In Search of the Genre: On the "nenuzhnaja manernost'" in Boris Pasternak's Oxrannaja gramota

Marilena Ruscica, Stanford University

At the beginning of his second autobiographical experiment entitled Ljudi i polozhenija, written in 1956 and published for the first time only in 1967, Boris Pasternak remarked on the peculiarity of his previous, and most famous, autobiographical work Oxrannaja gramota as follows:

V Oxrannoj gramote, opyte avtobiografii, napisannom v dvadcatyx godax, ja razobral obstojatel'stva zhizni, menja slozhivshie. K sozhaleniju, kniga isporchena nenuzhnoju manernost'ju, obshchim grexom tex let. V nastojashchem ocherke ja ne izbegu nekotorogo pereskaza ee, xotja postarajus' ne povtorjat'sja.

The phrase "nenuzhnaja manernost' expresses the distinction between two different forms of autobiographical accounts, most likely directed to two very different reading publics. Pasternak's self-revisionism invites extended reflections on autobiography as a genre and on its literary reception in the 20s. I will attempt to explore a new way to read Oxrannaja gramota based on this distinction given by its author.

The history of the reading of Oxrannaja gramota--the investigation, affirmation, negation and reaffirmation of autobiography as its genre--tells a story of urgency of recognition which still remains unsatisfied. In particular, my paper collects and reacts to previous interpretations of the work, such as Michel Aucouturier's 1975 article "Ob odnom kliuche k Oxrannoj gramote and Lazar' Flejshman's reading of Pasternak's work in his 1979 Boris Pasternak v dvadcatye gody. In my paper I suggest that the philosophical subject in Oxrannaja gramota does not stand in contradiction to its autobiographical theme. Instead, it explains some peculiarities of the work: the author's refusal to make it organically descriptive, to provide a canonic narrative of the events (that he justifies with his trust in the reading ability of an ideal public). There are unrecognizable features in Pasternak's work that create estrangement within the context of literary tradition, specifically of the tradition of autobiography as canonic genre. Pasternak overthrows the "horizontality," or syntagmatic consequentiality of events of a tale about one's own self, by privileging "verticality," a paradigmatic expansion of life narrative, one that is not temporally determined. This "verticality" is what Aucutourier recognized as the fictional character of Oxrannaja gramota ("xudozhestvennaja literatura"--underlined as such in a text where it is not expected), or the "literatura vymysla" Flejshman pointed out. This "verticality" is also the sign of a break with the confessional tradition, with the old literary habits of autobiography, a break that Russian Formalists would recognize as the key to producing significant new art. Years later, Pasternak suggested that "nenuzhnaja manernost'" was the fundamental shortcoming of his work. Instead, it was the literary sign of the time in which the work was written. In my paper, I will call this sign "verticality" and explore it as term of definition (and distinction) of Pasternak's variations of the autobiographical genre.