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Persisting in Folly

Russian Writers in Search of Wisdom, 1963–2013

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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 7: In Search of Maturity: The fool and his brother (Terekhov, Pavlov, Sadulaev, Makanin, Sharov)

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CHAPTER 7

In Search of Maturity: The fool and his brother (Terekhov, Pavlov, Sadulaev, Makanin, Sharov)

Not all authors writing during and after the collapse of communism have settled for the refuge of solipsism. In the work of many outstanding writers of the period, characteristic traits of the protagonists and narrators considered so far in this volume have been retained; but as the ‘underground’ culture that fostered authorial self-identification with the fool emerged into the unsheltered, unstable and less starkly polarized Russia of the post-glasnost years these traits have been tested in new ways. The male protagonist – still a socially marginal figure, still self-absorbed, still in many cases infantile – has been forced into social engagement, eliciting unsuspected violence at one extreme and a new sense of responsibility at the other. In the two synoptic chapters that follow, we slowly move away from the radical subjectivity of samizdat literature to patterns more traditional in Russian literature, where ‘the individual is crucial not primarily for him or herself, but as representative of a larger group’.1 We observe a gradual shift in emphasis away from the individual towards the community, from self to other, together with the transition, attempted if not necessarily achieved, from childishness to maturity.

Strikingly, motifs of foolishness have remained pivotal to these developments; they are not ‘outgrown’, but reconfigured. If the wise fools of unsanctioned prose – notably Venichka and Nymphea – have a self-sufficient wholeness about them, figured in their combination...

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