Russian Anti-Literature in the 20th Century

Rolf Hellebust, University of Calgary

My paper extends ideas originally presented at the 2003 conference of the Canadian Association of Slavists (“The 19th-Century Russian Literary Canon as an Anti-Literature”) and comprising part of the research for a book I am completing on the 19th-century Russian canon as a symbolic cultural text, as a literary-historical narrative that seeks to embody what I have called the mythic social function of Russian literature – which is, in short, the assumption of some God-given power on the part of poets and novelists to save the nation's soul. In the efforts of 19th-century Russia to realize its political and cultural ambitions, the yardstick was always Western Europe; yet these efforts could only be judged successful if grounded in a concept of the nation's uniqueness. Therefore, the social function that was to mold Russia's destiny could only arise from a literature that measured itself against the West and yet remained distinct – one that, ideally, could be seen as an antithesis to the Western cultural establishment, just as young Russia as a whole sought to see itself as old Europe's opposite. In the 19th century this idea is perhaps most explicitly expressed in Tolstoy's preface to his most famous work, with its “What is War and Peace? It is not a novel...” (In the 20th century, Tolstoy's view will be reflected in Bakhtin's negative definition of the novel, Russian or otherwise, in terms of its antagonistic relations with other literary forms.) It is also expressed through the provocative genre-breaking labels of Pushkin's Evgenii Onegin and Gogol'’s Dead Souls, and by a strategy of “bad writing” (based on the assumption that the degree of polish in a narrative is inversely proportional to its sincerity) in Dostoevsky and, most (in)famously, in Chernyshevsky's What is To Be Done?. My aim is to follow the development of such “anti-literary” strategies in the 20th century, both in works that distance themselves from literary tradition (e.g., the prominent efforts of avant-gardists such as Pil'niak to write novels against the European mainstream, or the movizm of Kataev's later career), as well as those with a much more problematic relation to the 19th-century canon (socialist realism, with its straight-shooting anti-aesthetic).