Reference Guide to Russian Literature

By Nicole Christian; Neil Cornwell | Go to book overview

anti-realism in recent Russian prose generally, the silencing of the early 20th-century avant-garde has sometimes led to a curious conservatism in more recent experimental writing. The controversial work of Valeriia Narbikova (b. 1958), for example, has much in common with the writing of Gertrude Stein.The ornamentalist prose of Tat'iana Tolstaia (b. 1951) looks to Nabokov and Bunin, the short stories of Nina Sadur (b. 1950) to Daniil Kharms.Compared with some of their western counterparts, such as Angela Carter, Monique Wittig, Louise Erdrich, Candia McWilliam, or Toni Morrison, and indeed with some Russian women poets, some younger-generation Russian women prosaists can seem more promising in their intentions than in their achievements. However, the prose writers are in no sense weighed down by their influences, and there is no doubt that Sadur, Tolstaia or Narbikova, along with "hyper-realists" such as Svetlana Vasilenko (b. 1956) and Larisa Vaneeva (b. 1953), are producing some of the most innovative work coming out of Russia today.

This short survey of Russian women's writing has done no more than mention the best-known names, all of them producing "literature" in the most conventional sense. It should be noted, though, that women writers have also made notable contributions to various para-literary or non-literary genres for writing. As in other countries, children's writing has attracted numerous talents: after the Revolution, these included writers who might have had trouble placing their work under the new system, such as the poets Elizaveta Dmitrieva (better known under her pseudonym Cherubina de Gabriak) and Elizaveta Polonskaia.Women have worked with distinction as literary critics ( Mariia Tsebrikova, Liubov' Gurevich, Alla Latynina, Natal'ia Ivanova), as literary historians ( Lidiia Ginzburg, Emma Gershtein), as journalists ( Evgeniia Tur, Anna Volkova, Tat'iana Bogdanovich, Mariia Shkapskaia), as biographers ( Lidiia Chukovskaia), as cultural theorists ( Ol'ga Freidenberg), and as film scenarists ( Natal'ia Riazantseva, Mariia Khmelik). All of these are areas urgently requiring the detailed consideration that has now begun to be given to women's prose, poetry and autobiography, which, until the early I980s, themselves attracted little serious study, whether in Russia or abroad.


Russian Literary Theory: From the Formalists to Lotman

Literary theory in Russia was not the exclusive concern of literary theorists and critics. Just as in England writers as varied as Alexander Pope, T.S. Eliot, and David Lodge have theorized about literary form and language, about the place of literature in culture and in relation to the other arts, so in Russia Mikhail Lomonosov in the I8th century, Aleksandr Pushkin and Lev Tolstoi in the I9th, and Andrei Belyi, Vladimir Maiakovskii, and Boris Pasternak in the zoth century made not only radical experiments with form in poetry and prose fiction, but also original and significant theoretical statements.

The main focus of this essay is on the Russian Formalist critics of the I9I0s and I920s and their contemporaries Mikhail Bakhtin ( 1895-1975) and Vladimir Propp ( 1895-1970), and the leaders of the Tartu semiotics school in the I960s to I980s who have also had a major influence on literary theory outside Russia. Here again, however, theory was not divorced from the practice of writing. Two of the leading Formalists, Viktor Shklovskii ( 1893-1984) and Iurii Tynianov ( 1894-1943), wrote fascinating novels and biographies, while Shklovskii and Osip Brik ( 1888‐ 1945) experimented with film scenarios and scripts.

The material of which literary works are made is, ultimately, language, so it is no accident that the two young organizations that united to form the Russian Formalists in 1914 were the Moscow Linguistic Circle and the St Petersburg-based Society for Poetic Language (OPOIAZ). Shklovskii, one of the founders of OPOIAZ, insisted that the first object of literary study should be form: "The literary work is pure form, it is neither thing, nor material, but a relationship of materials." This kind of statement fitted in, of course, with the materialist philosophy of the early Soviet period. However, the Formalist theorists were at odds with what they regarded as the "naive sociologizing" of the typical Marxist critics of the I920s, who only looked to literature for reflections of the social structure and manners of its age. This conflict with the hardline Marxists led to the enforced demise of the Formalist movement.

In the early Formalist pronouncements, however, the main enemy was traditional literary history, criticism, and teaching. Roman Jakobson ( 1896-1982) contrasted its faults with the approach of a true science of literature in 1921 in a typically picturesque way:

The subject of literary science is not literature, but literariness, i.e. that which makes a given work a literary work. Up till now, however, historians of literature have mostly behaved like the police who, when they want to arrest someone, take in everyone and everything found in the apartment and even chance passers-by. Historians of literature have in the same way felt the need to take in everything — everyday life, psychology, politics, philosophy. Instead of a science of literature we have fetched up with a conglomeration of cottage industries.

The keys to the new literary science were system and function. Every literary text involves choices from systems of possible options that are typical of the genre to which that text belongs: a narrative has a plot structure (complication — crisis ‐ denouement) which is typical of a certain kind of story or novel; it has typical characters (heroes, villains, helpers, witnesses) and characteristic settings for the action. All of these are chosen, like ingredients in a recipe, from the available systems of plot


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Reference Guide to Russian Literature
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Reference Guide to Russian Literature *
  • Contents *
  • Editor's Note vii
  • Advisers xi
  • Contributors xi
  • Alphabetical List of Writers and Works xiii
  • Alphabetical List of Works xix
  • Chronological List of Writers xxiii
  • General Reading List xxvii
  • Chronology xxxv
  • Glossary xxxix
  • Introductory Essays *
  • Old Russian Literature 3
  • Pre-Revolutionary Russian Theatre 9
  • Russian Literature in the I8th Century 13
  • Aleksandr Pushkin: from Byron to Shakespeare 18
  • The Classic Russian Novel 25
  • The Superfluous Man in Russian Literature 29
  • Women's Writing in Russia 35
  • Russian Literary Theory: from the Formalists to Lotman 40
  • Post-Revolutionary Russian Theatre 45
  • Experiment and Emigration: Russian Literature, 1917-1953 49
  • Socialist Realism in Soviet Literature 55
  • Thaws, Freezes, and Wakes: Russian Literature, 1953-1991 59
  • Russian Literature in the Post-Soviet Period 64
  • Writers and Works *
  • A 73
  • B 127
  • C 213
  • D 237
  • E 271
  • F 297
  • G 311
  • H 379
  • I 389
  • K 413
  • L 485
  • M 521
  • N 559
  • O 585
  • P 611
  • R 685
  • S 707
  • T 789
  • U 859
  • V 861
  • Y 897
  • Z 899
  • Title Index 933
  • Notes on Advisers and Contributors 963


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