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Nabokov was wrong

October 18, 2011

fac_BalinaMarina_00909Apparently, Vladimir Nabokov was wrong when he famously declared “literature is not a  dog carrying a message in its teeth.”  And if you doubt Nabokov was wrong, then just look at a fairy tale.

That is the message given by Marina Balina, of Illinois Wesleyan in her book, Politicizing Magic:  An Anthology of Russian and Soviet Fairy Tales.  Balina and her co-editors (Helena Goscilo did most of the translations, Mark Liederman [under the pen name of Mark Lipovetsky] edited the last section of the book) analyze the evolution of Russian fairy tales – from traditional folkloric tales to Soviet-era socialist realism tales to wonderfully subversive “fairy tales in critique of Soviet culture.”

In apparent aping of Francis Xavier’s “give the me the child until he is seven and I will give you the man,” Soviet era fairy tales are just as heavy-handed as the Revolutionary (Chinese) eight model operas.  At the same time, they are also a bit wonderful, as all children’s literature is.  Soviet fairy tales had an uncertain future, after the influence of the library scientist and education specialist Nadezhda Krupskaya (better known as Vladimir Lenin’s widow) who as chair of the Glavpolitprosvet (Central Committee on Political Education) issued a manual ordering that all fairy tales should be banned.  Only four years later, the infamous pedagogical volume We Are Against the Fairy Tale of 1928, which argued on the ground of “empirical, scientific discipline” that it was necessary that children’s literature have “class-oriented content.”  But this was merely the echo of the well-known effort of the proletarian political writers in the 1920s Weimar Republic to create a new type of fairy tale “in which workers’ struggles, their lives and their ideals are reflected.”)  And so things seemed dim for “the genre that spotlights princes and princess, kings and queens, and beautiful palaces into which the fairy-tale simpleton moves after successfully committing difficult tasks.”  But the fairy tale was rehabilitated by no less than Maxim Gorky with his August 1934 speech at the First Soviet Writers’ Congress which argued that folkloric characters belonged to the working class, mentioning characters such as Vasilisa the Wise and “the ironically lucky Ivan the Simple” “to be meritorious individuals, and [praising] both folklore and the folktale for their lack of pessimism and their participation in the struggle for the renovation of life.”  The fairy tale returned to the arsenal of Soviet literary genres, but not as a free agent, but as a “builder of communism.”

The most fun, of course, is reserved for the smart-ass.  Satiric literature, mocking totalitarianism while masquerading as a fairy tale is reserved for the last third of the book.  While perhaps not reaching the heights of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog, this literary form used the fairy tale as a way to lampoon Soviet political and economic life.  “All these texts were published in Soviet journals or performed in Soviet theaters.  Soviet censors were no fools.  Their tolerance of such works most likely involved some kind of unannounced etiquette:  as long as the writer did not violate the conventional rules of the fairy-tale plot and placed his characters and events outside of the concrete world of Soviet life, he remained under the protection of fantasy.  As soon as the author violated this unspoken agreement, he walked a dangerous road.  Of the many reasons for this etiquette, the most important is that the authorities, by permitting fairy-tale discourse, hoped to create a ‘steam-valve’ for criticism.  It was safe enough, since the artistic design of fairy-tale parables had to be rather sophisticated, providing multiple layers for interpretation.  Therefore, the readership of these texts was inevitably limited to the well-educated intelligentsia.  Such concessions also created a peculiar kind of unwritten agreement that led to trust between the intelligentsia elite and the totalitarian authorities, a trust beneficial for both sides.”

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, although I could not help but wonder if in the selection of works for the anthology, and the translation of the stories, the editors had not themselves been guilty a bit of heavy-handedness.  Still, this volume was enjoyable on the surface, as a collection of tales, enjoyable as nostalgia for the “bad old days” of the Soviet era, and unconsciously raising questions about American capitalist production of fairy tales (one particularly thinks of contemporary princess-consciousness.)

6 Comments leave one →
  1. barretpearson permalink
    October 19, 2011 2:22 am

    Nabokov, with an o, wrote literature so that one might appreciate it as an art form, with beauty in and of itself, nevermind the meanings and the pseudo-philosophical garbage that many authors fill their work with. His writing is something to be enjoyed in the same manner as one might enjoy the taste of a favourite food or the touch of silk. Insisting that everything that is written must carry a message “in its teeth” is degrading to the art.

  2. October 19, 2011 2:34 am

    Thanks for the spelling correction.

    Please note that my quotation from him was meant to be ironic.

  3. barretpearson permalink
    October 19, 2011 2:42 am

    Mm, I was commenting on the quotation only.

  4. October 19, 2011 1:53 pm

    Helena Goscilo was one of my professors at OSU, and I did not even know she was working on this–sounds fascinating! Her seminar on Russian folktales was one of my favorite classes, building on (and of course, deviating significantly from as well) what I’d already learned about German folk tales and their rocky history with politics. I just read a retelling of the Russian folk tale of Koschei the Deathless, and wrote a review on my own blog, I’d be interested in what you think:

  5. October 19, 2011 2:34 pm

    I like your “Something to Read on the Train” blog, and added it to our blogroll — perhaps it will send some more readers your way. I also decided to order a copy of Valente’s book and look forward to reading it — hope we can discuss the book some more then.

  6. March 18, 2012 8:13 pm

    Thanks! Sorry, I just saw this comment–months later, bad me. I’m happy to discuss anytime!

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