Posts tagged Russia
A guest post by Russian literary scholar Muireann Maguire, who blogs about literature as Russian Dinosaur
Between 1918 and 1928, Alexander Vasilievich Chayanov (1888-1937) wrote and published (at his own expense) five short Gothic-fantastic tales in separate volumes with print runs of no more than 300 copies, mostly under the whimsical pseudonym “Botanist X.” In his lifetime and until the 1990s, Chayanov was better known as an expert in agricultural economics, particularly peasant labor – and his objections to Stalin’s program of forced collectivization caused his arrest in 1930, exile from Moscow to Kazakhstan, and eventual execution. After his rehabilitation in the post-Soviet period, these stories were re-issued in a single volume and ran to multiple editions, sparking a short-lived Russian “Chayanov boom” and a renewal of academic interest in his fiction.
Scholars are particularly intrigued by the potentially significant creative link between Chayanov’s short story “Venediktov” (1921) and the novel The Master and Margarita (1940) by his much better-known contemporary Mikhail Bulgakov. Chayanov’s illustrator, a friend of Bulgakov’s, gave the latter a copy of “Venediktov” as a gift. Bulgakov was intrigued and somewhat spooked to discover that this story’s narrator is also called Bulgakov, and that his fictional namesake falls victim to a bizarre form of psychic possession, or hypnotic persuasion, exerted by a quasi-diabolic force. Since both Chayanov and Bulgakov share an obsession with demonic characters, carnivalesque grotesquerie and magical chaos, it is reasonable to speculate that the former’s now-obscure tales influenced the latter’s now world-famous fiction.
Another tantalizing link to literary celebrity is the coincidence that Chayanov’s science-fiction utopia, My Brother Alexey’s Journey* (probably intended to demonstrate the future social benefits of his principles of agricultural economy) is set in 1984, the same year immortalized in George Orwell’s dystopian novel (published in 1949). While there is absolutely no evidence that Orwell was aware of Chayanov’s novella, he did read and review the first English translation of Evgeny Zamyatin’s science-fiction novel We (written 1921), which may have been influenced, or partially inspired, by My Brother Alexey’s Journey.
Three of Chayanov’s stories – “Venediktov,” “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin, or, The Last Love Affair of a Moscow Architect,” and “The Venetian Mirror, or, The Extraordinary Adventures Of The Glass Man” – are available in my translation in a collection of Russian twentieth-century ghost stories called Red Spectres. Two still await publication: a love story about a ghost, and a picaresque trans-European adventure starring two accidental mermaids and a magician. All five are indulgently intertextual, erratically citing Hoffmann, Pushkin, Karamzin, Catullus, and the occasional authority on agronomy. For me, the great charm of these stories is their robust pastiche of a genre I love – the late Romantic fantastic. Chayanov intermingles an abundance of characters and tropes beloved of the early nineteenth century: mermaids, mirrors, mesmerists, and card-playing demons who worship Satan in London gentlemen’s clubs. E.T.A. Hoffmann is acknowledged as “the great master” (in the dedication of “The Tale of the Hairdresser’s Mannequin”), but Chayanov’s eclectic knowledge of Russian and European culture is reflected in the multiplicity of his influences. Théophile Gautier’s eponymous opium-hazed artist in the short story “Onuphrius” (1832) could be refracted in the beautiful female spectre, conjured by tobacco smoke blown from a charmed pipe, who enchants the naïve diarist-narrator in “Julia, or Trysts At Novodevichy Convent” (1928). Alexey, the hero of “The Venetian Mirror” (1923), whose double escapes from an antique looking-glass to cause havoc around Moscow and even kidnap his wife, joins a long Romantic tradition of mirror-doubles – but Chayanov may have been inspired by the comparably malign runaway reflection in the 1913 German silent film The Student of Prague, directed by another now little-read author, Hanns Heinz Ewers. Ewers’s film inspired Otto Rank’s psychoanalytic treatise The Double (1914). We can only imagine what Rank or Freud would have said about Chayanov’s fiction had they enjoyed the opportunity to read it – doubtless, a great deal.
In Yuli Kagarlitskii’s phrase, Chayanov “belonged to the flower of the Russian democratic intelligentsia.”** This was a uniquely cosmopolitan and intellectually dowered generation whom Stalin and the Communist Party did their best to exterminate or exile. Chayanov’s fascination with urban topography and architecture, his knowledge of European languages, his passion for engravings and his aspirations to write historical fiction (even during his first arrest he began a novel about the medieval Slav prince Yuri Suzdalskii), all bespeak the breadth of his interests and his apparently inexhaustible energy. His second wife and staunch supporter Olga Gurevich was a theatre historian, whose career was also destroyed by the Soviet regime. Chayanov’s imaginary universe was almost ludicrously antithetical to the political environment of his own time: his entire oeuvre is an anomalous outcropping against the realistic trend of Soviet literature. The rediscovery and translation of his fiction is hard to justify by economic principles, but remains deeply enjoyable for all lovers of the eccentric and eclectic.
* Chayanov’s unfinished sci-fi novella, My Brother Alexey’s Journey Into the Land of Peasant Utopia (first published in Moscow in 1920 under a pseudonym) was published in an English translation as a slightly eccentric addendum to the late Professor R.E.F. Smith’s 1977 book The Russian Peasant, 1920 and 1984.
**Yuli I. Kagarlitskii, Slavic Review, Vol. 49, No. 4 (Winter, 1990), pp. 634-642 [link]
images: (1) photo of Chayanov, 1921; (2) original 1924 cover illustration by Natalia Ushakova (who gave “Venediktov” to Bulgakov); (3) & (4) recent woodcuts by Grigory Babich for a Chayanov edition via book designer Alina Vekshina; (5) unpublished 1928 illustration by Kravchenko via nasledie-rus.ru; (6) photo of Chayanov
This is a guest post by Russian literary scholar Muireann Maguire, who blogs about literature as Russian Dinosaur.
From the notes to Zoo, or Letters Not About Love by Victor Shklovsky:
Aleksei Mikhailovich Remizov (1877–1957), a brilliant and influential writer who attempted in his prose to strip the Russian literary language of its foreign derivatives and restore to it the natural raciness of the vernacular. He emigrated from Russia at the end of 1921 and settled in Berlin until 1923, when he moved to Paris, where he remained until his death. Remizov founded his monkey society as a lampoon on the official organizations and committees that proliferated after the revolution. Charter memberships were conferred by elegantly designed scrolls, signed by Asyka, tsar of the monkeys.
My favorite bit from his wikipedia entry:
Another striking work of this period is ‘The Sacrifice,’ a Gothic horror story in which “a ghostly double of a father comes to kill his innocent daughter in the mistaken belief that she is a chicken”.
I hope to explore his work more in the book Beyond Symbolism and Surrealism: Alexei Remizov’s Synthetic Art.
The great modernist eccentric Alexei Remizov was a “writers’ writer” whose innovative poetic prose has long since entered the Russian literary canon. Gradually expanding his working methods to make drawing an integral part of the writing process, during the 1930s and 1940s, Remizov created hundreds of albums that combined texts with collages and india ink and watercolor illustrations. In Beyond Symbolism and Surrealism, Julia Friedman provides the first extensive examination of the dynamic interplay between text and image in Remizov’s albums, revealing their coequal roles in his oneiric and synaesthetic brand of storytelling.
From another note in the Shklovsky book:
"Kukkha" is a word defined by Remizov as meaning "moisture" in monkey language.
From the 1947 edition of the Columbia Dictionary of Modern European Literature (purchased yesterday for $3 and opened at random):
Nikolai Maksimovich Minski [often Minsky] (pseud. of Nikolai Maksimovich Vilenkin, 1855-1937, Russian poet and philosopher), was born of poor Jewish parents at Glubokoye in the former Government of Vilna and took his degree in law at St. Petersburg. Minski began his literary career as a follower of Nekrasov [no one reads Nekrasov], but soon abandoned “civic” themes for an “art for art’s sake” attitude; he became the first of the Russian decadents, among whom he shared leadership with [Akim] Volynski and Merezhkovski, particularly as a philosopher. He was one of the organizers of the Religious-Philosophical Society (1902), which attracted the intellectuals among the believers. His ideas are set forth in the Nietzschean Pri svete sovesti (1890; By the Light of Conscience) and in Religiya budushchevo (1905; The Religion of the Future), which develops his concept of “meonism,” the religion of nonbeing, based on a mystic faith in conscience, sacrifice, and love, compounded with elements borrowed from Nietzsche and oriental mystics. His poetry is often a vehicle for his ideas, though in his later work he occasionally achieved a true synthesis of form and content. Minski was unfortunate in becoming a poet during a period of transition, and his chief importance lies in his preparing the ground for the later symbolists. Curiously enough, 1905 found Minski among the revolutionaries; he became the nominal head of Novaya zhizn (The New Life), Russia’s first legal Social Democratic newspaper, for which he wrote “A Hymn of the Workers.” His arrest terminated that period, and he left Russia for Paris. In exile, he wrote, among other things, a dramatic trilogy and a volume of criticism (1922, From Dante to Blok) and then lapsed into silence.
From the flaps to the 1975 Neville Spearman edition of The Fiery Angel (a reprint of a 1930 edition, now in print from Dedalus):
Valery Briussov’s historical novel, written in 1907, is a dramatic re-creation of a sixteenth-century world in which forces of demonology and witchcraft are real and powerful.
The story of the soldier, Rupprecht, captivated by a lady called Renata, who is tormented by demons, and their subsequent struggles, is an archetypal tale of horror and possession. The set piece of the witches’ sabbath—an authentic description—is particularly powerful, and should be read by anyone who wants to understand what witches were supposed to do on these occasions.
For a writer of the pre-Freudian era, The Fiery Angel is a remarkably convincing tour de force of abnormal psychology. Being a poet Briussov had an inkling of the strange truth about witches: that the powers of the human mind are far greater than we understand, and that they can be released by symbols.
Prokoviev’s opera, The Fiery Angels, was based on Briussov’s novel.
The back flap of the dustjacket reveals that Neville Spearman were doing a lot of Arkham House reprints in the 70s.
Colin Wilson called Fiery Angel ”one of the most remarkable novels ever written on the subject of magic and witchcraft.” From his intro:
By the age of twenty, Briussov had totally absorbed the gospel of decadence, as encapsulated in Huysmans’ A Rebours and Villiers de Lisle Adam’s Axel , with its famous line: “Live? Our servants can do that for us.” In 1894, when he was 21, he was part-author of a book called Russian Symbolists, which achieved a success de scandale. In the following year came his Chefs D’Oevres, which was greeted by the press with sneers and derision. In fact, Briussov was fighting in Russian the battle that Swinburne, Rosetti and the Pre-Raphaelites had fought in the 1860s; and, as in England, there were plenty of conservative critics to denounce the “fleshly school of poetry.”
Jacket designed by Laurence Cutting
10/30/2011 update: I realized Briussov is featured prominently in The Dedalus Book of Russian Decadence: Perversity, Despair and Collapse.
Found tonight on Porridge Legs, the blog of artist Mick Peter:
‘Sasha Chorny’ (‘Sasha the Black’ / Са́ша Чёрный) was the deliberately suggestive pseudonym of the early 20th century poet Aleksandr Glikberg (Александр Михайлович Гликберг). His mordant and biting poems, mercilessly satirizing literary and emotional pretension appealed to Shostakovich, who loved laughter and caricature. The composer chose five of Chorny’s verses to make a short cycle for his friend, the distinguished soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. She herself suggested a subtitle to the cycle, ‘Pictures of the Past’, which the composer approved as it ironically underlined that, of course, these songs were all about the present. The set begins with the mocking address ‘To a critic’, and continues with ‘Spring awakening’ in which Chorny pokes fun at writers who wax sentimental about the coming of spring and Shostakovich has boyish musical fun at the expense of Rachmaninov’s famous romance ‘Spring Waters’. Two cynical little numbers about human motivation are finally rounded out with a poem referring to Tolstoy’s famous murder-story ‘The Kreutzer Sonata’. The reference to Beethoven gives Shostakovich the chance for some more musical jokes.
I don’t see anything in English, though he surely shows up in anthologies, and there’s a nice wikipedia page for him.
No one reads Gorky’s close friend, Leonid Andreyev (1871-1919), who wrote plays, novels, and short stories. His writing is melancholic, psychological, satirical, and illuminatingly unorthodox in its treatment of religion.
Borges included one of Andreyev’s short stories, “Lazarus”, in the Russian stories section of The Library of Babel. In addition, I recommend, for starters, A Dilemma (a.k.a. A Thought), The Red Laugh, and The Seven Who Were Hanged; the latter two were in Lovecraft’s personal library.(Image: “Leonid at his desk, mid-May 1910”, scanned from Photographs By A Russian Writer; the book features Andreyev’s photographs and a couple of his paintings.)
“ Masterpieces, not always distinguished or distinguishable among all the works with pretensions to genius, are scattered about the world like warning notices in a mine field. And it’s only by good luck that we’re not blown up! But that good luck generates a disbelief in the danger and allows the growth of fatuous pseudo-optimism. When that sort of optimistic world view is the order of the day, art becomes an irritant, like the medieval charlatan or alchemist. It seems dangerous because it is disturbing…”