Russian Writers in Search of Wisdom, 1963–2013
The theme of foolishness has long occupied an unusually prominent place in Russian culture, touching on key questions of national, spiritual, and intellectual identity. In literature, the figure of the fool – and the voice of the fool – has carried additional appeal as an enduring source of comic and stylistic innovation. Never has this appeal been stronger than in the past half-century, whether as a reaction to the «scientific atheism» and official culture of the late-socialist era, or as a response to the intellectual and moral disorientation that accompanied the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Persisting in Folly traces three contrasting phases within this period: the «praise of folly» that underpins acknowledged samizdat masterpieces by Venedikt Erofeev, Yuz Aleshkovsky, and Sasha Sokolov; the sceptical appraisals of the Russian cult of the fool offered in the 1980s by Viktor Erofeev and Dmitry Galkovsky; and the legacy of this conflicted tradition in post-Soviet prose. By combining close readings with a rich comparative and contextual framework, this book charts a new path through recent Russian literature and offers a wide-ranging consideration of the causes and consequences of Russian writers’ enduring quest for wisdom through folly.
Chapter 1: From the Underground Man to Dame Folly: The Erasmian irony of Moscow-Petushki
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From the Underground Man to Dame Folly: The Erasmian irony of Moscow-Petushki
The most effervescent current of Russian prose since the 1920s had its source in a technical innovation. In two short comic masterpieces written almost simultaneously at the turn of the 1970s – Venedikt Erofeev’s Moscow-Petushki (Moskva-Petushki, 1969–70) and Yuz Aleshkovsky’s Nikolai Nikolaevich (1970; see Chapter 2) – the narrator no longer mediates between authorial wisdom and the foolishness of the protagonist, as he does in the fiction of Voinovich and Shukshin: he is the fool, the dominant character, the authorial stand-in, and the chief source of wisdom, bringing in his wake the reconciliation of other fundamental dichotomies – between intelligentsia and narod, city and country, Russia and West, and even (in Venichka’s case) male and female. From these samizdat classics, and especially Moscow-Petushki, a long series of diverse novels, novellas and stories would follow, each ‘told’, as it were, by an ‘idiot’.
In addition to their spectacular linguistic originality, Moscow-Petushki and Nikolai Nikolaevich introduced a new unpredictability and theatricality to Russian prose, a new stage on which the author could both reveal himself and hide, and a new means of burying seriousness in levity. A contention of both the following chapters (but developed at greatest length here) is that, in their very different ways, Erofeev and Aleshkovsky transformed native cultural models by reviving a mode of comic, performative writing whose closest antecedent, in certain essential respects, can be found...
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