Russia’s Joyce.

Back in March, I was eagerly anticipating José Vergara’s All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature, about how Yury Olesha, Vladimir Nabokov, Andrei Bitov, Sasha Sokolov, and Mikhail Shishkin have responded to Joyce’s fiction; having been sent a copy by the generous publisher, Northern Illinois University Press, I’ve spent the last month reading it. It wouldn’t normally take me that long to finish a 250-page book, but it kept sending me back to the novels it covers; I own all of them, and I’ve read almost all — Olesha’s Envy (LH post), Nabokov’s The Gift, Bitov’s Pushkin House (LH post), and Sokolov’s School for Fools (LH post) and Between Dog and Wolf (LH post), Shishkin’s Maidenhair being the exception — so I’d spend a few days immersed in Ulysses or The Gift (or checking out some of the books and articles referenced in his notes) before resuming consecutive reading. Now that I’m done, I heartily recommend it to anyone even vaguely interested in the topic.

Vergara, unlike too many academic critics, is interested more in elucidating the books he discusses than in using them as fodder for theory. He writes in a straightforward way, with a minimum of jargon, and he gives a real feel for what each book is like and what the author is trying to do. He says in his introduction:

This book explores the evolution of Joyce’s special impact on Russian literature from the mid-1920s to the early 2020s through a series of principal case studies […]. In addition to including Joycean subtexts in their writings, these authors have each explicitly spoken or written about Joyce in interviews, essays, and other paratexts. They also offer a neat line of influence. Nabokov’s discriminating taste gave Olesha and Sokolov high marks, despite their technical status as Soviet writers, and both Bitov and Sokolov have expressed appreciation for their predecessors’ art. Shishkin, too, speaks movingly of the Russian Joyceans. All five belong to a tradition that can be traced back to Joyce and that keeps their art open to his aesthetics and ideas. Two writers come from the prewar period, two from the postwar era, and one from the post-Soviet age. Such chronological range helps illuminate the development of Joyce’s literary reception in Russia. Nabokov’s and Shishkin’s positions as émigré writers add a further nuance to this scheme.

It is very important to note that the presence of Joyce in these authors’ works, whether explicit or more hypothetical, does not erase what came before him or what was taking place around them. He was part of a broader landscape, both national and international, and his impact is not necessarily more definitive than that of other figures significant to these writers, such as the symbolist Andrei Bely (1880–1934) or the Russian formalists. Nonetheless, Joyce and his art stood as an important alternative both in literature and in life. The very criticism of his work could make a later Soviet writer curious. Joyce’s project to alter his past and his future through writing, as exemplified by his protagonist Stephen Dedalus’s aesthetic theories in Ulysses, appealed to them for numerous reasons.

He tells the story of Joyce’s reception in the Soviet Union (initial excitement followed by suppression and sub rosa reading until the flood of translations in the 1980s), describes how each author came to Joyce and how their work reflects their reading, and concludes with a marvelous chapter called “How Joyce Is Read in Russia” in which he canvases a bunch of living authors of various generations to get their takes, so that the reader is not left to depend on his own perspective. Along the way he says such sensible things as “To suggest that a text derives something from a precursor is not to imply a lack of originality, and anyone who argues so misses the point. It is simply in the nature of literary works to comment on themselves and others.” Here’s a taste of his style of reading, from the chapter on Nabokov:

If we take Nabokov’s statements at face value, then we see that whereas Nabokov may have once felt the pressures of time in a way similar to Joyce or Stephen, he found the strategies that allowed him to view history differently, not as an adversary. Fyodor achieves transcendence partly by virtue of his ability to overcome a tendency toward egocentricity. His growth in the novel involves the recognition of others’ sufferings, journeys, and connections, which are all inevitably marked by time. He appreciates the fact that he can define history himself but that others — his father, fellow émigrés and Berliners, even Pushkin — help make up the cultural past. Not everything can be a reflection of the artist, an insight later lost on Bitov’s hero in Pushkin House.

And here are a few samples of the commentary by current writers at the end:

Marina Stepnova: In 1989, I read A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. I was eighteen years old, and it affected me profoundly, so much so that I remember even today how I shook all night following the description of hell, and, in the morning, I literally ran to church to confess, even though I’ve never been particularly religious, especially at eighteen. That’s the magic power of art in action for you.

[Aleksei] Salnikov: In some way, Joyce affirmed the right of the Russian classics (I have in mind, of course, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy) to write verbosely, long-windedly, with a strong focus on details, leaving the plot somewhere to the side of the whole enormous narrative. He showed that the plot is sometimes not as important as the text itself.

[Sergei] Solovev: It’s a paradoxical situation. Despite our very rich language, which is very plastic, very attuned to feeling, it gives us endless possibilities to describe things in this territory … After two hundred years, we still don’t have anything along these lines, only limits …

He refers to other critics I respect, like Gary Saul Morson (LH post), which of course is a sign of excellent taste. This is a book I’ll be returning to for years to come.


  1. January First-of-May says

    For what it’s worth, if I had to choose a Russian author (that I’ve heard of) as the closest Russian analogue of James Joyce, it would undoubtedly be Daniil Kharms.

  2. Interesting — I don’t think that would have occurred to me, but it makes sense.

  3. John Cowan says

    So who’s the Russian FW-Joyce? (Or the Russian P. W. Joyce, author of Russian As We Mangle It In The Empire/Union/Federation, for that matter?)

  4. The closest thing to FW is probably Sokolov’s Between Dog and Wolf (at least that’s the cliché), but it’s not very close.

  5. January First-of-May says

    I actually did think of Sokolov, but only after making the original comment. I keep forgetting that Sokolov exists; he’s not exactly on my mind very often, especially when I hadn’t recently read a LH comment about him.

  6. I nominate Moskva-Petushki for a Joycean book. Cannot say about FW never having read it.


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