Motifs And Attitudes To Illness In The Late Work Of Nina Iskrenko

Mary Delle LeBeau, University of Southern California

It is only in the last thirty years that an abundance of literature about physical illness has appeared. The psychological process of enduring an illness was first explored with the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. More recently, disease as metaphor in literature and life has been the subject of a book by Susan Sontag. It has also become more common for sufferers of illness to write accounts of their experiences. Although this has been a phenomenon more prevalent in Western literature, it has occurred in Russian literature. In this paper I propose to look at the late work of Nina Iskrenko, written prior to her death from breast cancer in 1995, and published under the title of O glavnom: Iz dnevnika.

As background, I will use all the poems and prose in this collection. However, for purposes of this presentation, I will analyze mainly the poem “Obychno posle operatsii” and the prose-poem “On kurit na kukhne…” Iskrenko’s work shows a tacit unwillingness to discuss her illness, in what Leonid Shevchenko has called her “unbearable lightness of being.” But it is possible to discern her attitude in a careful examination of the stylistic techniques she employs. Michael Epstein has placed her in “the group of polystylistic writers, who employ multicoded poetry which unites various discourses using the principle of collage.” Explication of this multi-layered technique or pastiche, as Vitaly Chernetsky has called it, does reveal a great deal about the inner struggles she faced during the course of this illness. In this way I will uncover some of her attitudes towards the illness that took her life. My analysis will include contemporary accounts of the different aspects of illness and its metaphoric and cultural connotations, found in the work of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross and Susan Sontag, among others.