“Am I Like Ulysses?”: On José Vergara’s “All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature”
By Nataliya KarageorgosFebruary 28, 2022
All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature by José Vergara
but move, as before, backward.
— Joseph Brodsky, “I am like Ulysses”
IT TOOK ODYSSEUS 20 years to return to Ithaca, and James Joyce’s Ulysses had to wait 67 years before reaching the Russian reader. In both instances, a war contributed to the delay. In the novel’s case, it was the Cold War, as well as the Soviet establishment’s hostile attitude toward experimental prose. The first full Russian translation of Ulysses, by Viktor Khinkis and Sergei Khoruzhy, was published in 1989. The first full Russian translation of Finnegans Wake did not see the light of day until 2021, just a few months ago.
To read Joyce in the Soviet Union was indeed to tempt fate. It serves to remember that the novel was also banned for over a decade in the United States after its publication by Shakespeare and Company in Paris, but in the Soviet context, the stakes were higher. The widow of Igor Romanovich — a Russian translator who translated Ulysses for the journal International Literature in 1935 and perished in Stalin’s Gulag soon after — stated that he was arrested because of Joyce. The epitome of Western modernism, Joyce embodied all that the literary officials found hostile to the cultural demands of the Soviet state: formalism, pessimism, individualism, complexity, naturalism. “A pile of dung teeming with worms, photographed with a cinema apparatus through a microscope — that’s Joyce,” declared Karl Radek at the first All-Union Congress of Soviet Writers in 1934, a year after the US court ruled that the ban on Ulysses would be dropped.
Of course, when anything good is banned, it only becomes more desirable. José Vergara’s important new book, All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature, presents an illuminating account of the reception of a major figure of Western modernism not as a tale of prohibitions but as the history of resistance to them. This is not the first book on Joyce and Russia: Neil Cornwell’s James Joyce and the Russians (in English) and Ekaterina Genieva’s Russian Odyssey of James Joyce (in Russian) both provide historical and biographical materials on Joyce and the Russians. But Vergara is the first to explore in detail how Joyce’s texts served as a source of inspiration and a polemical tool for major Russian authors of the Soviet and post-Soviet eras. Cornwell’s book tells readers what Nabokov and Joyce spoke about when they met for dinner in Paris (surprisingly, nothing very interesting); Vergara’s book, on the other hand, will help them read Nabokov’s novels through a Joycean lens — a lens Nabokov had in mind when he wrote them.
All Future Plunges to the Past addresses five cases of Russian interaction with Joyce in fiction: Yury Olesha’s Envy, Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift, Andrei Bitov’s Pushkin House, Sasha Sokolov’s A School for Fools, and Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair. A common thread runs through all these intertextual responses: the Joycean theme of reinventing one’s heritage, which finds its expression in Stephen Dedalus’s project of adopting a new father.
The first Joycean case is Yury Olesha’s novella Envy (1927), in which the author tries to come to terms with the role of the artist in the new Soviet reality. The work has structural parallels with Ulysses: both begin with a scene in the bathroom and end with a version of a love triangle in the bedroom; both novels introduce the opposition between robust, down-to-earth characters (Buck Mulligan and Andrei Babichev) and individualistic, skeptical artists (Stephen Dedalus and Kavalerov). Most importantly, Olesha’s novel also centers the search for a father figure. Using Ulysses to probe the question of “whether or not one may change one’s history,” Olesha exhibits both admiration for Joyce’s modernist techniques and the realization that this literary paradigm is not compatible with the new political present of his country.
The second Joycean is Vladimir Nabokov, who met Joyce in person, taught his works, and alluded to Joyce in many of his novels. As Vergara points out, Nabokov even wrote to Joyce with an offer to translate Ulysses. He never got a response. Vergara reads Nabokov’s The Gift (1938), his last Russian novel, as a polemical rendition of Ulysses that Nabokov undertook in place of a literal translation. Fixated on a need to preserve his past, Nabokov’s protagonist takes an approach contrary to that of Stephen Dedalus, who “elects a literary forefather to detach himself from his real and would-be fathers.” Nabokov’s character instead chooses a literary father — Russia’s national poet, Pushkin — “to unite himself with his lost biological one.” “In his response to Joyce,” Vergara writes, “Nabokov repeatedly maintains the need to remain faithful to the fathers.”
The third Joycean case, Andrei Bitov’s Pushkin House, was written between 1964 and 1971, after the period of liberalization in the USSR known as the Thaw. At this time, Soviet authors gained greater access to and became reenchanted with Western modernism. After Stalin’s death in 1953, publication of the translation of Ulysses was still out of the question, but, in 1967, the first Soviet monograph on Joyce was published. The same year, Joseph Brodsky’s poem dedicated to another banned pillar of Anglo-American modernism, “Verses on the Death of T. S. Eliot,” was published in the annual Soviet almanac The Day of Poetry.
Vergara shows that Joyce figures as a source of anxiety in Bitov’s masterpiece, one of the first Russian postmodernist novels. Bitov’s protagonist, Leva Odoevtsev, can be seen as a parody of Stephen Dedalus. Like Stephen, Leva struggles to reject his biological father and seeks an alternative. As a literary scholar, Leva feels deficient — he is a latecomer, appearing on the scene after all the significant work has already been done. Joyce, who appears explicitly in this text, serves as the symbol of this belatedness. Vergara concludes that Ulysses is “emblematic of [Bitov’s] generation’s inability to catch up” after the protracted deep freeze of Stalinism.
The works of two contemporary Russian novelists, Sasha Sokolov (b. 1943) and Mikhail Shishkin (b. 1961), exhibit not only thematic but also stylistic traces of Joyceanism. The stream-of-consciousness technique, the stylized interludes, the split perspectives, and the catechisms found in their novels are recognizable features of Joycean modernism. Of all the authors discussed in All Future Plunges to the Past, Sokolov and Shishkin are the only ones who admit their admiration for Joyce openly. Shishkin, for example, tells Vergara directly that he visited the Foreign Literature Library and read Ulysses in English “to draw breath from the text.”
Stylistic nods to Joyce vary from text to text, but, as Vergara demonstrates, all Russian Joyceans are concerned with the old problem of fathers and children. This makes sense. Those writing in the Soviet era found themselves under a regime that declared a violent break with old traditions. As Stalin famously said, “The son is not responsible for his father.” This puzzling, menacing, and ultimately false statement strangely interlaces with Stephen Dedalus’s project. The question of how one deals with the past and which heritage one chooses became a profoundly existential one in the Soviet Union.
All Future Plunges to the Past concludes with a fascinating chapter that draws on Vergara’s interviews with a number of contemporary Russian poets and novelists, including Anna Glazova and Marina Stepnova, on the subject of Joyce. This mitigates the impression that, with all the fathers, sons, and male authors of the preceding sections, Joyceanism is an exclusively male business in Russian literature. I can think of a few other exceptions. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, one of the most significant modern Russian authors, speaks of Joyce as a major inspiration. In her youth, she read the translated fragments of Ulysses that were available and even attempted to penetrate the Polish translation of Finnegans Wake. In her poem, tellingly called “Mother-Daughter,” she writes:
our brothers-Poles also lived
in the socialist camp
but in the merriest barrack
they had theater and cinema
and they translated everything
and for us Beckett and Joyce were glowing
in complete socialist darkness
And perhaps another well-known Russian author, Lyudmila Ulitskaya, will be happy to discover Vergara’s book. In her collection of essays Sacred Garbage (2012), she discusses similarities between The Gift and Ulysses and mentions searching in vain for scholarly works that compared them.
Vergara’s book is a showcase for the comparative method, which enriches one’s reading experience of any great work of literature. My favorite of his small catches is a dental allusion to Ulysses in Nabokov’s The Gift. At one point, Nabokov’s protagonist says of one of his poems: “Here is the description of a drive to this dentist, who had warned the day before that ‘this one will have to come out.’” The dentist’s words are given in English in the Russian original, and Vergara sources them to Stephen’s thoughts at the end of the “Telemachiad”: “My teeth are very bad. Why, I wonder. Feel. That one is going too. Shells. Ought I go to a dentist, I wonder…”
All Future Plunges to the Past encourages the reader to continue looking for Joycean echoes in Russian texts. For example, in 1934, at the Congress of Soviet Writers, Olesha criticized Joyce’s formula, “Cheese is the corpse of milk,” saying that in Socialist Realism “milk can never be a corpse; it flows from the mother’s breast into the child’s mouth, and therefore it is immortal.” After reading Vergara’s analysis of Olesha’s speech and milk-drinking in Olesha and Joyce, I wonder whether Olesha also had in mind the scene in which Stephen, looking at his mediocre student, ponders the connection between mother and child: “With her weak blood and wheysour milk she had fed him and hid from sight of others his swaddling bands.” This would be another hint at the insincerity of Olesha’s criticism of the Irish author.
Joyce famously asserted that he “put so many enigmas and puzzles [into Ulysses] that it will keep the professors busy for centuries arguing over what I meant, and that’s the only way of insuring one’s immortality.” José Vergara’s study of leading Russian intellectuals’ forcibly delayed and still ongoing engagement with Joyce testifies to the validity of this prediction.
Nataliya Karageorgos is assistant professor of the Practice in Russian, East-European, and Eurasian Studies at Wesleyan University.
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