Sometimes, you need to look deep in the past to understand the present. It’s definitely true about art.Last week, I attended a curious talk at St Anthony College in Oxford, organised by the translator Oliver Ready. The speaker was a prominent Russian author Evgeny Vodolazkin, whose latest award-winning novel Laurus has just been translated to English by Lisa Hayden and published by Oneworld Publications. I briefly mention this book in my guide to modern Russian literature.
Vodolazkin talked about his professional subject – ancient Russian literature and its parallels with the present. The Bible, he said, influenced the entire medieval literature. Chronicles were written in biblical style: they were a history of Russian people, people’s report to the God and, at the same time, an attempt to explain the history to the future generations.
Vodolazkin talked about how ancient Russian literature is full of citations, fragments and compilations. The old content was used in writing new books. The books were re-written and copied with astonishing accuracy. The (re)writer stayed anonymous.
Dividing and combining of various texts from different sources was normal. There was no character per se in the ancient Russian literature, there was only a mechanical sum of human qualities, and one of them prevailed and dominated the mood of a fragment, for instance, it was praise or criticism.
The exact words were important, but not necessarily who said them and sometimes not even their context. There was no déjà vu in the books of Middle Ages, one could repeat the same thing over and over again and it was acceptable. The texts didn’t go obsolete, as they were constructed according to the same principle, so one could combine texts from different ages. There were no author styles, but there was the style of genre. The Tale of the Life (житие) or the Chronicle (летопись) – distinct genres.
For instance, a fragment of the life tale about one person could be used for a tale about another, if the biographical content was missing. Often, these two people were namesakes.
A similar thing occurs in modern Russian literature. In Shishkin’s Maidenhair there are four pages adapted from Vera Panova’s memoir, which, ironically, is called Mine and Mine Only (Моё и Только Моё).
Back to the medieval Russian literature. It is not fictional; it’s a literature of the fact. However, when there were gaps to fill in, the ancient writer would make things up the way he assumed the events happened, the way they were supposed to have happened. And readers believed those things.
Modern Russian literature aches to be more real, the confessional prose is on the rise. Real events are in fashion like in the old times. Biographies are very popular nowadays. Also, the fragmentary nature of modern Russian literature – mash up fiction, post-modernism, endless citations – makes it similar to medieval literature.
What is special about modern literature in Russia? If in the old times literature was heavily based on the Bible, the modern literature is based on the works of Russian masters and the books of the Soviet period.
When the Q&A started, I asked the author about his latest book, Laurus, and why it was written.
Vodolazkin said that he wrote it from the heart. He felt a compulsion to write about a kind, virtuous man. There is a lot of decadence, ‘shit’, and negativity in the modern literature. Vodolazkin intended to counter all that with a story of a saint, which he could only find in the medieval times.
In his opinion, literature is all about reaction, reflection, and it should raise questions and make readers attempt to answer them. In Laurus, Vodolazkin depicted a path that one could choose to follow or decide not to. The moral questions aside, the author tried to make it an exciting read.
Someone asked the speaker why the saint was a man, and not a woman. Vodolazkin said it was easier for him to write a male protagonist, though the story was not about a man, but a human. In fact, it was inspired by the life of Blessed Xenya of St Petersburg, who, after her husband had deceased, decided to live his life for him and wandered for 45 years, often wearing her husband’s uniform. So, in a way, Laurus is a ‘fool-for-Christ’ type of text (юродивый), so nobody would take it too serious. One shouldn’t not ‘portray’ a serious Wise Man, the seriousness should be inside.
Laurus took Vodolazkin three years to write. He felt exhausted after that, he didn’t think people will be much interested in reading it. Maybe a few. Now he thinks it is worth writing a book even for a few readers. I agree. If a book touches hearts of a few, they will pass it on and on. The book will live.
I’d like to conclude with quoting a fantastic review of Laurus:
LAURUS is, in one breath, a timeless epic, trekking the well-trodden fields of faith, love, and the infinite depth of loss and search for meaning. In another, it is pointed, touching, and at times humorous, unpredictably straying from the path and leading readers along a wild chase through time, language, and medieval Europe. Vodolazkin’s experimental style envelopes the reader, drawing them into a world far from their own, yet indescribably intimate…. Kaleidoscopic in his language and reach, Vodolazkin takes us on a journey of discovery and absolution, threaded together through the various, often mystical lives of Arseny as a healer, husband, holy fool, pilgrim and hermit…. Love is shown through loss; death through agelessness; words through silence; the human in the divine. In life’s extremities, Vodolazkin has found a subtle balance and uses it to impressive effect.
— Asymptote Journal