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Roll Out the Barrels: Emptiness, Fullness, and the Picaresque-Idyllic Dynamic in Vasilii Aksenov’s “Zatovarennaia bochkotara”

  • Laura Beraha (a1)


Barrels roll. In a mythological, folk, or literary text, they set off a reciprocal dynamic of emptying out and filling in. Where Diogenes filled his barrel with his own cynical self, Francois Rabelais removed him, then poured back in the wine drained off to accommodate his asceticism. On the basis of this example, Mikhail Bakhtin demonstrates the need to re-embody the disembodied; in connection with the folk laughter that replenishes the hollow chill of mortality, he notes that Rabelais celebrated the “cheerful death” of the Duke of Clarence in a barrel full of malmsey. In Vladimir Propp’s analysis of myth, folktales, and initiation rites, barrels stand in for the bellies of great fish; these swallow and then regurgitate the hero, supplying in the interim “temporary death,” mystic instruction, and the makings of a leader or a savior of the people. It is in an ocean-going barrel that Aleksandr Pushkin’s Prince Gvidon, condemned to an infant death, grows “not by days, but by hours” (“Skazka o tsare Saltane” [Tale of Tsar Saltan, 1831]), repeating the pattern of reversals in birth dreams, through exposure on the water and entombment in womb-like receptacles, studied by Otto Rank. Il'ia Erenburg’s apostle of absolute and universal negation had planned to start his mission by crossing the Atlantic in a beer barrel (Julio Jurenito, 1922). The dual or schizophrenic narrator of Sasha Sokolov’s Shkola dlia durakov (School for fools, 1976), though otherwise anonymous, is moved to fill his mentor’s barrel with his own singular name.



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1 Rabelais, Francois, Gargantua andPantagruel, trans. Cohen, J. M. (Baltimore, 1955), prologue to bks. 3 and 4, chap. 3, discussed in Bakhtin, M. M., Dialogic Imagination: FourEssays, ed. Holquist, Michael, trans. Emerson, Caryl and Holquist, Michael (Austin, 1981), 178, 197. The Diogenes connection to “Barrelware” is pointed out in Kustanovich, Konstantin, The Artist and the Tyrant: Vassily Aksenov’s Works in the Brezhnev Era (Columbus, 1992), 80 , and examined at length in Wilkinson, Joel and Yastremski, Slava, “Introduction,” in Aksyonov, Vassily, Surplussed Barrelware, ed. and trans. Wilkinson, Joel and Yastremski, Slava (Ann Arbor, 1985), 1415 .

2 Propp, V. Ia., Istoricheskie korni volshebnoi skazki (Leningrad, 1986), 243 ; Rank, Otto, The Myth of the Birth of the Hero: A Psychological Interpretation of Mythology, trans. Robbins, F. and Jeliffe, Smith Ely (New York, 1970), 6973 . For Ol'ga Freidenberg, the “hero in the barrel” encodes such a rich semantics (marriage bed, womb, and grave) as to serve as one of the “plot templates” of European narrative ( Freidenberg, O. M., Poetika siuzheta i zhanra [Leningrad, 1936], 200, 202, 220-21).

3 The 1955-1956 reprint of Dal'’s classic Tolkovyi slovar'zhivago velikoruskago iazyka (1st ed., 1863-66) sparked a revival of public interest soon to be taken up by seekers of genuine Russianness in the rural prose movement. Although Aksenov’s linguistic profile was from the outset firmly linked with the urban and westernizing trends, the rural setting of “Barrelware” and its quest for authenticity in the heartland of Russia suggest the shadowy presence of Dal'’s listings; their semantic potential is reactivated and set in confrontation with Aksenov’s more typical stylistic fields.

4 As diagnosed by Vail', Petr and Genis, Aleksandr, Sovremennaia russkaia proza (Ann Arbor, 1982), 78 .

5 Aksenov, Vasilii, Ozhog: Roman v trekh knigakh (Ann Arbor, 1985), 401 .

6 Passages from “Barrelware” are cited in the text as either R or E, where R refers to the collection Aksenov, Vasilii, Pravo na ostrov: Povesti, p'esy, rasskazy (Moscow, 1991) and E to the translation, “Surplussed Barrelware,” in Wilkinson and Yastremski (Surplussed Barrelware, 25-102). In the interests of a motif analysis, I have often had to depart from the published translation.

7 For example, Wilkinson and Yastremski see the barrels as both the magic helpers of fairy tales and “cellbellies” of alienation (Surplussed Barrelware, 11-12). The latter interpretation is seconded by Dalgard, Per, The Function of the Grotesque in VasilijAksenov, trans. Porter, Robert (Aarhus, 1982), 73 . Unification is stressed by Johnson, John Jr., “Introduction: The Life and Works of Aksenov,” in Aksenov, Vasilii, The SteelBird and Other Stories (Ann Arbor, 1979), xiv ; and Meyer, Priscilla, “Aksenov and Soviet Literature of the 1960s,Russian Literature Triquarterly 6 (1973): 456 . On the barrels as a “metaphor of the ignored inner life,” see Slobin, Greta N., “Aksenov beyond ‘Youth Prose’: Subversion through Popular Culture,Slavic and East European Journal 31, no. 1 (Spring 1987): 57 . From Kustanovich comes the interpretation as muse figures and creativity (Artist and the Tyrant, 23, 80, 115, 159-60). Socialist realism, modernism, and pathways to the divine are the variants offered by Efimova, N. A., Intertekst v religioznykhi demonicheskikh motivakh Aksenova (Moscow, 1993), 90 . A reworking of the positive hero is discovered by Nemtsev, V. I., “O narushenii kanona v proze Vasiliia Aksenova: K probleme groteska,” in Skobelev, V. I. and Fink, I. A., eds., Vasilii Aksenov: Literaturnaiasud’ba (Samara, 1994), 29 . Anima guides are suggested by Lauridsen, Inger, “Beautiful Ladies in the Works of Vasiliy Aksenov,” in Mozejko, Edward, ed., Vasiliy PavlovichAksenov: A Writer in Quest of Himself (Columbus, 1986), 102–18.

8 For an analysis of the title in terms of Newspeak and plot-anticipation, see N. T. Rymar’, “Tvorchestvo Vasiliia Aksenova v kontekste khudozhestvennogo iazyka XX veka: Fenomen ‘sovetskogo soznaniia’ i problema autentichnosti khudozhestvennogo soznaniia,” in Skobelev and Fink, eds., Vasilii Aksenov, 14.

9 To date, readings of the epigraph have focused on its acoustic, alliterative, and nonsensical values. See Dalgard (Grotesque, 65); also his “Some Literary Roots of Aksenov’s Writings: Affinities and Parallels,” in Mozejko, ed., Vasiliy Pavlovich Aksenov, 71; Slobin, “Aksenov beyond ‘Youth Prose,’” 56; and Meyer, “Aksenov and Soviet Literature of the 1960s,” 458.

10 Trans-sense of the early twentieth-century avant-garde aimed to liberate the word from the burden of contained meaning, to release it into a fullness of meaning beyond itself. The “arriere-garde” of the late twentieth century finds the realm beyond exhausted, empty of vitality and significance. As described by Mikhail Epstein, it confronts an already completed “desemanticization of the word,” and so falls back on metonymy as a lazy last resort, the better to “wash away” what remains of meaning in so many verbal husks ( Epstein, Mikhail, After the Future: The Paradoxes of Postmodernismand Contemporary Russian Culture, trans. Miller-Pogacar, Anesa [Amherst, 1995], 55, 8384, 91). Aksenov’s text, it seems, stands in some semantic eddy between this overflow and undertow in making or breaking new sense.

11 Michel Foucault treats the Narrenschijf of the early Renaissance as a paradigm of embarkation, soon to be superseded by the modes of confinement created in the classical age. The Ship of Fools re-enacts a “ritual division,” such that the madman is expelled into “absolute Passage,” a privileged enclosure both within and without the city gates, a permanent imprisonment “on the threshold itself .. ., at the point of passage, … in the interior of the exterior, and inversely” ( Foucault, Michel, Madnessand Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason, trans. Howard, Richard [New York, 1965], 713.) As will be argued below, permanent liminality, the suspension between rejection and acceptance, and the confusion of inner and outer form part of the picaresque ambivalence that pervades the entire text of “Barrelware,” epitomizes its own suspension on the cusp of two cultural epochs, and is seen here to infect even the implied redemption of its closing dream.

12 Kustanovich points to the implausibility of the passage: both the colors and the species are out of place, the better to “create a bright, optimistic atmosphere“ (Kustanovich, Artist and the Tyrant, 160).

13 Meyer, Priscilla, “Interview with Vasily Pavlovich Aksenov,Russian LiteratureTriquarterly 6 (Spring 1973): 569–70.

14 Central to Linda Hutcheon’s argument that twentieth-century parody operates as an “authorized transgression” embracing both exclusive (“revolutionary“) and inclusive (“conservative“) aesthetic impulses is her resurrection of the “double etymology“ of the paro- in parody. The Greek prefix, she notes, means both “counter” or “against” and “beside” or “close to” ( Hutcheon, Linda, A Theory of Parody: The Teachingsof Twentieth-Century Art Forms [New York, 1985], 32, 53, 60).

15 Aksenov, Vasilii, “Beseda s pisatelem Vasiliem Aksenovym,Kontinent, 1981, no. 27:436–37.

16 Oral communication.

17 Almost two decades later, Aksenov would argue, paradoxically, that dissent strikes deepest on the surface: those who look different (inakolikie) present a more serious affront to the establishment than those who think differently (inakomysliashchie). The latter pose a distinct and familiar threat, operating within the same range of concepts as their opponents; the former maintain a sly indifference, so that their “impenetrable world” ranks alongside “religion, art and the many and various meadows of divine and human irony” ( Aksenov, Vasilii, “Zima trevogi nashei,Literaturnyikur’er, 1983, no. 10:19 ).

18 Noted by Efimova (Intertekst, 52) and Kustanovich (Artist and the Tyrant, 109). Compare the distinction drawn between gouter and manger, or eating for pleasure and eating for power through violence in Tobin, Ronald, “Les Mets et les mots: Gastronomic et semiotique dans l'Ecole des femmes,” Sémiotica 51 (1984): 136, 139. On its application to Gogolian power plays, see LeBlanc, Ronald, “Satisfying Khlestakov’s Appetite: The Semiotics of Eating in The Inspector General,” Slavic Review 47, no. 3 (Fall 1988): 486, 495-96. On “devouring and being devoured” as the essence of the picaresque condition, see Wicks, Ulrich, Picaresque Narrative, Picaresque Fictions: A Theory andResearch Guide (New York, 1989), 188–89.

19 Aksenov, Ozhog, 102, 104. The etymological links between zhertva (sacrificial victim), zhrets (priest officiating at a sacrificial slaughter), and zhratva (food, originally the product of that slaughter) are examined in Toporov, V. N., “Iz slavianskoi iazycheskoi terminologii: Indoevropeiskie istoki i tendentsii razvitiia,” in Trubachev, O. N., ed., Etimologiia 1986-1987 (Moscow, 1989), 23 .

20 Among the many to have expressed concern over the “totalizing” aspect of carnival, one scholar links it specifically to the theme of inside and outside the stomach. See Kilgour’s, Maggie magnificent From Communion to Cannibalism: An Anatomy ofMetaphors of Incorporation (Princeton, 1990), 6, 89.

21 As described in Filip, Valeriia, “Tenia begstva u Vasiliia Aksenova,Novyizhurnal, 1983, no. 151:6875 .

22 Ambivalent conversions in the European picaresque are discussed in Bjornson, Richard, The Picaresque Hero in European Fiction (Madison, 1977), 194206 ; Rico, Francisco, The Spanish Picaresque Novel and the Point of View, trans. Davis, Charles with Sieber, Harry (Cambridge, Eng., 1984), 4154 ; and Dunn, Peter N., Spanish Picaresque Fiction:A New Literary History (Ithaca, 1993), 135–47. Gogol'’s handling of the theme is analyzed in Olga Markof-Belaeff, “Dead Souls and the Picaresque Tradition: A Study in the Definition of Genre,” (Ph.D. diss., University of California, Berkeley, 1982), 242-49; LeBlanc, Ronald D., “Gogol'’s Chichikov: Russian Picaro or Real Vyzhigin?Canadian-American Slavic Studies 23, no. 4 (Winter 1989): 409–28; and LeBlanc, , The Russianizationof Gil Bias: A Study in Literary Appropriation (Columbus, 1986), 237, 242-56.

23 Bakhtin, M. M., Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. McGee, Vern W., ed. Emerson, Caryl and Holquist, Michael (Austin, 1986), 11 .

24 The picaresque strain in Aksenov’s oeuvre could also include what he recalls as “one of [his] best film-scripts, ‘O, etot v'iunosha letuchii’ [Oh, that flying youth].“ This piece was based on such anonymous satiric tales of the seventeenth century as “Povest' o Shemiakinom sude” (Tale of Shemiaka’s judgment) and “Povest' o Frole Skobeeve” (Tale of Frol Skobeev)—works that have often been seen to anticipate Russia’s adaptation of the western European genre. See Aksenov, Vasilii, “la, po suti dela, ne emigrant,Iunost', 1989, no. 4:82 .

25 According to Efimova, tattooed arms are a regularly occurring sign in Aksenov of the criminal world, the state police, and the illicit cooperation between the two (Intertekst, 11, 14-15, 22-23).

26 See Miller, Stuart, The Picaresque Novel (Cleveland, 1967), 21 .

27 Semi-orphanhood is emblematic of the “half-outsidership” deemed “crucial“ to the picaresque in the seminal study, Claudio Guillén, “Toward a Definition of the Picaresque,” in Literature as System: Essays toward the Theory of Literary History (Princeton, 1971), 75-81.

28 Rico, Spanish Picaresque Novel, 78; Bakhtin, Dialogic Imagination, 160.

29 The identification is made by Kustanovich (Artist and the Tyrant, 80). Another possible intertextual link to the picaresque is offered by Meyer’s discovery, in the pilot's dream, of a covert allusion to Valentin Kataev’s Rastratchiki (Embezzlers, 1927) (“Aksenov and Soviet Literature of the 1960s,” 457).

30 Dmitrii Likhachev traces a sartorial line in the picaresque from Charles Dickens’s Alfred Jingle (Pickwick Papers, 1837) through Bender and Isaak BabeP’s Benia Krik to Ametistov in Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Zoikina kvartira” (Zoika’s apartment, 1926). See Likhachev, D. S., “Literaturnyi ded Ostapa Bendera,” in Stranitsy istorii russkoiliteratury: K 80-letiiu chlena-korrespondenta AN SSSR N. F. Bel'chikova (Moscow, 1971), 245–48. On Chichikov and the hidalgo de apariencia, see Glass, Elliot S., “ Dead Souls and the Spanish Picaresque Novel,Revista de estudios hispánicos 21, no. 1 (1977): 7880 .

31 E. Sidorov’s afterword to the first publication of “Barrelware” established the work’s reputation as a “parable” ( Sidorov, E., “Na puti k Khoroshemu Cheloveku: Posleslovie k povesti,lunost', 1968, no. 3:64 ). Stanislav Rassadin supplies the identification with the literary dream ( Rassadin, Stanislav, “Shestero v kuzove, ne schitaia bochkotary,Voprosy literatury, 1968, no. 10:114–15); Slobin—with the “village idyll“ and the “light operetta” (“Aksenov beyond ‘Youth Prose,’” 54). In the narrower, traditional sense, the picaresque falls low on the list of genre labels applied to “Barrelware“ (by Wilkinson and Yastremski, Surplussed Barrelware, 7; and by Simmons, Cynthia, Their Fathers’ Voice: Vassily Aksyonov, Venedikt Erofeev, Eduard Limonov and Sasha Sokolov [New York, 1993], 42 ). Oleg Dark, on the other hand, discovers a picaresque-mythic current in “new prose,” where Aksenov’s Traveler-persona plays a key role ( Dark, Oleg, “Mif o proze,Druzhba narodov, 1992, nos. 5-6:221–25). On the often slippery distinc tions between the “picaresque genre,” “myth,” and “novels picaresque in the strict .. . fand] broader sense[s] of the term,” see Guillén (“Toward a Definition of the Picaresque“).

32 Hence the label “the tragedy and epic of hunger,” coined by Javier Garriga in his pioneering Estudio de la novela picaresca (1891), cited and discussed in Wicks (Picaresque Narrative, Picaresque Fictions, 19, 63, 188-89). “A general stress on the material level of existence or of subsistence,” including the “sordid facts [of] hunger“ stands fifth among the eight features Guillen lists as constitutive of the “picaresque novel in the strict sense” (“Toward a Definition of the Picaresque,” 75, 83). S. Eremina and E. Lysenko speak of hunger’s central “organizing” role in the first, paradigmatic picaresque, Lazarillo de Tormes (1554) in the commentary to Plutovskoi roman, comp. N. Tomashevskii (Moscow, 1975), 506, 511. The first widely recognized Russian picaresque was Mikhail Chulkov’s Prigozhaia povarikha (Comely cook, 1770).

33 The picaresque and the pastoral combine in Don Quixote (1605, 1615), both spoofed and recreated in all nostalgic sincerity in Fazil' Iskander’s Sandro iz Chegema (Sandro of Chegem, 1973-1989). Where the term piggyback is intended to stress interdependencies, Elias Rivers treats the picaresque-pastoral relationship in Cervantes’s novel as a “perfect binary opposition” that pits urban against rural settings, hunger against food-at-hand, and leisure against scrounging ( Rivers, Elias L., Quixotic Scriptures:Essays on the Textuality of Hispanic Literature [Bloomington, 1983], 6667 ). Wicks’s “modal“ approach to the genre allows for transfers and intergradings between the picaresque, heroic romance, and pastoral (Picaresque Narrative, Picaresque Fictions, 39-43).

34 One of the first recorded (preliterary) uses of the term picaro was in the expression picaro de cozina (kitchen scullion), dated 1525 by Sieber, Harry, Language andSociety in “La Vida de Lazarillo de Tormes” (Baltimore, 1978), 5 . Rico notes the midsixteenth- century usage denoting a young boy employed as a “casual scullion,” and later, by 1600, as ganapàn or esporterillo (basket-carrier, errand boy, or messenger) (SpanishPicaresque Novel, 60). The origin of the word, however, is generally held to be obscure.

35 The concept of the idyll as bounded, native space, cyclical time, and restricted choice of theme is based on Bakhtin’s idyllic chronotope (Dialogic Imagination, 224-36) and its development by Hammarberg, Gitta, who speaks of idyllic “miniaturization“ and “trivialization” in her From the Idyll to the Novel: Karamzin’s Sentimentalist Prose (Cambridge, Eng., 1991), 47, 60, 93, 97, 164.

36 Aksenov, Vasilii, “Residents and Refugees,” trans. Aplin, Galya and Aplin, Hugh, in McMillin, Arnold, ed., Under Eastern Eyes: The West as Reflected in Recent Russian EmigreWriting (New York, 1992), 4243 .

37 Discussed by Efimova (Intertekst, 76-79). Several of Aksenov’s contemporaries treat this notion of culture seated at and compromised by its proximity to the state feeding trough, including Lev Loseff in Zakrytyi raspredelitel' (Closed distribution point, 1984) and Iskander, in the alternation of idyllic and perverted banquets in Sandro izChegema and in “Kroliki i udavy” (Rabbits and boa constrictors, 1980), which is devoted exclusively to this one theme. On an entirely different end of the literary food chain— one far removed from the irony of the picaresque—stands the gulag theme of purification through starvation. Two outstanding examples: the minutely detailed ethics of eating in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Odin den' Ivana Denisovicha (A day in the life of Ivan Denisovich, 1962) and the bread of death that is dealt to Osip Mandel'shtam in Varlam Shalamov’s “Sherri-Brendi” (Sherry brandy).

38 Aksenov, “Beseda,” 436; Efimova, Intertekst, 109-10; Kustanovich, Artist and theTyrant, 33, 97-99; Meyer, “Interview,” 572.

39 Aksenov, Ozhog, 424-27.

40 In effect, Aksenov has raised to the second degree the picaresque dilemma, a condition described by Wicks as “a suspension between two havens—one in which [the picaro] could not stay and another he cannot get to” (Picaresque Narrative, PicaresqueFictions, 188).

41 Restored in English translation in Wilkinson and Yastremski (Surplussed Barrelware, 56).

42 The pike is a predator fish. Mochenkin in the waking world is an ex-hunter or “inspector” (R6-7/E29) of the Colorado beetle. His eating the predator fish while awake, and being fed upon by his insect prey while asleep (in the nightmare of being turned into potato food for beetles, R17/E39), forms part of the series of metonymic reversals of feasters and feasted-upon. The motif participates in the dog-eat-dog pattern of the picaresque. A fish story often treated, on the basis of its upstart protagonist, as a native Russian analog to the picaresque is the seventeenth-century “Povest' o Ershe Ershoviche” (Tale of Ruff Ruff-Son). The Spanish canon too has a fishy subtheme: the anonymous and spurious sequel of 1555 to Lazarillo de Tormes saw the world’s first literary rogue transformed into tuna, a rite of passage that Miguel Cervantes turned into a finishing school of roguery in his “Illustrious Kitchen-Maid” of 1613.

43 Rassadin, “Shestero v kuzove, ne schitaia bochkotary,” 95; Nemzer, Andrei, “Strannaia veshch', neponiatnaia veshch',Novyi mir, 1991, no. 11:243–49.


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