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Persisting in Folly

Russian Writers in Search of Wisdom, 1963–2013


Oliver Ready

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.

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Chapter 2: Not to Reason Why: Life against mind in the fiction of Yuz Aleshkovsky (Nikolai Nikolaevich, The Hand)


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Not to Reason Why: Life against mind in the fiction of Yuz Aleshkovsky (Nikolai Nikolaevich, The Hand)

The ‘morning burden’ (utrennyaya nosha) borne by Venichka, ‘which nobody has yet called by name’,1 is to be understood, of course, not just as a hangover or a vague spiritual malaise, but as the historical guilt of the intelligent towards the ‘people’ (narod), the same guilt which, we are told, has always driven Russian intellectuals to drink: ‘They drank because they were honest’, says Black Moustache, ‘because they were unable to relieve the lot of the common man.’2 Through his self-identification with the figure of the fool Venichka identifies with this ‘common man’. In earnest or in jest? This, too, is part of the poema’s indeterminable ambivalence. Just as Venichka’s quest for humility over pride can seem excessive, as if mocking the Slavophile cult of integrity and intuition, so too his failed journey and immersion in the narod on the train borders on a parody of the male, kenotic quest for intellectual self-humbling played out in the novels and lives of Platonov, Pasternak and many others. More specifically it carries echoes of Lev Tolstoy’s fateful flight from Yasnaya Polyana shortly before his own death, travelling by train in third class and throwing himself into conversations (and, eventually, lectures) with fellow passengers.

Do these hints of parody suggest, in reality, a certain snobbishness on Erofeev’s part? So one sometimes hears among former...

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