- Literary History in Transnational Mode:The Challenges of Writing a History of East-Central European Literatures
As Priscilla Wald notes in her comments on A New Literary History of America, edited by Greil Marcus and Werner Sollors (2009), "Literary history is not at all a dead activity. Genres, like disciplines, are dynamic, as is the concept of the literary." As she explains further, the guiding principle of A New Literary History of America is prismatic, assembling various disciplinary perspectives and offering a "carnival of style, voice, and topic." The various chapters in it "function as individual vignettes, moments in time that readily form connections to other vignettes and help the reader see constellations among eras."1
The prismatic, multicultural, and to some extent multimedia model of literary history that Wald describes has been applied in a few recent histories, including A Comparative History of Literatures in the Iberian Peninsula, edited by Fernando Cabo Aseguinolaza, Anxo Abuín Gonzalez, and César Domínguez, and History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe which I coedited with John Neubauer.2 The latter work, published in four volumes between 2004 and 2010, attempts a comprehensive transnational study of the cultural and literary region that stretches from the Baltic countries to Bulgaria and Albania and from Ukraine and Moldova in the east to the Czech Republic in the west. Representing the joint work of more than 120 contributors from Europe, the United States, Canada, and Australia, this project, sponsored by the International Comparative Literature Association, is not a chronological narrative, but an experiment in writing literary history that acknowledges ruptures as well as transnational connections. Hence the project's subtitle: Conjunctures and Disjunctures in the 19th and 20th Centuries. [End Page 204]
Under the altered post-1989 conditions, most of scholars working in the field of literary and cultural studies have become increasingly mindful of the need to provide new ways to relate cultures by comparing, translating, and interfacing traditionally separate entities. Focusing on "cultural contacts" is even more important today than it was during the Cold War period: literary history must venture into new areas, acting as a corrective both to narrow ethnocentric treatments of culture and to the countertheories of globalism that reduce all cultures to a few predigested themes.
In the words of a recent reviewer, the task pursued by the History of the Literary Cultures of East-Central Europe was "to re-conceptualize literary traditions in the region by deconstructing national myths and focusing on common themes, thereby opening up perspectives which are routinely overlooked in traditional national literary histories."3 Inspired initially by the comparative-intercultural approach to literary history outlined in Mario J. Valdés and Linda Hutcheon's 1995 position paper and subsequently applied to the three-volume Literary Cultures of Latin America edited by Valdés and Djelal Kadir (2004), the literary history of East-Central Europe project went through several conceptualizations over a period of fifteen years.4 Some of these versions were tested in papers presented by the project directors and other contributors at MLA and ICLA conferences. These papers moved away from the national coverage model, still prevalent in certain language areas, seeking transnational and transcultural modes of articulation.
It is not hard to imagine why a work that proposed to cover two eventful centuries in the evolution of a score of literatures from several different language areas (the Baltics, the Balkans, Slavic Central Europe, and the non-Slavic countries of Moldova, Romania, Hungary, and Albania) periodically raised quasi-insurmountable problems over the course of its development. Moving beyond the boundaries of national literatures, seeking instead those "junctures" or "nodes" that allow for a cross-cultural interpretation, this history offended at times national sensitivities and challenged narrow aesthetic or text-oriented concerns (the project focuses on other media as well, such as theater, opera, and occasionally visual art, and discusses literature in a broad sociopolitical context). Thus, while theoretically subscribing to the project's transnational approach, some early reviewers counted the pages each volume devoted to a specific national literature. On the flipside, the project received reviews that praised the transcultural treatment but objected to the parts...