Boris Pilnyak Criticism - Essay

Joseph Wood Krutch (review date 1925)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “New Russia or Old?,” in Nation, Vol. 120, February 11, 1925, pp. 163–64.

[In the following unfavorable assessment of Tales of the Wilderness, Krutch maintains that Pilnyak's stories “are singularly barren of either intellectual or emotional content.”]

Prince Mirsky begins his introduction to Tales of the Wilderness with the statement that the English reading public knows next to nothing of contemporary Russian literature and then, as he proceeds to discuss the prose writers since Chekhov, comes very near to saying that they are not worth knowing. Dismissing Merezhkovsky, Andreev, and Artsybashev as “second- and third-rate writers,” he proposes Remizov and Pilniak as representatives of the best which contemporary Russia has to offer; but of them and their school he says that they have little except a self-conscious and fastidious style to distinguish them. Both from this introduction and from the tales themselves we learn that they are devoted to meticulous, rather pointless studies of the mean and grotesque aspects of contemporary life and that, lacking the social ideas of their great predecessors, they have created a sort of inverted aestheticism which toys with ugliness without exactly knowing why it does so. A certain gift for clear-cut description they certainly have, but their stories are singularly barren of either intellectual or emotional content.

Politically, perhaps, Russia has taken on a new life; but literature is a slower growth than government and artistically she is still (if we may judge from these two writers) hesitating between the dead world and the world which is still powerless to be born. No new impulse, social, intellectual, or artistic, is discernible in these translations, and the old ones seem exhausted. The belief in the people which sustained some of Russia's great writers seems to have vanished before the time came for that faith to translate itself into energy, and Pilniak pictures both the defeated aristocracy and the triumphant proletariat as blundering futilely from one despair to another without having the energy even to suffer. Unsympathetic observers have accused the Russian of loving despair because it relieves him of the necessity of effort, and without taking so unfavorable a view one may at least suggest that Pilniak is too tired to hope. He seems when confronted with the triumph of the revolution to have said merely: “Oh well, you cannot expect anything from the people either,” and then to have sunk back into...

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M. Capitanchik (review date 1969)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Politic Views,” in Spectator, Vol. 222, June 14, 1969, pp. 788, 790.

[In the following excerpt, Capitanchik offers a mixed assessment of Mother Earth and Other Stories.]

‘Human kind,’ wrote Eliot, ‘cannot bear very much reality’. One of the more baleful aspects of contemporary Russian society is its treatment of writers who do not accept that great flight from reality, the view of the revolution as the beginning of universal justice. Boris Pilnyak, some of whose stories are now published in translation for the first time, was an experimental writer, interspersing incantatory imagery with reports from documents, who welcomed the revolution as an expression of Russian history, not as a communist achievement. Vilified, in 1926, for his Tale of the Unextinguished Moon—in which he describes the killing of a famous general by means of a surgical operation, the parallel of what may have been an early example of Stalinist paranoia—he expunged his guilt by becoming impeccably orthodox, but was arrested nonetheless, in 1937, and is now known to be dead.

The title story of this collection, Mother Earth, is an evocation of elemental forces; the Bolshevik forester Nekulyev struggles with hungry ‘citizen forest thieves’ and with Cossacks fighting the revolution. Mahogany, about a post-revolutionary provincial town which lives partly by selling the objects d'art of a previous era, prefigures the persecution of the kulaks. But it is in ‘The Bridegroom Cometh,’ a masterly, horrifying description of the life of termites, that Pilnyak reveals his true, prophetic vision: ‘This state never sees the light of day; the state is a machine, the state does not tolerate individuality, ownership, freedom of instinct.’ For this insight, it could not tolerate him.

As with all writing which aims to make no distinction between life and art, there is a tendency to be repetitive and unselective. Nevertheless, Pilnyak was one of the first of his generation of writers to appreciate that one-party rule is an evil; he saw with his own eyes until what he saw destroyed him—which is not less than a heroic achievement.

Edith Rogovin Frankel (essay date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Note on Pilnyak's Tale of the Unextinguished Moon,” in Soviet Studies, Vol. 24, No. 4, April, 1973, pp. 550–53.

[In the following essay, Frankel elucidates the moral of Pilnyak's Tale of the Unextinguished Moon.]

Boris Pilnyak's Tale of the Unextinguished Moon is usually summed up, briefly or in some detail, simply as a story which relates in fictional form the death of Frunze. Pilnyak's Gavrilov, like Frunze, is a famous general who is ordered by a high political figure (in Frunze's case it was said to be Stalin) to undergo an operation which medical advisers deemed unnecessary. In both cases the general died. Pilnyak is described as...

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Vera T. Reck (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon,” in Boris Pil'niak: A Soviet Writer in Conflict with the State, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975, pp. 20–51.

[In the following essay from her full-length study, Reck examines the controversy surrounding the creation and publication of Pilnyak's most renowned works.]

An ear cocked for the rumours, an eye on the papers, which in the first days of November were filled with accounts of Frunze's death, biographical articles, and reminiscences of friends and comrades in arms, Pil'niak set about writing The Tale of the Unextinguished Moon.1

As time was to show, the story marked...

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Vera T. Reck (essay date 1975)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Mahogany and Soviet Critical Opinion,” in Boris Pil'niak: A Soviet Writer in Conflict with the State, McGill-Queen's University Press, 1975, pp. 82–6.

[In the essay below, Reck discusses Pilnyak's novelette Mahogany and the criticism it generated.]

In a report on the literary “war” in Moscow, Walter Duranty informed the readers of the New York Times that Mahogany had been “saluted with howls of joy by the White Russian press abroad.”1 His information must have come from Moscow newspapers or other Soviet sources: there is no evidence of such a reception in the émigré press. Mahogany, this...

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Stanley Edgar Hyman (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Varangian Times,” in New Leader, Vol. 60, No. 11, May 5, 1977, pp. 9–11.

[In the following essay, Hyman provides a positive review of Pilnyak's short fiction, asserting that “at his best, Boris Pilnyak was a matchless captor of the historical moment in all its rich life, a master of the full range of comic rhetoric, and a unique poetic voice in fiction.”]

“Boris Pilnyak,” the pen name of Boris Andreyevich Vogau, born in 1894, was part of the teeming growth of fictional talents that mushroomed after the Russian Revolution and Civil War, including Isaac Babel, Evgeni Zamyatin, Yuri Oleska, and many others. Like a number of them, he modeled his...

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Marc Slonim (essay date 1977)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Boris Pilnyak: The Untimely Symbolist,” in Soviet Russian Literature: Writers and Problems, 1917–1977, Oxford University Press, 1977, pp. 59–66.

[In the following essay, Slonim discusses Pilnyak's political beliefs and how they were expressed in his fiction.]

Chronologically, the first significant panorama of the Great Upheaval was presented in The Naked Year (1922), a novel consisting of a series of flashbacks and close-ups of an aristocratic family, an anarchist's bohemian colony, peasants, uprisings, fratricidal strife, and various episodes of cruelty, lust, famine, physical frenzy, and mental exaltation. The author of this strange yet...

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Carol Avins (essay date 1978)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Pil'njak's ‘The Third Capital’: Russia and the West in Fact and Fiction,” in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 22, No. 1, Spring, 1978, pp. 39–51.

[In the following essay, Avins contends that “The Third Capital” is important “for its extended treatment of the contrast between Europe and Russia present in a number of his other works.”]

The Russian preoccupation with Europe is reflected in the works of many Russian writers and expressed in many forms. It appears in eighteenth-century adventure tales, travel writings, and satire, and in contemporary poetry and prose. Often the writer's look westward is simultaneously an act of...

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Michael Falchikov (essay date 1980)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Rerouting the Train of Time: Boris Pil'nyak's ‘Krasnoye Derevo’,” in Modern Language Review, Vol. 75, No. 1, 1980, pp. 138–47.

[In the following essay, Falchikov explores the roles of time and memory in Pilnyak's Mahogany.]

At the end of the fourth chapter of his five-chapter novella Krasnoye derevo Pil'nyak comes out with a cliché which nevertheless seems to provide an important clue to an interpretation of the work. Describing a futile attempt by one of the characters to catch a train by making a cross-country journey by horse and cart, Pil'nyak finishes the chapter with the words: ‘Akim, the Trotskyite, missed the train, just as he...

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T. R. N. Edward (essay date 1982)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Pil'nyak: The Fatal Confusion,” in Three Russian Writers and the Irrational: Zamyatin, Pil'nyak, and Bulgakov, Cambridge University Press, 1982, pp. 87–136.

[In the following essay, Edward traces the theme of the irrational in Pilnyak's fiction.]


The examination of a specific theme in the work of several writers calls for an approach which should be both extensive and intensive: extensive, because it must range over a wide field, and therefore precludes the close study of his entire oeuvre which concentration on one author demands; intensive, since detailed discussion is required where the irrational is most fully and...

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Carol Avins (essay date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Ice and Icon, Spengler in Russia: Boris Pilniak, ‘The Third Capital’ (1923),” in Border Crossings: The West and Russian Identity in Soviet Literature, 1917–1934, University of California Press, 1983, pp. 35–47.

[In the following essay, Avins considers Pilnyak's contrast of Russia and Europe in his story “The Third Capital.”]

The two basic terms in the political formulas of the day, “we” and “they,” fit a variety of categories—ideological, class, national. Blok's essay “The Collapse of Humanism” shows the chameleon quality of the first person plural. The pronoun both distinguishes the Russian intelligentsia from the masses and...

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Gary Browning (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “Works,” in Boris Pilniak: Scythian at a Typewriter, Ardis, 1985, pp. 95–114, 127–131.

[In the following excerpt, Browning provides a thematic and stylistic analysis of several short stories by Pilnyak.]

In general, Pilniak wrote rapidly and prolifically. His mind and pen raced from work to work; many were typeset prematurely, while their author hurried on to new projects.1 Consequently, Pilniak's performance is uneven. When writing with great vigor, concentration, and integrity, he produced excellent art, occasionally with surprising speed but usually only after the discipline and refinement characteristic of longer periods. In what follows...

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Tom J. Lewis (review date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Chinese Story and Other Tales, in World Literature Today, Vol. 63, No. 3, Summer, 1989, p. 500.

[In the following essay, Lewis provides a favorable review of Chinese Story and Other Tales.]

The style of Boris Pilnyak's fiction has been described as disorderly and emotional but appropriate for the troubled times and events it treats. The stories translated for the collection Chinese Story and Other Tales would confirm that judgment, especially “Chinese Story” itself. Written in what at first seems to be a form of internal monologue, it later becomes apparent that the text is a diary kept by a Russian visitor to China in the year...

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Sally Laird (review date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: “A Rush to Remember,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 21, 1989, p. 808.

[In the following review, Laird offers a mixed assessment of Chinese Story and Other Tales.]

With the exception of one charming early tale, “A Year of Their Life,” all the stories in this volume [Chinese Story and Other Tales] date from the 1920s. Anyone wishing to feel what it was like to live through that decade in Russia would do well to add Boris Pilnyak's account to Bulgakov's or Pasternak's. His sense of the present—the latest moment—is extraordinarily vivid, as if someone from the future had called out to him “Remember everything! Because all this—and you...

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Frank Day (review date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Chinese Story and Other Tales, in Studies in Short Fiction, Vol. 26, No. 4, Fall, 1989, p. 564.

[In the following essay, Day offers a favorable review of Chinese Story and Other Tales.]

In Mother Earth, Pilnyak's loving testimonial short story of Russia's “fields, forests, swamps, coppices, hills, distances, years, nights, days, blizzards, storms, calms,” Arina Arsenyeva the tanner has fallen from bourgeois comfort in the post-revolution years. Her comfortable childhood home now houses workers, and she herself works hard hours in the tannery:

The house was as it had always been, but her days...

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Luis H. Francia (review date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: A review of Chinese Story and Other Tales, in Village Voice Literary Supplement, Vol. 5, October, 1989, pp. 5–6.

[In the following positive review of Chinese Story and Other Tales, Francia maintains that “underneath the seemingly rambling passages is a passionate, inquisitive intelligence, gifted and large enough to let a certain amount of disorder flourish.”]

While Stalin was consolidating his hold over a still young Soviet Union, Boris Pilnyak—one of the finest Russian writers of a generation that included Mikhail Bulgakov, Yevgeny Zamyatin, and Yevgeny Katayev—was president of the All-Russian Writers' Union's Moscow branch. Pilnyak...

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