Writing in the heat of crisis


Caryl Emerson in the TLS:

Perhaps the first thing a reader senses about a crisis-narrative is where the writer stands in time. Either the speaking voice has survived and can look back, or else it is caught on the cusp of the unfolding event. This is the difference between a memoir and a diary entry, the recollection of a dream and the experience of nightmare. In this anthology, Boris Dralyuk attempts a bold thing: to confirm us within the belly of the beast, to push us up against its heartbeat, all the while challenging the received notion that the Russian Revolution produced little literary art of lasting value in its early years. The work of fourteen poets and thirteen prose writers – some famous, others forgotten, several famous for other things – is sampled strictly within a two-and-a-half-year period, from the February Revolution that ended the Romanov dynasty to late 1919, the turning point of the Russian Civil War. The literature produced during these thirty-two months was without perspective, full of potentials and unclear about actuals. In his opening remarks to the prose section, Dralyuk notes that “fictional treatments of the upheaval are hard to find” because what was happening “was too real, too immediate to lend itself to fictionalization”. Verse and expository prose, with their intonations of “direct engagement”, seem more compatible with the revolutionary temperament than the more leisurely composition of stories. But such formal distinctions matter less than we expect. Both verse and prose in this book partake heavily of fable, parable, liberation rhetoric, ecstatic vision – modes that operate beyond literary genre, outside time, and that strive towards a truth prior to either history or fiction.

Thus narrowed and blind-sided, freed from tragic consequence, the paradoxes of 1917 emerge even more unanswerable. Revolutions bring bloodshed and impoverishment, but this one was to bring peace and plenty: an end to the Great War, to all war. As Mikhail Kuzmin writes in his poem “Russian Revolution” (1917): “No sentinel, policemen, pickets, / as if there never had been any guards or guns . . . . It’s like telling a starving man, ‘Eat!’ / And him replying. ‘I’m eating!’ with a smile”. The present-tense verb is proof that we are on the cusp; as-if becomes is. Most revolutions aim at political regime change, but this one saw itself enacting universal all-human change. As Alexander Blok insists in 1918, its music must be greeted with “every cell of your body”. The body politic is my body, your body. Politics becomes intimate; deeply private lyric poets create great civic verse. Blok’s masterworks from 1918, “The Twelve” and “Scythians”, very famous poems in outstanding new translations here, show the anthology at its eschatological best. Blok’s pretensions are millennial and stretch out over a continent, but the reader is left with palpable close-up images, the face of “slit-eyed” Eurasianism and marauding Red Guardists blessed by Jesus Christ. As the revolutionary capital is sanctified by its native poets it is cursed from the margins. The Georgian Symbolist Titsian Tabidze (1895–1937) contributes a lyric, “Petersburg”, that celebrates the sinking of the Bronze Horseman, the corpses of sailors bobbing in the Neva, and chaos swallowing up the city. Poetry rejects the well-plotted story and transmits moods: of exhilaration, of destruction, of eating this very minute after a long fast. Life gains in its savour and death loses its sting. Indeed, why die at all? As Mayakovsky bellows forth in “Our March” (December 1917): “Hey you there! Yes, you, Great Bear! / Demand we be taken to heaven alive”.

More here.