Smolny Beyond Borders

A Liberal Arts Initiative

Narrative Fissures

Writing freezes at the point at which the world loses its integral outlines, there is no place for lived experience in the «prison-house of language», and the transparent mirror of personal narrative is covered with a web of cracks and fractures in which the writer no longer recognises himself… The paradox of traumatic experience running counter to classical modes of storytelling is one of the pressing issues in contemporary theory. The course «Trauma Narratives in Contemporary Russian Literature» takes aim at this problem area. As traumatic events evade representation and literature relentlessly develops new ways of representing them, trauma in fiction narrative becomes an axis of tension that can be examined through two groups of theories: trauma studies and postclassical narratology.

Perhaps the most perceptive definition of the relationship between trauma and narrative is provided by Maria Stepanova in a famous chapter of her novel «In Memory of Memory» (2017). The chipped and cracked porcelain doll, accidentally found in an antique junkyard, becomes not only a metaphor for a traumatised survivor in the grip of history, but also an aleph, a mise en abyme of futile attempts to appropriate this trauma through storytelling means. Having planned to make the porcelain doll the finale of the future novel and the answer to all questions, the narrator accidentally breaks it, so that the appropriated experience is once again fragmented, and the trauma resists traditional attempts to make it coherent. And yet literature finds ways to talk about trauma: the porcelain doll from the finale moves to the cover, and through the web of fractures in the writing the unspeakable shines through. And if «only trauma makes individuals — singly and unambiguously us — from the mass product» (M. Stepanova), then literature becomes a space of reflection on how to talk about «the sum of all the scars on our collective soul» (F. Ankersmit).

Turning to representations of trauma in post-Soviet literature, course participants will reflect on how writing «seals» trauma (O. Vasyakina) and simultaneously rebuilds identity; on whether it is possible to «assemble oneself from the fragments of someone else’s past» (M. Stepanova); on how traumatic repetitions prepare the stage for the bloody dramas of history (V. Sharov), and displaced memories make us search for new ways to get along with the unbearable past (E. Vodolazkin); how this past calls for the duty of witness and the work of the «forgiver» (P. Barskova), and how the grotesque horror of war and madness is countered by empathy, sensibility and compassion (L. Goralik). Alongside, the course will discuss the problems of the document and testimony, memory and oblivion, the archive and ways of experiencing it, narrative empathy and reception.

Larissa Muravieva’s article “Mise en abyme in Russian literature” in the “Handbook of Diachronic Narratology”.