- Modernism and Revolution: Russian Literature in Transition
Victor Erlich is the doyen of American Slavists. His Russian Formalism: History, Doctrine (1955) familiarized a wide audience with the theories and achievements of a group whose terminology and practice have become indispensable tools for several generations of literary critics and scholars. In its revised editions, Russian Formalism remains the authoritative work on the subject. Erlich is cherished by other Slavists for his humor, his erudition, and his wisdom. A new book by him is therefore always an eagerly awaited event.
Modernism and Revolution sets out to describe the encounter of Russian literary modernism with the Revolution and the Soviet era which followed. Although Erlich agrees that the great period of Russian [End Page 377] modernism was 1910–1935, he considers that “the full reach of the term may properly encompass a larger sequence, extending from the turn of the century to the immediate aftermath of the Second World War,” and so he follows the development of some writers of “the great age” beyond the beginning of the 1930s, when Soviet artistic policy aggressively stifled modernist practices. Erlich therefore employs a broad definition of modernism. He does not treat it as a coherent literary movement (which it was not, at least in Russia), but rather as a “discernible sensibility or impulse underlying and informing various disparate, indeed conflicting literary currents of the modern era” (2). He argues that these endeavors had in common an awareness of the existence of a radical break with the immediate past, “a recoil from the ‘given’ either on behalf of a more distant and more ‘usable’ past or of an ardently anticipated future” (3). Erlich distinguishes two fundamental variants of modernism: the mimetic or thematic on the one hand and the autotelic on the other. In the Russian situation, he notes:
if the extremist temper of the avant-garde and its espousal of radical novelty made many of its leading figures receptive to Bolshevik rhetoric, the followers of the autotelic strand in the modernist ethos, with its emphasis on the autonomy of the literary text, tended to resist unequivocal commitment, let alone subordination to any extra-literary cause. Preoccupation with the medium, with the mode rather than the substance of expression, was clearly incompatible with the socially extrovert, instrumentalist thrust of Soviet culture.
In Russia, the incompatibility between the Bolsheviks’ “single-track mentality” and the modernist proclivity for techniques of indirection such as irony and stylization, in particular the practice of “skaz,” became increasingly evident and had serious artistic and personal consequences for writers such as Babel, Zoshchenko and Zamyatin.
Modernism and Revolution is divided into thirteen major chapters. “The Symbolist Ambiance” concentrates on Belyi, Blok, and Vyacheslav Ivanov. “The Futurist Rebellion” focuses on Khlebnikov and Mayakovsky. There follow “Four Masters Facing their Age” (Akhmatova, Mandel’stam, Pasternak, and Tsvetaeva), “The Battle of Manifestos,” [End Page 378] “Master and Disciple” (Zamyatin and Lunts), a chapter on two pioneers of the Soviet novel: Konstantin Fedin and Boris Pilnyak, individual chapters on Isaac Babel, Mikhail Zoshchenko, Andrey Platonov, Yury Olesha, Shklovsky and Neofuturism, llya Erenburg, and a final chapter which picks up Mayakovsky and other writers as they approached the fatidic dates of 1930 and 1932.
The writers and works considered in Modernism and Revolution constitute an excellent reading list for a course on modern Russian literature, and the book’s thirteen chapter structure makes it an admirable companion to such a class. One regrets the absence of any discussion of Bulgakov (many of whose most interesting modernist works such as the play Flight and the collected stories in Diaboliad were written in the 1920s). On the other hand, it is good to see Fedin’s Cities and Years given the careful consideration which it deserves and rarely gets. Erlich’s comparison of Fedin’s novel with Victor Hugo’s Quatrevingt-treize is particularly compelling, although it leads him to underrate the importance of Marie Urbach as a source of compositional and emotional energy in Cities and Years.
Erlich refers to a broad range of critical and...