Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Before and During Vladimir Sharov

I have to apologize to my loyal readers for my long and unexplained absence. Burned out after finishing and launching two books (more on which in a future post), I was invited by some kindly scientist acquaintances from a company called InGen on a tropical island holiday, where I've been soaking up the sun all winter. All I had to do was give up a few tissue samples - no idea why they wanted them.

Nikolai Fyodorov painted by Leonid Pasternak
Since my return I've been racing to catch up with Slavonic literary events; after attending a packed-out lecture in Cambridge by Ukrainian author Oksana Zabuzhko (still best known for her 1996 novel Field Work in Ukrainian Sex), the next highlight was an intimate lecture by Vladimir Sharov. Sharov, a trained historian, is also possibly the most important Russian novelist you may never have heard of. Although he has been writing since the 1970s, his unusual novels only began attracting critical attention in the 1990s and have long lacked a translator; I first read an extract from Sharov's 2003 novel The Raising of Lazarus (Voskreshenie Lazarya) in translation several years ago. He interested me then because of the unusually explicit resonance between his plotline and the extraordinary thinking of the Russian philosopher Nikolai Fyodorov (one of the world's all-time great eccentric librarians), which I was then researching for my doctoral thesis. I was therefore not entirely surprised when Sharov's talk last week in Cambridge, which was supposed to be about his career as a novelist, branched into a half-hour lecture on the theories of Fyodorov. The latter, although superficially barmy, have nonetheless informed the majority of major Russian writers and artists from the late nineteenth-century to the present day, not forgetting the rocket designer Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who benefited - as a penniless youth - from Fyodorov's book recommendations and encouragement to explore the cosmos. Sharov reminded us of Fyodorov's far-reaching and undying influence, adding his own unique perception that the house style of the Soviet newspaper Pravda was identical to the turgid and repetitive paragraphs of Fyodorov's own The Philosophy of the Common Task (Filosofiia obshchego dela), a two-tome monster assembled from the philosopher's notes after his death in 1903 by two of his disciples. Unwittingly following Zabuzhko, who had rather charmingly believed we expected her to single-handedly define the purpose of literature, Sharov volunteered his opinion that literary prose was an 'instrument for living', or perhaps for decoding life; yet, like life, literary prose abounds in nameki, lakuny, molchaniia, otkazy, nezakonchennye kartiny  (implications, omissions, silences, refusals, unfinished pictures). Thus the best prose, like life itself, requires a commentary for accurate interpretation, or sotrudnichestvo - companionship - as Sharov expressed it. It was a sign of Sharov's modesty, therefore, that rather than discuss his own prose he preferred to limn Fyodorov's contribution to culture and describe his personal favourite historical period - the reign of Ivan the Terrible and the confused smutnoe vremia, or Time of Troubles, that succeeded it. I was longing to ask whether Sharov, as a historian and novelist, knew the location of Ivan's famous lost library - but something made me hold my peace.

Me and Vladimir Sharov
Sharov is present at this week's Slovo Literary festival in London, organized by Academia Rossica, and for more on his activities there check out this page. You can even book online to see him in conversation with his translator, Oliver Ready, whose thoughtful approach to translating Dostoevsky has featured in a previous blog post. Oliver's translation of Sharov's 1993 novel Do i vo vremia, as Before and During, will be released later this year by Dedalus Press.

1 comment: