Farewell to Matyora.

I finished Valentin Rasputin’s Прощание с Матерой (Farewell to Matyora) several days ago, but it’s so dense and powerful a text that I had to let it settle for a while before trying to write about it. I’m very glad I read his earlier Borrowed Time (post), Downstream (post), and Live and Remember (post); I was a little afraid that they would diminish the impact of his most famous novel, but it was just the reverse — the background allowed me to appreciate it all the more. It’s so good, and so final, that it essentially put an end to the whole “village prose” movement.

The basic plot is set out in the first sentence: “И опять наступила весна, своя в своем нескончаемом ряду, но последняя для Матеры, для острова и деревни, носящих одно название.” Antonina Bouis translated it thus: “Once more spring had come, one more in the never-ending cycle, but for Matyora this spring would be the last, the last for both the island and the village that bore the same name”; I would venture something more like “And spring came again, taking its own place in its endless row, but it was the last for Matyora, for the island and village that shared the same name.” (I particularly dislike her “cycle,” which imposes a sense of recurrence that is not in the Russian — a ряд just goes on in a straight line.) A dam is being built downstream on the Angara (presumably the Bratsk Hydroelectric Power Station, though the name is never mentioned), and the reservoir it creates will flood the village that has flourished for three hundred years. Most discussions of the novel focus on this as the hook for a sociopolitical approach; the (pathetically stubby) Wikipedia article quotes Edward J. Brown on “Rasputin’s persistent theme, the tragic impact of industrial progress and unbridled urbanization on a peasant community still rooted in the past,” and yes, that’s true, but it’s not what I care about. You could write a terrible novel on that basis, and many have, but Rasputin has written a great one.

If you were going to write a bad novel, you would start by creating a whole series of characters illustrating every aspect of the situation, each with his or her own point of view, and present endless debates between them, clarifying the positive and negative results of the flooding; in the end everyone would move to the new village on the mainland and we would see them settling in in their various ways. Rasputin does not do this. He has one central character, Darya Pinigina, who is over eighty years old and has no conception of or interest in life beyond her village — it is impossible to imagine her outside it. There are a couple of other old women, her neighbors and friends, and a half-wild man nicknamed “Bogodul” (from a word for ‘blasphemer’) because he speaks mainly in curses. There are Darya’s son Pavel, who feels sorry for the village and for his mother but realizes the inevitability of change, and his son Andrei, who is completely committed to the new world of triumphant socialism and has no patience for nostalgia (he plays a very small role). But Darya, with her memories and lamentations, carries the novel, and one of the things I like about Rasputin is his focusing on old women in some of his most important works — most male novelists feature young or middle-aged men, whose travails are presumably more compelling to the imagined (male) reader.

The novel begins with the villagers discovering a crew of men demolishing the cemetery (everything on the island is supposed to be leveled before the flooding) and chasing them away with curses and threats; the fate of the cemetery is a continuing, and powerfully symbolic, motif. It continues in a realist mode through the fifth chapter, at which point it jumps the rails; chapter 6 begins: “А когда настала ночь и уснула Матера, из-под берега на мельничной протоке выскочил маленький, чуть больше кошки, ни на какого другого зверя не похожий зверек – Хозяин острова.” [But when night came and Matyora fell asleep, from the bank on the mill canal came a small animal, slightly bigger than a cat and not resembling any other animal — the master of the island.] The chapter describes the Master running around the island, sniffing everywhere, learning everything that goes on. It’s a masterstroke of what is sometimes called Magic Realism but is in fact the inclusion of the ancient, pre-Christian folk view of the world: the Master exists in the same realm as the domovoi who inhabits houses and the leshii who haunts forests (see this LH post). As this excellent discussion of the novel at Polka puts it, he represents «поэзия, без которой не жил народ» [the poetry without which the people couldn’t live]. He pretty much vanishes from the novel until the end, but his presence continues to be felt. As the year goes on and the pressure to clear the island and evacuate the people intensifies, the tension is screwed up unbearably: how is it going to end? The reader anticipates various possible outcomes, but not the one Rasputin provides (skip the next paragraph if you don’t want it spoiled).

Darya and her friends have insisted on remaining to the very end (and she has given her house a thorough cleaning and whitewashing the day before it is to be burned, a splendid and moving scene), and when the representative of officialdom, Vorontsov, learns about it, he insists on Pavel accompanying him on a boat to the island to drag the stubborn few away (there is to be an inspection the next day). But it is late at night and there is a fog so thick they can hardly see beyond the boat, so that they keep missing the island; when they shout, there is no response. And for the last couple of pages the point of view switches to the people in the last shed on the island, who also can’t see anything and are afraid — when her friend Katerina asks if it’s night, Darya responds “Дак, однако, не день […]. Дня для нас, однако, боле не будет.” [Well, it’s not day, anyway. And anyway, for us there won’t be any more day.] I was strongly reminded of the famous quote “there shall be time no longer” from the book of Revelation (see this post), and of course the Biblical apocalypse is a crucial piece of the novel’s background, making itself felt more and more strongly. And in the last sentence we hear недалекий тоскливый вой – то был прощальный голос Хозяина [a nearby sorrowful howl — it was the farewell voice of the Master]. There is no more: no arrival of the boat, no forced removal of the women and burning of the shed, no transfer to the town. I could not help thinking of the drowned city of Kitezh, one of my favorite pieces of Russian folklore. It was a perfect ending. Dmitry Bykov writes: “Надо сказать, что после «Прощания с Матерой», казалось бы, писать уже и нельзя, потому что действительно, над русской деревней, над русской жизнью водружается некий крест.” [It has to be said that after Farewell to Matyora it would seem that it was impossible to write, because it really raises a cross over the Russian village, over Russian life.]

I should mention the language, which is rich with local Siberian words and turns of phrase; David Gillespie, in his fine essay on the novel for the Reference Guide to Russian Literature, writes: “Rasputin, like other Village Prose writers, reproduces the local language of real people and real places, unlike Solzhenitsyn, who (in “Matrenin dvor” (“Matryona’s House”), for instance) largely invents a peasant idiom of his own.” And there’s a nice bit in chapter 1 where he mentions the nearby village of Podnoga, sometimes called Podmoga:

Подмога – понятно: чего нe хватало на своей земле, брали здесь, а почему Поднога – ни одна душа бы не объяснила, а теперь не объяснит и подавно. Вывалил споткнувшийся чей-то язык, и пошло, а языку, известно, чем чудней, тем милей.

Podmoga [‘help’] is understandable; whatever was missing from their own land, they took here. But why Podnoga? Not a single person could explain, and now they can do so even less. Someone’s tongue had stumbled, and off it went; as we know, the odder language is, the more we like it.

And I’ll quote one of Darya’s best lines: “Правда в памяти. У кого нет памяти, у того нет жизни.” [The truth is in memory. Whoever has no memory has no life.]

Before reading Farewell to Matyora I read Trifonov’s Дом на набережной [The House on the Embankment], and it was very good indeed, but I found I didn’t have anything to say about it. So it goes.


  1. Something similar happened right next to you.

    West Massachusetts towns of Dana, Enfield, Greenwich and Prescott, an area settled for three centuries, were forcibly evacuated and submerged in 1938 to form Quabbin reservoir which supplies Boston with drinking water.

    No one wrote Farewell to Dana, Massachusetts though.

  2. “No one wrote Farewell to Dana, Massachusetts though.”

    “The Colour Out of Space” ends with plans for the new reservoir to be built.

  3. This would make great literary quiz question.

    What do have in common Valentin Rasputin and H. P. Lovecraft?

    They both wrote about supernatural monsters hiding in remote area soon to be submerged by a dam…

  4. Something similar happened right next to you.

    Yes, and we’ve made several trips to the Quabbin — I picked up a brochure with photos of the vanished towns.

  5. John Emerson says:

    The Dallas dam on the Columbia flooded a group of fishing villages at Celilo Falls that had been there in one form or another for 15,000 years,

  6. John Emerson says:

    Dalles dam

  7. Small towns destroyed by dams are a pretty common phenomenon, in reality and in literature. There are several within a couple hours of my house in South Carolina. The most interesting one that I have visited was only partially submerged; part of the town was built on an elevated ridge, and the structures there were used by the power company for a number of years after the dam was built. Even the portions of the town that are underwater can be seen, partially sticking up out of the lake, when there is a severe drought (as there was for the first three years I lived here).

    However, the two most salient (to me personally) versions of the flooded town meme in Southern pop culture both badly missed the point, although in entirely different ways. Pat Conroy’s most famous novel, The Prince of Tides, involves, near the end, the entire town of Colleton being inundated; however, this is somehow a consequence not of a dam but of the construction of the Savanna River [Nuclear] Site. This allowed Conroy to loop a bunch of issues related to nuclear power into his story (as well as avoiding the obvious historical and geographical problems that would attend a story about dam construction taking place in the low country of South Carolina in 1960s–1970s). While one might think that the destruction of the town would be enough for a whole book, it is actually just one of a long string of gonzo events that occur over the course of the novel; the final result is about as realistic as a work by James Fennimore Cooper. I have never seen the movie version of The Prince of Tides, but I have been told that while the gang rape scene was kept in the movie (although the heroic rescue of the Wingos by their pet tiger is omitted), the whole major subplot about the destruction of the town was cut.

    Even sillier is the more recent example, from the Netflix series Ozark. After just a few episodes of the first season,* the writers and producers had clearly exhausted most of the original ideas with which they launched the show. So they introduced a new preeminent crime family in the region, whose absurd goal is to build up enough money to buy out the dam that destroyed their family’s property decades earlier. I don’t know what happened to this plot line, since I stopped watching the show after one season, mostly for the reasons listed here. (I stayed with the show for the whole season because I really like Laura Linney—except maybe her terrifying character in Mystic River—and Harris Yulin. On the other hand, I find Jason Bateman extremely skeevy; the 2015 film The Gift didn’t work for me, since the major twist is that the typical Bateman character is not a gruff jerk with a heart of gold but is actually just as psychopathic as the film’s other villain.)

    * The show is also interesting in that, based on the format of the pilot, it was clearly pitched to Netflix as either a hour-long or half-hour show. The pilot splits very neatly into two halves, with largely separate plots. Since it was always intended as a streaming show, not to be slotted into a primetime schedule, there was the freedom to change the length if Netflix only wanted to pick up a half-hour program.

  8. The best-known historical drowned town in Russia is Mologa; I learn from the Wikipedia article that:

    April 14 is remembered in Yaroslavl Oblast as the Day of Mologa. On this day, the boats with monks and priests sail to the spot where Mologa used to stand, and hold divine service in front of the upper parts of cross-crowned belfries which are still visible above the water of the artificial lake.

    (One thing that was never explained in Rasputin’s novel is why the island was ordered to be cleared of all structures and trees; I presume it was in service of the plot, since as far as I know that’s never been an issue in historical cases.)

  9. Deliverance is about a drowned-to-be place.

  10. John Cowan says:

    One thing that was never explained in Rasputin’s novel is why the island was ordered to be cleared of all structures and trees

    Perhaps in order to keep the water sufficiently deep at the former site of the island so as not to hinder navigation or fishing.

    See also Ys or Kêr-ys (Welsh Caerisel ‘low city’) a 16C legend about a Breton city whose protective dyke was overwhelmed by the sea, either in Roman times or much earlier.

  11. Ah, that would make sense.

  12. Dmitry Pruss says:

    Not “all” structures, LH. Specifically wooden structures, and as much lumber as possible, too, because too many floating logs are a danger to navigation. Log cabins float.

  13. David Eddyshaw says:

    The reason that we know as much as we do about Old Nubian is largely because of the UNESCO excavations of sites threatened by the construction of the Aswan dam; this led to more than a quadrupling of available textual material. (Not a happy story when you reflect how much more material must have been lost forever now, of course; but still …)

  14. Not “all” structures, LH. Specifically wooden structures

    Were there any non-wooden structures in that ancient village?

  15. Dmitry Pruss says:

    In the villages, hardly any, but in the town of Mologa which was similarly submerged, they had some

  16. But they didn’t raze the structures in Mologa; they’re still down there.

  17. Kalyazin
    In 1940, the monastery and most of the old town were submerged under water during the construction of the Uglich Hydroelectric Station, which created the Uglich Reservoir.


    The belfry

  18. Farewell is certainly a correct word to translate прощание, but I feel like it is out of place in this context. After all, Matyora is not supposed to fare well, it’s not supposed to fare at all. Maybe it’s just my L2 etymological fallacy, but I would have liked a different word. “Saying goodbye to Matyora” for some reason feels awkward.

  19. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    ‘Farewell’ is the word usually used in English in the titles of tunes and so on, even if you might be saying it to somewhere like St Kilda which is at least going on very *differently*. I see what you mean, but it’s never struck me before.

    Otherwise you might have ‘Leaving X’, which I think is a translation of Gaelic ‘Fagail X’ rather than the other way round.

  20. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    The church at Mardale Green was dismantled and the stone used in some of the reservoir buildings, and the bodies from the graveyard were taken to Shap and reburied there. I think all the buildings were demolished, because although the site of the village is occasionally uncovered it seems to be only field and road boundary walls that are left, and the bridge. I don’t know about trees, but I suppose there might be reasons why you wouldn’t want dead trees in your nice new reservoir.

  21. PlasticPaddy says:

    I have not read the book (although I recall a similarly-themed Russian film), but I believe the idea of the villagers saying a final farewell (i e. auf Nimmerwiedersehen) to their village is problematic, except for the very young. For many others, the village would be like Lenin : zhil, zhiv, budet zhit’.

  22. David Eddyshaw says:

    Most languages seem to have formulae for “goodbye” which (etymologically) mean something along the lines of either “keep well” or “see you again soon.”* I suppose adieu and the like are the most non-committal about the actual future status of the addressee. “Goodbye” is the same in origin, though it seems to have got contaminated with “good.”


    *In Kusaal you say Pʋ’ʋsim yin “Greet [the people] at [your] home” to a guest who is leaving, but this too would seem to have an implicature that the addressee will, like, survive.

  23. Mongolian word for “goodbye” literally means “pleased”.

    It doesn’t mean that the Mongol is pleased to see you go, it’s more like “it has been a pleasure to meet you”.

  24. Jen in Edinburgh says:

    Apparently at Derwent everything was demolished except the church spire, which was originally left as a memorial, but demolished a year later because it was consider to be unsafe. So a prominent tower above the water doesn’t necessarily mean a whole village remaining beneath it.

    On the other hand, the wikipedia article on Capel Cefyn talks about a number of buildings being submerged – but photos of drought don’t show any more than odd bits of wall, and only stumps of trees, which have obviously been deliberately cut, so I’m not sure if that was really the case. (Very different from the pictures of Mologa in drought.)

    I don’t know if demolishing first has been universal practice here, but it didn’t surprise me to hear of it.

  25. Maybe it’s just my L2 etymological fallacy

    It is. I assure you native speakers don’t think of the literal meaning any more than Russians think of God when saying ‘thank you.’

  26. Ron Rash has several works, poems and a novel, revolving around the flooding of his native Jocassee Valley.

    Last Service

    Though cranes and bulldozers came,
    yanked free marble and creek stones
    like loose teeth, and then shovels
    unearthed coffins and Christ’s
    stained glass face no longer paned
    windows but like the steeple,
    piano, bell, and hymnals
    followed that rolling graveyard
    over the quick-dying streams,
    the soon obsolete bridges—
    they still congregated there,
    wading then crossing in boats
    those last Sunday nights, their farms
    already lost in the lake,
    nothing but that brief island
    left of their world as they lit
    the church with candles and sang
    from memory deep as water
    old hymns of resurrection
    before leaving that high ground
    where the dead had once risen.

  27. I was reminded yesterday of the song “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow,” written and first recorded by Peter La Farge, about the flooding of Seneca reservation lands by Kinzua Dam. The song is better known as the first track on Johnny Cash’s concept album Bitter Tears.* The chorus of Cash’s version has been “sweetened” quite a bit relative to the original; however, the in the spoken word parts (especially the early verses), Cash is clearly closely imitating the cadence La Farge used. The whole Bitter Tears album (which has, in my opinion, a very evocative cover image, with the shadows falling diagonally across Cash’s drawn face reminiscent of face paint) has a theme of songs about American Indians, more than half of which were written by La Farge. The only single from the album was the better known “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,”** which has a more western than pure country style. Cash’s delivery in “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is also much less imitative of Peter La Farge’s way of singing the song.

    Peter La Farge was the son of the anthropologist Oliver La Farge, who worked with American Indians in the Southwest and also excavated Olmec ruins in Mexico. Growing up in this environment heavily shaped Peter’s songwriting. The elder La Farge (who was named for the family’s ancestor Oliver Hazard Perry, hero of the Battle of Lake Erie in 1813) also won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1929 novel Laughing Boy, about the Navaho life in the early twentieth century.

    * Googling to find a recording of the track, I discovered that Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash took the rather generic chorus lyrics from “As Long as the Grass Shall Grow” and replaced the spoken verses to make a cheesy love song, apparently released under the same name as the original.

    ** “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” was the B-side of the record. The A-side was Cash’s cover of John Loudermilk’s “Bad News,” from Cash’s previous album, I Walk the Line.

  28. After all, Matyora is not supposed to fare well, it’s not supposed to fare at all. Maybe it’s just my L2 etymological fallacy, but I would have liked a different word.

    In English farewell is of Middle English age, and right up to the beginning of the 19C it had only the literal meaning of a parting phrase said by the one who stays put to the one who leaves. But by Byron’s time it could be used in both directions, and this continues to be true, although it is archaic and poetic now. There has never been a counterpart formula *staywell except in South African English, where it is calqued from various Bantu languages.

    By the same token welcome is an OE formula of greeting said by the one who is at home to the one who has arrived. (The use as a response to Thank you! is American and 20C.) Here there is no bidirectional use, nor is there anything like *welfound (cf. Heb baruch haba’ ‘blessed be he who comes’ to which the reply is baruch hanimtza ‘blessed is he who is found [here]’). It is simply a gap, leaving your visitor on your doorstep with nothing conventional to say.

    Otherwise you might have ‘Leaving X’, which I think is a translation of Gaelic ‘Fagail X’ rather than the other way round.

    I think it must be: consider the ballad “The Leaving of Liverpool”, whose chorus is “So fare thee well, my own true love / And when I return, united we will be / It’s not the leaving of Liverpool that grieves me / But, my darling, when I think of thee.” A construction like the leaving of X can hardly be native to English; it must be a calque of a verbal noun.

    (Though well-known to folkies in Britain, Ireland, and America, the ballad was collected only twice, both times in America, and the currently sung version is derived from only one of those, collected by William Doerflinger from Richard Maitland in 1938-40; the events it refers to are datable to between 1863 and 1874. YouTube version by Tommy Makem, my personal favorite).

    I suppose adieu and the like are the most non-committal about the actual future status of the addressee.

    English Wikt says it’s < à dieu vous commant ‘[I] commend you to God’, which is rather vague, but the TLFi explains it as formule pour prendre congé, which I take to mean that it was originally used only by the one leaving.

    Still more non-commital, though, is sayonara lit. ‘if that is true, then …’.

  29. @John Cowan: South African English, especially as spoken by black residents, has “go well,” often instead of “farewell.” “Go well, umfundisi,” as many characters say to the protagonist of Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country (1948).

  30. I just realized that “fare well” could be literal translation of Russian word for “hello”.

  31. Trond Engen says:

    John C.: t is simply a gap, leaving your visitor on your doorstep with nothing conventional to say.

    We just discussed greetings of the type “bless [whatever]”. In Norway one traditionally said signe maten “bless the food” or signe arbeidet “bless the work”, depending on what was going on when one arrived, and signalling that one wouldn’t want to intrude. I think one also could say e.g. signe huset “bless the house”, signe freden “bless the peace” or signe dagen “bless the day” if nothing special was going on, or if it was Sunday.

  32. David Eddyshaw says:

    leaving your visitor on your doorstep with nothing conventional to say

    In Ghana, the formula is the self-fulfilling: “I have come to greet you.”

  33. Turkish “welcome” is “Hoşgeldiniz” (literally “you have come well”).

    You are supposed to answer with “Hiç hoş gelmedik” (literally “we didn’t come well at all”).

  34. Lars Mathiesen says:

    Danish had, and has unless the urchins on my lawn forget, velkommen as a greeting (answered with tak in my circles), and velbekomme = ‘may it become you well’ which is used by the host to answer the customary tak for mad after the meal, and (more oldfashioned, but recognized) to acknowledge that you are intruding on a meal but don’t want to interrupt (nor expect to join).

  35. John Emerson says:

    There’s a better Mongolist that me here I know, but my introductory studies told me that the Mongol convention is something like this:

    “What’s happening?”
    “Nothing much”.
    “Good to see you”.
    “I’ve come to report that, sadly, your father has died.”

    As I remember reading.

  36. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Kusaasi convention is similar. The standard immediate reply to Labaar an wɛla? “What’s the news?” is Diib ma’aa “Only food” (i.e. “Good”), even if you have come to announce a plague of locusts.

  37. @John Emerson: Something like that struck me in English just Wednesday. As I was getting on the cross-campus bus to take me up the hill from where I waa parked to my office, the bus driver (who I know, although not especially well), asked me how I was doing. I said, “Good, and how about you?” She answered, and then, a couple minutes later, as we reached my stop, she volunteered to lower the bus’s hydraulic suspension to make it easier for me to step off, aa she had noticed I was limping. (In fact, she did not actually make ant overt verbal reference to my limp, just a vague gesture of her hand to show what she was talking about.) As I disembarked, I thought that it was odd that I had, perfectly naturally and sincerely, said I was feeling “good” in spite of having a painful heel that was making me drag my right foot. Some of it was just conversational convention;* some was probably due to rhe fact that my foot was feeling so much better than it had a few days earlier that I was certainly not going to complain; and some was probably the influence of the pandemic, which has recalibrated our usual scale of wellness somewhat.

    * I believe I have mentioned an incident when I was six, when I fell and twisted my leg, badly enough that I could not get up for several minutes. The after-kindergarten caregiver who was supervising us outside, asked me, “Are you all right?” and literally would not accept “No” as an answer. She was briefly dumbfounded when I said I was not and then insisted to me that I had to change my answer (as I was still lying in the ground). It was such a conventionalized question that she did not know how to process a negative response.

  38. It so happened that I only read Matyora a few months ago so my impressions are recent. Taken out of all context, it’s a well-made novel with some first-rate episodes. I wonder if you would agree with Oleg Lekmanov that Rasputin “paid generous tribute” to “ethnographic stylizations in the spirit of Márquez” (One Hundred Years of Solitude was published in a Russian translation in 1970)?

  39. Taken out of all context, it’s a well-made novel with some first-rate episodes.

    What are you implying by “Taken out of all context”? If you add context, it’s… what?

    I wonder if you would agree with Oleg Lekmanov that Rasputin “paid generous tribute” to “ethnographic stylizations in the spirit of Márquez”

    No idea, not least because I have no idea what he means. I find Lekmanov brilliant but annoying.

  40. Dmitry Pruss says:

    Historical context, fads of the time, new developments in the literature which possessed the literary minds then?

  41. Maybe. I’m curious what Alex meant. I don’t think Rasputin was likely to be influenced by “fads of the time.”

  42. I take it as reference to “magic realism” of Marquez.

    Can’t argue that Rasputin did introduce magic elements to his otherwise realist prose.

    What a fine company – Lovecraft, Marquez, Rasputin…

  43. Taken out of all context

    Alex K. can answer for himself, but I think he means political context. The whole “village prose” movement feels a bit like anti-colonialist literature with government/cities being colonizers. As the joke goes “in Russia, government and the people wage a 300 year civil war”.

  44. The context I have in mind is historical and social. Set in a remote country called Russia (or Siberia), of which the reader knew next to nothing, the novel would work just fine. That is, if the reader thought of Matyora as some faraway, exotic location – as most Americans and Russians would think of Macondo and as most Russians and Colombians would think of Yoknapatawpha. Actually, residents of central Russia might have seen Matyora as just that – an impossible paradise destroyed – since the typical central Russian village of the 1970s offered mostly unpoetic subjects like alcoholism, violence and depopulation.

    On the other hand, the novel, published in 1976 in the USSR, was largely perceived by the Soviet reading public as a work of realism – of genuine, rather than “Socialist,” realism. But, depicting the central conflict as one between tradition and modernity, it ignored the historical background specific to Russia, as if the revolution, the civil war and the collectivization had never happened or had had no impact on Matyora’s residents. That would have been next to impossible for Darya’s generation – she was probably born in the early 1890s. There’s also no mention of religion in the novel aside from the dodgy animistic stuff. I can see why: the book wouldn’t have passed censorship otherwise. Still, the author’s blinkers, whether forced on him or self-imposed, are pretty hard to ignore if you’re a high-information reader.

  45. @D.O.: “The whole “village prose” movement feels a bit like anti-colonialist literature with government/cities being colonizers.”

    It’s a sensible way of looking at much of Russian history but it also brings to mind this old joke: “Does the USSR exploit its dependencies or does it subsidize them? — It does exploit them but so stupidly that it has to subsidize them.” The same applied to the Soviet countryside.

  46. Still, the author’s blinkers, whether forced on him or self-imposed, are pretty hard to ignore if you’re a high-information reader.

    No, it depends on your attitude toward literature. I myself am a high-information reader, and I soak up all the context I can just for the sake of a more complex and accurate picture of the world, but it has nothing to do with my approach to the work of literature as such. I don’t care how much context you apply, What Is To Be Done? is a crappy novel, and Farewell to Matyora is a great one. Who cares how it deals or doesn’t deal with the revolution, civil war, and collectivization? None of that has anything to do with art or literature. To look at it from another angle, we have zero context for Homer: we don’t know who he was (or even if he was a he), where or when he wrote or didn’t write, or what the cultural/political context was for either of the Homeric epics. So what? Does that make them lesser works of art? Would knowing more context (say, that he composed in Miletus between 701 and 695 BC, while living in a house owned by a migrant from Ephesus and drinking wine at a tavern owned by an upwardly mobile former slave) in any way affect the value of the poems? If you answer “yes,” then we have very different attitudes to art. Context is great for historical placement, useless for artistic evaluation.

  47. I should add that when I say “None of that has anything to do with art or literature,” I don’t mean you can’t make literature out of the revolution or collectivization; of course you can, and it’s been done. You can make literature out of anything. The point is that artists select their materials and should be judged by what they do with them, not by what some other artist might do. Are Monet’s waterlilies bad art because they don’t include political context? I’m reading Sokolov’s School for Fools now; would that be a better novel if it talked about Brezhnev?

  48. PlasticPaddy says:

    For a subjective evaluation, the context of the reader is at least as relevant as the context of the writer (or the reader’s understanding/appreciation of the context of the writer). So you seem to mean by evaluation some kind of objective or “defendable on objective grounds” evaluation. For such an evaluation I think the context of the writer is still useful for ranking the author’s flaws. In your example of Homer, the long cataloguing of ships could be regarded as a flaw in the narrative, but it is not the same kind of flaw as a “clunker” in the verse or a plot inconsistency.

  49. Well, the catalogue of ships (linguistically the oldest part of the poem, I’ve read) is presumably there so that the original audience of post-Mycenaean praise-singing could give a shout-out to their ancestors.

  50. For a subjective evaluation, the context of the reader is at least as relevant as the context of the writer (or the reader’s understanding/appreciation of the context of the writer). So you seem to mean by evaluation some kind of objective or “defendable on objective grounds” evaluation. For such an evaluation I think the context of the writer is still useful for ranking the author’s flaws. In your example of Homer, the long cataloguing of ships could be regarded as a flaw in the narrative, but it is not the same kind of flaw as a “clunker” in the verse or a plot inconsistency.

    I literally don’t understand any of this. I mean, yes, evaluation means some kind of objective evaluation; so? And I don’t know what you mean about Homer and the catalogue of ships; people have argued for centuries, probably millennia, about the catalogue of ships, but what does it have to do with “the context of the writer”?

  51. PlasticPaddy says:

    I suppose what I was trying to say is that
    (a) it is moot whether a feature in a text or other work represents an actual flaw and if so, how much the flaw detracts from the “value” of the work;
    (b) the context of the author is a useful adjunct for the evaluation activity implicit in (a). But it is quite possible this is all irrelevant, if I have misunderstood the point at issue 😊.

  52. David Eddyshaw says:

    I agree with Plastic, whom I interpret to be saying that it’s easy to misinterpret something as an artistic flaw if you’ve misunderstood what the artist’s actual objective was in creating that piece of their work; to that extent, lack of knowledge of the context in which the artist was operating will lead to objectively wrong aesthetic judgments.

    For example, it does help to know something about Heian etiquette when you are wondering whether “Murasaki” has made a perplexing error in not actually naming any of her dozens and dozens of characters. This would certainly not be recommended in a modern detective novel … (unless it was very avant garde, perhaps.)

    This is a quite different kettle of fish from thinking that only morally good people can create good art (a belief which arises from an unfortunate confusion of the arts with religion.)

  53. I mean, I guess, but that all seems pretty strained to me. If I’m reading a text that isn’t from a completely alien tradition, so that I have some idea what’s going on and how it works, I can get a pretty good sense of whether it’s by someone who knows what they’re doing or not, and if the former is the case, I take it on trust that something like the catalogue of ships or lack of character names is a deliberate feature I may or may not come to understand. I certainly wouldn’t assume it was a “flaw.” Contrariwise, there is no conceivable context in which the stilted language, wooden characters, and childish storytelling of What Is to Be Done? could be taken as anything but signs of authorial incompetence. And I still don’t see what any of this has to do with the original point about whether it detracts from a Russian novel of the 1970s that it fails to address the revolution or collectivization, an idea that seems to me to entirely misunderstand what art is.

  54. Frankly, I just don’t believe Rasputin: I don’t find Darya’s mental world credible. Her adult life is a blank to herself: she reminisces about her parents, siblings and just a little bit about her late husband – but not about her children. She lived through WWI, the Revolution, the Civil War and the collectivization, and none of that registered in her memory, affected her family or altered her way of life. (We know the village got collectivized when an old man says he spent his life working for the kolkhoz.) It’s simply implausible, both psychologically and historically. The author doesn’t explain why Darya’s memory is so unnaturally selective or how Matyora existed out of history until the late 1960s – like the secret town of Spectre from Tim Burton’s Big Fish or good old Uryupinsk from this Soviet joke:

    Professor. Tell me about Lenin’s principal works.
    Student. Sorry, I don’t know anything about Lenin.
    P. All right, what about Stalin’s role in the War?
    S. I don’t know anything about Stalin.
    P. Anything about our dear Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev?
    S. Who is Brezhnev?
    P. Goodness! Where are you from?
    S. Uryupinsk.
    P. (looking away, dreamily). Perhaps I should get away from it all and move to Uryupinsk.

  55. I bow to your superior understanding of the mental world of octogenarian Siberian peasant women of half a century ago; you’ve clearly got far deeper knowledge of them than poor Rasputin, who probably never met one in his life.

  56. David Marjanović says:

    Uryupinsk reminds me of the river Urup, famous for being in the general vicinity of a few Middle Jurassic salamander fragments that are named after it.

  57. Dmitry Pruss says:

    Sometimes you can’t help feeling that a text has been written by a foreigner and the sharp deviations from verisimilitude are in the way of your application of the literary work of art. Other times, the author is actually your compatriot but still describes the familiar world in ways which defy credulity, and you are like, cool, it’s a beautiful artistic distortion, not a stilted ideologically colored misrepresentation. But not always. There is this gut feeling about Matyora which may be hard to explain. Mentally, I could connect it to the wider beliefs that the village Russia has been destroyed in the name of Russohobia by the ethnic minorities turned Communists. But the mental picture is largely irrelevant to our possible appreciation of a work of art, as LH explains The gut feeling of sincerity is still relevant, though.

  58. A lot of Russians think it’s a great novel, just so we’re clear.

  59. And (to head off an obvious objection) not just reactionary nationalists; Dmitry Bykov thinks it’s great, for example.

  60. Dmitry Pruss says:

    appreciation, not “application”, grrh, phone edits… I understand, LH, it is probably a great work of literature. It’s just many Russians (but of course not all, not even the majority of them) are irreparably harmed by their childhood exposure to pervasive hypocrisy. It’s like a crude inoculation, forcing your immune system to attack not just the enemy antigen, but also other things only loosely linked to it. My gut perception of hypocrisy surely gives me such false positive responses sometimes, but it can’t be helped, I suppose.

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