Blogging from BASEES

The end of term has arrived and with it the BASEES annual conference, so here I am in Cambridge in the slightly unlovely environs and overheated rooms of Fitzwilliam College. To be fair, they have made a lot of improvements to the college since I first visited BASEES as a tender postgrad, and it is looking more attractive than usual, with lots of daffodils in bloom near the new library. And the college cat, who looks remarkably like my cat Chicken, has been very friendly. But the bedrooms are still way too hot.

Today I gave a paper on a Chekhov panel, in which all three speakers in different ways addressed questions about knowledge, meaning and insight, and, curiously, the same topics arose later in Robert Chandler’s reading from his new translation of Vassily Grossman’s Everything Flows. This seems to happen quite often — different people end of thinking about similar themes in different texts and contexts at the same time. It makes me wonder whether our readings are only products of the moment.

But most interesting of all was the discussion at the end of Robert’s reading, when we turned to the question of the ubiquity of dismissive and rather patronizing circumstantial explanations for curious aspects of Russian literary texts — ‘such-and-such wrote like x because of the censorship’, etc, or in this case, Everything Flows gradually turns from a novel to a historical essay because Grossman was dying and wanted to fit in as much as he could. One member of the audience suggested this tendency was mainly a non-specialist viewpoint, but I’m not so sure. For instance, the censorship argument is regularly wheeled out by specialists to account for the discrepancy between Gorianchikov in the introductory frame narrative of Dostoevsky’s Notes from the House of the Dead, where he is described as having murdered his wife, and in much of the rest of the novel, where there are suggestions that he is (as Dostoevsky was) a political prisoner.

Such explanations assume both that these writers are simply slap-dash, and that the only thing of any importance in their texts is the ‘message’, which must be entirely on the surface. The problem with this way of thinking is not that it’s facile (although it is), but that it doesn’t get you anywhere. Perhaps Dostoevsky did introduce Gorianchikov as a wife-murderer as a ruse to get round the censorship, but so what? Those sorts of circumstances are entirely coincidental to our interpretations, and in fact close down interpretation. Going back to Grossman, Everything Flows may be unfinished, but it seems to me that he created a really unusual form of narrative by incorporating historical analysis alongside the personal story. We should be looking at how the text as we have it works, not suggesting that it is in some way a reflection of the author’s incompetence.

Tomorrow I’m very much looking forward to a panel on visualizations of imprisonment in Russia, and hopefully I will have time to write about that at some point.

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