Study Guide

Elena Guro

Elena Guro Essay - Critical Essays

Guro, Elena

Introduction

Elena Guro 1877-1913

(Pseudonym of Eleonora Genrikhovna von Notenberg) Russian poet, short story writer, and playwright.

Guro was among the first representatives of the Russian Futurist movement of the early 1900s. Influenced by the visual art of the French Impressionist and Dada movements, the Futurists attempted to dispel the Symbolist notion of the mystical essence of poetry by focusing on form and craft rather than on ideal beauty and romantic language. Guro, the only woman among the early Futurists, often used single-word sentences in her prose and nonsense words in her poetry to illuminate the minute details of specific moments and to capture a childlike perspective. While she received little critical attention during her lifetime, she is now recognized as a unique voice in Russian literature.

Biographical Information

Born in St. Petersburg, Guro grew up in a cultured household. She studied painting at the Society for the Encouragement of the Arts, and became respected as a professional artist after she was commissioned to illustrate the 1904 edition of George Sand's Grandmother's Tales. In 1909, Guro and her husband Mikhail Matyushin, an artist, composer, and musician, helped found the avant-garde art group Venok ("Wealth"), the members of which eventually formed the core of Russian Futurism. Guro published her first short story, "Ranyaya vesna" ("Early Spring"), in Sbornik molodykh poetov ("The Almanac of Young Poets") in 1905. Her collection of poetry, short stories, and plays, Sharmanka (The Hurdy-Gurdy), appeared in 1909. In 1910, with fellow Futurists David Burliuk, V. Kamensky, and Viktor Khlebnikov, she published a miscellany entitled Sadok sudei (A Trap for Judges). Suffering from leukemia, Guro died at her summer house in Finland in 1913.

Major Works

Guro's dream-like imagery, attempts to capture fleeting instants of perception, and reverence for nature and childhood are hallmarks of her work. Guro's books, including The Hurdy Gurdy, Osenniison (The Autumn Dream), and Nebesnye verblyuzhata (The Baby Camels of the Sky), are collections of short pieces in a variety of forms. Like other Futurists, she often interwove poetry and prose, experimenting with sparse language and unconventional prosody. Her child-like voice and use of lyrical nonsense words and phrases coincides with the Futurists' emphasis on the purely aesthetic aspect of language. Often her works evidence the strong influence of the plastic arts on Futurism by abandoning plot to describe a setting or a moment rather than tell a story, particularly in her pieces that juxtapose images of rural and urban experience.

Principal Works

Sharmanka [The Hurdy Gurdy] (poetry, prose, and drama) 1909

Osennii son [The Autumn Dream] (poetry, prose, and drama) 1912

Nebesnye verblyuzhata [The Baby Camels of the Sky] (poetry and prose) 1914

Criticism

Vera Kalina-Levine (essay date 1981)

SOURCE: "Through the Eyes of a Child: The Artistic Vision of Elena Guro," in Slavic and East-European Journal, Vol. 25, No. 2, Summer, 1981, pp. 30-43.

[In the following essay, Kalina-Levine analyzes Guro's childlike authorial voice.]

In his reminiscence about Elena Guro, Vasilij Kamenskij links Guro's poetry with a tragic event in her life, the loss of her only child. Unable to come to terms with her son's death, Guro, in Kamenskij's recollection, went on imagining her son was alive and continued to buy toys for him, maintain his room, draw his portraits, and write stories and poems for him. Although both the emphasis on biographical roots of a poet's imagination in general and Kamenskij's reminiscences in particular have to be taken cum grano salis, it is striking that as both a poet and a painter Guro was almost obsessively preoccupied with the world of the child. As a poetic persona, she frequently identifies with children or at least expresses her strong empathy with them by assuming a maternal stance toward life. She further confounds the issue of her parentage when she states in one of the prose sketches in Baby Camels in the Sky (Nebesnye verbljuiats): "You see, I have no children, maybe that's why I love so unbearably everything that is alive. Sometimes it seems to me that I am a mother to everything." While there is uncertainty with respect to Guro's status as a parent, it is a noteworthy detail of her family background that her grandfather on her mother's side was the well-known pedagogue Čistjakov, who both wrote stories for children and was the publisher of A Children's Journal (Žurnal dlja detet) in the years 1851-1865. But whatever the specifics of their ostensible biographical underpinnings, Guro's creative interests were also clearly grounded in some of the most important trends and assumptions which gained momentum in the late nineteenth to early twentieth century, the period that nurtured Guro's literary and artistic sensibilities. One such trend was primitivism which, at the time Guro entered the literary scene in Russia, fostered an idealization of childhood and sought to legitimize its world not only in literature but also in art, psychology, philosophy, political thought, and the law.

In literature, the glorification of childhood provided a broadly based impetus for what became a central concern of the Russian Futurists, namely their endeavor to renovate language. By the time Elena Guro developed an abiding interest in the incipient Futurist or rather, CuboFuturist cause, heralded by the miscellany A Trap for Judges I (Sadok Sudej 1) in April 1910, she had a number of published works to her credit. Most of these works were incorporated in the collection of prose, poetry, and plays entitled The Hurdy-Gurdy (gsrmanka), published in February 1909. To the extent that Guro's idealization of childhood was anticipated in her first book and as such predated her involvement with Futurism, it did not grow out of her endorsement of the Futurist demand to overthrow established forms and conventions so much as it converged with it. Within this perspective, it is pertinent that even before she turned to literature, Guro had expressed her interest in the world of the child in painting. In addition, in 1911 Guro planned to publish a book of fairy-tales, a project which, however, never came to fruition because her publisher lost both the literary material and its water-color illustrations. As far as her work as a painter is concerned, Guro not only treated fairy-tale subjects on canvas, but often used simple, child-like designs (—flowers, stars, trees, et cetera) in her book illustrations. Her friend, Olga Matjugina was struck by the childish quality of Guro's drawings and watercolors:

"A posthumous exhibit" … Yet everything is alive in it: cheerful puppies run, make somersaults, delicate birches quiver, a cat pricks up its ears keenly … Everything is painted with only a few lines, sparingly and expressively.

Giving literary and artistic expression to her interest in the infantile world, Guro made a multifaceted contribution to what was a specifically modern version of primitivism, the growing cult of childhood. This cult gained its forcefulness from the belief that childhood exemplified not only the most desirable human state but also the ideal artistic condition. Perceiving a fundamental similarity between the child and the artist, Guro viewed childhood as encapsulating the natural artistry of mankind. Her identification of childhood with genuine artistry was not unlike that of Rainer Maria Rilke who wrote, shortly before his two influential trips to Russia, that the essence of artistry lay in child-like naivete, unselfconsciousness, openness to and instinctive trust in life.

For Guro, as for Rilke, emulation of the artistic sensibility of the child was not a mere return to the romantic ideal of the noble savage who had been praised for both his intuitive wisdom and keen sensitivity to beauty. Children in her eyes are born artists, endowed with unique perceptions in both life and art and with a predisposition for playfulness which she considers to be at the source of all creativity. Childhood for Guro epitomizes that stage in human development in which reality is not yet divided into fixed categories or ordered by the principle of causality. The child is a symbol of wholeness, free to connect outwardly unrelated phenomena and to intermix reality with fantasy. Fascinated with the world of childhood, Guro dedicated her oeuvre to exploring it from several perspectives. The child's vision not only colors the feelings and ideas conveyed in her works but also informs the techniques and devices that shape the presentation of their thematic material. Exploiting children's language and imagery, Guro captured both the symbolizational mechanism and the freshness and immediacy of their experiences. In the process, she illuminated not only the rich fabric of the natural artistry of children but also aspects of creativity in the making.

The original freshness of the infantile world and concomitantly, the identification of the child's perceptual experiences with artistry are at the center of Guro's attention as early as her debut work entitled "Early Spring" ("Rannjaja vesna"). Originally published in An Anthology of Young Writers (Sbornik molodyx pisatelej) in 1905, this story was later incorporated in Guro's book The Hurdy-Gurdy, under the title "Arrival in the Country" ("Priezd v derevniu"). The story is a recollection of infantile perceptions. It recapitulates the patterns by which a little girl orders and apprehends the world around her. This world is based not on causal relations but mostly on sensory happenstance. Patterns emerge from relationships of surface contiguity, as they are apprehended and related to one another by the senses rather than by the intellect. In her sensory approach to life, the child or the little girl in the story is a born impressionist who dwells on her impressions solely for their pleasurable if not esthetic value. Guro's insistence on pure sensory perception, unspoiled by thought and analysis, as well as her extreme concentration on trivia, are characteristic of literary impressionism as it was practiced in the late nineteenth century by, among others, Fet in poetry and Cexov in his short stories of the 1899-1903 period.

Although the child's perceptions in "Arrival in the Country" are presented through the refraction of the adult persona, they preserve all their freshness and immediacy. But the persona is occasionally unable to hold back comments that point distinctly to her adult status in life, for instance: "We were then still blissfully unaware that everything is much more prosaic with adults, that they don't have the same feelings as children." In spite of the few "authorial" comments from the adult perspective, however, most of the impressions captured in the story belong to the little girl; it is the temperament of the child that puts its stamp on or filters the captured moments. Rendering reality the way it appears to her pure and immediate perception, the little girl presents at times unrealistic pictures, based on sensory illusions rather than on facts. Thus, travelling on a train, she displaces the source of motion, observing: "In the window frame, strips of earth and sky rush by quickly." Similarly, looking out of a moving carriage, it appeared to her that "the station huts swam back." However, it is not only the absence of analytical knowledge but also her naiveté and inexperience that are at the source of the little girl's original vision. Capable of marvelling at even the most commonplace phenomena, she assigns nature a very special place in her scheme of life. Although she has little understanding of natural phenomena, she is intensely aware of their sensory qualities, as when, filled with delight, she wonders: "Oh, what smells with such dampness and warmth? … What's that light-violet little thing along the ravine?" However nature is not the only discovery that captivates the little girl. Ordinary language, the mere sounds of the most prosaic words seem to acquire new, almost mysterious dimensions, as when she overhears a conversation of adults: "Delivery of gas tar to the farmstead, a brick factory …—The novelty and delight from new, fresh words and names, not worn out with use and somewhat rough and hard, was being transmitted to us." The child has a unique feeling and appreciation for language. However, it is not so much the referential meaning as the totality of language that appeals to the infantile imagination. The child's emphasis on language as an autonomous whole may even lead to a dislocation of meaning. In the story, the young protagonist confuses a sequence of events as she misinterprets like sounding words: …

She talked about some departures / introductions to society /. The eldest sister was "to part" / to be brought out /. And from this she kept standing before a mirror, the French girl fussed around and we were taken to the nursery.

The event that holds all the impressions together is a move to the country. This event is filled with excitement not only because the idea of it is novel and unexpected but also because the very experience of the journey is a source of an unprecedented wealth of impressions. It leads to a "newly discovered land" which is to be explored in all its sensuousness and with all the senses. In her unquenchable thirst for new perceptions, the little girl deems no color, sound, shape, or scent too trivial to notice. The child's confrontation with reality takes place mostly on the physical or sensual level. Even her apprehension of time is marked by concreteness; her awareness of the future derives from such specific actions as the covering up of furniture in preparation for the summer: "We participated in the preparation of the future, in tidying up the apartment." The little girl's life unfolds in an indistinct flow of time, interrupted by only a few special events such as Christmas or a trip to the country: "From time to time, in the dark and narrow nursery, among endless Mondays and Tuesdays, in the color of ordinary boredom, there opened up pleasantly trembling windows from which a holiday could come." Her vague awareness of temporality derives from these holidays which act as signposts in the passage of time. Their arrival is anticipated with great impatience and their proximity calculated by focusing on fixed events in life:

We liked to while away the time until the set date; wake up in the morning with an impatiently pleasant awareness: one more day gone by and another has arrived; and there's reason to hurry and live it through faster.

Unable to consciously reckon time, the little girl views sleeping as an indicator that yet another day has elapsed. But if such attitude points to a distinctively infantile conception of time, the little girl's childishness is also reflected in her underlying...

(The entire section is 4978 words.)

Milica Banjanin (essay date 1983)

SOURCE: "Looking Out, Looking In: Elena Guro's Windows," in Festschrift fuir Nikola R. Pribie, edited by Josip Matesic and Erwin Wedel, Hieronymus Verlag Neuried, 1983, pp. 3-17.

[In the following essay, Banjanin analyzes the use of the window motif in Guro's prose and poetry.]

A trained painter as well as poet, Elena Guro (1877-1913) puts great emphasis on visual effects in her prose and poetry. The window is one of the commonest as well as most striking images in Guro's writings and paintings; it evolves into a unique device. Functioning not only as a visual image, the window becomes a compositional device, a physical frame, a theatrical stage, and the frame of a...

(The entire section is 5318 words.)

Milica Banjanin (essay date 1986)

SOURCE: "Nature and the City in the Works of Elena Guro," in Slavic and East-European Journal, Vol. 30, No. 2, Summer, 1986, pp. 230-46.

[In the following essay, Banjanin examines Guro's portrayal of nature and the urban world.]

Nature attracted Guro from early childhood, and it was the original inspiration of both her poetry and her art (1900-1906). Even during the period of her interest in the city (approximately 1905-10) she continued to write about nature and to paint it. From 1910 to her death in 1913, nature is again one of the dominant themes of her writing, although we still find many entries on the city in her diaries and notebooks.

Born in...

(The entire section is 5533 words.)