Program arranged by the Division on Slavic and East European Literatures
I. “Boris Savinkov’s Grotesque Images of Revolutionary Violence,” Jennifer Malia, American Univ. of Sharjach
II. “Grotesque Realism and the Downfall of the Family Novel in M. Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovlevs,” Ani Kokobobo, Univ. of Kansas
III. “From Carnival to Allegory: Fantastic Bodies in Viktor Pelevin’s Empire V and Ol’ga Slavnikova’s Light Head,” Irina Anisimova, Univ. of Pittsburgh
Presiding: Svetlana Vassileva-Karagyozova, Univ. of Kansas
Respondent: Kevin M. F. Platt, Univ. of Pennsylvania
“Boris Savinkov’s Grotesque Images of Revolutionary Violence,” Jennifer Malia, American Univ. of SharjachIn The Pale Horse (1909) and What Never Happened: A Novel of the Revolution (1912), Boris Savinkov does not use the grotesque mode to depict the heroics of the revolutionary martyr. Rather, he exposes the revolutionary’s desire to make an unnecessary spectacle of blood sacrifice in order to immortalize himself as a heroic martyr. He is critical of revolutionaries who spend so much time creating a heroic image of the terrorist that they are not effective as terrorists, carrying out propaganda by the deed, such as assassinations. Savinkov’s novels depict revolutionary terrorists who are more concerned with being seen as heroic martyrs than furthering the revolutionary cause.
In the early twentieth century, Savinkov organized assassinations for the Combat Organization of the Party of Socialist-Revolutionaries (PSR), most notably those of Interior Minister Vyacheslav von Plehve and Grand Duke Sergei Alexandrovich. Savinkov’s novels seem to expose the actual PSR’s reliance on sensationalized images of heroic martyrdom rather than propaganda by the deed. He expresses his frustration with his Party’s failed attempts to create a “methodical system of terror.” Savinkov’s disillusionment with sensationalized displays of terrorist violence in his novels suggests that he questions the effectiveness of the PSR’s terrorism but does not, as critics have assumed, question the morality of political violence.
In The Pale Horse, the grotesque details in the narrator’s account—mainly the “splashed brains,” the “blood-covered chest”, and the “lacerated legs and arms”—create a spectacle of his comrade’s death. In What Never Happened, the Party newspaper editor’s descriptions of the aftermath of a bombing—the “blood-covered mass” and “blown-up belly”—reveals the Party’s desire to create a spectacle of political violence. Savinkov suggests that the Party’s sensational newspaper rhetoric turns its martyrs into meaningless stereotypes and contributes to the ineffectiveness of systematic terror.
“Grotesque Realism and the Downfall of the Family Novel in M. Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovlevs,” Ani Kokobobo, Univ. of Kansas
When writing his best-known novel, The Golovlevs (1875-1880), the Russian writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin wrestled with questions of literary form. In response, he published a sketch titled “Family Court” in Notes of the Fatherland, which over time grew into The Golovlevs, a work that by all outside appearances resembled a family novel. This novel was a revival of the traditional countryside narrative inspired by the source or ur-narrative of the Russian family novel, Sergei Aksakov’s Family Chronicle [Семейная хроника] (1856). Saltykov-Shchedrin went back to the Aksakovian narrative and unleashed a vicious grotesque on this genre, essentially precipitating its demise.
In his monograph on the grotesque (O groteske v literature, 1966), Iurii Mann argues that: “To see in the grotesque merely a reaction to older artistic forms would be a mistake” (Mann 57). Instead, he believes that the author of the grotesque specifically works to rupture familiar patterns and ties in order to “sharpen” or completely “unravel” what we understand as the norm; he creates “his own, particular, grotesque microcosm” that can ultimately engulf the whole outer world into itself (Mann 57). In The Golovlevs Saltykov-Shchedrin appropriates the Aksakovian estate narrative, but sharpens earlier motifs, unraveling them in the process. The role of the landowner, the overall aura of pastoral stability that surrounded the estate, and food rituals in Aksakov’s Family Chronicle are three important features that Saltykov-Shchedrin recreates. Beginning with a sharpening and estrangement of these images, Saltykov-Shchedrin unravels the underlying meaning of the old form, and then pushes these forms so far into the grotesque that the narrative acquires fantastic traits.
“From Carnival to Allegory: Fantastic Bodies in Viktor Pelevin’s Empire V and Ol’ga Slavnikova’s Light Head,” Irina Anisimova, Univ. of Pittsburgh
In Rabelais and his World, Mikhail Bakhtin incorporates grotesque into his understanding of carnival. The notion of grotesque then becomes inseparable from carnival celebration of rebirth and renewal. In contemporary Russian cultural discourse, however, Bakhtin’s notion of carnival has been reinterpreted, and the darker aspects of carnival have been emphasized. This reinterpretation has been especially starkly presented By Mikhail Ryklin in his reading of the carnival embodiments of Stalin’s terror. At the end of the twentieth century, Ryklin finds a continuation of this dark carnivalesque embodiments in the works of Iurii Mamleev. These dark manifestations of carnival and grotesque are also characteristic for the works of such contemporary Russian authors as Viktor Pelevin, Ol’ga Slavnikova, Vladimir Sorokin, and Tat’iana Tolstaia present fantastic and even monstrous bodies.
In Viktor Pelevin’s Empire V and Ol’ga Slavnikova’s Light Head, the protagonists’ bodies are closely connected to the carnivalesque and grotesque through their transformation from human to non-human. Additionally, these bodies acquire allegorical meaning—that Walter Benjamin connects to the grotesque—and can be read as allegories of contemporary sociocultural moment. The bodies of the protagonists of Empire V can be interpreted as the grotesque representations of colonialism and empire. The fantastic nature of Pelevin’s creatures emphasizes the conspiratorial quality of contemporary Russian political moment and the invisibility of structures of power. The allegorical meaning of the fantastic body in Light Head is more ambiguous, since it can be simultaneously interpreted as the allegory of every man’s unequal struggle with an authoritarian system and the possible destructiveness of an average individual. While in their political interpretations these bodies can be seen as national allegories, they also point to the Benjamin’s notion of allegory as a representation of historical trauma.