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BORIS ANDREYEVICH VOGAU (Boris Pilniak, pseud.)










The English reading public knows next to nothing of contemporary
Russian Literature. In the great age of the Russian Realistic Novel,
which begins with Turgeniev and finishes with Chekhov, the English
reader is tolerably at home. But what came after the death of Chekhov
is still unknown or, what is worse, misrepresented. Second and third-
rate writers, like Merezhkovsky, Andreyev, and Artsybashev, have
found their way into England and are still supposed to be the best
Russian twentieth century fiction can offer. The names of really
significant writers, like Remizov and Andrey Bely, have not even been
heard of. This state of affairs makes it necessary, in introducing a
contemporary Russian writer to the English public, to give at least a
few indications of his place in the general picture of modern Russian

The date of Chekhov's death (1904) may be taken to mark the end of a
long and glorious period of literary achievement. It is conveniently
near the dividing line of two centuries, and it coincides rather
exactly with the moment when Russian Literature definitely ceased to
be dominated by Realism and the Novel. In the two or three years that
followed the death of Chekhov Russian Literature underwent a complete
and drastic transformation. The principal feature of the new
literature became the decisive preponderance of Poetry over Prose and
of Manner over Matter - a state of things exactly opposite to that
which prevailed during what we may conveniently call the Victorian
age. Poetry in contemporary Russian Literature is not only of greater
intrinsic merit than prose, but almost all the prose there is has to
such an extent been permeated with the methods and standards of
poetry that in the more extreme cases it is almost impossible to tell
whether what is printed as prose is really prose or verse.

Contemporary Russian Poetry is a vigorous organic growth. It is a
self-contained movement developing along logically consistent lines.
It has produced much that is of the very first order. The poetry of
Theodore Sologub, of Innocent Annensky, [Footnote: The reader will
notice the quotations from Annensky in the first story of this
volume.] of Vyacheslav Ivanov, and of Alexander Blok, is to our best
understanding of that perennial quality that will last. They have
been followed by younger poets, more debatable and more debated, many
of them intensely and daringly original, but all of them firmly
planted in the living tradition of yesterday. They learn from their
elders and teach their juniors - the true touchstone of an organic and
vigorous movement. What is perhaps still more significant - the level
of minor poetry is extraordinarily high, and every verse-producer is,
in varying degrees, a conscious and efficient craftsman.

The case with prose is very different. The old nineteenth century
realistic tradition is dead. It died, practically, very soon after
Chekhov. It has produced a certain amount of good, even excellent,
work within these last twenty years, but this work is disconnected,
sterile of influence, and more or less belated; at the best it has
the doubtful privilege of at once becoming classical and above the
age. Such for instance was the case of Bunin's solitary masterpiece
_The Gentleman from San Francisco_, and of that wonderful series of
Gorky's autobiographical books, the fourth of which appeared but a
few months ago. These, however, can hardly be included in the domain
of Fiction, any more than his deservedly famous _Reminiscences of
Tolstoy_. But Gorky, and that excellent though minor writer, Kuprin,
are the only belated representatives of the fine nineteenth century
tradition. For even Bunin is a poet and a stylist rather than a story
teller: his most characteristic "stories" are works of pure
atmosphere, as diffuse and as skeletonless as a picture by Claude

The Symbolists of the early twentieth century (all the great poets of
the generation were Symbolists) tried also to create a prose of their
own. They tried many directions but they did not succeed in creating
a style or founding a tradition. The masterpiece of this Symbolist
prose is Theodore Sologub's great novel _The Little Demon_[Footnote:
English translation.] (by the way a very inadequate rendering of the
Russian title). It is a great novel, probably the most perfect
Russian _novel_ since the death of Dostoyevsky. It breaks away very
decidedly from Realism and all the traditions of the nineteenth
century. It is symbolic, synthetic, and poetical. But it is so
intensely personal and its achievements are so intimately conditioned
by the author's idiosyncrasies that it was quite plainly impossible
to imitate it, or even to learn from it. This is still more the case
with the later works of Sologub, like the charming but baffling and
disconcerting romance of _Queen Ortruda_.

The other Symbolists produced nothing of the same calibre, and they
failed to attract the public. The bestsellers of the period after
1905 were, naturally enough, hybrid writers like Andreyev. The cheap
effect of his cadenced prose, his dreary and monotonous rhetoric, his
sensational way of treating "essential problems" were just what the
intelligentsia wanted at the time; it is also just what nobody is
likely to want again. Another writer of "problem stories" was
Artsybashev. His notorious _Sanin_ (1907) is very typical of a
certain phase of Russian life. It has acquired a somewhat
unaccountable popularity among the budding English intelligentsia.
From the literary point of view its value is nil. Artsybashev and
Andreyev were very second-rate writers; they had no knowledge of
their art and their taste was deplorably bad and crude, but at least
they were in a way, sincere, and gave expression to the genuine
vacuum and desolation of their hearts. But around them sprung up a
literature which sold as well and better than they did, but was
openly meretricious and, fortunately, ephemeral. If it has done
nothing else the great Revolution of 1917 has at least done one good
thing in making a clean sweep of all this interrevolutionary (1905-
1917) fiction.

All this literature appealed to certain sides of the "intellectual"
heart, but it could not slake the thirst for fiction. It was rather
natural that the reading public turned to foreign novelists in
preference to the native ones. It may be confidently said that three-
quarters of what the ordinary Russian novel-reader read in the years
preceding the Revolution were translated novels. The book-market was
swamped with translations, Polish, German, Scandinavian, English,
French and Spanish. Knut Hamsun, H. G. Wells, and Jack London were
certainly more popular than any living Russian novelist, except
perhaps the Russian Miss Dell, Mme. Verbitsky. In writers like Jack
London and H. G. Wells the reader found what he missed in the Russian
novelists - a good story thrillingly told. For no reader, be he ever
so Russian, will indefinitely put up with a diet of "problems" and
imitation poetry.

While all these things were going on on the surface of things and
sharing between themselves the whole of the book-market, a secret
undercurrent was burrowing out its bed, scarcely noticed at first but
which turned out to be the main prolongation of the Russian novel.
The principal characteristic of this undercurrent was the revival of
realism and of that untranslatable Russian thing "byt," [Footnote:
"Byt" is the life of a definite community at a definite time in its
individual, as opposed to universally human, features.] but a revival
under new forms and in a new spirit. The pioneers of this movement
were Andrey Bely and Remizov. There was little in common between the
two men, except that both were possessed with a startlingly original
genius, and both directed it towards the utilization of Russian "byt"
for new artistic ends.

Andrey Bely was, and is, a poet rather than a novelist. His prose
from the very beginning exhibits in its extreme form the Symbolist
tendency towards wiping away the difference between poetry and prose:
in his later novels his prose becomes distinctly metrical, it is
prose after all only because it cannot be devided into _lines_; it
can be devided into _feet_ very easily. But, though such prose is
essentially a hybrid and illegitimate form, Bely has achieved with it
things that have probably never been achieved with the aid of
anything like his instruments. The first of the series of his big
novels appeared in 1909: it is the _Silver Dove_, a story of Russian
mystical sectarians and of an intellectual who gets entangled in
their meshes. At its appearance it sold only five hundred copies. His
next novel _Petersburg_ (1913) had not a much greater success. The
third of the series is _Kotik Letaev_ (1917). The three novels form a
series unique in its way. Those who can get over the initial
difficulties and accustom themselves to the very peculiar proceedings
of the author will not fail to be irresistibly fascinated by his
strange genius. The first novel, the _Silver Dove_, is in my opinion
the most powerful of the three. It combines a daring realism, which
is akin to Gogol both in its exaggerations and in its broad humour,
with a wonderful power of suggestion and of "atmosphere." One of its
most memorable passages is the vast and elemental picture of the Wind
driving over the Russian plain; a passage familiarised to satiety by
numerous more or less clever imitations. _Petersburg_ is a
"political" novel. It is intended to symbolise the Nihilism, the
geometrical irreality of Petersburg and Petersburg bureaucracy. The
cold spirit of system of the Revolutionary Terrorists is presented as
the natural and legitimate outcome of bureaucratic formalism.

A cunningly produced atmosphere of weird irreality pervades the whole
book. It is in many ways a descendant of Dostoyevsky - and has in its
turn again produced a numerous family of imitations, including
Pilniak's most characteristic tales of the Revolution. _Kotik
Letaev_, the last and up to the present the least imitated of Bely's
novels, is the story of a child in his very first years. In it the
"poetical" methods of the author reach their full development; but at
the same time he achieves miracles of vividness and illusion in the
realism of his dialogue and the minute, but by no means dry, analysis
of the movements of his hero's subconscious Ego. In spite of the
enormous difference of style, methods, and aims Bely approaches in
many ways the effects and the achievements of Proust.

Remizov is very different. He is steeped in Russian popular and
legendary lore. His roots are deep down in the Russian soil. He is
the greatest living master of racy and idiomatic Russian. He has also
written prose that elbows poetry, and that was looked upon with
surprise and bewilderment until people realised that it was poetry.
But his importance in the history of the Russian Novel is of another
kind. It is firstly in his deliberate effort to "deliteralize"
Russian prose, to give it the accent, the intonation, and the syntax
of the _spoken_ language. He has fully achieved his ends; he has
created a prose which is entirely devoid of all bookishness and even
on the printed page gives the illusion of being heard, not seen.

Few have been able to follow him in this path; for in the present
state of linguistic chaos and decomposition few writers have the
necessary knowledge of Russian, the taste and the sense of measure,
to write anything like his pure and flexible Russian. In the hands of
others it degenerates into slang, or into some personal jargon
closely related to Double Dutch.

Remizov, however, has been more influential in another way, by his
method of treating Russian _life_. The most notable of Remizov's
"provincial" stories [Footnote: In the second edition it is called
"The Story of Ivan Semenovich Stratilatov." ] _The Unhushable
Tambourine _was written at one time with Bely's _The Silver Dove_, in
1909. At the time it met with even greater indifference: it was
refused by the leading magazine of the literary "party" to which the
author belonged, and could appear only some years later in a
collection of short stories. But it at once became known and very
soon began to "make school." Remizov's manner was to a certain degree
a reversion to the nineteenth century, but to such aspects of that
century that had before him been unnoticed. One of his chief
inspirers was Leskov, a writer who is only now coming into his own.
Remizov's _Tambourine_ and his other stories of this class are
realistic, they are "representations of real life," of "byt", but
their Realism is very different from the traditional Russian realism.
The style is dominated not by any "social" pre-occupation, but by a
deliberate bringing forward of the grotesque. It verges on
caricature, but is curiously and inseparably blended with a sympathy
for even the lowest and vilest specimens of Mankind which is
reminiscent of Dostoyevsky. It would be out of place here to give any
detailed account of Remizov's many-sided genius, of his _Tales of the
Russian People_, of his _Dreams_ (real night-dreams), of his books
written during the War and the Revolution (_Mara_ and _The Noises of
the Town_). In his later work he tends towards a greater simplicity,
a certain "primitiveness" of outline, and a more concentrated style.
Remizov's disciples, as might be expected, have been more successful
in imitating the grotesqueness of his caricatures and the vivid and
intense concentration of his character painting than in adopting his
sympathetic and human attitude or in speaking his pure Russian.

The first of the new realists to win general recognition was A. N.
Tolstoy, who speedily caught and vulgarised Remizov's knack of
creating grotesque "provincial" characters. He has an easy way of
writing, which is miles apart from Remizov's perfect craftsmanship, a
love for mere filth, characteristic of his time and audience, and
water enough to make his writings palatable to the average reader. So
he early became the most popular of the _literary_ novelists of the
years before the Revolution.

A far more significant writer is Michael Prishvin. He belongs to an
older generation and attracted some attention by good work in the
line of descriptive journalism before he came in touch with Remizov.
A man of the soil, he was capable of following Remizov's lead in
making his Russian more colloquial and less bookish, without
slavishly imitating him. He was unfortunately too much absorbed by
his journalistic work to give much time to literature. But he wrote
at least one story which deserves a high rank in even the smallest
selection of Russian stories - _The Beast of Krutoyarsk_ (1913). It is
the story of a dog, and is far the best "animal" story in the whole
of Russian literature. The animal stories of Rudyard Kipling and Jack
London were very popular in Russia at that time, but Prishvin is
curiously free from every foreign, in fact from every bookish,
influence; his story smells of the damp and acid soil of his native
Smolensk province, and even Remizov was to him only a guide towards
the right use of words and the right way of concentrating on his

Prishvin stands alone. But in the years 1913-1916 the Russian
literary press was flooded with short stories modelled on the
_Unhushable Tambourine_. The most promising of these provincialists
was E. Zamyatin, whose stories [Footnote: _Uyezdnoe_, which may be
rendered as "something provincial."] are as intense and packed with
suggestive ugliness as anything in Remizov, but lack the master's
unerring linguistic flair and his profound and inclusive humanness.
Zamyatin's stories are most emphatically _made_, manufactured, there
is not an ounce of spontaneity in them, and, especially in the later
work where he is more or less free from reminiscences of Remizov,
they produce the impression of mosaic laboriously set together. They
are overloaded with pointedly suggestive metaphor and symbolically
expressive detail, and in their laborious and disproportionate
elaborateness they remind you of the deliberate ugliness of a
painting by some German "Expressionist." [Footnote: Zamyatin was
during the war a shipbuilding Engineer in the Russian service at
Newcastle. He has written several stories of English life which are
entirely in his later "expressionist" manner (_The Islanders_,
Berlin, 1922)].

When the Revolution came and brought Russia that general
impoverishment and reversion to savagery and primitive manners which
is still the dominant feature of life in the U.S.S.R., literature was
at first faced with a severe crisis. The book market was ruined. In
the years 1918-1921 the publication of a book became a most difficult
and hazardous undertaking. During these years the novel entirely
disappeared from the market. For three years at least the Russian
novel was dead. When it emerged again in 1922 it emerged very
different from what it had been in 1917. As I have said, the surface
"literature" of pre-Revolutionary date was swept away altogether. The
new Realism of Remizov and Bely was triumphant all along the line.
The works of both these writers were among the first books to be
reprinted on the revival of the book-trade. And it soon became
apparent that practically all the young generation belonged to their
progeny. The first of these younger men to draw on himself the
attention of critics and readers was Pilniak, the author of the
present volume, on whom I shall dwell anon in greater detail.

In Petersburg there appeared a whole group of young novelists who
formed a sort of professional and amicable confraternity and called
themselves the "Serapion Brothers." They were all influenced by
Remizov; they were taught (in the very precise sense of the word -
they had regular classes) by Zamyatin; and explained the general
principles of Art by the gifted and light-minded young "formalist"
critic, Victor Shklovsky. Other writers emerged in all ends of
Russia, all of them more or less obssessed by the dazzling models of
Bely and Remizov.

All the writers of this new school have many features in common. They
are all of them more interested in Manner than in Matter. They work
at their style assiduously and fastidiously. They use an indirect
method of narrating by aid of symbolic detail and suggestive
metaphor. This makes their stories obscure and not easy to grasp at
first reading. Their language is elaborate; it is as full as possible
of unusual provincial words, or permeated with slang. It is coarse
and crude and many a page of their writings would not have been
tolerated by the editor of a pre-Revolution Russian magazine, not to
speak of an English publisher. They choose their subjects from the
Revolution and the Civil War. They are all fascinated by the
"elemental" greatness of the events, and are in a way the bards of
the Revolution. But their "Revolutionism" is purely aesthetical and
is conspicuously empty of ideas. Most of their stories appear on the
pages of official Soviet publications, but they are regarded with
rather natural mistrust by the official Bolshevik critics, who draw
attention to the essentially uncivic character of their art.

The exaggerated elaborateness and research of their works makes all
these writers practically untranslatable; not that many of them are
really worth translating. Their deliberate aestheticism - using as
they do revolutionary subjects only as material for artistic effect -
prevents their writings from being acceptable as reliable pictures of
Russian post-Revolutionary life. And it is quite obvious that they
have very few of the qualities that make good fiction in the eyes of
the ordinary novel-reader.

There are marked inequalities of talent between them, as well as
considerable differences of style. Pilniak is the most ambitious, he
aims highest - and at his worst falls lowest. Vyacheslav Shishkov, a
Siberian, is notable for his good Russian, a worthy pupil of Remizov
and Prishvin. Vsevolod Ivanov, another Siberian, is perhaps the most
interesting for the subjects he chooses (the Civil War in the
backwoods of Siberia), but his style is, though vigorous, diffuse and
hazy, and his narrative is lost in a nebula of poetically-produced

Nicholas Nikitin, who is considered by some to be the most promising
of all, is certainly the most typical of the school of Zamyatin; his
style, overloaded with detail which swamps the outline of the story,
is disfigured by the deliberate research of unfamiliar provincial
idioms. Michael Zoshchenko is the only one who has, in a small way,
reached perfection in his rendering of the common slang of a private
soldier. But his art savours too much of a pastiche; he is really a
born parodist and may some day give us a Russian _Christmas Garland_.

The most striking feature of all these story-tellers is their almost
complete inability to tell a story. And this in spite of their great
reverence for Leskov, the greatest of Russian story-tellers. But of
Leskov they have only imitated the style, not his art of narrative.
Miss Harrison, in her notable essay on the Aspects of the Russian
Verb, [Footnote: _Aspects and Aorists_, by Jane Harrison, Cambridge
University Press, 1919.] makes an interesting distinction between the
"perfective" and "imperfective" style in fiction. The perfective is
the ordinary style of an honest narrative. The "imperfective" is
where nothing definitely happens but only goes on indefinitely
"becoming." Russian Literature (as the Russian language, according to
Miss Harrison) has a tendency towards the "imperfective." But never
has this "imperfective" been so exclusively paramount as now. In all
these stories of thrilling events the writers have a most cunning way
of concealing the adventure under such a thick veil of detail,
description, poetical effusion, idiom, and metaphor, that it can only
with difficulty be discovered by the very experienced reader. To
choose such adventures for subjects and then deliberately to make no
use of them and concentrate all attention on style and atmosphere, is
really a _tour de force_, the crowning glory and the _reductio ad
absurdum_ of this imperfective tendency.

These extremities, which are largely conditioned by the whole past of
Russian Literature, must naturally lead to a reaction. The reading
public cannot be satisfied with such a literature. Nor are the
critics. A reaction against all this style is setting in, but it
remains in the domain of theory and has not produced work of any
importance. And it is doubtful whether it will. If even Leskov with
his wonderful genius for pure narrative has failed to influence the
moderns in any way except by his mannerisms of speech, the case seems
indeed desperate. Those who are most thirsty for good stories
properly told turn their eyes westwards, towards "Stevenson and
Dumas" and E. A. T. Hoffmann. Better imitate Pierre Bénois than go on
in the way you are doing, says Lev Lunts, one of the Serapion
Brothers, in a violent and well-founded invective against modern
Russian fiction. [Footnote: In Gorky's miscellany, _Beseda_. N3,
1923.] But though he sees the right way out pretty clearly Lunts has
not seriously tried his hand at the novel. [Footnote: As I write I
hear of the death of Lev Lunts at the age of 22. His principal work
is a good tragedy of pure action without "atmosphere" or psychology
(in the same _Beseda_, N2).] A characteristic sign of the times is a
novel by Sergey Bobrov, [Footnote: _The Specification of Iditol_.
Iditol being the name of an imaginary chemical discovery.] a
"precious" poet and a good critic, where he adopts the methods of the
film-drama with its rapid development and complicated plot, and
carefully avoids everything picturesque or striking in his style. But
the common run of fiction in the Soviet magazines continues as it
was, and it is to be feared that there is something intrinsically
opposed to the "perfective" narrative in the constitution of the
contemporary Russian novelist.


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