On Literature-centricity

Было время, когда присутствие в моей харьковской жизни тогдашних московских диссидентов означало в первую очередь то, что под новый год в нашей квартире в очередной раз появится настоящая ёлка. Ёлка действительно объявлялась каждый год в конце декабря и благоухала так, что поначалу кружилась голова. И покуда мои сверстники крутились вокруг сосенок, что в изобилии продавалась в округе, я наряжала истинную красавицу. Даже песня Булата Шалвовича о прощании с новогодней ёлкой, если память мне не изменяет, стала первой песней, которую я в своей (тогда ещё коротенькой) жизни слушала совершенно осознанно. И наступал новый, 198-какой-то год.

Но годы – те, что наступали – как водится, ещё и шли. В них, кроме всего прочего, становилось всё больше английского языка, который вот сейчас – как домашний зверь, который непостижимым образом всегда знает, что о нём заговорили – усиленно заявляет во мне свои права на этот пост.

Last week Alexey and I met again after many (twenty?) years. And over these years, it seems, the gift of a beautiful holiday tree has morphed into the gift of a good conversation. We walked along old streets of central Kharkov, with all white below us and all grey above. And of all the things we talked about, most of which I still need to contemplate, Ukraine’s literary situation was among the first. Alexey said that there was a time in Russia when whether one reads and what one reads defined people and their social circles on a very deep and decisive level. This, he says, is no longer the case; at least not to that extent. Reading has become a matter of individual choices and preferences (“as it should be”) and, incidentally, somehow everyone is reading less than before.

But in Ukraine, the phenomenon of literature-as-self-definition is as acute as ever. What you read still matters on a level that reaches beyond the dry fact of opening a book. I’d say it illuminates and dictates your awareness of the state of things. This could, in fact, partially explain the phenomena of writers like Zabuzhko or Zhadan.

Interestingly enough, just a week earlier, a bright and impressive literary Kharkovite Andrei Krasniashchikh – a writer and a co-editor of a thick, quality literary magazine called «Союз Писателей» – told me something quite similar. He said:

В России толпы собираются на поп- и рок-группы; а в Украине – на Жадана.

And I remain fascinated by this observation. I came upon the term литературоцентризм for the first time in the work of Alexander Etkind, though he wasn’t the one to invent it. But even before reading about it, or knowing how to call it, I felt that the phenomenon was there. Now I hear that the literature-centric society, which I grew up attributing to Russia, is flowering in Ukraine as well – while, apparently, diminishing across the border. This observation raises a whole number of questions:

Why? Why has it increased in Ukraine; why has it decreased in Russia? Or has it? Is it any different now than it was in the USSR? Are we following a well-known road, or is this road specific to us as a nation in time? Which really means: Is Ukrainian literature-centricity any different from literature-centricity in Russia? The post-Soviet search for national identity – эта пресловутая самоидентификация – might be one explanation for the way things look today. But it just doesn’t feel like the whole story behind the phenomenon. I hope to gain more insight into this issue as I continue working on it.

And I’m also feeling very grateful for having access to opinions of those I mention in this post, as well as of those I mentioned earlier. It allows an increased depth of comparison and analysis, which is, perhaps, the only satisfying way of dealing with good questions. I truly hope I’ll make the best of the privilege.



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