Poetry and Music in the Structure of the Novel Pobeždennye by Irina Golovkina (Rimskaja-Korsakova)

The novel The Defeated (Pobeždennye), first published in 1993 (Roman-gazeta, No. 21–24), is the work of Irina Golovkina, née Rimskaja-Korsakova (granddaughter of the famous Russian composer Nikolaj Rimskij-Korsakov). She herself studied arts and philology, while music was an integral part of her upbringing. Given her elite family background, it is not surprising that she became generally known only posthumously, after the fall of the Soviet Union, through belated publication of her masterpiece, the novel Pobeždennye, an intricate blend of poetic and musical themes which has not yet attracted significant attention by literary scholars. Its publication has triggered a swelling grass-roots sensation among the Russian reading public, connected with the post-Communist quest for a social and ethical raison d’être. Yet it also stands out as a work of art in the mainstream Russian literary tradition, responding to and interacting intertextually with a number of seminal works.

The novel is set during one of the gloomiest and most hopeless periods of Russian history, as the last young generation from several aristocratic families move from depression and shock into despair from 1914 through December 25, 1937. This complex lyrical novel is organized according to poetic and musical principles. Poetry appears: 1) as leitmotif in the form of epigraphs from the author to various sections of the novel; 2) as a component of the inner life of the characters; and 3) as a linguistic device, when the prose text becomes highly poetic. Music appears: 1) externally as part of the life of many of the characters, professional or semiprofessional musicians; 2) as a thread connecting the characters, and their inner response to music; and 3) as an organizing stylistic device in the prose-poetic text.

Poetry and music, by virtue of their intrinsic nature as forms of art, point beyond the here and now reality toward transcendence, toward something sacred. Asia, the central character of the novel, has a God-given talent for music, began to compose music at the age of 18, and at this age already provides the most profound definition of the essence of music (which would apply equally to poetry as well): “… music must speak about the Divine!” (“… muzyka dolžna govorit′ o božestvennom!”). In this way the extensive use of music and poetry in the novel organizes all the levels of its artistic unity. In this short talk I must concentrate on only a few aspects of the rich poetic-musical subtext of the novel, primarily in Part I, namely the function of the epigraphs in the structure of the novel.

Part I contains twenty-nine chapters, thirteen of which begin with epigraphs, primarily drawn from poetry of the Silver Age (Blok, Axmatova, Belyj, Bal′mont, Cvetaeva, and Pasternak). Poetry and music reveal the characters’ integrity and their upbringing in the high cultural traditions of the Silver Age and the moral and ethical values of the finest representatives of Tsarist Russia. Part I, in spite of the palpable descent toward the total desintegration of the old world order, ends on a definite upturn, with the idea of immortality which is stronger than the red terror.

In contrast to part I, part II does not contain a single poetic epigraph, though poetic subtext appears occasionally when the characters quote certain lines. The nature of the poetry quoted, however, differs markedly from the epigraphs of part I. Part II is the definite descending movement, the ultimate trial of the characters which sets up the final outcome of each individual life. Immediately following this scene part III begins with an epigraph from Blok’s poem “Šagi komandora,” symbolizing the approaching final judgment in the lives of the characters. In this part we get an answer to the question, where can the “defeated” turn in order to overcome the most hopeless time in Russia’s history, culminating in 1937?

Music and poetry (or the lack of them) play a key role in this work, leading from the sound texture to the author’s central Christian message of faith and love, even to sacrificing one’s own soul for another. Music and poetry help to sustain life, to overcome the total despair of the hopeless existence in the new Soviet reality, and enable the defeated to achieve eternal life.