The Melo-ing of Zhiznetvorchestvo: Verbickaja Plays Verbickaja

Beth Holmgren, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

This talk fathoms how the extraordinarily popular fin-de-siècle writer, Anastasija Verbickaja (1861-1928), declasses and melodramatizes the contemporary high culture phenomenon of "zhiznetvorchestvo" or "life-art"--the neo-Romantic fashioning of the artist's public persona as an artistic creation correspondent to the dominant personae, moods, and philosophy of his/her creative work. Zhiznetvorchestvo, as practiced by the Symbolist poets and their acolytes, usually emerged as a stylized, elitist, and fundamentally serious theatricalization of public appearance and gesture. Its elitist address presumed peer appreciation, not audience consumption, ideal relations, not everyday mess; as Lidija Ginzburg observed (On Psychological Prose), "the romantic confounding of life and art was made possible by the fact that in life itself an ideal sphere had been secured that was closed off to base reality."

A market-savvy author who pioneered the Russian bestseller (and particularly the bestselling Russian "woman's novel"), Verbickaja won readers through the charisma of her performing artist heroines and their intense emotional and erotic experiences. Significantly, she also espoused high culture aspirations of both realist and modernist vintage. In her fictions Verbickaja relied on realist notions of literature's revelatory and reforming functions, and subscribed to the Symbolist cults of beauty and subjectivity. Like the contrived performance art of zhiznetvorchestvo, her memoirs attempt to establish a consonance between her life and art and to demonstrate her devotion to beauty and her belief in the soul's transcendence.

Yet, unlike the examples of her high culture contemporaries, Verbickaja's life story conveys intriguingly different concepts of audience, theatricality, and self-worth and self-expression. Her two-volume memoirs, composed at the height of her fame, anticipate the desires and expectations of her popular readership. They promise "to tell all" in melodramatic terms--that is, in the terms of the engaging, moralizing popular entertainment that shaped her fiction. At the same time their disclosure of personal and family testimony is meant to guarantee the "quality" of their intimate revelations and hyperbolic style. My talk specifically analyzes how Verbickaja's memoirs 1) invoke a matriarchal "performing artists'" tradition that authenticates and sanctions her melodramatic types, and 2) create and valorize a melodramatized self-portrait of the writer. I show how Verbickaja's unabashedly popular theatricalization of the self affords fascinating insights into the relations between the classes and between high and commercial cultures in fin-de-siècle Russia.