- Russian Literature 1995-2002: On the Threshold of a New Millennium
In recent years a pronounced need has developed for book-length, English-language overviews of new Russian literature. N.N. Shneidman's study, addressing such a (rarely gratified and thus irksome) need, will - I hope - be appreciated by educators. His manuscript should serve both North American students and scholars well as a solid, dependable guide for initial forays into the murkiest of cultural (and so often uncultured) waters. Russian Literature 1995-2002 shies away from overtly subjective or over-theorized assessments of the last decade in Russian letters, tending instead towards a more standoffish 'documentary' or encyclopedic format. As such, it will be more useful as a reference text than as a reader-friendly or simply linear narrative of cultural development.
Shneidman, thankfully, does not stress 1991 as a year of sudden, sweeping change. Almost half of the publication is given over to writers whom he refers to as the nation's bookish 'seniors' (Chingiz Aitmatov, Victor Petrovich Astaf'ev, Fazil' Iskander, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, for example) or Russia's 'mature generation' (Viktor Erofeev, Evgenii Aleksandrovich Evtushenko, Kirillovich Vasin Kim, Eduard Limonov, or Vladimir Makanin). This categorization of storytellers both before and after 1991 will be of great benefit to students in that it underlines both the enduring relevance and struggle of often-forgotten (and less modish) personalities, together with the appearance of younger authors - who themselves must struggle against the background of the 'elders' recognized canon. By building the chronological range of his book from 1995 onwards, yet including writers who began penning tales of nationwide repute long before, Shneidman has done much to steer students away from easy equations of political and literary output.
More current rubrics, later in the study, are dedicated to writers who emerged during perestroika (such as Aleksandr Kabakov, Mikhail Kuraev, Viktor Pelevin, Viacheslav P'etsukh, Aleksei Slapovskii or Vladimir Sorokin), women writers (Liudmila Petrushevskaia, Tatiana Tolstaia, Liudmila Ulitskaia and others), the champions of conservative or partisan policy, and those penning the most popular genres, such as detective fiction - who are likely to displace all the names mentioned from shelves of most provincial bookstores.
Entries within generational rubrics are arranged alphabetically; most authors are afforded a couple of pages, on occasion slightly more. Hence my suggestion that this book succeeds more as a reference tool than a cultural history to be read in one sitting; it is a text for libraries more than bedsides. And yet at a time of budding English-language scholarship on the younger writers here (especially as they start appearing as translated paperback fiction), Shneidman's approach is perhaps the most sensible - a succinct and solid guide for young scholars stuck in the middle of virgin territory. [End Page 460]
A broader, overarching context for this literary cartography is provided by a most useful introductory chapter, interweaving tendencies in modern storytelling with sociocultural processes since the late 1980s. Economic, financial, and political pressures are clearly and convincingly outlined, particularly regarding two problems: the role of cash in today's somewhat self-congratulatory culture of literary prize-giving and the enduring presence of conservative (if not jingoistic) curmudgeons behind the scenes of contemporary popular media. There is a slight irony here, for the author himself is not terribly happy with much of today's literary output and at times his observations are a tad grumpy. The work of stylistically adventurous authors is dismissed as an exit from 'reality' and 'truth,' while the plethora of recent literary awards 'erodes the criteria established for good literature.' Of Aleksei Slapovskii, for example (known better today as a TV screenwriter, perhaps), we read that 'his plots are inventive and he is not afraid to experiment with style and substance. It would be helpful, however, if he were to concentrate on analysis rather than description, and if he worked more closely within the confines of a particular genre.'
The occasionally proscriptive air to this book along with its rare enthusiasm for much of today...