The Communal Apartment in Literature

Erin Collopy, Texas Tech University

Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space that if he were asked to name the most important function of the house he would say that “the house shelters daydreaming, the house protects the dreamer, the house allows one to dream in peace” (6). Bachelard had in mind as the ideal dwelling space a separate building situated within a natural setting. The apartments of Paris lacked the essential verticality of a complete house, with its cellar and attic, and the city provided too great a separation from nature for the city dweller to experience the haven of home in inclement weather. Bachelard primarily addresses intimate space as a positive and protected place, and intentionally avoids addressing “hostile” spaces (xxxvi). However, what happens when a home is a hostile space, when there is no shelter for daydreaming? If private city apartments are inadequate, what of the Soviet state-sponsored communal apartments?

The present work addresses the function of the communal apartment in Irina Grekova’s Vdovij paroxod and in the works of Nina Sadur. In both authors’ works the communal apartment serves as a spatial metaphor for a disrupted society, either in part because of the effects of World War II as is the case in Grekova’s novel, or because of the collapse of the promise of Soviet society as portrayed in Sadur’s works. One of the primary dysfunctions of the communal apartment is the requirement of sharing intimate spaces with non-intimates. This intrusion of the public into the personal lessens the likelihood that communal dwellers would conceive of their homes as a “shelter for daydreaming.” In Sadur’s novel, Almaznaja dolina, one of the characters can be heard crying at night after being beaten by one of her lovers, phone conversations are heard in detail, neighbors will walk in another’s room without knocking. When one must always be prepared for public interaction, it is difficult to find a safe space for daydreaming.  Another dysfunction of the communal apartment is its sense of impermanence and instability, despite the fact that so many people have lived their entire lives in such places. This sense of instability is most plainly seen in Grekova’s novel, the title of which emphasizes the transient nature of communal apartments.

Both Grekova and Sadur show the difficulties of life in a communal apartment, however, they both show that it is possible to maintain one’s humanity living in such an unpleasant place. Sadur herself managed to create powerful works, such as Čudesnye znaki spasen’ja and “Siniaia ruka,” in part because of her experiences in a communal apartment.  Nonetheless, even in its most positive realizations, if such realizations exist, the communal apartment must be seen as antithetical to the creative process, if we are to follow Bachelard description of the main function of the home.

Selected Bibliography

Bachelard, Gaston. The Poetics of Space. Trans. Maria Jolas. Boston: Beacon Press, 1994.