A History without a Canon, a Literature with Conflicting Readings

“Long” Trends of Russian Literature: Research Novellas

RusLitHistDenis Larionov, a Moscow-based critic and poet, conversing with Andrew Kahn, Irina Reyfman, Mark Lipovetsky, and Stephanie Sandler – authors of A History of Russian Literature, 2018.

–What prompted the creation of such a detailed history of Russian literature, practically the only one of its kind (particularly now, a moment of new tensions in the relations between our two countries)?  How did this book come into being, and how long did it take?

–The original idea for creating this book was a scholarly one, although it may seem illogical.  We felt that a moment had arrived when the coherence and neutrality of literary histories were being interrogated from various theoretical perspectives, while at the same time practically all of the information had become accessible to anyone with a computer and an internet connection.  This challenge was difficult to resist.

We needed to find a way to create a history of Russian literature which would comprise information on the literary process, on authors and schools, but would offer something more than a collection of facts.  How could we tell the story of Russian literary evolution in such a way that it would make a single whole, while tracing not only the patterns and internal “rhymes” but also the essential differences and moments of rupture?

Our conversations about the future book – on e-mail, on-Skype, and in person – began in 2009.  Oxford University Press’s interest in this project encouraged us from the outset.  Although the original contract was for a short history, Jaqueline Norton, our editor, kept enthusiastically approving our increasingly comprehensive proposals and extending our submission deadline, which allowed us to write a much longer and more detailed history.

Our work was aided by an exceptionally useful symposium at Oxford in 2012, which gathered together historians of various national literatures. Together, we were able to discuss the theoretical and practical difficulties of writing a literary history in the 21st century.  The symposium participants shared their own experience of working on similar projects. They also read through, and commented on, our pilot case studies.  They recommended that we introduce a wider scope of issues in our potential case studies, including discussions of schools of theory and rhetorical tropes. They also suggested unexpected new approaches to individual authors and significant national cultural phenomena.

This advice resulted in the literary historical “novellas” about holy fools, “word-weaving,” duels between writers, and Dmitry Prigov’s “Militsaner” [“P’liceman”].

In 2012, we already had a plan to use case studies and keywords – terms such as Romanticism or “life-creation.” We defined their specific use in the Russian tradition in a “text box” and then used them throughout the volume, as the foundation for the main narrative.  At first, the list of keywords was very long, but gradually it was shortened: some of the words turned into case studies, and others were incorporated into the main text.

We started serious work on the drafts of the main text after the 2012 symposium.  By the fall of 2015, we were close to having a complete draft.  At that point we were helped greatly by a discussion of the history of literature as a genre at a roundtable we organized at the ASEEES (Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies) conference.

Among the round table participants were scholars who had authored their own histories of Russian literature as well as colleagues who devised practical suggestions and articulated their ideas about what kind of history would be helpful for them and their students.  Shortly thereafter we asked several colleagues to read drafts of a few sections of our history, which they did, with generosity and thoroughness.  The publisher also read and commented on the complete draft of the book.  The review by an anonymous reader selected by Oxford University Press as well as detailed comments and corrections by our colleagues guided us in further editing.  At the end of 2017, our manuscript was sent to the printers.  Thus, we spent eight years working on our history, while the most intensive work and revision took place in the last five years.

–Your book is not the first in a series of “histories of Russian literature,” many of which you mention in the Introduction.  At the same time, it seems exceptional in its scope and methodology.  Where in your book do you see a similarity/influence or a distancing from earlier models (for example, Sviatopolk-Mirsky’s classic history, but not only that one)? 

— Histories of Russian literature come in different shapes and sizes; they differ in the amount of detail and in the ratio between close readings of literary texts and broad surveys of the literary process. Of course, they also use essentially different methodologies, which, in turn, result in concrete approaches to the literary canon.  We are not trying to present the existing histories as obsolete, and in order to give them their due and to show that they themselves have become a part of the history of Russian literature, we have included a brief survey of those histories in our Introduction.

You ask specifically about the History by Sviatopolk-Mirsky: this classic, although it follows the methods and interpretations of its time, still deservedly has its readers, due to its profound literary judgments and vivid perspective on the authors discussed.  In addition, we have always valued, and continue to value, the elegant brevity of Mirsky’s History.  Considering the length of our book, it is hard to believe that we also started with the idea of writing a short history of Russian literature.  Our first reviewers, however, strongly recommended that we broaden and deepen our approaches.  While following their advice, we found that focusing on the peripheral areas of the Russian literary tradition, on the one hand, and in-depth consideration of particular works, authors, and literary phenomena in the case studies, on the other, not only gave us great pleasure, but also led us to new and often unexpected discoveries.

Three features characterize all sections of our book and thus define its direction.  They grew out of our individual views and took final shape thanks to numerous collective discussions.

Thus, in our book we emphasize 1) Russian literature’s openness to external influences in almost every period, from the Middle Ages to our time, an openness that even political barriers do not prevent; 2) the important function of narrative in literature itself as well as in literary history; and 3) we are also convinced that the role of poetry in the national narratives and institutions of Russian culture needs to be seriously revisited.

Thus we strove to redefine the accepted view according to which prose and poetry exist in complementary distribution, i.e., when prose rises, poetry declines, and vice versa.  Drama also appears in our history and represents a third type of literature undermining the binary opposition between prose and poetry.  Furthermore, our history includes visual materials and such genres as documentary narrative, memoir, journalistic essays on social and cultural themes, and various types of translations.

–I would like to ask about the structure of the chapters and also about the logic of their composition (practically every chapter includes, besides the scholarly narrative, individual keywords and a case study).  Were individual chapters created jointly or by single authors?

–The structure of the book is quite complex for the very reason that we attempted to combine a chronological with a conceptual approach.  Moreover, we abandoned the “portrait gallery” – a crucial structural feature of all existing histories of Russian literature.  That is, we do not have monograph-style chapters devoted to great writers, although we do include a few case studies which offer a more detailed look at an author’s biography and reputation, or a genre, or a cultural phenomenon, or a text, or a certain aspect of a text.  Those case studies are very important for us.

As was mentioned above, we started the process of writing precisely from case studies and keywords.  We needed some landmarks and orientation points, and it was around them that the narrative was constructed (­­or spooled): some of those case studies later entered the main text, while other case studies had to be added as we went along.

Of course, we distributed chapters among ourselves, but in the process of writing, all of us not only read each other’s work but also completed, corrected, and edited parts written by colleagues more than once.  All of this was, it goes without saying, discussed in our e-mail correspondence, which is probably as voluminous as the book itself: 5,700 messages by one count.  We bear collective responsibility for the whole text.

The book consists of five parts.  The first section is devoted to medieval literature through the XVIth century, followed by sections for each century: seventeenth, eighteenth, nineteenth, and then, together, twentieth and twenty-first.  It appears purely chronological.  Inside those sections, however, chapters are organized conceptually.

Obviously, each section has its own priorities, but certain themes run through all sections, e.g., institutions, subjectivity, poetics, national narratives – and, of course, their interactions.  For example, the section on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is structured in such a way that the history is told several times, in several cross-sections.  First, there are institutions, from the Silver Age salons to the modern transformations of the literary field.  Then comes poetics and the subjectivities it engenders – first in poetry, then in prose and drama.  And finally, the narratives in which the culture’s self-awareness takes shape: the narratives of revolution, war, terror, and the intelligentsia.  In each of these chapters, history begins in the 1900s and ends today.

Other sections are similarly organized.  We hope that a multi-level picture emerges as a result.  At the same time, we suspect that only a few people will read our history from cover to cover.  Some will need an individual section; others will need certain chapters or even one chapter.  The structure we have created seems convenient for partial reading: having read even one chapter, a person will receive a picture of the whole century, albeit a somewhat skewed one.

–In the Introduction to your book, a question emerges: how necessary are histories of national literatures today, in the epoch of globalization?  How do you answer that question?  Has your answer changed in the course of working on your History of Russian Literature?

–Our subject is the literary history of Russia; that subject includes many texts written in Russian, but outside of Russia, and texts written by Russians, but in other languages.  Moreover, we see the relations between the Russian literature and literatures of other nations as a history of productive cultural interactions.

We do not assert that there exists a specific set of national traditions; rather, we attempt to demonstrate that the creation of shared national narratives is a constituent part of Russian literature.  What is now called an era of globalization is but a continuation of centuries-long intensive processes that cross national borders.  Russia actively participated in those interactions, despite periods dominated by isolationism and accentuated by Russia’s separateness from the West.

Unquestionably, no great national literature has ever been completely divided from the rest of the world. Russian literature’s “borders” have always been permeable, whether the influence came from close by (such as the South-Slavic cultures or Poland) or from far away (such as Japan or the US).  There is always an international element present in debates on national literature – recall the criticism of French influence evoked by the imitation of French models.  We strove to include a discussion of these debates in our book.

Our ideas on how the history should be written kept changing as we went along, although the basic principles remained unchanged: an overall chronological structure, yet a thematic organization within each section; “case studies” and “keywords” as significant points within the historical narrative; and, instead of lists of isolated facts, a discussion, in every section, of institutions, subjectivities, national narratives, and the role of the intelligentsia — as the unifying imperative of the whole book.  Our emphases, on the other hand, did change as we moved forward.  For example, authors discussed in the later parts of the book would sometimes change our view of how to present earlier periods.  Thus, while working on the sections on poetry and prose of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, we decided to radically expand the discussion of the seventeenth century.  Instead of presenting it as the conclusion of the medieval period, we emphasized its connection with the modern: after all, it was precisely in the seventeenth century that Russian poetry and prose based on fiction emerged.  We also significantly expanded certain parts of the first section in order to show the lasting and formative influence of the Baroque, on the one hand, and of such genres as folk “spiritual verses” (dukhovnye stikhi), on the other.

–To continue the preceding question: do you discuss the problem of the (Russian) (literary) canon in the book, and if so, from what methodological perspective?

–It goes without saying that we had no intention of creating a new canon of Russian literature.  On the contrary, we strove to write into this history as many as possible strange texts and persons who are far from being in any canon.  On top of that, we include contemporary writing, and “canonization” in this area is by definition risky.  We are interested in the “long” trends, ones that cover many decades or even centuries.  Not everything that belongs to those trends necessarily becomes part of the canon.  And in general, what canon are we talking about?  There are many canons, and they belong to the history of literature in the same way as the texts that they contain.  For us, the canon is one of the institutions of literature, along with journals, salons, and the mythology of the national genius.  We write about it in our history.  In other words, the canon is our object of study, and not our goal.


Translated by Svetlana Grenier. The volume A History of Russian Literature was published in June by Oxford University Press. This discussion originally appeared on Gefter on May 16, 2018 and its translation and publication on our site were done with the editor’s permission.