Voicing the Soviet Experience: The Poetry of Ol'ga Berggol'ts.
Katharine Hodgson's monograph on Ol'ga Berggol'ts is important not only because of the high quality of the literary analysis it contains (although it certainly deserves praise for this), but also because of its subject. Voicing the Soviet Experience rediscovers a poet who belonged to the official Soviet canon while holding a marginal place in it due to her' questionable' biography, and who seemed to be utterly forgotten when the Soviet epoch ended and the new canon-headed by martyrs and outcasts of the regime--was installed. This thoughtful reading of Berggol'ts's poetry and prose, besides its obvious historical purpose, also has a cultural significance. Hodgson's book represents one of the first attempts to examine the inner drama of a seemingly comfortable existence within the realm of official Soviet culture. This examination is necessary if one would like to go beyond the binary opposition between 'official' and 'nonconformist' art that still dominates Russian studies. It is an approach which could connect literary scholarship with historical studies of Soviet subjectivity, understood as a battlefield of different ideological and cultural discourses of identity, an endless process of seeking individual compromises between these conflicting influences and demands.
Ol'ga Berggol'ts presents a paradox by the fact that while she started out as a disciple of Nikolai Kliuev, Nikolai Gumilev, and the Formalists, she became a 'Komsomol poet', and until her last years preserved a belief in the romantic ideals of the revolution. This seems especially surprising since she herself had first-hand experience of NKVD prisons, where she spent eight months after the arrest of her first husband, the poet Boris Kornilov, executed in 1938. In prison she suffered a miscarriage, and although she was released in 1939, she was traumatized for life, which explains her subsequent alcoholism. Berggol'ts's alcoholism is one of the facts that Soviet biographers of the poet preferred to obfuscate, and that Hodgson addresses with honesty and seriousness in the first chapter on Berggol'ts's life: 'There is the possibility that Berggol'ts, who had a reputation for outspokenness, was able to exploit the perception of her drink problem to say things that, spoken by a sober person, might have led to serious reprisals' (p. 30). This remark is applicable to numerous Soviet writers, such as Mikhail Svetlov and Iurii Olesha, Iurii Kazakov and Iurii Dombrovskii among numerous others: Berggol'ts's case represents a female variation on this strategy of intellectual survival that deserves special study. As Hodgson demonstrates, it was only the tragedy of the war and especially of the Leningrad siege which gave a new impetus to Berggol'ts's poetry and elevated her as an officially accepted and praised poetic voice of the Leningraders--paradoxically, this allowed Berggol'ts to express the traumatic experience not only of wartime suffering but also of the Great Terror.
The inner struggle between desperate attempts to preserve a religious faith in revolutionary ideals and attempts to express the traumas of Soviet history was a driving force in Berggol'ts's writing from the 1930S to her death in 1975. Hodgson's book is about this struggle, focusing on aspects of Berggol'ts's writings such as manifestations of the poetic self (Chapter 2), genre in Berggol'ts's writings of the 1950s (Chapter 3), and the problem of writing memory, analysed through intertextuality and intertextuality--the complex dialogue between the poet's own texts written in different periods (Chapter 4). Hodgson employs in her reading of Berggofts's poetry, prose, critical writings, and diaries the postmodern vision of the subject constructed by ideology out of language and personal experience, yet remaining neither unified nor whole. 'The constant state of flux' (p. 44) is revealed by the researcher in all major works of Berggol'ts. By doing this, Hodgson pays special attention to 'the literary models used by Berggol'ts to fashion the poetic self [that] demonstrate that she was aware of, and participated in, the expansion of female self-representation in twentieth-century Russian women's poetry' (p. 43).
Thus, while reading Berggol'ts's early poetry, Hodgson demonstrates how the poet creates different versions of a depersonalized feminine discourse through the folkloric stylization 'that operates as a sign both of the "otherness" of poetic creativity, separate from the prosaic urban worlds of the everyday, and of a specifically feminine discourse' (p. 52). In her 'Komsomol' poems of the 1930s Berggol'ts 'projects a self who is representative because she shares the experience and enthusiasms of the others, a member of a like-minded group who can argue happily about how and whether they will notice the first day of socialism' (p. 63). However, in her mature poetry Berggol'ts, as Hodgson demonstrates, seeks 'a new tactic; Berggol'ts 'puts forward an "I" which reconciles, however imperfectly, the personal and collective experience of the time' (p. 66).
Berggol'ts's wartime poetry plays an especially noteworthy role in this process. In her close reading of Berggol'ts's siege poems, Hodgson illuminates the alternation between different discourses: official and highly personal (traumatic). The dramatic interaction of these discourses represents the painful evocation of the traumatized self by replacing the imagery of terror with that of wartime suffering. The most important role belongs in this poetry to' a feminine voice which comes to define itself through deprivation and absence' (p. 84)--namely, by the motif of the death of a child (a reflection of Berggol'ts's miscarriage in prison). From the analysis of Berggots's wartime poetry, Hodgson arrives at an accurate definition of the poet's self in her post-war writings--as the 'representation of a female self as a witness to and participant in history' (p. 92).
The third chapter is almost entirely devoted to the analysis of Berggol'ts's attempts at monumental quasi-epics--a narrative poem 'Pervorossiisk' and a tragedy in verse Vernost', written in the early 1950s and then reworked at the end of the decade. Hodgson is clear about these texts: 'Admittedly, the attempt to read them primarily as works of resistance would have to rely on disregarding large portions of the text' (p. 97), since both comprise' much of the verbiage associated with the official culture of the 1950s' (p. 97). The reason for the aesthetic failure of these texts is found in Berggol'ts's attempts to marry the socialist realist canon with the genre of tragedy. Thus, in 'Pervorossiisk', a socialist realist epic about an early utopian community, an agricultural commune in the 1920s destroyed by the 'kulaks', 'the Pervorossiisk theme is woven together with the theme of Kitezh [...] and informs [Berggol'ts's] reflections on the tragic fate of a generation who, inspired by noble ideas, lived to realize that these ideas helped to build the foundation of an oppressive state' (p. 104). An attempt to create a tragic discourse fails not only due to the incompatibility with the socialist realist canon (which knows a few tragedies that are not necessarily optimistic: for instance, Molodaia gvardiia by Alexandr Fadeev). The reason for this failure, in my view, lies in the fact that Berggol'ts is unwilling to admit the guilt of her own generation. She does not question the transcendental meaning of the revolution; on the contrary, she laments the loss of revolutionary ideals in the post-revolutionary history she witnessed, thus increasing their transcendental value. The persistent motif of a vanished Kitezh (closely examined in the last chapter of the book) directly invokes the religious meaning of revolutionary idealism for Berggol'ts. In short, there is no tragic responsibility in her attempts at tragedy. This ultimate lack, especially tangible in the false exaltation of Berggol'ts's poetry of the 1950s, is also detectable in her Dnevnye zvezdy--and unfortunately, Hodgson does not address this principal failure of the poet (and of other 'romantics of October').
In the book's last chapter Hodgson focuses on the theme of memory and different poetic forms of preserving memory (intertextuality and intratextuality) in Berggol'ts's works of the 1950s-1970s. Clearly, memory in Berggol'ts works--similarly to those of Anna Akhmatova or Lidiia Chukovskaia--is marked by 'a refusal rather than an inability, to forget [the historical tragedies and traumas]. Her own faithful memory is presented as a counter to the amnesia of the others' (p. 132). In this context, Hodgson closely analyses a cycle of Berggol'ts's poems about the builders of the Volga--Don canal, one of the concentration camps/construction sites of Communism (stroika kommunizma)--which she first wrote in 1952, thirteen years after her arrest (and clearly sensing, according to her own definition, the 'militiaman constantly present in every line, blowing his whistle': p. 29), and returning to this subject in a 1961 cycle. While comparing different versions of this cycle--from 1953 to the 1972 collected works--Hodgson demonstrates that Berggol'ts endows 'her apparently conformist account with hints as to the nature of the canal's origins' (p. 155). Yet, even when she can write on the subject more openly, she feels 'the burden of silence [that] is implicitly connected with the journey to the Volga-Don, which the poet knows she cannot describe fully or adequately. The repeated rearrangement of poetic cycles on the theme of the canal may be seen as an attempt to break this silence by allowing the reader to trace the ways in which the poems are interrelated' (p. 154). The reason for this 'burden of silence' can be found not only in 'external'
censorship, but in the nature of trauma that literally locks the speech.
The examination of Berggol'ts could have benefited if Hodgson had compared her writings more persistently with those of both officially recognized and nonconformist poets of the period who dealt with similar themes of suffering, trauma, memory, the revolutionary past. In this way, both Berggol'ts's originality and her failures would have been emphasized more clearly. Unfortunately, the subchapter in which Hodgson analyses intertextual references in Berggol'ts's poetry does not fill this lacuna, since the researcher detects in the poems analysed references predominantly to canonical fragments from Lermontov, Maiakovskii, Nikolai Ostrovskii, or the less canonical yet officially blessed Alexandr Herzen.
Despite this minor criticism, I would like to emphasize the high level of philological culture invariably demonstrated by Hodgson in her book. She effectively connects the analysis of motif with persistent attention to the intonation and the rhythmical structures of the poetry. Coupled with numerous references to Berggol'ts's diaries and archival data, Hodgson's interpretation of Berggol'ts's writings creates a deep and nuanced intellectual and emotional biography of the poet as an individual, yet this biography at the same time presents a very typical case of a constant writing and rewriting of the Soviet self. The most important effect of this reading, in my view, lies in the fact that by her analysis Hodgson does not strip her 'object' of dignity--something that Berggol'ts desperately tried to preserve in all her inner permutations yet is so easily sacrificed in so many contemporary works on officially accepted writers of the Soviet epoch.
UNIVERSITY OF COLORADO AT BOULDER
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|Publication:||The Modern Language Review|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2008|
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