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My work (3)

The articles and papers section (see list on the right), has a new addition, Shalamov’s symbolism, which I presented at a conference a couple of years ago. This is an on-going piece of work and ultimately it will form the basis of one of the chapters of my book on Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales. Anyway, it finally gives me chance to talk a bit about my current work.

I’ve been studying Gulag narratives for several years and I’m interested in the works of various survivors and others who wrote about the Gulag — in particular, the experimental and generically peculiar writings associated with labour camp memoirs/experiences, from Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead and Chekhov’s Sakhalin Island to, in the Soviet period, Grossman’s Everything Flows (look out for the wonderful new translation of this by Robert Chandler, soon to be published by NYRB), Abram Terts’s Voice from the Chorus and Sergei Dovlatov’s The Zone. One might also include Solzehnitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago in this list. While I’m intermittently working on and teaching all these texts (in my MA course on labour camp prose), the six collections of short stories that form Shalamov’s Kolyma Tales fascinate me more than anything else, and as I realized that all my ideas were revolving around his work, I thought I’d better write a book on it. The others will have to wait.

For such an important writer, Shalamov has attracted very little critical attention, which is one very good reason for writing a book on him. Another is that the work that has been done on him so far never seems to get to the real point. A lot of it focuses narrowly on individual stories, and while there is material for analysis, the results are frequently one-dimensional and lack substance. At the other end of the scale, there are studies that analyse the structure of the tales as collections, but they tend to be so broad that the extraordinary nature of the stories — the combination of violence, terseness, and lyricism that borders on beauty in spite of the subject matter — tends to get lost altogether. There are other problems too, but I’ll leave those for another day.

It took me several years to learn how to read Shalamov and to understand that it’s all about the connections, the repetitions and the gaps between the stories, but now it seems to me quite obvious that it’s necessary to examine the parts in relation to the whole. I’m interrogating the texts in various ways in order to work out the significance of such features, focusing, for example, on recurring characters and themes. Most recently I’ve been word-crunching with concordances (my thanks to John Levin for setting these up for me) and am starting to think about other digital tools which will help me to both find, visualize and interpret the points of connection. The paper I’ve posted represents an earlier stage in the development of my analysis — as the title suggests, it’s about the significance of recurring symbolism, on both a structural and a thematic level.

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