Mary Nicholas, Lehigh University
Leonid Dobychin (1894-1936) was the author of several, interesting short-story collections published in the Soviet Union at the end of the 1920s. His provocatively minimalist style won him praise from a number of other writers, both in Russia and abroad, but few readers and little official sanction. Dobychin had great hopes for his only attempt at the novel form, which he had worked on in fits and starts over a ten-year period. When it was finally published in 1935, Gorod N marked a new and potentially productive phase in Dobychin's literary activity. Unfortunately, Dobychin and his work became the unhappy focus of official criticism in early 1936, as part of the campaign that vilified Shostakovich's "chaotic" music. The author is believed to have committed suicide following a public meeting to protest his work, and his novel was forgotten until recently.
Gorod N does not deserve such obscurity. Richard Borden, in a recent translation of the work (Evanston, 1998), calls it the "last seed of Russian literary avant-gardism." But its importance is not merely historical. Dobychin's use of quotation and allusion in the novel makes this an innovative, if largely neglected part of the history of Russian modernism as a whole. Literary and artistic allusions crowd the work, which is written in diary form by an unsophisticated and unnamed child narrator. The child diarist quotes and misquotes from sources that range from classic literature to Renaissance art. Gogol', whose Dead Souls provides Dobychin's title, and Chachek;exov, whose "Steppe" offers the diarist a useful model, bracket the thumb-nail sketch of the intellectual history of the Russian middle-class that is provided here.
Renate Lachmann's work on intertextuality in Russian modernism provides a theoretical basis for departure in the paper. Dobychin's use of reiterative quotation and, in particular, his transformation of textual allusions into pictorial tableaux deserve our closer attention as we investigate the role of Russian classics in the history of Russian modernism. Is Dobychin's attitude to the works that he quotes curatorial? If so, how does that square with his proposed role in the avant-garde? Do his allusions affirm or efface the works he re-writes? What is specifically modernist about his use of quotation and allusion? What can his textual appropriations tell us about modernism in the Russian context? Do Dobychin and writers like him provide a crucial link between modernism and postmodernism, as some critics have suggested? By following the subtexts in Dobychin's characteristically laconic prose, we should be able to expand our understanding of his work and the context in which it arose.