Alexander ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)


In lieu of closure, here are several afterthoughts on the possible uses of the book.

To the general reader, it offers a set of reinterpretive superpositions of familiar texts, in the wishful hope that the rereadings will stick. That Tolstoy will stay mirrored in Zoshchenko. That from now on Selected Passages will be enjoyed as a “Diary of a Madman,” a failed wedding test will remain inscribed, as a double exposure, in “After the Ball,” and  Olesha’s prophetic voice will reverberate through The Master and Margarita. That Khvorob’ev’snightmares will keep boasting a prestigious kinship with Dostoevsky and Orwell, while affinities with classics will have rubbed off on the programmatically lowly Limonov. In a word, that the texts will never be the same.

To literary theorists, the book reports on a series of experiments with such tools and concepts as cluster, masterplot, multiple reading, and various types of conversion and intertextuality. Into the hands of historians of  Russian literature, it hopes to place the categories of bad writing, adaptation art, ‘Newdream,’ the complex of  ‘non-belonging,’ ‘graveyard witness,’ ‘corpse vs. culture,’ ‘slaughterhouse’ motifs, and other characteristic topoi.

The ambitiousness of these claims stems, in part, from the vantage point afforded by the author’s manifold intermediacy, which punctuates the relativity of cultural and scholarly “absolutes.” But the preeminence of such a position is relative, too, and this brings us to the question of the service the book performs for its specific author.

Briefly, it satisfies an interest in some literary texts, personalities, and problems that have long intrigued me. I have always been fascinated by the “eternal magic” of Pushkin’s “I Loved You…” and, for over a decade, by its reincarnation in Brodsky’s sonnet. Very early on, I experienced a vague malaise over the deservedly famous Envy and “I Want To Go Home…” A persistent challenge for my generation was to decipher the message addressed to us by Zoshchenko and  Ilf and Petrov.

Some of my interests were strictly professional, others had a personal angle. In terms of practical criticism, I wondered, for instance, whether Vygotsky’s analysis of “Gentle Breathing” was really definitive. In theory, there gaped a contradiction between the focus on ‘the structure of the text’ (Aristotle, Shklovsky, Eisenstein, the New Critics) and the idea (Tynianov’s) that esthetic effects are the property of such entities as entire literary processes, no less. This latter view entailed a ghostliness of the individual text (spectrally inhabited by the glimmer of other literary worlds) that corroborated Meyerhold’s provocative claim concerning the unlimited malleability of the classics, i. e., that any scene could be staged in a number of ways without changing a word. In a personal vein, there were reasons to speculate about the possible links between my addiction to mirrors and my preoccupation with Limonov (and his with himself) or about those between my poor table manners, doubly conspicuous in emigration, my love of Zoshchenko, and the temptation to blame it all on Tolstoy the foe of comme il faut.

Coming, like the questions, from the same variously circumscribed specimen of a particular culture, the answers to these questions were devised primarily for his own use. By referring to my limitations I do not intend to disown my writing or plead with the reader for leniency. Rather, I am trying to furnish the book with a specific signature. To be sure, specific does not mean unique. Some problems I share with my generation, others plague our entire profession. Inevitably remaining half science, half art form, literary criticism (practiced to a great extent by ecrivains manques) is in the business of competing with literature proper in the creation of  “new works.” To do so, it resorts to the only method available to it: reinterpretation. Hence the relentless pressure, stronger than in other trades, to produce innovation at any cost. Small wonder that the expansion of criticism (which has been given full theoretical blessing by poststructuralism) resulted in a mass overproduction of merchandise, i. e. of new readings.

Already Tolstoy complained that “nine tenths of all that is printed is criticism,” yet he recognized its usefulness in guiding readers through the literary “labyrinths of linkages.” This book is both less and more than a road map: notes of an, alas, not so solitary traveler in the labyrinths of wandering dreams.