Canonic Links and Virtual Sequels in the Life-Texts of Russian Writers

Rolf Hellebust, University of Calgary

This paper will examine a key element in the literary mythology of the nineteenth-century Russian tradition: the death of the poet, and the way in which literary history has presented this event to emphasize the aesthetic and ideological value of the romantic life-text—especially with regard to the consolidation of a national literary tradition, for which real or apocryphal links between the demise of one writer and the rise of an artistic heir are of crucial importance. Related to the question of how literary historians symbolize the narrative moment of the "passing of the lyre" is that of the essential unfinishedness of the life-text of the dead poet, with its promise of completion in the career of a successor, or in the further course of Russian literature in general. Here I will use the term virtual sequel, which I introduced in "Baxtin and the 'Virtual Sequel' in Russian Literature" (SEEJ, Winter, 2000). In that article it refers primarily to those envisioned continuations of such nineteenth-century classics such as Gogol''s Dead Souls and Dostoevskij's Brothers Karamazov for which the existing text is presented as merely a preface, and to which the burden of fulfilling the impossible soteriological mission of Russian literature is implicitly or explicitly deferred. Yet we also find hints at such sequels in the life-texts of the creators of the 19th-century canon: in Belinskij's death-bed ramblings, in Tolstoj's final flight to Astapovo Junction, in the "great secret" that Pushkin, according to Dostoevskij's famous formulation, took with him to his grave. In such cases the actual content of any last words is less significant than their intimation of a far more portentous text—one that only fate kept from performing its intended thaumaturgic task for the Russian nation.