HOME       Eng: bio biblio essays fiction reviews Rus:


Alexander ZHOLKOVSKY (USC, Los Angeles)


I was flattered by Caryl Emersons invitation to speak about my work in progress and am honored to participate in this distinguished panel. I was not sure what specifically to speak about and I am afraid I will act as the proverbial nudnik who, when asked How are you today?, starts recounting in earnest his ailments. Indeed, after seventy usually there is a lot to complain about.

I am involved in several projects and will briefly list them. In all of these, I proceed from a set of, I must confess, naïve, obsolete and unpopular ideas developed decades ago together with my friend and co-author Professor Yuri Shcheglov, who died in Madison, Wisconsin, almost two years ago at 72. Namely, that the literary text expresses themes, has structure, conveys themes via motifs belonging to the referential, stylistic, intertextual and pragmatic planes, relies on expressive devices, is rooted in archetypal topoi, and involves iconic use of formal means. And that the rest is, as Paul Verlaine would say, literary criticism.

1. One major work in progress is editing and publishing two collections of the late Yuri Shcheglovs studies, both in Russia. Shcheglov is mostly known for his now classic annotations to the Ostap Bender saga (the third, definitive edition came out posthumously in St. Petersburg) and less known for his two other monographs, on Ovids Metamorphoses and on the oeuvre of Antioch Kantemir. What is being collected and published now are some fifty articled scattered in Russian, American and European Slavic publications, -- a treasure-trove of scholarly gems. To cite one example, a brief essay on Voinovichs Ivan Chonkin introduces a new theoretical concept: the administrative mode of narrative, i. e. one that unfolds not through the actual actions and movements of the characters but rather through the movement of their dossiers. As examples Shcheglov briefly considers Leskovs Chelovek na chasakh [On Sentry Duty] (1887), Tolstoys Hadji Murat (1896) and Tynyanovs Podporuchik Kizhe [Second Lieutenant Asfor] (1927). Other articles are about prose, poetry, and drama by Russian and foreign authors: Ovid, La Rochefoucault, Moliere, Victor Hugo, Derzhavin, Pushkin, Akhmatova, Chekhov, Zoshchenko, Dobychin, Bulgakov and some others. Working on these two collections (to come out from NLO and RGGU) is a really rewarding process. Imagine being the first to contemplate in their entirety Nabokovs commentaries on Eugene Onegin, which, incidentally, barely made it into print.

2. Parallel to this, I am also bringing out my own collected essays on the poetry of Boris Pasternak. The point of this decades-long project is portraying the poetic world of the author in all of its aspects: identifying the central themes, the set of invariant motifs, with special reference to the poetry of grammar, and formulating in these terms comprehensive monographic analyses of individual poems from the major periods of the poets oeuvre. To cite just one example of the approach, in analyzing Pasternaks Veter [The Wind] (1954) from the Zhivago cycle I focus, among other things, on one odd element of the rhyme scheme: line 4, about the separate pine-tree, ends in the word otdelno, separately, contrary to the rules of rhyming, as it yields the sequence of rhymes abbc.

  1 , .
  2 , ,
  3 .
  4 ,
  6 ,
  8 .
10 ,
12 .

But this kholostaia, literally, single, unmarried, clausula, actually starts a new series of rhymes, one that will successfully end the entire poem. The poem as a whole is precisely about not leaving the heroine alone, in keeping with Pasternaks general invariant theme of the unity of existence. In this case, the overcoming of separation relies also on the famous intertextual -- from Heinrich Heine and Lermontov -- pine-tree longing for the distant palm tree. Pasternaks poetic world in a nutshell. (Remarkably, out of the seven extant English translations, only one did keep the odd line effect the one supervised by Professor Markov.)

3. Two articles in the Pasternak book are linked to another project: a survey of Pasternaks infinitive poetry and the analysis of one particular infinitive poem, Raskovannyi golos [The unchained voice] (1915). Pasternak was among the many modernist poets who paid tribute to the upsurge in infinitive writing in the 1910s, the best known instance probably being Alexander Bloks Greshit besstydno, neprobudno [To sin shamelessly] (1914).

What is infinitive poetry? I introduced the concept some 10 years ago to describe poems written exclusively or predominantly in infinitive sentences, -- imagine Hamlets soliloquy governed exclusively by such forms.

To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end then? To die; to sleep;
No more; and, by a sleep to say we end
The heart-ache <................................>
<..............................> To die; to sleep;
To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there's the rub...

Impressed by an infinitive poem of a living poet, Sergei Gandlevskii, Ustroitsia na avtobazu [To get a job at a car park] (1985) and unimpressed by two leading critics who saw as its intertexts only two specific Russian poems, namely, the already mentioned Bloks Greshit.., and the relatively recent Joseph Brodskys Roditsia by sto let nazad [Oh, to be born a hundred years ago] (1971), I started looking for invariants, in this case, obviously, grammatical ones. And I discovered that the tradition of infinitive writing went all the way back to Trediakovskii, borrowed by him from his French originals, gained momentum in Pushkins time (to an extent it is there in the very first stanza of Onegin, and fully blown in Onegins letter to Tatiana), it reached an important watershed in Afanasii Fets Odnim tolchkom sognat ladiu zhivuiu [To chase with one push the live boat] (1887), became a rave in the Silver Age and continues unabated to this day.

My project is compiling a representative annotated anthology of Russian infinitive poetry about 500 poems, by about 200 poets, written over the three centuries. This work is still in progress, but many excerpts have been published in the form of articles on the theoretical issues of infinitive poetry and on the infinitive legacies of individual authors. It is a dozen or so articles. One of the sticky points in the work on the anthology is finding a balance between just showcasing the poems and deploying an appropriate metalanguage. The latter is needed for formulating the various infinitive structures and their semantic haloes, because the entire concept is basically a fusion of two seminal ideas of Russian structuralist poetics: the Jakobsonian poetry of grammar and the Taranovsky/Gasparov study of the semantic haloes of verse meters. In my articles, I discuss in detail the semantic import of various infinitive structures, here let me just state the most generic theme of all infinitive writing, a meditation on a certain alternative mode of being. An interesting byproduct of the study is naming the hall-of-famers of the genre: Balmont, Voloshin, and Alexander Kushner, with scores of infinitive poems.

Let me stress that I consider this project interdisciplinary. Unfortunately, in todays conventional wisdom, the importance of linguistics is negligible and the professions entire interdisciplinary attention is focused on the visual, the bodily, cinema, ballet etc. Well, folks, let me tell ya that linguistics is our bread and butter, like it or not.

4.The next item, I guess, should be my resumed interest in studying the iconic projection of poetic meaning onto the various formal structures, be it of versification or grammar. I have recently taken up what I did in the article entitled How to Show Things with Words (1978). The separateness effect that I mentioned in connection with Pasternaks pine-tree is, of course, one such case. And I just published an article on other similar effects, among them, on the treatment of the word otdelnyi in a popular poem and song Belorusskii vokzal [The Bielorussian station] by Bulat Okudzhava, written for the eponymous film (1970).


I tried to identify all the subtle syntactic, lexical, phraseological and versification means which make the word otdelnyi stand out as a really separate one.

Another related article, coming out soon, is on Pushkins eight-liner Gorod pyshnyi, gorod bednyi [City pompous, city poor] (1828):

, ,
, ,



There the opposition of the large (the city) and the small (the beloved) hinges on the crucial use of synecdoche. Of course, the poems overall effect also relies on other structural patterns, as well as some archetypal motifs. Among the latter is the biblical one of the sinful city redeemable by just a few righteous inhabitants, in this case, one. Think of Gods pledge to Abraham to spare Sodom and Gomorrah (from Genesis 18: 24-32). Another archetypal topos involved is that of the city visualized as a woman. One famous example is Babylon as a whore (Revelations of St. John, 17).

5. By speaking about the role of archetypal subtexts I have actually moved on to yet another type of study I have been engaged in, namely, the monographic analysis of individual poems, in which I try to cover it all, that is, the top-to-bottom thematic and expressive structure of the text. A book of such analyses came out a year ego: Novaia i noveishaia russkaia poeziia [Modern and recent Russian poetry] (RGGU, 2009). In the press is another collection of articles on Russian poetry and this time also prose entitled: [Confrontations with Authority Figures] (forthcoming from RGGU later this year.) The prose works are by Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Leskov, Chekhov, Bunin, Bulgakov, Zoshchenko, Platovov, Nabokov and Iskander.

In one of the essays, an analysis of Leskovs Chelovek na chasakh, I am trying to develop Shcheglovs insight into the structure of administrative narrative that I mentioned earlier. I introduce additionally the concepts of vertical and horizontal dimensions of such narrative movement. I also discuss the way such replacement of sequences of events with the transmission of information is relevant to our todays world, where image making and various spins rather than facts are the order of the day. One new piece is about Fazil Iskanders pantomimic narrative, which I found to be a pattern recurrent throughout his prose.

6. The last but far from least item on my agenda is a continued effort in the area of literary pragmatics. It is related to what is known as the study of life-creation, , -- with the difference that the focus is not on just documenting some artistic behaviors in the poets real life, but rather on viewing the entire artistic output of the life-creative poet, that is his/ her life and works, as one whole artistic product to be studied as a work of fiction. The important corollary is that this creation should be analyzed precisely as such, that is as a skillfully constructed act thus lending itself to demythologizing. Subjected to this procedure should be not only the poets oeuvre, but, what is sometimes more painful, the corresponding scholarship, which takes the poets act at face value and thus dooms itself to perpetuating and cultivating the poets myth rather than developing its independent analysis. As a result of such self-delusional approach, this kind of scholarship leaves many stones unturned, so that a free-thinking scholar has ample opportunity to make discoveries where one could expect everything to have been already discovered.

My favorite patch of this vast field is Anna Akhmatova. In a recent article about the epilogue of her Requiem (1940).

, :
( ),

I tried to make sense of a striking cluster of literary topoi. I had, first of all, to identify those topoi, preexistent to Akhmatovas design (unfortunately, I dont have the time to talk about them). Only after that was it possible to unravel the pragmatically crucial combination of several contradictory desires: to claim not to want a posthumous monument, to ask for it, and to capriciously indicate where it should and should not be erected. Once again, the point is not to morally judge the poet, as some of my opponents ascribe to me, but by pinpointing precisely the poets stance (in Akhmatovas case, a narcissistic obsession with control) in order to gain a vantage perspective on what is actually happening in the poets world and, thus, to be able to identify the specific motifs at play.

As I sought to make clear, the six topics I am working on Shcheglovs legacy, Pasternak, infinitive poetry, iconic expression, monographic analysis and demythologization are all part of a single project: studying the way themes are conveyed by texts, be these plots, narratives, syntactic structures or life-into-art behaviors. If I have bored you with this, please, believe me, that annual activities report is not my favorite genre. Those who for some reason are not sufficiently bored, are welcome to visit my web-site, the maintaining of which is the seventh and last item of my agenda. To end on a really grand note, in the words of the classic, , , . , , . , .