Angela Brintlinger’s Writing a Usable Past: Russian Literary Culture 1917–1937 is an enjoyable, in places even entertaining, book. No time was spared researching and producing it. The book discusses authors who are seeking answers to the present even as they are engaged in the production of texts on Pushkin in preparation for the one hundredth anniversary of the poet’s death. As Soviets and emitters alike wish to appropriate Pushkin for their own purposes, Brintlinger’s book is an attempt to show that Tynianov, Khodasevich, and Bulgakov typify the Russian literary culture of the time. While all these writers in one way or another failed to produce a successful literary account of Pushkin, they did succeed in writing poignantly about other writers. Thus we have chapters devoted to works by Tynianov on Kiukhelbeker, Griboedov, and Pushkin, by Khodasevich on Derzhavin and Pushkin and by Bulgakov on Molière and Pushkin.
The chapters are well-composed and detailed, containing a fair amount of biographical data and material of general interest (e.g. a discussion of Khodasevich’s account of how Derzhavin—a contemporary of Goethe and Voltaire—and one born into the Russian nobility, survived being “baked into a loaf of bread” as a child for being too small, p. 83). Nevertheless the book as a whole is not well structured, nor is it sufficiently informed by theoretical knowledge. As the thesis is not unified, it comes as no surprise that several of the transitions between chapters are weak and that the text contains numerous repetitions. For example, Van Wyck Brooks’ metaphor, a “usable past,” is never contextualized or appropriately discussed, but it is repeated over and over. While devoting a few lines to summarizing Hayden White’s theory of narrative discourse, the book does not show awareness of the fact that presence, silence, and redundancy of narrative information mark the consciousness of every narrative, not only that of purportedly historical fiction: Brintlinger’s claim to have authored the metaphor about quilt-making (which becomes the cornerstone of her argument) in order to illustrate how writing fiction is moored in fact is somewhat naive. Even if we do not get entangled in the loom of Homer’s Penelope, some attention paid to the process Lacan calls “capitonnage” would probably have been very productive. It is also puzzling that no mention is made of Lukács’s historical novel or Harold Bloom’s discussions of the anxiety of influence and poetic “misreadings.”
Instead of a conclusion, we read a survey of the 1937 Pushkin celebration, followed by a mini-chapter on Sergei Lifer, who too was seeking a “usable past” through Pushkin. Nothing is said in the volume about Marina Tsvetaeva’s essay “Moi Pushkin,” which, produced at the same time as Tynianov’s Pushkin, was another noteworthy literary protest against turning the poet into an unappealing Soviet monument. Surely, her widely discussed piece was also part of “Russian Literary Culture” during the period.
Angela Brintlinger’s book is never boring, which is seldom the case to this extent with academic writing. Most readers will learn a great deal from it, which is why it should be on the shelf of any decent research library. The thorough documentation, in addition to the juxtaposition of distant (at times perhaps too distant) texts, will serve as an important tool for further research.
Peter I. Barta
University of Surrey