Venička and the Death of the Russian Author

Ann Komaromi, Swarthmore College

The gaps in the text bear witness to the disappearance of the author and provide space for the birth of the reader, argued Roland Barthes in his article proclaiming the “Death of the Author” (1968). Among Russian authors of the late twentieth century, Venedikt Erofeev presents the most provocative biography, one full of holes and mysteries that have encouraged a plethora of memoirs and secondary literature devoted to the author and his sparse literary output. Ol’ga Sedakova asserted that, “Venja himself was more important than his writings.” Mikhail Epstein argued that precisely the sense of mystery and incompleteness surrounding Erofeev and his work rendered the myth of “eternal Venička” so compelling.

This paper will examine the production and multiplication of inconsistencies in Erofeev’s biography as reflected in autobiographical accounts from Erofeev, in the memoirs of family, friends and contemporaries, and in reference sources. I intend to show the mechanism by which these mysteries have provoked the production of meaning by readers, scholars and critics. The importance in Erofeev’s instance of the relationship of the text of biography to the literary text (of Erofeev’s novel Moskva-Petuški, 1969) will be explored. Further, Lotman’s description of the “meaningful” biography of the writer in Russia will be considered in light of various religious and social narratives (including that of the “holy fool,” the “Soviet dissident,” etc.) imposed upon the available information about Erofeev’s biography.

Erofeev’s biography and the stories surrounding it highlight important aspects of the literary situation in Soviet Russia of the 1960s-70s. The magnetization of the author’s biography appears related to a sharp sense of crisis, conflict and threat to the Russian author in this period. The narratives provoked around Erofeev’s biography create an oxymoronic situation when viewed through the French critical lens: the role of the reader in the production of meaning is predicated on the disappearance of author, as Barthes suggested, but it entails here a monumental treatment of the author and a strengthened connection between personal biography and literary text. By virtue of this sharp paradox, it may be said that Erofeev represents an apotheosis of the late Soviet Russian writer.