Confessions of a Book Lover (1984)Felix Krivin is one of those Soviet writers who will never be translated--he will barely even be remembered. He was a resolutely middlebrow and mostly unfunny humorist, whose work almost never exceeded the narrow conceptual limits of Brezhnevist quasi-edginess. Mostly he is known for fantasias centered around the theme of the "secret life of things," vaguely endearing and slightly sad moral fables about household objects and animals and the like. Ideology appears only at a great distance, like a seagull seen from a lighthouse, and critique never shows up at all. (Although one of his Simple Stories is particularly brilliant: it's narrated by a cow which exists only on paper, invented in order to "fulfill" a production quota.)
I came to love books. Really love them. And I decided to assemble a library.
So I come to the bookstore:
"Have you got any Pushkin?"
"We don't have any Pushkin. We have Peshkin, a substitute for Pushkin. Aleksandr Peshkin, quite a respectable poet."
"Maybe you have Bunin?"
"There's Dunin. Evdokim Dunin. A substitute for Bunin."
Fine, Dunin it is. Peshkin it is. So I get all these substitutes together--nowhere to put them.
So I come to the furniture store:
"Have you got any bookshelves?"
"We don't have any bookshelves. Go to the post office," they advise me, "buy shipping crates, stack one on top of another, or hang them on a wall. There's some bookshelves for you."
I come to the post office:
"Do you have any shipping crates?"
"We don't have any shipping crates, we have substitutes for shipping crates. Take this rag, sew it around your package..."
"But how do I make a bookshelf out of that?"
I'm walking and thinking: how do I make a bookshelf out of a rag?
I come to a pharmacy:
"Have you got any heart medicine?"
"We don't have any heart medicine, take some stomach medicine instead. It's an irreplaceable substitute."
So I take the stomach medicine and call 911.
"I need a doctor!"
"There's no doctor. There's a substitute doctor. He's got a diploma, experience, it's all there."
So I die. I appear before God.
"And that," I say, "that was life?"
"What life?" God asks, surprised. "We ran out of lives a long time ago. That was a substitute for life."
I want to make a scene, but he smiles in a conciliatory way:
"What do you want? I'm not God, after all."
And then I remember: God doesn't really exist. As a book lover, I should have known that.
Dunin writes about it, and Peshkin writes about it...
There's no God. The position exists, though. And who occupies it? A substitute...
- from Felix Krivin, Simple Stories (Простые рассказы)
In the halcyon days of the early '90s, when people were still listening to what Russian academics had to say, Mikhail Epstein argued that the Russians were almost ontogenetically well-suited for postmodernism. Image without substance has been the defining feature of Russian life: we have "democracy" without democracy, "communism" without communism, "progress" without progress. So it is unsurprising that so much of Krivin's work is formalistically obsessed with the distinction between reality and its image. The uncertain relationship between the two was the very prima materia of Soviet social existence.
What is particularly interesting, though, is the similarity between Krivin's work and trendy Western novels cast in the David Foster Wallace lost-in-the-supermarket mold. The orthodox story of postmodernism as a "cultural logic" always underscores its relationship to capitalism: glitzy, substance-free brand marketing, "reality" shows, abstract finance capital. But, just as Debord's spectacle was both a communist and a capitalist phenomenon, the same logic also reasserted itself in the East--much earlier, in fact. The difference was that Soviet postmodernism, the postmodernism of the banal, was not self-conscious. It was dramatically "under-theorized." If an image is gray and drab, is it any the less an image for not being coated in neon?
The novels of Pynchon and DeLillo and what-have-you, especially the older and better ones, are always written with a kind of look back to what they are not doing. They're not doing the linear narrative; they're not trying for moral rigor; they're not going for the modernist's eternal verities. Here, have a brand name! Have five! Soviet postmodernism is a different beast. Not only is it not written with any clear sense of what has been lost; it is also filled with the sense that no alternative can even be thought. In its unproblematic substitution of the postmodern for everyday life, it succeeds at doing what DeLillo only aspires to do.
By far the best self-consciously postmodernist fiction I've ever encountered is written by Victor Pelevin and a number of similar authors. In fact, "postmodernism" in Russia denotes primarily a literary genre. Pelevin's career, like that of Sorokin and the others, only took off after the fall of the Soviet Union. It makes sense: a truly self-conscious postmodernism could not have coexisted with the likes of Krivin. But it would also have been unthinkable in Russia without its predecessor, the postmodernism of the banal. Pelevin can only realize postmodernism because he has lived it, more than even DeLillo has.