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Mysterious Russian Realism: International Conference "Effects of Verisimilitude: Modes of Russian Realism"

Professors from Stanford and New York Universities speak of the Conference at School of Philology

On September 22-23, 2017, the School of Philology hosted the International Conference on Russian Realism, entitled “Effects of Verisimilitude” which brought together researchers from Higher School of Economics (Moscow and St Petersburg campus), St Petersburg State University, Russian State University for the Humanities, Lomonosov Moscow State University, Stanford University, New York University, University of British Columbia, St Andrews University and others.

HSE graduate students Maxim Lepekhin and Olga Nechaeva interviewed two participants, professor Gabriella Safran from Stanford and professor Ilya Kliger from New York University.   

Gabriella Safran, Professor in Jewish Studies, Slavic Languages and Literatures, Stanford University

- When and why did you start studying Russian realism?

I started studying Russian realism in graduate school. I was a graduate student at Princeton, and my advisor, Caryl Emerson,specialist in the 19th century, taught a class on the 19th century genres. I remember that I just loved Leskov and his “Levsha”, I just fell in love with it. I had always thought that I was going to study modernism. I came to graduate school thinking I would study modernism. I had an undergraduate thesis on Mandelshtam and I thought “Modernism, definitely, 20th century”, and then something about Leskov just drew me in and I ended up planning a dissertation on Leskov, and then I did research in St Petersburg, and it turned into a dissertation on Jewish assimilation in Russian prose in 1870-80s. But I realized that there was something very fascinating for me about that period, the second half of the 20th century and the ways in which these writers were working to capture a world that was changing very rapidly using language that was also changing rapidly. I think I realized that the realist writers were just as exciting and creative and surprising as the modernist writers that I had been drawn to before. Maybe they were more creative than exciting. And I think I was also very drawn to the less elite nature of realism. I realized that as I got older, I was really drawn to the way that 19th century realists were working to speak to a large public that was itself in a process of becoming literate. So I was very drawn to the interest of the realists in the process of reading and in literacy and the question of how do you reach, how do you speak to readers who were not necessarily literate, you know, as children, and maybe whose parents were illiterate – how can you speak to those people?

 - Have you tried to study realistic prose of the 20th century?

A little bit. I think I like the 20th century more, it’s more exciting. Also, a lot about the 20th century in Russia is very sad. I’m not sure I have enormous desire to read the kind of sad documentary realism that you find so much of in the Russian 20th century. Whereas I find that the realism of the 19th century fundamentally more optimistic and less sad.

- In your opinion, which directions are the most prospective in this field of study?

 I really liked Tatyana Dmitrievna Venediktova’s paper, I was very taken with the way that she was working to bring together a lot of different approaches to realism and the way that she really was concluding ultimately that realism is a function of the reader rather than the writer, that realist texts ask for a certain kind of active reading. Thus, the active reader is the hero of the realist texts. I think that’s a very productive path for the study of realism because it’s new, it allows us to think about the texts in their world and in our world. It allows for our understanding of them not to be limited to what they meant in the 1870s and 80s. Of course, I’m very fascinating by what these realist texts meant in the 1870s and 80s, but working with American students, who do not have a very intense historical understanding of Russia, I’m always interested in giving them literary approaches, literary theoretical approaches, that they can use themselves without feeling so ignorant that they give up. But at the same time this seems to me to be a literary approach that is both useful today and quite valid in relation to the 19th century.

- And the approach that you presented – has it ever been applied to the 19th century?

You mean my interest in paper and media archeology. Yes, this is a pretty productive approach for English language literature. I’m inspired by two fields that are both are very developed in English language scholarship. On the one hand, sound studies, which is a field populated largely by historians who were interested in how sound works, how sound worked in a past. These historians tend to use literary materials. There are a lot of historians writing sound in the 19th century in France, the field really began with French scholars, in England, in the United States, in Latin America, Japan. So far, there have not really been very much sound studies written about Russia. Maybe about the 20th century, but not about the 19th century. But it’s very productive for other parts of the world, and I see no reason why we can’t use Russian materials for this.

And then I’m also very inspired by media studies and media archeology. And again, a lot has been written about the late 19th century, not so much about the early 19th century, in relation to the United Stated, England, Germany. Friedrich Kittler, all the followers of Kittler – they do media archeology. There is really a wonderful book by Leah Price about paper in the 19th century in English literature, where she talks in great detail about everything that people did with paper and with books. You know, you can weight thing down with books, you can throw books at people, you can hit people over the head with books. Maybe the book might be called „How to Do Things with Books“ or „How to Do Thing with Paper“. She traces all the ways in which book are understood in the 19th century in English literature as material objects, paper as a material object. It’s not only a vehicle for the written word, but it does and has done too many other things. I’m not going to write that book for Russian, because my interests are more about the content, but I’m inspired by that author. I do think it’s a productive way forward. Maybe this is because I am at Stanford, it’s a very technologically oriented university in the most technologically oriented part of the United States, in Silicon Valley. I find that my students are excited by this kind of media technological approaches to literature.

- What can Russian and American scientists add to the study of Russian realism? Is there any difference in approaches?

 Of course, there are differences because of distance. I guess I have a kind of materialist approach to the texts, so I’m very jealous of you, Russian scholars, who can go to the archives. You can sit there and look at the paper, and if the archivists are very nice to you, they will give you the originals. You can feel the paper, and you can really get a sense of the material circumstances of writers, the material spaces in which they lived. I think weather matters for literature, I’m inspired by all the writing in English departments in the United States about geography, climate, how people write about the weather. You can think more about the 19th century weather in Russia, if you’re in Russia. Certainly, for this paper related approach you have so much more access to the sources here. So that’s the advantage of being in Russia. In the United States, we’re far away from the archives, and so maybe we have to be more inventive, maybe what we can add is the kinds of scholarships that you produce when you don’t have access to the archives and you have to see what can you get out of the text itself.

- How did you like the conference?

Oh, I’m enjoying the conference very much. It’s a real pleasure to hear different voices, people with different approaches, different interests. I’m really enjoying the variety of both of theoretical approaches displayed by the scholars at this conference and the variety in the sources that they are speaking about. Many of the papers were about things that I had no idea about. I had no idea there was this „Uvarovskaya premiya“, I had never heard of Bergamasko. There are all these very new things for me, and that’s really a privilege. I also think that Alexey Vdovin (organizer. – HSE) is doing good job: running the conference and getting everyone to come together, leave the coffee-break, go back to the conference – this is always hard. He’s doing a good job.

 

Ilya Kliger, Associate Professor, Department of Russian and Slavic Studies, New York University

– What is your impression on the conference?

– First I should say that it is actually a part of a trilogy of conferences on realism. I do not think it was conceived like this but it is happening so. A year ago Alexey Vdovin, Anne Lounsbery, a number of other participants and me as a listener were all together at Yale on a conference organized by Molly Brunson who was supposed to be here as well. The title of the conference was “The Russian Century: The Literary, Visual, and Performing Arts, 1801–1917” and it was focused on the reconceptualization of the study of the nineteenth-century Russian artistic culture trough interdisciplinary research. Next we have this conference to which a number of participants from previous conferences and new ones were invited. Finally in November in New York there will be another conference that is also dedicated to realism. So, there are three conferences in a row devoted to the same topic. I hope that the reason behind this is a new generation of researchers who are interested in thinking through the problem of talking about realism in new ways. This conference shows us what is required for a real breakthrough in thinking about realism. On the one hand, scholars should take advantage of western conceptions of realism starting with the works of Georg Lukács up to the latest Fredric Jameson. Some of them have been mentioned here in a number of presentations but not entire range of them. On the other hand, western researchers should learn more about totally unknown to them but very rich Russian and Soviet heritage of theoretical constructs that have been very informative in reading realist texts and in particular novels. One example which comes to mine is a very famous new historicist literary critic Stephen Greenblatt who mentioned that he basically came up with much of his methodology after reading Yuri Lotman’s “The Decembrist in daily life”. So some of the things that have been happening here are pointing out that direction and a conversation between western and Russian approaches is ongoing.  

– Why your research interests do lie in the sphere of Russian realism and what exactly do you study now?

– I came to Russian studies from comparative background. My PhD is in comparative literature, so I try to think of the Russian novelistic nineteenth century tradition in comparative context. Right now I am trying to return to the questions of specificities of national traditions and I am comparing Russian novelistic tradition with French and English through the prism of social and political theory, through questions like the relations of the author to the literary process, to the civil society, to the institutions of the family or to the state. This work lies in a paradigm of what is now called world literature. I am trying to understand how conditions in Russia were favorable to the migration of the novel form here.  One can call this process a turn of form or its deformation (with no negative connotation).

– Can you give any specific examples?

– An unmanageable book project that I am working on now includes among other things a work on Belinsky and Belinsky’s circle and their reception of Hegel. It shows us the forms that early Russian realistic novels take. There are two articles: one of them is primarily dealing with Belinsky interpretation of Hegel’s political philosophy and the other one is dealing with the questions of genre and Hegel and Belinsky’s dialogue on that. Another example is the article I am writing now: it is about Turgenev’s “First love”. I make an attempt of reading this story as a kind of national political allegory and apply to it questions of despotism. The heroes of this story (Petr Vasilievich, his son Volodya, and Zinaida Zasyekina) represent a quite common triad for Russian realist texts in which the object of attachment of the protagonist belongs to somebody else and this becomes a political allegory. There are clear associations between Petr Vasilievich and sovereign power. I am trying to do a very close textual analysis which proves this idea. There are not only various kinds of lexical allusions to sovereign power but also explicit references to Caesar and Antony from Shakespeare’s text. Then it can be seen that on the level of the standard plot of socialization that Volodya is undergoing everything is warped. Volodya begins to occupy a place in which everything is delusion. This is of course a problem for realistic fiction in general: where and how person is going to be socialized. The socialization turns out to be actually loose, a kind of lie. Hopefully the article will come out and the real stake of the relationship between the father and the son who represent the sovereign and the subject will become clearer.

– What are the perspectives in the research of realism, in your opinion? What are the most interesting directions here?

– The first two directions are non-canonical texts and the corpus. Good examples here are the works of Kirill Zubkov and Alexey Vdovin. I like them both in different ways. One of the things I really admire about Kirill’s research is that he goes into texts that were never published. Alexey is interested in putting together corpus of novels which we desperately need – Victorians have it while we do not. In addition to these two directions I would name historical poetics – the tradition of putting elements of form and zoom out them. The examples are the works by such scholars as Veselovsky, Bakhtin and several other western researchers. Katherine Bowers’ presentation was on the same line – she studies how older forms reappear in the real secularized context, in her case it is the gothics. Another example is Valeria Sobol from the University of Illinois who was mentioned here as well. She is also currently working on the gothic in realist novel. Partly Boris Maslov’s work and my own work fit in here a bit as well. I am interested in tragedy which is in some way more complicated because it is a longer tradition, so it is needed to be understood in its dynamism, in its variability. The last interesting direction in my view is interdisciplinary approach. Molly Brunson who organized a conference at Yale is writing a book about realist perspective in Russian narrative and realistic art. She already wrote the book about the relationship of Russian realism in fiction and Russian realism in painting which maintain a very close connection to each other. I think this multimedia attitude to realism is very productive. Molly is probably unique in Slavic studies in that respect but for example in French studies there is Peters Books who wrote a book in realism in visuals and there are other scholars as well.

– Is there any difference in the approaches of the study of realism in Russia and in the West?

– In the West (in the USA, England in particular) there is a direct interest in realism as a tool for social construction. Maybe it has been changed slightly now but it has been vivid for the last forty years. Tatiana Venediktova mentioned here that there is a certain set up of conventions and agreements about how things are and should be in the world which is drawn upon and forced by realist texts. I can name here Franco Moretty with his book “The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture”. Other prominent practitioners are Nancy Armstrong who writes about Victorian fiction and Margaret Cohen who writes about French tradition. All three of them as well as others scholars are quite interested in the process in which literary texts reinforce the reality. If you open the journals like “Novel” which is one of the leading journals now especially in Victorian fiction you will find a lot of works thinking of novels through the prism of Marxist or Freudian theories for example. Currently Giorgio Agamben becomes important as well as late Michel Foucault who writes about biopower. You see that grand social theorists become important thinkers for theorists of the novel. To my mind this broad swiping of theoretical paradigms is not so popular in Russia. Russian scholars do amazing work but their research tend to be more specialized, oriented to subtext which is a venerable Russian tradition. The most cutting edge theoretical journals in the States would not be very interested in such specialized works, they would prefer to publish something broader for better or for worse. I think it is partly because there is an idea that a larger number of people will read such articles whereas only few specialists are interested in more oriented Russian-style works. Also what matters here is an assumption that people in Russia have a very solid background and broader works would not be exotic. The reason for this difference is two distinct educational systems. In Russia you start your BSc already as a philologist and stay in philology for four years which is very different from an American model. There you have a major what means that you will have from four to eight courses in the field, but other courses will be from totally different spheres. It is so called liberal arts system. As the result American students do not have the same kind of mental background as Russians do.

– Does this conference format help the participants in the development of their own research?

– Very much it helps. I have full notebook of notes and ideas to think about. There were many references that people brought out that I have not heard about before. This conference has been extremely productive for me and I hope that for others as well. One of the nicest things is that conversations continue outside this room. In the big conferences you have very little time for discussion which is not the case here.