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'Grotesque Realism' in Russian literature reflected social turmoil

Tuesday, February 06, 2018

LAWRENCE — Historians agree that the failure of Tsar Alexander II’s Great Reforms of 1861-1874 put into motion events that set the stage for the Russian Revolution years later. Now a new book attempts to quantify the effect of this national, political and social disappointment on Russian literature.

Ani Kokobobo, University of Kansas assistant professor of Slavic languages & literatures, has coined the term “grotesque realism” for some of the important novels of this period. It’s in the title of her new book, “Russian Grotesque Realism: The Great Reforms and the Gentry Decline” (2018, The Ohio State University Press).

In the book’s introduction, Kokobobo cites Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s allegorical chronicle, “The History of a Town” (1870), in which one of the characters, the governor of Foolsville (i.e., Russia), is depicted with his head detached from his body and a music box inserted in its place.

In this way, Kokobobo writes, “Saltykov-Shchedrin captured his disillusionment with Russia’s authoritarian leaders and the arbitrariness of their leadership.”

Kokobobo’s book deals with works by “the geniuses” of this period – Dostoyevsky’s “Brothers Karamazov” and “Demons” and Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” and “Resurrection.” But she said she also wanted to expand the book’s purview beyond them to address how they fit “within a larger trend” of grotesque realism. To that end, she also examines Ivan Goncharov’s “The Precipice,” Nikolai Leskov’s “Cathedral Folk” and Saltykov-Shchedrin’s “The Golovlyov Family.”

Kokobobo cautions modern readers to recall that even if they were ultimately unsuccessful, the dislocations caused by the Tsar’s Great Reforms – most notably the freeing of millions of serfs from slavery and the resultant decline of the aristocracy — were substantial.

“It’s like the American Civil War, only instead of having a war, the Tsar just did it,” she noted.

Kokobobo said she wanted to show the effect this social ferment had on Russian literature.

“There were all these groups — the populists, the nihilists — that were very much about destroying the establishment, and part of what I am saying is that the novel is doing something similar,” Kokobobo said. “It’s also railing against the establishment, just less overtly.”

Kokobobo said she has been thinking about this period in Russian literature for years.

“I was thinking, ‘Why did the Russian novel come to an end at the end of the 19th century, in a certain iteration, the great realist novel?’ I think in a way you have the writers filled with this anti-establishment sentiment that comes out in the form of the grotesque. You have these people who had been the protagonists for years who appear as deformed versions of themselves.”

Saltykov-Shchedrin’s mechanical-human hybrid is somewhat of an anomaly, Kokobobo said, because generally there is nothing supernatural going on with the characters in the books she writes about.

“Everything looks normal, but there is something off,” she said. “So it’s not supernatural or fantastic, just your day-to-day monstrosity. The things we do day to day that are … caricatures. …  A lot of it is on the psychological level. There’s always a rational explanation for it. You’re not going to get a monster, but it’s a type of monstrosity. It’s a type of psychological disassociation, numbing, obsessional materialism, some kind of disease of the soul. That’s how I define the psychological qualities of the grotesque.”

This period marks a change in tone from the important Russian novels that preceded it, Kokobobo argues.

“I always thought of the Russian novel as a place for the soul and soulful evolution, spiritual searches,” she said. “Actually, a lot of these characters are really damaged. They have no access to their soul. They’re degraded, materialistic, fixated on money, food, the body. They’re leading semi-animalistic lives. Or they’re just really detached, like they are wearing masks. They are not really emotionally, spiritually present. They go through their lives in an automaton-like manner, robotic.”

Image: Three grotesque old men with awful teeth pointing and grimacing at each other. Colored stipple engraving by John Collier, 1810. Credit: Wellcome Collection.

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