Adrian Wanner. Russian Minimalism: From the Prose Poem to the Anti-Story. Studies in Russian Literature and Theory. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2003. xii, 216 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $79.95, cloth.

A pioneering study of the Russian prose poem, Warmer's book offers a provocative analysis of this 'oxymoronic genre,' whose west-European and American manifestations have received considerable scholarly attention. The author's focus on minimalist prose belies the stereotype of the Russian preoccupation with gigantomania as expressed in long, behemoth-like novels (Henry James' "big, baggy monsters"). Wanner locates the prominence of the term 'minimalism' in the plastic arts in New York in the 1960s but notes that the term minimalism itself is of Russian origin. It is, therefore, fitting that he explores the little-studied tradition of Russian prose minimalism.

Theoretical issues relevant to the understanding of the prose poem are at the centre of the book's introductory chapter. This is not an easy task since, as Wanner rightly points out, the prose poem is anarchic by nature and any "attempt at formal characterization is fraught with problems (p. 10)." Warmer's elegant discussion of the inherently problematic task of defining the theoretical framework for his analysis addresses and largely reconciles a wide range of sticky subjects such as the 'minus-functions' which define the genre as well as the role played by 'manner of presentation' or the labeling of prose poems.

Wanner credits Turgenev as the originator of the Russian stikhotvorenie vproze and points out tiiat, driven by both subversive and conservative forces while working in this genre, Turgenev paved the way for the more radical experimentation of his modernist successors. Wanner contends that Turgenev's recuperation of Baudelaire's Petitspoemes en proses was decidedly conservative and marked a return to the Russian realist tradition, unlike in France where the genre ushered in an era of modernism.

Turgenev's realist successor Ivan Bunin's prose poems are foregrounded in the chapter on the realist contribution to minimalism, which in itself is not very significant. Considerable attention is devoted to the symbolists and futurists along with separate chapters on Fedor Sologub's "Little Fairy Tales" and Aleksei Remizov's "Dreams. …

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