Alexander ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)

Once upon a time in Moscow in the 1970s, Igor Mel’chuk[1] and I were working at my place and, having discovered that the fridge was empty, decided to have lunch – I actually used the English word “lunch” — at the Prague Café. While I liked the idea as pronouncedly Western, Igor agreed out of necessity and on the strict condition that while walking there and back – about fifty minutes all in all at a good athletic clip – we would continue discussing our lexicographic work. Once there, we were promptly served by “my” waitress, Tamara Ivanovna, but that is not what the story is about.

Seated at one of the tables was a gentleman – no other word would do him justice – of about thirty, wearing a red jacket. I say red only as a first approximation: the coat was of a stylish claret color shot through with a brownish tint, and its breast pocket may have been adorned – here I am not a hundred per cent sure – with a polygonal silver star, a sort of medal of olden times. Whether it was the club jacket of some outlandish lodge, a part of some costume, or an idiosyncratic whim of an artiste was anybody’s guess.

The impression it produced on the Prague diners was, to judge by the murmur of disapproval coming from all sides, strong. But imagine my astonishment when I realized that the knee-jerk reaction of the shocked Soviet philistines was shared by my progressive older friend and mentor! I will omit the peripeties of the polemic that totally eclipsed, on our way home, the burning issues of structural lexicography. Mel’chuk’s argument boiled down to the idea that one should devote one’s time to things that matter, not fanciful inanities; mine, to a hopefully more sophisticated apologia of diversity, which, in our “unwashed Russia” (Lermontov), was, alas, painfully lacking.

The progressive Russian intelligentsia emerged – a hundred or so years ago – from the ranks of the lower clergy, inheriting the latter’s ideological asceticism.[2] Since then, our national consciousness has been dominated by a puritanical functionalism that tends to suppress everything “unnecessary,” which is left to be cultivated secretly and occasionally breaks through in garish forms. The absence of a strong middle class in Russian society is compounded by the corresponding lack, in the famously “broad” Russian soul, of a middle zone between the mutually nurturing extremes of sin and penance. (Ironically, in the 90s, it fell to crimson jackets to emblematize the mafioso “New-Russian” dress-code.)

I, for one, must recognize that, in spite of all my freethinking, I am flesh of the flesh of that selfsame boring mentality and cannot claim to dress much more interestingly than my colleagues. After the presentation of my Erosiped book,[3] the eternally maudit poet Eduard Limonov (who, recently released from prison at the time, came with two bodyguards and gave a nice little speech designed to establish his credentials as an intellectual) told me that it had been a long time since he had seen so many men in dusty suits in one room. As for Limonov himself, he wears exclusively black, but that of course is another matter, haute couture, black on black, worn also by the highbrow Boris Groys, consummately post-modern from head to toe.

Grim uniformity was a staple feature of homo sovieticus and never failed to catch the eye of foreign observers, while the eye of Soviet visitors couldn’t help being offended by the bold diversity of life abroad. Even I, pro-Western “renegade” that I was, had a hard time making sense, once in Vienna on a first leg of my emigration, of that many car makes!

The most striking embodiment of dress-code drabness was, in my experience, Lidiia Iakovlevna Ginzburg. On those several occasions that I met her, she was wearing a light gray (most likely, striped) robe-cassock-overall, collared and pocketed. On her short plump body it looked bell-shaped (the association with Alexander Herzen is not intended, but let’s face it, he was one of her favorites, and the blending, in the title of his journal, Kolokol [The Bell], of the ecclesiastic and the revolutionary is telling); it could also pass for an oversized soldier’s tunic. Her short haircut, popular among the Chernyshevsky line of progressive women students in the 1860s, completed the image of a revolutionary outside age and sex, crystallized by successive periods of nihilism, populism, revolution, purges, the Leningrad siege, and further levelings, to which her recently outed “queerness” may be added. Her silver-gray hair on a huge head, her wrinkled face, and the penetrating glance of her small blue almost lashless eyes made her seem to transcend the boundaries of the human, all too human, and resemble a troll or perhaps a bizarre magical mushroom. (Recently I read somewhere that mushrooms are genetically closer to animals and humans than to plants.)

This homely drabness was – despite the contradiction in terms – quite flamboyant; after all, nobody else dressed like that. To be sure, the utter unprepossessiveness of what Akakii Akakievich’s associates would have been sure to call her kapot [“housecoat”] may have been meant as a deliberately avant-garde gesture of defiance by a disciple of the Formalists and a hardened survivor of the blockade, designed to épater le bourgeois soviétique. But the fact remains that the outfit was orphanage-style gray and always the same and it bore the indelible stamp of the Soviet 30s in all their honest poverty and loyalty to a one-fits-all institutional solution of human problems. Whence, for instance, the ostentatious asceticism of Anna Akhmatova,[4] and Solzhenitsyn’s soldier’s-tunic-cum-Tolstoyan-blouse,[5] not to mention Stalin’s and Mao’s soldierly garments and the entire foster-home culture pioneered by the two.

I realize that my readers may be starting to lose patience with the tactlessness of this snobbish dancing in the graveyard of several generations of sufferers. But the point I want to make is not at all about demoting our heroes of resistance (I learned a great deal from L. Ia., I enjoy quoting Akhmatova, and I matured while reading Solzhenitsyn); it is about ourselves, about the garb we don today. The Gulag/blockade experience tends to reduce everything to the black-and-white, ignoring the rainbow’s (and Joseph’s coat’s) many colors.Nam by vashi problemy!” (If that were all we had to worry about!), as victimized Soviet intellectuals would counter the “effete” Westerners’ complaints about the predicaments of the human condition.

Also symptomatic is Ginzburg the literary scholar’s focus on historical determinism, cultural institutions, and the individual’s dependence on society (albeit not necessarily of the Marxist hue).[6] This too was characteristic of the Soviet 30s (which seem ominously on their way back). Then there is her consistent silence – even in notebook entries – about her private life, in particular the problems involved in tabooed sexual orientation and practices.

One could construe (and relate to) these omissions as inevitable products of covert behavior under harsh totalitarian control, but that would still undermine – twist – what has been lauded as a “direct conversation about life” (in the preface of that title to the fullest to date edition of Ginzburg’s non-fiction[7]). External censorship generates internal censorship, which in an intellectual can only lead to the mystification of thought.

Self-censorship is already evident in the pointedly depersonalized third-person masculine perspective through which much of the reasoning is conducted in Ginzburg’s autobiographical jottings.[8] This was, of course, justified by – and helped naturalize — the resulting rewardingly original and non-narcissistic tone of near-scientific objectivity. But by the same token it represents a suppression (the Freudian Verdrängung) of everything intimate, special, personal, different, – in keeping with her professed social-historical determinism. An inimitable extraterrestrial pkhents[9] in an orphan’s — or jailbird’s — hand-me-downs tried to edit him/herself into a regularized product of societal norms.

The recently pubished fragments of Ginzburg’s notes on the subject of “female inversion”[10] corroborate this reading. Ginzburg declares Lesbian love not worth reporting in literature – or, for that matter, in notebooks – for the reason that it basically is no different from other, “normal,” kinds of love. This view, like wearing gray, is, of course, her right as a person and writer, but a determined suppression of the individual element, of one’s “irregularities” that fall outside the limits approved by society is clearly evident here. A strange directness – following guidelines appropriate for a newspaper beleaguered by censorship or a political tract written to ideological order!

Well, Ginzburg could retort, if you find it strange, so be it, no one is forcing you to read on. As her older friend, Anna Akhmatova, put it: Kakaia est’. Zhelaiu vam druguiu (“That’s how I am.Iwishyou someone different”). But a recently emerged tendency – prompted by Grigorii Gukovskii’s remark from circa 1940 – would canonize Ginzburg as no less than our Russian Proust.[11] Awkward as it is to object, when it comes to nominating a Russian Proust, a more likely choice would be Ivan Bunin, the Bunin, who incidentally made a point of defending — in his most Proustian work — the value of sheer perceptiveness unburdened by civic-minded stereotypes:

To write! Yes, I had to write about rooftops, about galoshes, about backs, and not at all in order to “fight tyranny and violence, to defend the oppressed and destitute, to create striking characters, or to draw broad pictures of the public, of contemporary life, its mood and tendencies!” […] “Social contrasts!” Ithought caustically, to spite someone while passing by the bright glow of a shop window… On Moscow Street I stopped into a cabbies’ tearoom and sat in its hum of voices, crowdedness, and the steamy warmth, watched the meaty, scarlet faces, the reddish beards, the peeling, rusty tray on which there were two white teapots with moist cords joining their tops to their handles… An observation of the people’s daily life? Not at all — it is just that tray, that moist cord![12]

Promoting Bunin to the rank of a Proust I may have gone a bit too far – given in to our common impulse in the spirit of Dostoevsky’s Pushkin speech and other such patriotic outbursts. A propos of which, here is what Chaadaev, an esteemed friend of Pushkin’s, wrote about Gogol or, rather, his intemperate admirers:

What seems most curious about this case is not Gogol himself [Chaadaev is discussing Selected Passages from Correspondence with Friends — A. Zh.] but what made him what he is. In our proud times, full of pompous national arrogance as they are, how can you expect a writer not to put on airs […]? The drawbacks of Gogol’s book are not his own doing; they are the doing of those who extol him inordinately, who genuflect before him as the highest manifestation of the original Russian mind, who confer on him all but universal validity [… T]he main trouble rests with his admirers […] But do you know whence this unconditional worship in our Moscow circles? It comes from wanting a writer we could place in the same category as the giants of the human spirit — Homer, Dante, Shakespeare — and above all writers of the present day. I know his admirers intimately, I love and respect them: they are intelligent and good people. But they need at all costs to elevate our modest, God-fearing Russia above all the nations of the world; they wish by all means to assure themselves and everyone else that we are destined to be mentors of other peoples.[13]

… To dare write something like that in Russia one needs either a certificate (from the Emperor) that one is officially insane or an American passport. Let me add, though, that unlike Gogol, Ginzburg did not put on airs even when she belatedly became famous, so that Chaadaev’s slings and arrows should in all fairness be rerouted to her overzealous fans.




I will start by citing a fragment from Lidiia Ginzburg’s Literature in Search of Reality that has intrigued me since I first read it:

Есть сюжеты, которые не ложатся в прозу. Нельзя, например, адекватно рассказать прозой:

Человек непроницаем уже для теплого дыхания мира; его реакции склеротически жестки, и о внутренних своих состояниях он знает как бы из вторых рук. Совершается некое психологическое событие. Не очень значительное, но оно — как в тире — попало в точку и привело все вокруг в судорожное движение. И человек вдруг увидел долгую свою жизнь. Не такую, о какой он привык равнодушно думать словами Мопассана: жизнь не бывает ни так хороша, ни так дурна, как нам это кажется… Не ткань жизни, спутанную из всякой всячины, во множестве дней — каждый со своей задачей… Свою жизнь он увидел простую, как остов, похожую на плохо написанную биографию. И вот он плачет над этой непоправимой ясностью. Над тем, что жизнь была холодной и трудной. Плачет над обидами тридцатилетней давности, над болью, которой не испытывает, над неутоленным желанием вещей, давно постылых.

Для прозы это опыт недостаточно отжатый, со следами душевной сырости; душевное сырье, которое стих трансформирует своими незаменимыми средствами.

(There are plots that do not lend themselves to prose. It is impossible, for instance, to relate adequately in prose:

A man is already impervious to the warm breath of the world; his reactions are sclerotically rigid, and he knows about his inner states as if second hand. A certain psychological event occurs. Not a very significant one, but it has—as in a shooting gallery—hit the mark and set everything about in convulsive motion. And all of a sudden the man sees his long life. Not with indifference, the way he got used to thinking about it according to Maupassant: life is hardly ever as good or as bad as it seems to us… Not the fabric of life, atangle of all sorts of things, days on end, each with its own task… He suddenly sees his life plain as a skeleton, resembling a poorly written biography. And now he cries over this irremediable clarity. Over life’s having been cold and difficult. He cries over thirty-year-old slights, over pain he does not feel, over the unquenched desire for objects he has long since stopped wanting.

For prose, this experience is insufficiently condensed, with traces of emotional rawness, the soul’s raw material that verse transforms by its own indispensable means.)[15]

In this penultimate fragment of the “Notes of 1950-1970,” everything is enigmatic, beginning with the genre. Much has been written about the combination of criticism, memoirs and imaginative prose in Ginzburg’s later texts. But this time she has also produced a kind of quasi-poetry, the non-writing of which the reader is invited to witness. This meta-poem in prose boasts a plethora of poetic effects. It resorts to:

1) imagery: “the warm breath of the world”;

2) alliteration: proSTuiu, kak oSTov (lost, as befits poetry, in translation: “plain as a skeleton”);

3) near-rhymes:- vsIACHinyzadACHei— plACHet (lost, too); and

4) verbal play on secondary lexical meanings, a constituent feature of poetic language as defined by Ginzburg’s mentor, Iurii Tynianov; the word v tire can be taken to mean either “in a shooting gallery” or, more whimsically, “between dashes,” especially since this phrase is indeed surrounded by dashes, while the next word is v tochku, lit. “period” (unpoetically translated here as “mark”).

In addition, as “real poetry” is wont to, the fragment refers to other texts; it treats not only of life but of literature, which it corrects and rewrites. The only explicit quote is from Guy de Maupassant, but other subtextual voices can be heard. Perhaps, Boris Pasternak: for example, compare Ginzburg’s dushevnoe syr’e (“the soul’s raw material”) with his Vsia dushevnaia burda (“All the emotional junk-brew”; Lieutenant Schmidt), and also her vot on plachet.. (“And now he cries…”) with Pasternak’s Vnezapno vspomnit vsiu ee/ I plachet vtikhomolku (“He suddenly sees all of her/ And falls to crying softly”; “Parting”). Or maybe that dushevnoe syr’e comes from Mandel’shtam’s Poiu. kogda gortan’ — syra, dusha — sukha (“I sing when my larynx is moist, my soul, dry”)? The pain that does not hurt sounds familiar, too — Akhmatovian? The reader has the uneasy feeling of being quizzed… But all along, despite the grammatica! third person, there is a certainty that the lyrical subject is Ginzburg herself, that we are reading a poem of her own: part draft, part interlinear, part auto-review.

The lyrical stage is set from the start by the meditative formula Est’… (“There are…”), invoking an entire tradition of such openings. The tradition begins probably with Batiushkov, and it goes by way of Lermontov (Est’ rechi—znachen’e/ Temno il’  nichtozhno… [“There are speeches—whose meaning/ Is obscure or insignificant.,.”]), Tiutchev and many others, down to Mandel’shtam (Est’  tsennostei nezyblemaia skala… [“There is an unshakable scale of values.-.”]) and Akhmatova (Est’ tri epokhi u vospominanii… [“There are three epochs in remembering…”]).

Characteristic of this kind of opening is also the negation that follows it:

EST’… kotorye NE… (“THERE ARE… [such] that DO NOT..). Compare Akhmatova’s famous: Est’ v blizosti liudei zavetnaia cherta,/ Ee ne pereiti vliublennosti i strasti (“There is in human intimacy a secret boundary,/ Neither being in love nor passion can cross it”.)

In fact, negative rhetoric pervades the fragment: “do not lend themselves, it is impossible, impervious, not… significant, not… the way, life is hardly ever… (ne byvaet… … ni… ni...), not the fabric, irremediable, does not feel, unquenched. insufficiently. indispensable.” This, too, is a well-known strategy — poetry likes to speak of what is not. Pushkin’s “The Talisman” and Mandel’shtam’s recurrent openings to the effect that “I cannot… see/ hear/ enter… the famous Phaedra/ the tales of Ossian/ the glass palaces…” easily come to mind.

Ginzburg’s discourse is full of contradictions. The words “it is impossible to relate” are followed by an actual telling. The pain is not felt, but brings forth tears. The experience is declared insufficiently condensed, yet we find ourselves reading something general, almost abstract. This latter paradox is essential. On the one hand, a certain emotional outburst (“all of a sudden…”) takes place, the person starts crying, the text reverberates with pain, cold, slights, convulsions. On the other, all this is related in a highly detached manner, as if second-, if not third-hand. Not only is an objective third-person voice substituted for the speaker’s subjective first person; Lidiia Ginzburg pointedly replaces her autobiographical female self with a conventional masculine persona: chelovek, on (“a man [in the sense of ‘person, human being’], he”).

Literature, keen on distancing itself from “raw material,” has evolved techniques of framing and point-of-view. Ginzburg’s short fragment uses manifold framing. The outer frame (the first and last paragraphs) is provided by disquisitions on prose and poetry. Enclosed inside is the picture of a person, who is at first impervious to the outside world, but is then galvanized into convulsive motion. This makes “him” peek deeper still, inside another frame, where he sees his entire “long life.” However, even there there is no “’life” proper, but yet another text: a “biography” — and a “poorly written” one at that. In any event, this hopeless, indeed, “irremediable,” text triggers an emotional outburst (foreshadowed and prepared by the first “convulsive motion”). Cutting through the inner boundaries, it fuses the person’s past and present, after which follows the closing of the outer frame.

The three planes are linked not only by their direct emotional impacts but also by an elegant parallelism. The two insets portray the person’s “real-life” hardships: the innermost, the totality of his long lifetime, and the intermediate, the one convulsive moment. The outside frame echoes this with the speaker’s laments about the enormity of the artistic task and confessions of envy for the other literary mode (alas, what I’m writing is mere prose, not poetry!). But this, in turn, is just one more rhetorical figure from poetry’s repertoire.

The abundance of poetic devices does not by itself turn a text into a poem sensu stricto. According to Tynianov, everything hinges on the dominant, or the constructive principle, of the text. What, then, is the fragment’s dominant?

The tension that permeates the text is between its lyrical-poetic nature and its dry, formulaic abstractness, which smacks — especially in a piece treating intimate subjects — of pseudo-science and insensitivity. The fragment is rife with scholarly terms: “adequately, reactions, sclerotically, a certain psychological event, biography, transforms.” To be sure, this discourse mode is naturalized — “motivated,” in Formalist’s terms — by the book’s and its author’s acknowledged scholarly status. But in the context of the fragment’s very special lyrical tenor and rhetoric, the “scholarly mode” becomes conspicuous — defamiliarized. as it were. It produces the fresh effect of an intellectual-prosaic element invading the emotional confines of poetry.

This, in turn, means that an “extra-poetic,” namely, “scholarly,” discourse finds its way into the text’s poetic atmosphere — in keeping with the general trend toward prosaization in Russian poetry (a poetry, let it be said, that did not have its seventeenth-century metaphysicals, nor flirted with intellectualism until Baratynskii and Tiutchev). The push toward prosaization gained momentum in the 20th century, assuming two major forms, different to the point of contrast. One strategy, which can be labelled “Futurist,” aimed at a conceptual schematization of the text; the other, “Primitivist,” produced “bad, unskilled writing” (i.e., skaz and its cognates, from Zoshchenko and the Oberiu to Limonov). Khlebnikov and Brodskii managed to combine both. Ginzburg is, of course, closer to the former strategy — that of metaliterary conceptualism, but neither is she alien to the latter: a “poorly written biography” and “insufficiently condensed experience” naturally result in “inadequate” prose.

… The above is but a scholarly declaration of love, a study in envy, an attack of anxiety of influence. Lidiia Ginzburg has left us no room for meta-transcending her text, which has it all: a man à la recherche du temps perdu, a character in cerca d’autore, a critic in search of a genre. All one can pretend to is the role of a grateful connoisseur of the findings, which, so un-Picasso-like, have disguised themselves as mere searchings.

P. S. Lidiia Iakovlevna read an early version of this analysis, responded, I incorporated her suggestions and she approved the text as it stands now.


[1] My coauthor in the 1960s-1970s Igor Aleksandrovich Mel’chuk (b. 1932), a leading Soviet (and, since his 1977 emigration, Canadian) linguist and human rights activist.

[2] See S. L. Frank, “The Ethic of Nihilism: A Characterization of the Russian Intelligentsia’s Moral Outlook,” in Landmarks: A Collection of Essays on the Russian Intelligentsia – 1909. Eds. Boris Shragin and Albert Todd; trans. Marian Schwartz (New York: Karz Howard, 1977), 155-184.

[3] Aleksandr Zholkovskii, Erosiped i drugie vin’etki. Moscow: Vodolei Publishers, 2003.

[4] To explain passing on to someone else two fancy scarves sent her from London as a present by Salomeia Andronikova-Halpern (and thus violating the taboo on giving away a gift) Akhmatova invoked a historical anecdote about a Spanish queen rejecting a gift of Dutch stockings: “Her minister refused to accept them: ‘The Queen of Spain has no feet.’” Lidiia Chukovskaia, Zapiski ob Anne Akhmatovoi. 3 vols. (Moscow: Soglasie, 1997), 2: 466.

[5] See my “Proshchanie s Matrenoi,” in Aleksandr Zholkovskii, Zvezdy i nemnogo nervno. Memuarnye vin’etki (Moscow: Vremia, 2008), 283-285.

[6] I remember trying (in vain) — in the 80s, during a discussion of an American colleague’s paper on Ginzburg as a proto-dissident, — to draw attention to L. Ia.’s principled acceptance of the precedence of society over the individual. She could well have been punished for her dissidence by exclusion from extant Soviet scholarly bodies, but that only made her mental allegiance to the idea of social institutions more intense.

[7] Aleksandr Kushner, “Priamoi razgovor o zhizni,” in Lidiia Ginzburg, Zapisnye knizhki. Vospominaniia. E’sse (St. Petersburg: Iskusstvo-SPB, 2002), 5-8; Kushner’s title uses Ginzburg’s own words (see p. 344 of that same edition).

[8] See in the Appendix to this essay my earlier analysis of one such characteristic entry; cf. Emily Van Buskirk, “’Samootstranenie’ kak eticheskii i esteticheskii printsip v proze L. Ia. Ginzburg,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 81 (2006): 261-282.

[9] The reference is to Andrei Sinyavsky’s 1966 sci-fi short story “Pkhentz,” see The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, ed. Clarence Brown (New York: Viking Penguin, 1985), 468-490; see also my “Vybrannye mesta. Tsenton,” Zvezda 2009, 4: 84-87.

[10] See “’Nikto ne plachet nad tem, chto ego ne kasaetsia’: Chetvertyi ‘Razgoivor o liubvi’ Lidii Ginzburg” (annotated and with an introduction by. Emily Van Buskirk), Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 88 (2007): 154-168.

[11] See Andrei Zorin, “Proza L. Ia. Ginzburg i gumanitarnaia mysl’ XX veka,” Novoe literaturnoe obozrenie, 76 (2005): 45-68.

[12] Ivan Bunin, The Life of Arseniev. Youth, trans. Andrew Wachtel (Evanston, Ill: Northwestern UP, 1994), 191-192.

[13] P. Ia. Chaadaev, “Letter to Prince P. A. Viazemsky, 29 April 1847,” in P. Ia. Chaadaev, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i izbrannye pis’ma, 2 vols. (Мoscow: Nauka, 1991), 2: 198-204 (see 199-201); the translation is mine.

[14] See “Tsel’nost’: O tvorchestve L. Ia. Ginzburg [Essays by M. L. Gasparov et al., including this writer],” in Literaturnoe obozrenie 1989, 10: 78-86 (p. 83); the English version, Alexander Zholkovsky, “Between Genres,” originally appeared in Canadian-American Slavic Studies 28 (1994), 2-3 [Special issue: Essays on Ginzburg, guest-ed. Jane Harris]: 157-160.

[15] Lidiia Ginzburg. Literatura v poiskakh real’nosti. Stat’i, esse, zametki, Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1987, p. 333.

Emily Van Buskirk and Andrei Zorin,eds. Lydia Ginzburg’s Alternative Literary Identities. A Collection of Articles and New Translations.Oxford: Peter Lang, 2012/ The Red and the Gray (Appendix: ”Between Genres”) 27-37 (27-32, 33-37)