Oral Narrative in Modern Russian Fiction

This paper will discuss the problem of narrative structure in Venedikt Erofeev’s “poema” Moskva-Petuški. Although much important work has been done by Russian and Western scholars in recent years (in particular the study by Svetlana Gaiser-Šnitmann, and the commentaries by Jurij Levin and Eduard Vlasov), research has been largely directed towards uncovering the work’s many subtexts and exploring its rich mesh of allusions. I wish to investigate the use made by the author of the literary and extra-literary genre of the anecdote. The theoretical framework for my study will center on Baxtin (Problemy rečevyx žanrov) and Tynjanov (O literaturnoj èvoljucii). Many important observations made on spoken and written modes of communication by Walter Ong (Orality and Literacy) will inform my analysis of Erofeev’s text.

My analysis will center on a close reading of two sections of the narrative. First, my attention will be directed towards the employment of historical anecdotes by Venička, the protagonist, and his interlocutors in their debate on the role of alcohol in the lives of famous writers and composers (the chapter “Esino—Fryzevo”). I intend to explore not only the function of the exchanges at a primary level (as a mimetic representation of an agonistic oral polemic), but also at a secondary level (as a device used by the author to provide an implicit diagetic commentary on the narrative events and thematic concerns present in the text). The second passage I wish to discuss concerns the protagonist’s descriptions of his (evidently fictitious) travels around America and Europe (beginning in the chapter “Pavlovo-Posad—Nazar′evo”). Although many possible components of the intertextual palimpsest which underlie the narration have been uncovered by scholars (Vlasov, in particular, has done ground-breaking work in this area), little has been said of the similarities between Venička’s narrative and the folkloric (i.e., oral) genre of the Munchausen tale. This form is included in the section on anecdotes in Aarne’s classification of folk narratives (subsequently translated and enlarged by Stith Thompson). It has previously informed a number of works in European literature (cf. Fra Cipolla’s story in the Decameron VI, 10). My analysis will not only explore the content of Venička’s description of his voyages in relation to this generic form, but also examine how the reactions of his listeners (curiosity, disbelief etc.) affect his narration.

Finally, I wish to consider how the two sections of the work discussed relate to broader questions of narrative and theme raised by Moskva-Petuški. My treatment of these topics will take as its general starting point work by Genette in the field of narratology and build on the findings of Cynthia Simmons’s analysis of the text in question in Their Father’s Voice.