Illustration Karin Sunvisson

Conference reports Life and work, world literature and Soviet history. Exploring the moral necessity of Varlam Shalamov

During two scorching hot days in the middle of June, a diverse assembly of scholars from Russia and beyond converged in Moscow in search of answers to two questions: What is Varlam Shalamov? And why do we need him?

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 3 2011, 15-16
Published on on oktober 3, 2011

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During two scorching hot days in the middle of June, a diverse assembly of scholars from Russia and beyond converged in Moscow in search of answers to two questions: What is Varlam Shalamov? And why do we need him? The international conference’s dichotomous approach to the Russian twentieth-century writer appeared even in its title: “Sud’ba i tvorchestvo Varlama Shalamova v kontekste mirovoi literatury i sovetskoi istorii” [the fate and works of Varlam Shalamov in the context of world literature and Soviet history]. The focus was not on his factual life or his fictional production, but on both — an academic synthesis of the common combination or separation of the two. Where one might have expected a strict division between such different scholarly aspects as Shalamov’s poetics in the light of literary tradition and the writer as an individual in the historic reality of his country, this summer’s ambitious conference tried to bridge the gap between them — and succeeded.

Hosted by the Moscow School of Social and Economic Sciences, the seventh Shalamov conference was dedicated to the memory of Irina Sirotinskaya, the writer’s muse and later copyright owner of his works, who passed away in January this year. Supported by the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, the Memorial Society, and Moscow State University of Psychology and Pedagogy, as well as financially by the Mikhail Prokhorov Fund, the conference was primarily organized by the group of young Shalamov scholars who founded the website in 2008. The majority of these enthusiastic young professionals — all still in their mid-twenties to early thirties — emerged from the Russian scientific-educational journal Skepsis. According to the journal’s editor, Sergei Solov’ev, it was after seeing the published collection of papers from the conference commemorating the 100th anniversary of Shalamov’s birth in 2007 that a collective decision was made: “We can do better than this.” Their service of making Shalamov accessible to the public began with a Russian website, the extensive searchable archive of which has become an irreplaceable resource for anyone and everyone conducting research on Shalamov. The international conference in June was the culmination of their commitment to spreading knowledge about him.

Not all young Shalamov scholars originated through Skepsis, though; at least one came to be a part of the group almost accidentally — I’m speaking here of myself. In the summer of 2009, I was but a curious Master’s student in Yekaterinburg who had only begun reading Shalamov some months before. Yet I was already addicted to his prose and to his person; thus, it seemed almost natural that I should travel alone to the northern Urals, to the towns of Solikamsk and Krasnovishersk, where Shalamov spent parts of his first concentration camp sentence in 1929—1931. When I noticed that lacked one picture from Krasnovishersk — the billboard at the city limits with a large photograph of the writer and a telling quote from Kolyma Tales — I offered to supply it.

Soon I found myself absorbed in correspondence with these scholars, and twice in 2010 I made the journey to them in Moscow, as well as to Vologda, Shalamov’s birthplace — this time accompanied by them. In January of that year, I went to meet with Russia’s leading Shalamov scholar, Valery Esipov, about a generation older than the average young Shalamov scholar, for the first time. Valery Esipov lives and works in the same town where Shalamov was born, in a building that now houses a museum dedicated to the writer’s life and works. To make the pilgrimage up north to Vologda has become something of a ritual among Shalamov scholars; this summer’s conference further affirmed the trip’s ceremonial status as the two days in Moscow were immediately followed by two days in Vologda. After academic work, the participants transferred directly from the closing banquet on Friday evening onto an overnight train to wake up on Saturday morning for cultural diversions. Thus, in the very structure of the conference a fruitful dichotomy prevailed as well.

A writer of Shalamov’s breadth demands just such a merger of two seemingly irreconcilable yet complementary features: since his works continue to be taken as factual rather than fictional, his prose must be approached within the web of discrepancies it creates. Shalamov cannot be read merely through the prism of the tragic aspects of Soviet history it depicts, though the abundance of authentic names, places, and dates makes it tempting to do so; rather, he should be read as an integral part of the greater tradition of world literature. And yet Shalamov may never be stripped entirely of his role as a historical witness: we know that he was there, and that his Kolyma was also everyone else’s. At the opening plenary session, John Glad, the first English-language translator of Shalamov, expressed the view that even if Shalamov’s Kolyma had been a fabrication of the writer’s imagination, his works would still have  to be considered great literature.

This accurate observation, however, is at the same time inappropriate: there is value in the authenticity behind Shalamov’s art, not because people, locations, and events can be verified as true, but because the presence of such a truth forces us to alter our customary manner of reading. When we read Shalamov, we move from observing them to exploring us, ourselves. Us is here, of course, taken to mean a parti-cular people — the Russian people — but is far from limited to it: it is rather us in our capacity as humanity. His is a literature that is intimate and immediate; it is no artistic depiction of some hypothetical past — this is where we have been, who we have been and what must never happen again.

Perhaps there was another, a third, question lurking beneath all of the conference’s neat methodological approaches, the at times heated polemics, and meticulous poetic analysis, namely: How do we read Shalamov?

After a lifetime spent in various states of opposition, Shalamov continues to be a representative of resistance: culturally and politically, but most of all morally. The moral necessity of Shalamov is especially acutely felt in the Russian Federation of today, where the state’s interpretation of World War II has escalated in its glorification of the Victory on May 9th to the point where lavish military parades throw some of their glittery shine on Stalin. In a political climate where a figure like Stalin may become ambiguous, a figure like Shalamov must continue to be controversial. Often compared to or even equated with Solzhenitsyn (after all, they did write about the same Gulag, did they not?), Shalamov remains the less comfortable choice when it comes to camp literature. His prose cannot be tamed for official use nor framed for the general masses; it does not serve the intents of church or state, and will never succumb to scripting for a romantic blockbuster drama. Shalamov’s works, as he himself put it, constitute every individual’s own uncompromising guide to behaving in a crowd. His literary trademark is short stories that appear as simple slices of camp life but through the act of slow reading transform into an experience of the depths of what it means to be human.

The kind of “slow reading” required by Shalamov’s “new prose” is today an unpopular pastime. In a cultural climate where even serious works of art are created for quick consumption, his works seem to be a rather unlikely option among the multitude of mainstream entertainment offered today’s reader. In a world where we consume bite-size texts within seconds only to affirm our appreciation of them by clicking “Like”, Shalamov is definitely not the hero of our time.

Though not intending to establish him as such, this year’s Shalamov conference might have come close — close in with respect to the impressive amount of obstacles it assigned itself to overcome: First, to affirm a writer who is still not a household name in Russia nor widely read as worthy of a much different fate. Second, to place a far from fully researched writer in world literature as well as in Soviet history. Only twenty years after the first Shalamov conference was held in Vologda, “shalamovedenie” (“shalamovistics”) is still a young science. With one section called “Shalamov and Soviet History”, two sections on the poetics of Shalamov’s prose, and a round table of translators from Germany, the United Kingdom, Slovenia, the Czech Republic, and France, the conference managed to address the need to uncover further biographical details as well as to discover more about his writing.

In many ways, the conference marked a beginning, without actually being one. By continuing previous scholarship, the conference participants showed through their presentations and papers that shalamovedenie already has a past. Something in the friendly atmosphere and something in the challenging discussions revealed that we have arrived somewhere. There is a firm foundation to fall back on; it is not the end of the road and at the same time not the journey’s first step. Several literary scholars directed their attention away from the familiar Kolyma aspect of Shalamov’s prose to his less famous antinovel Vishera; in this regard Elena Mikhailik’s paper “Prose Experienced as a Document: ‘One Ought to Tell the Saga as it Happened’” at the opening plenary session was especially noteworthy. On the second day of the conference, the esteemed academic Vyacheslav Ivanov turned the conference’s attention to Shalamov’s poetry. Ivanov presented both an innovative view of the writer’s poetry, a side of his literary production that has yet to receive the scholarly research it deserves, as well as perceptive suggestions for future investigations.

During such a fusion of the prospective with the retrospective, it seemed only natural that Chetvertyi shalamovskii sbornik [The fourth Shalamov collection] was published in connection with the conference. The edition contains materials from the writer’s archive, little known reminiscences about him, and recent articles by scholars prominent and old as well as novice and young.

I myself most certainly fall in the latter category. When I saw my own article published in the same collection — “Otlik cherez stoletie, cherez prostuiu baniu (k teme ‘Shalamov i Dostoevskii’)” [a response after a century, through a simple banya (to the topic “Shalamov and Dostoevsky”)] — it occurred to me that the girl who wrote it had been twenty-three years old at the time. When I produced my first contribution to shalamovedenie, I was but a child who did not ask herself what Shalamov was or why she needed him. At the time I never wondered how to read Shalamov; I understood his voice intuitively and soon said to myself, “This is what I’m going to spend my life exploring.” Had someone asked me then what exactly this was, I would probably have answered: “Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov. Russian writer. Born 1907, died 1982.” Today my response sounds a little different. This is everything indispensible to understanding his works in their complete context — and that is always within literature and history and never without the moral necessity of Varlam Shalamov.

In the 1980s, John Glad told Mikhail Gorbachev that he would not believe in perestroika until Shalamov was published in the Soviet Union. Shalamov’s importance for Russia as a measurement of health — political, cultural, moral — could stretch well into the 21st century: as long as Russia doesn’t know how or why Shalamov should be read, it is bound to be a country in denial. A simple writer who is more than simply a writer, Shalamov’s significance will always reach beyond his words. Instead of ending a dialogue of controversy, the conference’s search for answers made possible more questions.

The woman whom the conference commemorated, Irina Sirotinskaya, once asked Shalamov: “Kak zhit’?” [How to live?] Perhaps this third question might now rightfully be added to the two famous questions “Chto delat’?” [What is to be done?] and “Kto vinovat?” [Who is to blame?] that have haunted Russian literature since the 19th century. And it is with his answer to the third question that Varlam Shalamov will be granted an undisputed place in the Russian canon. ≈

Note: This is a report from the International Shalamov Conference in Moscow, June 16–17, 2011.

  • Frank

    I'm glad Baltic World has decided to include more literature articles as this is a good complement to the more political/historical usual content.

    Welcome onboard