Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2290
Perhaps the most distinctive feature of Yevgeny Zamyatin’s short fiction is its charged, expressive narrative style. The writer characterized the style of his generation of writers in a lecture entitled “Contemporary Russian Literature,” delivered in 1918. Calling the artistic method of his generation Neorealism, he outlined the differences between Neorealist fiction and that of the preceding Realist movement. He states:By the time the Neorealists appeared, life had become more complex, faster, more feverish. In response to this way of life, the Neorealists have learned to write more compactly, briefly, tersely than the Realists. They have learned to say in ten lines what used to be said in a whole page.
During the first part of his career, Zamyatin consciously developed and honed his own unique form of Neorealist writing. Although his initial experimentation in this direction is evident in his early prose works (and especially in the long story A Provincial Tale), this tendency did not reach its expressive potential until the late 1910’s, when it blossomed both in his satires on British life and in the stories devoted to Russian themes. The stories The Islanders and “The Fisher of Men” provide a mordant examination of the stifling philistinism permeating the British middle class. The former work in particular displays the tenor and thrust of Zamyatin’s satiric style. The first character introduced into the tale is a minister named Vicar Dooley, who has written a Testament of Contemporary Salvation, in which he declares that “life must become a harmonious machine and with mechanical inevitability lead us to the desired goal.” Such a vision raises the specter of death and stasis, not energy and life, and Zamyatin marshals his innovative narrative skills to expose the dangers that this vision poses for society.
One salient feature of Zamyatin’s style is the identification of a character with a specific physical trait, animal, or object that seems to capture the essence of the character being depicted. Through this technique, the writer can both evoke the presence of the character by mentioning the associated image and underscore that character’s fundamental personality type. What is more, once Zamyatin has established such an identification, he can suggest significant shifts in his characters’ moods or situations by working changes on the associated images themselves. In The Islanders, this technique plays a vital role in the narrative exposition, and at times the associated images actually replace a given character in action. Thus, one character’s lips are compared at the outset of the story to thin worms, and the women who attend Dooley’s church are described as being pink and blue. Later, a tense interaction between the two is conveyed in striking terms: “Mrs. Campbell’s worms twisted and sizzled on a slow fire. The blues and pinks feasted their eyes.” Similarly, the central protagonist is compared to a tractor, and when his stolid reserve is shattered by feelings of love, Zamyatin writes that the tractor’s “steering wheel was broken.” Through this felicitous image Zamyatin not only evokes his hero’s ponderous bulk but also suggests the unpredictable consequences which follow the release of suppressed emotion.
As striking as his satires on British conservatism are, however, it is in the stories that he wrote on Russian subjects that Zamyatin attained the apex of his vibrant expressionistic style. In his lecture on contemporary Russian literature, he spoke of his desire to find fresh subjects for literary treatment. Contrasting urban and rural settings, he declared: “The life of big cities is like the life of factories. It robs people of individuality, makes them the same, machinelike.” In the countryside, Zamyatin concludes, “the Neorealists find not only genre, not only a way of life, but also a way of life concentrated, condensed by centuries to a strong essence, ninety-proof.”
As if to illustrate this premise, in 1918 he wrote the long tale entitled “The North.” This story celebrates the primal forces of nature: In a swift succession of scenes, Zamyatin depicts a passionate yet short-lived affair between a true child of the forest—a young woman named Pelka—and a simple fisherman named Marey. Pelka is perhaps the closest embodiment of the ideally “natural” character in all of Zamyatin’s works. She talks with the forest creatures, keeps a deer for a pet, and loves with a profound passion that cannot understand or tolerate the constraints imposed by civilized man. Sadly, her brief interlude of love with Marey is threatened by his foolish obsession with constructing a huge lantern “like those in Petersburg.” Marey’s desire to ape the fashions of the city destroys his romantic idyll with Pelka. After she vainly tries to stir Marey’s emotions by having a short fling with a smug, callous shopkeeper named Kortoma, Pelka engineers a fatal encounter between herself, Marey, and a wild bear: The two lovers die at the hands of the natural world.
To illuminate this spectacle of extraordinary desire and suffering, Zamyatin utilizes all the tools of his Neorealist narrative manner. Striving to show rather than describe, Zamyatin avoids the use of such connectors as “it seemed” or “as if” in making comparisons; instead, the metaphorical image becomes the illustrated object or action itself. Especially noteworthy in “The North” is Zamyatin’s use of charged color imagery. By associating particular characters with symbolic visual leitmotifs, the writer enhances his character portrayals. Thus, he underscores Pelka’s naturalism by linking her to a combination of the colors red (as of flesh and blood) and green (as of the vegetation in the forest). Zamyatin compared his method to Impressionism: The juxtaposition of a few basic colors is intended to project the essence of a scene. At times, Zamyatin allows the symbolic associations of certain colors to replace narrative description entirely. Depicting the rising frenzy of a Midsummer Night’s celebration, Zamyatin alludes to the surging flow of raw passion itself when he writes: “All that you could see was that something red was happening.”
Zamyatin’s attention to visual detail in “The North” is matched by his concern with auditory effects. He thought that literary prose and poetry were one and the same; accordingly, the reader finds many examples of alliteration, assonance, and instrumentation in his work. He also gave careful consideration to the rhythmic pattern of his prose, revealing a debt to the Russian Symbolist writers who emphasized the crucial role of sound in prose. Seeking to communicate his perceptions as expressively and concisely as possible, he tried to emulate the fluidity and dynamism of oral speech. One notes many elliptical and unfinished sentences in Zamyatin’s prose at this time, and his narratives resemble a series of sharp but fragmentary images or vignettes, which his readers must connect and fill in themselves. Zamyatin explained: “Today’s reader and viewer will know how to complete the picture, fill in the words—and what he fills in will be etched far more vividly within him, will much more firmly become an organic part of him.”
“In Old Russia”
Zamyatin’s other works on the deep recesses of the Russian countryside reflect his calculated attempt to evoke deep emotions and passionate lives in elliptical, allusive ways. The story “Rus” (“In Old Russia”), for example, is narrated in a warm colloquial tone in which the neutral language of an impersonal narrator is replaced by language that relies heavily on the intonations and lexicon of spoken Russian. This technique, called skaz in Russian, was popularized by writers such as Nikolay Leskov and Alexey Remizov, and Zamyatin uses it to good effect in this tale. His narrator’s account of the amorous activities of a young married woman named Darya is accented with notes of sly understanding and tolerance. As the narrator describes her, Darya cannot help but give in to the impulses of her flesh. At the very outset, she is compared to an apple tree filling up with sap; when spring arrives, she unconsciously feels the sap rising in her just as it is in the apple and lilac trees around her. Her “fall,” then, is completely natural, and so, too, is the ensuing death of her husband only a few days later. Again, Zamyatin’s narrator conveys the news of the husband’s death and the gossip that attended it in tones of warm indulgence. In the deep backwaters of Russia, he indicates, life flows on; such events have no more lasting impact than a stone which is dropped into a pond and causes a few passing ripples.
“The Cave” and “Mamay”
While Zamyatin was drawn to rural Russian subjects, he did not ignore urban themes: Two of his most striking works of 1920—“The Cave” and “Mamay”—exhibit his predilection for expressive imagery and his nuanced appreciation of human psychology. In “The Cave,” Zamyatin depicts the Petrograd landscape in the winters following the Russian Revolution as a primordial, prehistoric wasteland. This image dominates the story, illustrating the writer’s own admission that if he firmly believes in an image, “it will spread its roots through paragraphs and pages.”
Yet while the overarching image of Petrograd’s citizens as cave dwellers creates a palpable atmosphere of grimness and despair in “The Cave,” the images with which Zamyatin enlivens “Mamay” are more humorous. This story continues a long tradition in Russian literature of depicting the life of petty clerks in the city of St. Petersburg. The protagonist here is a meek individual who bears the incongruous name of Mamay, one of the Tatar conquerors of Russia. Mamay’s wife is a stolid woman so domineering that every spoonful of soup eaten by Mamay is likened to an offering to an imperious Buddha. The sole pleasure in little Mamay’s life is book collecting, and it is this mild passion that finally stirs the character into uncharacteristic action. He had been gathering and hiding a large sum of money with which to buy books, and at the end of the story he discovers with dismay that his stockpile has been destroyed by an enemy. Enraged, he is driven to murder. This contemporary Mamay, however, is only a pale shadow of his famous namesake: The intruder proves to be a mouse, and Mamay kills it with a letter opener.
“A Story About the Most Important Thing”
Zamyatin’s pursuit of a charged, expressive narrative manner reached a peak in the early 1920’s, and in at least one work, “Rasskaz o samom glavnom” (“A Story About the Most Important Thing”), the writer’s ambition resulted in a work in which stylistic and structural manipulation overwhelms semantic content. Zamyatin creates a complex narrative structure in which he shifts back and forth among three plot lines involving the life of an insect, revolutionaries in Russia, and beings on a star about to collide with the Earth. The tale forcefully conveys the writer’s sense of the power of the urge to live and procreate in the face of imminent death, but in certain passages, his penchant for hyperbole and intensity of feeling detracts from the effectiveness of the work as a whole.
Later in the decade, however, Zamyatin began to simplify his narrative techniques; the result can be seen in the moving story “Navodnenie” (“The Flood”), perhaps the finest short story of this late period. Written in 1928, “The Flood” reveals how Zamyatin managed to tone down some of his more exaggerated descriptive devices, while retaining the power and intensity of his central artistic vision. One finds few of his characteristic recurring metaphors in the story, but the few that are present carry considerable import. The work’s central image is that of flooding, both as a literal phenomenon (the repeated flooding of the Neva River) and as a metaphorical element (the ebb and flow of emotions in the protagonist’s soul). The plot of the story concerns a childless woman’s resentment toward an orphaned girl named Ganka, who lives in her house and has an affair with her husband. Sofya’s rising malice toward Ganka culminates on a day when the river floods. As the river rises and a cannon booms its flood warning, Sofya feels her anger surging too: It “whipped across her heart, flooded all of her.” Striking Ganka with an ax, she then feels a corresponding outflow, a release of tension. Similar images of flooding and flowing accompany Sofya’s childbirth, the feeding of her child, and the rising sensation of guilt in her heart. In the final scene of the story, the river again begins to flood, and now Sofya feels an irrepressible urge to give birth to her confession. As she begins to reveal her murderous secret, “Huge waves swept out of her and washed over everyone.” After she concludes her tale, “everything was good, blissful all of her had poured out.”
The recurring water images link all the major events in “The Flood,” and Zamyatin achieves further cohesiveness through additional associations such as birth and death, conception and destruction. The tight austerity of his later fiction endows that body of work with understated force. The writer himself commented on the conscious effort he made to achieve this kind of effective simplicity: “All the complexities I had passed through had been only a road to simplicity. Simplicity of form is legitimate for our epoch, but the right to simplicity must be earned.”
The oeuvre that Zamyatin left behind provides an eloquent testament both to the man’s skill as a literary craftsman and to the integrity and power of his respect for human potential. His innovations in narrative exposition exerted a palpable influence on his contemporaries, and his defense of individual liberty in the face of relentless repression holds timeless appeal for his readers.
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