restricted access Beyond Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in Soviet Literature (review)
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Reviewed by
David Shepherd. Beyond Metafiction: Self-Consciousness in Soviet Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992. xii + 260 pp. No price given.

Beyond Metafiction deals with metafictional texts from that tense transitional stage in Soviet literary history, the late 1920s. All were written by fellow traveling authors at various stages of accepting the new aesthetic of social command that preceded Socialist Realism as official literary policy. David Shepherd's rather enormous goal is "to ask whether there is anything specific to self-conscious prose fiction produced in the Soviet Union that might contribute to a consideration not only of some well-established conceptions about such writing generally but also . . . of Soviet literary history." Shepherd succeeds in stimulating some slight reassessment in both of these areas.

In its earliest uses, the term "metafiction" described self-referential art concerned with probing itself as art and with meditating on the key aesthetic figure of the author. Typically, it has been characterized as extrahistorical, hermetic, self-sufficiently "narcissistic" and, because of its position outside of accepted aesthetic norms, it has been labeled subversive by critics of all stripes. In this view, metafictional writing engages in current social and cultural polemic least of all. Beyond all else, this writing has been thought to stand for the defense of artistic autonomy. Shepherd challenges this view and makes a convincing argument for reading metafictional texts as participants in historically situated, cultural dialogue. Russian metafiction of the late 1920s responded to a general crisis of art that the Formalist theorist Boris Eikhenbaum characterized as a shift of emphasis from the question of "how to write" to the issue of "how to be a writer." [End Page 419] Metafiction was as likely to subvert its own self-sufficiency as to challenge attacks on art by the radical left.

Shepherd's discussion of each text is set in the context of contemporary critical debate. Two works, Leonid Leonov's The Thief and Marietta Shaginian's Kik are seen to confront key issues, respectively, the "politically correct" literary canon for a new Soviet literature and the border between fact and fiction laid down by such radical literature-of-fact theorists as Nikolai Chuzhak. These and other texts, such as Konstantin Vaginov's Works and Days of Svistonov and Veniamin Kaverin's The Troublemaker and Artist Unknown, call into question the possibility of literary originality and challenge the notion of the writer's authority and autonomy. All four authors are clearly concerned about the disappearance of the creating subject. Perhaps surprisingly, the focus of their debate is not to criticize the aesthetic of social command. They are more likely to engage in polemic with radical "factological" theorists who denied any value to fiction and saw all writing not as creation but as production. But still more surprisingly, while questioning the concept of a "fact" and showing the fictional framing that all facts inevitably receive, these writers often agree with the basic premise of the radical critics that fiction writing is indeed production rather than inspired creation.

Shepherd is concerned to move beyond a model of Soviet literary history that focuses on a simple opposition between "daring dissidence" and "cosy conformity." As he suggests in his analysis of Leonov's revision in the 1950s of his novel The Thief, despite Leonov's intentions of discrediting metafictional aspects of his text, these very aspects are strengthened, making this version of The Thief the most "radically and unremittingly metafictional of all the texts" considered here. Clearly this revision does not square with Leonov's reputation as an orthodox Soviet author. Shepherd sees this instance as proof of the considerable autonomy of the existing literary text and the limitations on the authority of the author: for all their intentions, status-seeking writers cannot simply rewrite their existing works conveniently to serve a political purpose.

This optimistic analysis raises a number of questions. One concerns the practice of revising literary texts. The group of texts that Shepherd interprets is very small (five in all), and he discusses only one revised text. What is lacking is a sense of the standard practice of revision. One wonders whether other metafictional texts or other kinds of experimental writing...