The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

There's a book recently published in Russia, titled Литературный авангард русского Парижа. 1920—1926. История. Хроника. Антология. Документы. Written by Leonid Livak and Andrei Ustinov, it is 992 pages of history, chronicles, anthologies and documents pertaining to the great Russian diaspora in Paris between 1920-1926. By all accounts (including this review, by Vasily Molodyakov, from which I've shamelessly and poorly translated this article), it is a tour-de-force, a seminal work, a book that shreds the usual templates of study of emigre Russian literature.

What sort of avant-garde? the Soviets would say. Sure, a bunch of Russians legged it after the Revolution - some to Berlin initially, and then to Paris - and they may have written a thing or two.  Bunin, Kuprin, Shmelev, Zaitsev, Aldanov... The Soviets claimed that the real literature remained in Russia. The emigres were undeserving pretenders filled with nostalgia for their homeland; talented painters bemoaned their exile or returned with tails between their legs; the youth there was effete. The Soviets would bring up Marina Tsvetaeva, that most avant-garde of poets: what did emigration do for her?

Viktor Bart, Sergei Romov, Konstantin Tereshkovich. Founders of the group "Через" (1923).
The emigres would counter that the Soviets had defiled the avant-garde. The diaspora carried with it the forces of Russian tradition and the legacy of its great classical literature. The youth may quest for modernity, but the majority of them prefer to follow the great preceptors. Those who behave are published in "Modern Notes", while those who don't appear in "Numbers". This version of the argument is canonised by Adamovich and Gleb Struve after the second world war. The other version, that emigre literature is weak and ineffectual, and that the real literature is in Russia, is canonised in the English-language "Modern Russian Literature" by Marc Slonim.
"Merry Dynamite", manuscript by Dovid Knut. 1923.

So why do we have a thousand-page exposition from Livak and Ustinov? Well, for one thing, it illuminates little-known aspects of the Russian emigre experience, not just artistic but also literary. It overturns the myth of the absence of the avant-garde abroad, or of its marginalisation or insignificance. The Russian avant-garde was active, visible, powerful: "Gataparak", "The Palace of Poets", the Union of Russian Artists in France. But until 1924, the literary life of the Russian youth in Paris had three characteristic features: 1) an absence of anti-Soviet sentiment among the organisers and participants in the artistic groups; 2) a markedly pronounced popularity of the Soviet avant-garde in literature (Futurism) and art (Constructivism); and 3) close ties with the French Dadaist movement." (page 16).
Portrait of Mikhail Larionov by Man Ray. (1922-23).

The book also disposes of the myth that Russian Paris was somehow lesser than the Russian Berlin in 1921-23. The two capitals were not in opposition to each other; rather they were in consonance. And how could they not be, given that the same personages drove the avant-garde in both places?

Who were these people? You can learn nearly everything you might ever want about them, because nearly 3/4 of the book is comprised of the texts of the heroes of the avant-garde, the poetry and experimental prose of ten authors: Valentin Parnakh, Sergei Sharshun, Mark Talov, Georgi Evangulov, Alexander Ginger, Dovid Knut, Boris Bozhnev, Boris Poplavsky, Ilya Zdanevich and Vladimir Sveshnikov. Some of the text has appeared in print before, but gathered in one place, they offer a wonderful view. Another 250 pages deal with manifestoes, essays, letters as well as a reprint of all four volumes of the rare journal "Udar" ("Impact") by Sergei Romov. This sort of a Russian diaspora we haven't known. And such a Russian avant-garde we haven't known.


Post a Comment