Vladimir Sorokin and the Russian Novel's Identity Crisis

Vast, grand, breathtaking—English-language readers typically associate such words with the 19th-century Russian novel. Bleak, brave, subversive—those go with 20th-century Russian fiction. If it’s epic or dissident, we know how to make sense of it.

Following the Soviet Union’s collapse in the 1990s, however, Russian novels became harder to categorize. If a work wasn’t protest literature, what exactly could it be? This wasn’t a question only for readers of English translations. The collapse posed an identity crisis even for writers who had long avoided protest. Vladimir Sorokin, considered by many to be Russia’s leading novelist, was among those whose writing seemed to be stalled during the Yeltsin period. To find his way forward as a novelist, he had to recreate a relationship to Russia’s new society, to abandon austere detachment and explore the possibility of allegiance to the public. Sorokin’s torturous sense of citizenship, which has reached a fascinating impasse in his latest novel, The Blizzard, is the key to one of the most transfixing bodies of work in world literature.

If anyone had seemed poised to flourish in a postmodern Russia, it would have been Sorokin, born in 1955 and stirring up interest by the time he was 30. Influenced by the Moscow Conceptualists of the 1970s and ’80s, he adopted that group’s vision of artistic creations as wholly autonomous constructs, and in his early work, these constructs aren’t cause for any particular veneration. “Aren’t those just letters on a piece of paper?” he said of his work at the time. His violent, scatalogical, and distinctly unheroic fictions ran jaggedly across the epic and dissident veins of Russian literature. The Queue, first published in Paris in 1985 and composed entirely of dialogue, is set in just that, a queue: one of the long Soviet-era lines of citizens waiting for hours to receive goods—what goods, no one knows. Its satirical take on Soviet dysfunction is probably why it saw English translation in 1988. But The Queue is mostly of a piece with Sorokin’s conceptual mission: His characters standing in line are simply lined up characters on a page.

Perhaps the chaotic Russia of the ’90s—old ideals smashed, no new order emerging—too vividly incarnated Sorokin’s aesthetic. The period evidently thwarted, rather than nourished, his fiction. “There is not always a time for dreams,” he told The New Yorker in 1994, somewhat evasively accounting for a gap in his output that ended up lasting from 1991-’99. He returned to fiction with Blue Lard, a novel that caused him considerable difficulties as Russia began its authoritarian relapse. The novel contains a scene in which a clone of Krushchev sodomizes a clone of Stalin, and several years after publication, it was singled out by Moving Together, a youth group associated with Vladimir Putin, which accused Sorokin of peddling pornography. For the first time, he found himself at the center of a concerted censorship campaign. In 2002, the group picketed the Bolshoi, which had commissioned Sorokin to produce a libretto. Its leaders showed up with a massive mock toilet bowl, into which demonstrators were encouraged to throw copies of his “latrinature.” The protests prompted state prosecutors to open a case against him.

Those charges were dropped, but the episode seems to have thrust a sense of citizenship upon Sorokin. Certainly it discredited the notion that his writing was just letters on paper. “I had a feeling that I had ended up in one of my own stories somehow,” he told The New York Times in 2011. At the same time, the resurrection of Russia’s monarchical and authoritarian political traditions in the Putin era gave new relevance to the previous centuries’ literary traditions. With Ice Trilogy (2002-2005), Sorokin advanced his fiction by swerving away from his early work. Rather than rejecting his country's literary legacy, or rearranging its tropes into conceptual art, he adapted the epic and the dissident strains to his own purposes.

Ice Trilogy offers a parallel, science-fiction inflected history of Russia’s 20th century, in which 23,000 blonde and blue-eyed humans are actually rays of “the Primordial Light.” Once the 23,000 have their hearts awakened—by being hammered in the chest with chunks of meteoric ice—they will return to eternity, and the world of humans will end. The trilogy ranges over decades, includes an enormous cast, and amounts to a searching exploration of cult power and the pitilessness of the elite. Although Ice Trilogy was far too esoteric for mass appeal in America, it betrayed signs of a more accessible vision. Nearing the age of 50, Sorokin suddenly sided with humanity—the “meat machines” disdained and enslaved by the Primordial Light—an oddly tender gesture for a writer used to killing off characters as if swatting flies. His own heart was being awakened to a sense of commitment to the people: “The citizen in me has come to life,” he told Der Spiegel in 2007.

2008’s Day of the Oprichnik marks the apotheosis of Sorokin as social critic, and unsurprisingly, it was his first novel to find a mainstream American publisher. Billed by Farrar, Straus and Giroux as “a razor-sharp diagnosis of a country in crisis,” Day of the Oprichnik envisions Russia in 2028, when the social codes of Ivan the Terrible have been resurrected. Following a day in the life of a henchman to the czar, the novel is a cascade of torture, rape, and murder, punctuated by nauseating scenes of luxury among the uppermost class.

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