The 1988 publication of Valeriia Narbikova’s first novel Ravnovesie sveta dnevnykh i nochnykh zvezd (The Equilibrium of Light of Diurnal and Nocturnal Stars) provoked immediate and heated debate among both critics and readers, which has continued with regard to her subsequent works. A conservative Soviet, and later Russian, readership was profoundly shocked by Narbikova’s sexual explicitness, all the more disconcerting for being the product of a female writer and focusing on the sexual exploits of female protagonists. Her admirers, on the other hand, applauded her for finally opening up Soviet/Russian literature to sexuality. Like the works of other contemporary Russian women writers, Narbikova’s texts brim with unapologetically sexual female bodies; unlike the other writers, who discuss but do not actually show their protagonists’ sexual acts, Narbikova presents multiple instances of sex-in-progress related in graphic detail.
Such physiological frankness notwithstanding, several Western critics have argued that to label Narbikova a writer of erotica is misleading: her characters may have sex freely and often, but they do not articulate their pleasure. More significantly, they point to Narbikova’s overwhelming preoccupation with textuality — unbridled word play, quasi stream-of-consciousness style, violation of standard orthography — as evidence that, as befits a postmodernist writer, her primary concern is not sex, but language.
This paper seeks to add to the research on the relationship between language and the body in Narbikova by analyzing the ways in which body and language are configured as simultaneously adversarial and complementary entities in her texts. If Narbikova’s textual bodies are more word than flesh, I argue that despite this imbalanced relation, body and language are inextricably linked in a common struggle for genuine expression. For Narbikova, both language and sex have become mired in clichés, cultural and, due to the Soviet legacy, ideological. The sexual and stylistic experimentation of her texts results from the desire to undo stale formulations and find new ways of expression. Within this endeavor, body and language are the space(s) in which it becomes possible to subvert the clichés, to unsay what has been said in order to say it — and thus live it — anew.