Forms of the End in the Literature of Soviet Modernism

Polina Barskova, University of California, Berkeley

Problems of eschatology played an immanent role in the Russian literary consciousness of the first decades of the twentieth century. The concept of the “End” – that very “sense of ending” poignantly formulated by Frank Kermode – became topical and found its place in the contemporary writings in many hypostases, be it the end of the world itself or its minor repercussions – the End of History, the End of the Century, the End of Literature. Among the influential Russian writers who established this eschatological mode one certainly should name Vladimir Solov’ev, Vasilij Rozanov and Andrej Belyj.

For this study I chose two important topoi of that epoch: the end of the city (usually St. Petersburg) and the end (or, less dramatically, the crisis) of the traditional literary narrative. I will focus on the interlacing and interaction of these motifs – the end of the narrative and the narrative of the end – in the works of such “Soviet modernists” as Viktor Šklovskij, Konstantin Vaginov and Osip Mandel’štam.

Two narrative tendencies stand out among the numerous descriptions of the demise of St. Petersburg: the boundless decomposition of decadence and avant-garde fragmentation resulting from an explosive, apocalyptic catastrophe.

In his descriptions of Petrograd “as if after the explosion” (in “Sentimental’noe putešestvie”) Viktor Šklovskij clearly elaborate Belyj’s motif of explosion in “Petersburg”. The very image of the momentary explosion that disconnects parts of the whole is linked, in my understanding, to the situation of narrative crisis acutely felt by the prose stylists of the 1920s. Gary Saul Morson, in Narrative and Freedom, defines this situation as one of the “diseases of presentness” – the isolated present when “only now matters and now is so overwhelmingly powerful […] that it seems like a temporal island, entirely cut of from life in past and future […]” Feeling that their texts often consist of incoherent fragments of the present, writers of the time sought new narrative principles and devices to connect these pieces without the connective tissue of the traditional novelistic narrative. In this context I am going to approach usage of montage-technique in the works of Šklovskij, Vaginov (“Kozlinaja pesn’”, “Trudy i dni Svistonova”) and Mandel’štam (“Egipetskaja marka”, “Jaxontov”)

In contrast to the model of the end as an apocalyptic explosion resulting in temporal disconnectedness, the agonizing decadent End is inseparable from such categories as past and memory of the past. Here Present blurs with Past, and the moment of the End itself is always hinted at but never comes. The decadent narrative of End doesn’t reside in an isolated present moment; it depicts the present as a fragment of a narrative of the past. Mandel’štam’s “Šum vremeni” is precisely such an example of this narrative of closure. In this work, death brims with the memory of life, while life is impossible without the premonition of death. This aspiration for the conservation of the life/death story of Petersburg reminds us of a genre that became especially important in the Soviet twenties – the obituary. According to Jeffrey Brooks, “The obituary was the only description of individual life that appeared regularly during the twenties”. In the light of official Soviet attacks against the individual biography (e.g., Literatura fakta, 1927), we can detect a distinct strain of the decadent in its “obituary” of St. Petersburg (as constructed by Mandel’štam, Xodasevič and others) as a form against this “crisis of biography”. When the very existence of the individual novelistic hero was problematic, the city had to become “the (last) hero of their time” with its anthropomorphic ability to live, to grow sick, and, tragically, to die.