That novel pointed to an ominous split within Pilnyak… – Сustom Literature essay


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Among the formalist theoreticians there was also an author of arresting historical, or autobiographical, records written in whimsical, elliptical prose: Victor Shklovsky (i893-1984). Among other things Shklovsky lectured at the Petrograd House of Arts to the so-called Serapion Brothers, a group of young literary figures from whose ranks several major writers would come. In his own works - for example Zoo. Letters Not About Love (Zoo. Pisma ne 0 lyubvi, 1923) - he described his love for Lili Brik's sister, Elsa Triolet, in thinly disguised fictional form, and pictured the catastrophic eastward migration of a native population during the civil war (Sentimental Journey [Sentimentalnoe puteshestvie, 1923]). Although he has been accused of capitulating to the regime's cultural demands and his works did become more conventional in the 1930s, he continued to publish his semidocumentary writings into the 1960s, and his contributions to the formation of avant-garde prose cannot be denied.

Critics and literary historians classify the writers of modernistic Russian prose of the early 1920s as "ornamentalists," although they themselves never formed a school, adopted a common platform, or even employed that designation. Experimental prose established itself during the years of the First World War, particularly through the efforts of Boris Pilnyak and Eugene Zam-yatin. There was a grouping of sorts called the Serapion Brotherhood, named after E. T. A. Hoffman's hermit Serapion, formed in 1921 as a loose organization of beginning authors and critics who required mutual support in their search for independence: they stipulated their concern for the uniqueness of each of their members. They were students of Zamyatin's, but were also influenced not only by Shklovsky but by Gorky, who exerted a realistic impact indirectly because he was the patron of beneficent literary organizations. The Serapion Brotherhood numbered about a dozen, and included Mikhail Zoshchenko, a promising satirist, and an impressive novelist named Konstantin Fedin.

One very influential experimental prose writer who began to publish before the formation of the Serapion Brotherhood was Boris Pilnyak (real name Vogau, 1894-? 1937), a master of "orna-mentalism." Pilnyak stemmed from a family of Volga Germans, began publishing in 1915, and achieved fame in 1921 with an antinovel entitled The Naked Year (Goly god). The Naked Year


Cambridge Histories Online © Cambridge University Press, 2008

TURN OF A CENTURY: 1895-1925

Depicts in fragmentary prose the tribulations of the population during the famine winter of 1919-20. Pilnyak's vision of humanity was romantic in the sense that he insisted on the primacy of the irrational, and especially the sexual instinct, in life, but he also demonstrated the ability of some to rise to heroism while others sank to the petty, sordid, or even criminal.

In his stories and novels of the early 1920s Pilnyak promoted two leading themes: first he celebrated humanity's various biological roles, such as mating, motherhood, and the guardianship of territory; and second, he advanced intellectual views of a Slavophile nature, revelling in the depths of Russian history and relishing the Tightness of Russian ways for Russians. He continuously depicted the revolution in two versions: the true peasant revolution at odds with a rigidly vicious variant based on western Marxism. To be sure, in one of his most engaging works, Machines and Wolves (Mashiny i volki, 1924), he sought to extol the urban worker on an equal footing with the peasant. That novel pointed to an ominous split within Pilnyak himself, who desired to win the approval of the social mainstream at the same time as he defiantly defended the primitive. In any case, his rebellious spirit and unique vision in the late 1920s caused him to run afoul of Stalinist cultural policy.

Eugene Zamyatin (1884-1937), the author of novels, short stories, dramatic works and literary criticism, was the most polished and most intellectually stimulating of the Russian prose modernists. Born the son of a priest in central Russia, he was trained in St. Petersburg as an engineer and pursued a dual career as a practical scientist and as a writer. He was also twice exiled, in 1905 and 1911, for his political activities. During his second exile he had the opportunity to produce a novella, A Provincial Tale (Uezdnoe), which established his literary reputation when it. appeared in 1913. He spent the years of the First World War in England supervising the construction of Russian icebreakers, and afterwards published two works based on his experiences there: "The Islanders" ("Ostrovityane," 1918) and "Fisher of Men" ("Lovets chelovekov," 1922). Since the conforming mind was one of the most enduring targets of Zamyatin's displeasure, it is not surprising that these satires depict the English as cunningly hypocritical in defending their petty bourgeois lack of individuality.

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