Irina Polyanskaya.

I normally read in chronological order; aside from my Long March from the beginning of Russian literature to now, if I get interested in a particular author I’ll start with the earliest stuff and work my way forward. But it’s a good thing I didn’t do that with the late and little-remembered Irina Polyanskaya (Russian Wikipedia — she doesn’t have an article in any other language), because if I had I might never have read her last and (to my mind) best novel, Горизонт событий [Event horizon]. As it is, when I got up to 2002 in the Long March, I noticed in my Russian Prose Chronology that someone had said of it “History is the thread that links the many heroes and personages of this virtuosically constructed, multifarious, intellectual novel,” so I decided to give it a try — if I didn’t like it, I could turn to something else. As it happened, I got more and more engrossed in it, and then the excellent translator Oliver Ready, who has Englished Dostoevsky, Yuri Buida, and Vladimir Sharov, among others, told me he was working on a translation of Polyanskaya’s earlier novel Прохождение тени [The passing/transit of a/the shadow] and highly recommended it, so I went backwards in time and read that, and I’m here to report on the experience.

It starts with a bravura chapter describing a solar eclipse as experienced by the students at a music school in the Caucasus, providing an obvious hook for the title (though there are lots of subtly deployed uses of тень ‘shadow’ throughout); we then see the (unnamed) heroine’s arrival at the school, her encounter with the four blind young men who will be her main companions in the “present-tense” sections (one a Georgian, two from Ossetia, and one from Taganrog), her reluctant acceptance as a piano student (“Исполнителя из вас не получится” [You’ll never be a performer]), and her being assigned to the same group as the four blind students on the basis of their all having perfect pitch. We then start getting flashback chapters describing her earlier life as the daughter of a nuclear scientist and a woman who defied her family to marry him and then regretted it: her early years in the Gulag camp where her father was allowed to carry on his research after being arrested because he was taken prisoner by the Germans in the war and worked for them, and the time spent with her grandmother in Rostov-on-Don (the former Старопочтовая улица [Old Post Office Street], now Улица Станиславского [Stanislavsky Street], and its now vanished bourgeois inhabitants with their high culture are lovingly described). There are some tremendously effective set pieces in the latter sections (her father as a young suitor arriving at his girlfriend’s home for the first time and gallantly tossing a large bouquet of roses at her mother’s feet, flowers the mother vindictively tosses into the stove as soon as he leaves; the young wife about to end the marriage for good when news arrives that war has begun and her husband leaves for the front; the tragedy that plays out when the Germans take over Rostov and drunken soldiers invade the family’s home), but Polyanskaya’s heart isn’t really in storytelling — what she cares about is what lies behind daily events, some combination of philosophy and esthetics as applied to history and personal fate.

The problem is that I’m not really that interested in that stuff, at least as manifested in this novel. She makes very heavy weather of the heroine’s interactions with the blind students and the significance of their uncanny (to her) use of Braille texts, and the novel is full to bursting of musical references and analogies (just about every famous composer you can think of is name-checked, and some, like Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff, show up every few pages), and it quickly became too much for me. Furthermore, the use of blindness smacked of exoticizing, and the stuff about their Caucasian backgrounds even more so (there’s a bit about one of them asking her to kill a man whose relative had accidentally killed his own relative — “I’d do it myself if I weren’t blind” — that had me snorting derisively). I didn’t regret reading it, it’s very well written and had lots of engaging material, but it (and the few short stories of hers I’ve read) wouldn’t have inspired me to read more of her. Mind you, that’s just me; lots of people loved the book (and were furious when the 1998 Russian Booker went to Alexander Morozov’s Чужие письма [Other people’s letters] instead). I expect it will do well if it’s translated into English, and I hope a publisher takes the plunge.

But it was Горизонт событий [Event horizon] that grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. It was like nothing else I’d ever read; it gave me the same disoriented feeling as my first attempts at Platonov, Sokolov, and Sorokin. As I wrote Ready:

I enjoyed reading it even though I didn’t know what the hell she was up to; her prose is delicious and she wields the kind of wide range of references I love (other examples of such writers are Leonid Girshovich and Lena Eltang) — I literally laughed out loud when I got to a whole passage on Agnès Varda’s Cléo de 5 à 7. Varda is one of my favorite directors, but I never expected to see her show up in a Russian novel!

Eventually I discovered a long essay by Valery Surikov that gave me a better understanding of what was going on, at the cost of cracking my brains over his excursuses on philosophy, with analysis of Husserl and Mamardashvili and their relation to Polyanskaya’s thought. But I still don’t know how to describe it. There’s a sentence in the earlier novel that foreshadows where she’s going: “Я знала: наступит время — и я сниму с моих путешествий рельсы и колеса, как строительные леса, и тогда мои странствия обретут свободу музыкальной импровизации.” [I knew the time would come when I would remove the rails and wheels from my travels like scaffolding, and then my wanderings would gain the freedom of musical improvisation.] Here she’s removed the rails and wheels and floats freely through space and time. The first paragraph of the novel introduces two crucial elements: the death of Shura’s young son German, which causes time to stop and run backward for her (“Шура поняла, что с этой минуты время для нее остановится, а потом потечет вспять, как Иордан в день Крещения”), and what she feels is the sin that has cursed her, her theft (as a starving little girl in blockaded Leningrad) of a chocolate bar from her starving neighbor and only friend. These events will resonate throughout the book, with backgrounds and repercussions slowly coming clear. The second half switches to focus on Shura’s resentful daughter Nadya and her own ill-fated relationships. But there is nothing in the way of continuous narrative. As I wrote to Ready:

[Reading Прохождение тени] feels like seeing a butterfly in its pupal form, with the same crazed mother and bitter father playing their parts but in a different perspective. In this novel she’s still adhering to the form of the traditional realist novel, providing backstories and transitions and explanations; in Горизонт Событий she junks all that and just gives you shards of events with lots and lots of material illustrating her basic sense that everything is connected, that a bay tree planted in Rome can have a leaf show up in Leningrad decades later. It’s a novel constructed on poetic/metaphorical lines rather than rational/narrative ones.

Clearly, such a novel will have a harder time finding an audience than a relatively traditional one like Прохождение тени [The passing of a shadow], but people whose tastes are that way inclined will really love it, and I hope that if the earlier one does well in translation this will follow in due course and give Polyanskaya the attention and respect she deserves. I have found few discussions of her in English; a brief entry in the Dictionary of Russian Women Writers (Greenwood Press, 1994) says:

She writes about the everyday and commonplace, but so deeply penetrates the psychology of her characters, bewitches her readers with the musical cadence of her phrases, and wins them over with the novelty of her metaphors that her leisurely unfolding narrative offers more to readers’ minds and souls than the jauntily twisted intrigues of other authors.

And Norman Shneidman’s Russian Literature, 1995-2002 has several pages on her, focusing on The Passing of a Shadow, of which he says “The extended narrative is interesting, but the story often becomes confusing.” Not inaccurate, but not especially useful (and Shneidman is easily confused). She’s not even mentioned in the new History of Russian Literature [see this post], which includes some pretty marginal figures. For me, she’s a major figure in 21st-century literature, and I’d love to see her recognized as such. And I can only speculate on where she might have gone if she hadn’t died so young.

By the way, there’s an odd reference in that eclipse chapter I couldn’t google up a solution to. Here’s the passage:

Вот тело луны оторвалось от солнца, освобождая все большую и большую часть неба для ясного дня, сползая с его диска, словно блин с донышка торчащего на колу печного горшка, а тень ее понеслась дальше — через зеленые Карпаты, Венгрию, Австрию, скользнула над увитой дикими розами церковной стеной в Фонетаме, где покоился прах поэта Райнера Мария Рильке […]

Here the body of the moon broke away from the sun, freeing more and more of the sky for a clear day, sliding off its disk like a pancake from the bottom of a stove pot, and its shadow swept onward — through the green Carpathians, Hungary, Austria, slipping over the church wall at Vonetam [?], covered with wild roses, where the ashes of poet Rainer Maria Rilke were laid to rest […]

But Rilke was buried in the Raron cemetery, and I can find no reference to any Vonetam or Vonetham or whatever the hell lies behind the phrase “в Фонетаме.” I’m guessing something went wrong in the passage from her manuscript to the printed page, but I’d like to know what was meant. Any assistance, as always, gratefully received.


  1. I would guess, based on the mention of roses, that it has something to do with the story about Rilke’s death being finally precipitated by a wound from a rose thorn (as discussed here). The story about how he pricked himself while picking flowers for Nimet Eloui Bey is presumably garbled; at the very least, that specific would almost certainly could not have been responsible for Rilke’s death. Perhaps Polyanskaya was familiar with an even further elaborated version of the story, which the passage is meant to allude to.

  2. Certainly a suggestive story, but I’m not sure how the alleged place name might fit in.

  3. Maybe the manuscript had something like “на фоне там, где” which then was “corrected” by an editor?
    Even if I’m wrong, here are some roses at Rilke’s grave.

  4. в Фёне там, где… “in the Föhn, where…” ?

  5. Audacious! But it seems odd to use the name of a seasonal wind to characterize a final resting place.

  6. I learn from Wikipedia that “The German word Föhn (pronounced the same way) also means ‘hairdryer’, while the word Fön is a genericized trademark today owned by AEG.”

  7. Excellent post as always! Is there any way to easily see you Long March posts in chronological order? Or is there at least a beginning post?

  8. No easy way, I’m afraid, but here’s the beginning post; you can do a site search on the names of authors you’re interested in.

  9. Maybe something to do with the Rhône river, on whose bank Raron is located?

  10. @Yuval: The antepenultimate line in Marina Tsvetaeva’s Новогоднее (“A New Year’s Poem,” 1927):

    Above the Rhone and above Rarogne…

    Rilke died on December 29, 1926. Tsvetaeva learned of his death on December 31. The poem, completed in February 1927, is an elegy on his departure. (See Footnote to a Poem by Joseph Brodsky, in Less Than One: Selected Essays.) Although a difficult poem, it gets more straightforward towards the final lines so it’s impossible to forget the Rhone and especially the Rarogne in the genitive case – Tsvetaeva spells the name in French but leaves out the final “e” to decline it the Russian way: “Rarogn’а”.

    @LH: I still have no idea about Фонетам but the previous paragraph has “Yevgeny Stravinsky” – must be Yevgeny Mravinsky + Igor Stravinsky.

  11. It’s corrected to Mravinsky in the edition I have.

  12. David Marjanović says

    I learn from Wikipedia that “The German word Föhn (pronounced the same way) also means ‘hairdryer’, while the word Fön is a genericized trademark today owned by AEG.”

    Huh. I was repeatedly taught “Föhn = wind, Fön = hairdryer” as an Unfun Fact of Spelling, without anyone ever mentioning a trademark. To use a hairdryer is fönen, sometimes with the hair as the (accusative) object.

  13. January First-of-May says

    Russian has фен for “hairdryer”, while the word for (some particular variety of) wind had been borrowed as фён; I’ve sometimes (rarely) seen the latter spelled as the former, but never vice versa. I don’t think I ever realized that those two words are etymologically related, but in retrospect it seems obvious.

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