On the Merits of Disintegration: Dr. Janovskij in the Literary Lab of Dr. Celine

Leo Livak, University of Toronto

This paper addresses the rise of the esthetics of disintegration in Russian ÈmigrÈ letters against the backdrop of French literary life in the inter-war period. I will discuss first the intellectual developments which led to the positing of spiritual and physical disintegration as privileged subject matter in art, and I will then examine Vasilij Janovskij's literary career in the context of the oeuvre of his model cum rival Louis-Ferdinand CÈline. I will show that despite a number of common cultural premises, the Russian literary use of the esthetics of disintegration constituted creative rivalry with contemporary French writers. I will propose and discuss the reasons for the consequent parting of literary practices.

Declaring the failure of their civilization in the wake of the Great War, French writers developed a parti pris of "tragic lucidity" with a focus on moral and physical disintegration, aired by J.-R. Bloch in 1930: "We have left the era of esthetics to enter into the tragic age." CÈline's novels epitomized post-war Europe in cultural crisis. Spiritual and physical disintegration equally captivated the Paris School of ÈmigrÈ writers, whose review Numbers treated death as the most important artistic topic in contrast to Soviet literary discourse with its mandatory optimism. CÈline touched a sensitive chord in the Paris School esthetics, whose theoretician, Georgij Adamovich, incorporated CÈline's vocabulary in his own critical articles.

The esthetics of disintegration in its Paris School version was exemplified in the stories and novels of Vasilij Semenovich Janovskij (1906-89). But until CÈline provided a literary model for this esthetics, critics had not recognized Janovskij's works as artistically sound. The resonance of CÈline's novels changed Janovskij's position. He began to justify his writings by appealing to an acclaimed French model. But to become a "Russian CÈline," Janovskij had to distance himself from CÈline's stylistic program and cleanse his language of profanities and colloquialisms viewed by ÈmigrÈ critics as markers of Soviet prose. Another point of diversion consisted in the fact that for CÈline disintegration had intrinsic value. Janovskij, on the contrary, persisted in implementing the masterplot of "salvation through suffering," whereby disintegration was a prerequisite for spiritual salvation. Maintaining a philosophical dialogue with CÈline throughout the 1930s and adopting many of CÈline's devices for the creation of "earthly hell," Janovskij took to task CÈline's approach to the esthetics of disintegration in his last Parisian novel, Portable Immortality, where he rewrote the life of CÈline's protagonist.