1869, Ep. 1869 with José Vergara, author of All Future Plunges to the Past
7:03PM Nov 3, 2021
Welcome to 1869, The Cornell University Press Podcast. I'm Jonathan Hall. This episode we speak with Jose Vergara., author of All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature. Jose is Assistant Professor of Russian at Bryn Mawr College. His teaching interests cover a wide variety of topics, Russian language, prison literature, Chernobyl, Russian novel, (of the classical and experimental varieties), and contemporary Russian culture and society. We spoke to Jose about what inspired him to study James Joyce's influence on Russian literature, the five major Russian authors he studied, and the Joycean themes he found in their work. Hello, Jose, welcome to the podcast.
Thanks for having me. Appreciate it.
Well, we're happy to have you on the podcast to talk about your new book All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature. Tell us how you got interested in this topic and the backstory of this project?
Yeah, I think it's a slightly long one and kind of goes back quite a while I feel like there's certain moments or events in my life or my academic life anyway, that kind of brought me to to this topic, convoluted history with Joyce. I actually first tried to read Ulysses, Joyce's book in high school on my own. But I ended up stumbling when I got to the part where we pulled blooms cat starts talking, I thought, well, maybe I'll come back to this later. And I think I just had other writers on my mind and other things to read at that point. But later in college, I had some extra room in my schedule, and I did an independent study with one of my professors Tim, Tim Langon on Ulysses, Andrei Bely's novel, Petersburg - Russian novel. That's often compared with Ulysses and Flann O'Brien's at Swim-Two-Birds, these three great, classic, modernist texts. And they're it's sort of hit me that. For me, Joyce is at its best when it's a communal experience when I'm engaging with other people and talking about him with other people. And that's something that ended up happening for this book was, which was really exciting for me.
So between those two things, and then in grad school, when it was time to pick a dissertation topic, this is my book based partly on my dissertation. I was taking a course on Joyce and Beckett and modernity, that was the title. And as we started reading Ulysses, I recognize these moments in the book that reminded me a lot of a Russian novel by Yury Olesha, the first author I look at in my book novel is called Envy. And I realized that that might be what I should write about, started digging around and recognize that there was no kind of systematic study of Joyce in Russian literature of his influence, for lack of a better term. Nothing that kind of brought it all together, there were individual studies and hints at how writers had responded to him, but nothing kind of broad and with the scope that I wanted to approach it with. The closest thing was Neil Cornwall's excellent James Joyce and the Russians. But for the most part, he's looking at the critical reception, or he was in that book. And what I was interested in doing is really looking at the literary response how these Russian writers took Joyce's ideas and his kind of persona and his devices, all these things in his books, and adapted them for their own purposes. So in other words, kind of what he represented and continues to represent to them as a Western writer, as an innovator, as this kind of unavoidable figure in literature. So yeah, all of these things, just kind of chain of events throughout my recent life, from high school anyway, kind of brought me to the point of this topic and baking in, you know, I just found all these really fascinating connections and the topic resonated with me.
Nice, nice. Now, Joyce was his his work was suppressed by the Soviet authorities for decades. And so a lot of researchers have kind of overlooked Joyce's influence on modern Russian literature. You dive into that, and you found clear influences of choice and five major Russian authors. What brings together these authors?
Absolutely. Yeah, that's so kind of one possible explanation that I consider in the book that with the response to Joyce starting in the 1930s, in forward and the kind of clamp down on modernist writing and the simultaneous turn into socialist realism, there kind of wasn't room for Joyce to be a significant figure in Russian literature. And therefore this question wasn't really brought up or considered under the assumption that there wouldn't be anything. Look for any sort of influence. But right in kind of digging around and looking closely at these author's texts, I realized that that wasn't the case, they were still discussing him still reading him accessing him in these different ways, both direct and indirect. Not so direct. And on the one hand, what I'm trying to emphasize throughout the book is that these these case studies that I bring up Yury Olesha, Vladimir Nabokov, are probably the most well known among these authors, Andrei Bitov, Sasha Sokolov, and Mikhail Shishkin. In these case studies, there's no kind of single monolithic, quote unquote, Russian Joyce, there's a kind of series of choices that they pick up and create. And that's kind of manifested in their work depending on when they're writing. So a Russian writer, like Olesha from the 1920s 1930s. Reading, Joyce, what he gets out of Joyce is going to be much different than what a writer after Stalin's death gets from Joyce, or after the fall of the Soviet Union. It's all very contextual. That's, on the one hand, what I meant was sizing. On the other hand, to get more directly to your question about what brings them together, I think there are some commonalities and themes and ideas that they were attracted to enjoys. And I can speak about one of those. And that's the kind of through line that I develop in the book about how these authors in again, very different ways. Turn to Joyce's ideas about lineages and genealogies and history. And this really goes back to, to get specific about it. Episode nine in Ulysses, in which Joyce has his hero, Stephen Dedalus, explain what he calls his kind of Shakespeare theory or his idea about creativity via Shakespeare. And according to this theory, the creative artist or writer particular can kind of become a father to himself, by creating a park that lasts forever, so you create a hamlet or you create a Ulysses. In that way, the world recognizes us as Great Creator and your legacy is sort of ensured. And thus, you're a kind of father to yourself to how others perceive you. This is even more possible or more effective when you kind of supplant the biological father figure in your life with a literary one. So again, Joyce's case, in his hero Stephens case, it's a turn to Shakespeare and creating these connections between life and literature. And I noticed that all my writers, the writers I selected to focus on in the book kind of observed this idea in Ulysses and responded to it in some way. So the kind of key through line or thread of the book.
Interesting, interesting. So for the listeners, if you've got if you could tell us again, who the authors were that you studied, and the joycie and themes that you found in their work?
Sure. So the five authors are Yury Olesha, Vladimir Nabokov, Andrei Bitov, Sasha Sokoloff, and Mikhail Shishkin. And I can say a little bit about this, a couple of them and kind of how they dug into the Joycean worldview in this this theme of fathers and sons in particular. So the first one is Yury Olesha in chapter one, who again, was writing in the early Soviet era in the 1920s, and 30s. He represents this early response to James Joyce, who publish envy his novel in 1927, to just a couple years after the first translation, Russian translation of Ulysses appeared, which was just fragments, but he would have access to this. And vi notice these connections between the two works. But in particular, what's most most intriguing to me about Olesha is how he feels this tension between wanting to pursue the individual his path, the Western path, Joyce's path of becoming a father to yourself and kind of narrating and telling your own story, on the one hand, and on the other hand, adhering to what was developing in the Soviet Union at the times, not socialist realism, officially, but moving toward that moving in that direction of the kind of regimented system that would support the state, in literature and art and so on. And art with The purpose as opposed to art for art's sake. So in the novel, Olesha has this hero couple yet of kind of try out evens path, going out on his own and becoming an individualist artist but ultimately shows that that's not possible in these changing conditions in Soviet Russia, Given these circumstances and given the kind of ambivalence that both of Yeshua and his hero expressed in their, their lives. And so Joyce, excuse me, Olesha is using Joyce and using Ulysses and his idea from Ulysses as a way to comment on what he was experiencing at the time are starting to feel anyway. And then the second chapter with Nabokov - he's unique in a number of ways, he could rejoice in English, you know, much more easily and readily than any of the other writers. And one of my favorite parts of his story is that he actually offered to Joyce he wrote a letter to Joyce offering to translate Ulysses in the early 1930s. And obviously, this didn't come to be, but it's one of the great what ifs of literature to my mind, what if Nabokov had been able to translate Ulysses in the 1930s? What would that have actually looked like? So it didn't happen. But I read and argue that his final Russian novel The gift, (Dar) can actually be read as a creative translation, even a kind of miss translation of Joyce's book. There's structural similarities, in some ways in the plot, themes, and images, dogs and footsteps, various numbers of things. But the main one is that Nabokov like his hero, had to flee into immigration to go to Europe from Russia after the Civil War. And they both lost their fathers in different ways. And Nabokov's father was assassinated, accidentally assassinated he took a bullet for someone, someone else. And then Nabokov's hero in The Gift loses his father, when, when his father disappears on a scientific expedition is never seen again. So for Nabokov the idea of cutting out the biological of kind of breaking your ties in the way that Steven proposes, and Ulysses was kind of blasphemous and wrong in a certain way. But in The Gift he does pursue this Shakespeare project, he merges though the literary with the biologicals instead of cutting things apart, he's bringing them together. In his case, he's uniting the father figure with Pushkin, the kind of Russian equivalent of Shakespeare, the father of modern Russian letters. So He retells in a way, this translates bits of Ulysses and uses the project but to a different end. So these are two examples, in the book of how these Russian writers would use Joyce's ideas, but alter them, due to the conditions around them, their their context, or to achieve something different. And the other three chapters do similar things and also look at stylistic influence and kind of more playful attitude toward intertextuality in these connections between the books, again, depending on when and where the writers were writing from.
Interesting, interesting. And now you also have, you've interviewed authors who are alive today, other living writers in Russia, there's a whole section of this Moscow based choice reading group called The Territory of Slow Reading, I thought was fascinating. There's others. Tell us about these interviews and what you learned from authors today.
As someone that factored into my fifth chapters book with me how Shishkin about choice and exchanges with him. But in the conclusion, in particular, I interviewed this reading group as well as other writers, like you mentioned, and the conclusion is divided up into five sections. And the first one, I focus on this Moscow Joyce reading group called TheTerritory of Slow Reading, as you said, they're a group of Joyce fans basically that meet once a week on Sundays for an hour, and then meet on Zoom. And they've been doing this for several years now before soon became a reality for everyone. And as I was getting ready to conduct some research in Moscow in the summer of 2019, I was asking around and someone mentioned this group, so I got in touch and while I was in Moscow, I was able to sit in on a session of theirs again, it's on Zoom. But that wouldn't have been possible otherwise because of the time difference. I'd be up really later. Make up really early to participate. And they go through Ulysses bit by bit, and also read some other texts that are, you know, contextually related to Ulysses or Joyce or thematically in some way. And focus on both the details in the work, as well as kind of broader themes and sort of more universal aspects of the novel and what they get out of this experience of reading Joyce. They really take it slowly. That's why it's called Territory of Slow Reading as one should. Joyce. Obviously there are other Joyce reading groups all around the world do similar things. But for me, it was really useful and fascinating to talk to them about why they rejoice. I posed that question, you know, after the session to some of them. And there are different answers. One participant, for instance, suggested that Joyce allows them. This group, at least are readers in Russia, according to his view, to discuss things that aren't often discussed in Russian literature, at least not so candidly, like sex or money was another example they brought up. So that was really neat to hear. And they also hold an annual Bloomsday walks on June 16, they wander around central Moscow and read bits of Joyce in in the Russian translation and then have some drinks at a pub or bar suppose there. Yeah, and beyond that, as I said, for the conclusion, I wanted to get kind of most recent perspective on Joyce and Ulysses in his work. So I interviewed some writers really range from younger generations, Ksenia Buksha, Ivan Sokolov, different Sokolov. And then some writers from older generations like Dimitry Bykov, Anna Glazova, Marina Stepnova, Zinovy Zink and other ones. So either interviewed them or corresponded with them via email or Facebook and other ways, and talk to them about Joyce's place in Russia, how they first encountered him, and so on. And for this part of the conclusion, the penultimate section, what I did is put together all their voices. So I asked them all the same questions, and then some individual ones, and took parts of these interviews and created a kind of mini oral history, but the their words, the things they had to say about choice and dialogue with one another, and for me, it was, I don't know, exciting and useful exercise and kind of restructuring, reframing this history of choice that I do throughout the book that it's held throughout the book. So the book has five chapters, it moves chronologically, but here, it's a mix of voices and different perspectives. And has the, the writers, you know, speaking for themselves, and I think kind of emphasizes the spontaneity and chance encounters that you find in Joyce, in their voices, show that reveal that. And then beyond that, it was just nice to see the connections between what they had to say, for instance, Stepnova and Grigory Sluzhitel both describe Joyce - they use the metaphor of a mountain that is a mountain in the writerly landscape that no one can avoid. But sometimes you turn your your view slightly to the side or something to avoid his influence it to change things. But again, that was totally by chance that they use the same metaphor. Yeah, and finally, most broadly, it was, again, useful in a way to see how the same debates about choice that we saw in the 20s and 30s, about whether he's sort of passe, or is he actually an innovator, is he worth emulating for Russian writers or in general? All these kinds of debates that started a century ago are still happening now. Joyce's place in Russian culture is still not settled entirely. Can we see all this recur on these pages here?
Wow. Well, this is an amazing project that you've, you've created. And I like that analogy of Joyce as a mountain. I mean, he looms over the literary world, and people are still working to try to understand him more clearly. Without not only groups in Russia, but all over the world reading his book. I know of one book group in Ithaca, that's taken on Ulysses now wow, you know, how to even start. I think that's it's amazing what you've collected for anyone who is interested in James Joyce and his writings to see the different perspective that another culture can can bring to to the conversation, and they may be able to see things that we are blind to because we're immersed in it. So having that Russian view and Russian experience of his literature, I think is a great contribution to to understanding Him. And it's all right here in this new book, All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature. Thank you so much for sharing just a little bit of the book, we encourage folks to to take a deeper dive into it by getting the book it's on our website. You can get it on a library. It's available now. So we encourage you to read it. And I want to thank you again, Jose, for for coming on to the podcast.
Thank you so much for having me. That was a pleasure. Thank you.
That was Jose Vergara. Author of All Future Plunges to the Past: James Joyce in Russian Literature. If you'd like to read Jose's new book, please use the promo code 09POD to save 30%. If you live in the UK, use the discount code see csannounce and visit the website combined academic.co.uk Thank you for listening to 1869 the Cornell University Press podcast.