Yevgeny Zamyatin Long Fiction Analysis
In his essay “Sovremennaya russkaya literatura” (1956; “Contemporary Russian Literature,” 1970), Yevgeny Zamyatin contrasts the narrative style of the realists to that of his own generation. He writes, By the time the Neorealists appeared, life had become more complex, faster, more feverish.In response to this new 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.
His own work demonstrates how consistent he was in his search for a concise yet vivid narrative manner. Throughout his career, he experimented with language, imagery, colors, and sounds to craft his own personal narrative voice.
A Provincial Tale
The outlines of Zamyatin’s mature narrative manner are evident in his first major prose work, the novella A Provincial Tale, written in 1911-1912. Zamyatin traces the life of a loutish brute named Anfim Baryba, from the moment he is thrown out of his house by his father, through an oppressive affair with a fat widow, a career of theft and dishonesty, and the attainment of a job as a police officer as a reward for betraying a close friend through perjury in a criminal court case. Zamyatin’s treatment of Baryba’s life highlights the callousness and ignorance that prevail in the primitive backwaters of Russia, and reflects his personal antipathy for stagnant, prejudice-ridden life. Heightening the verisimilitude of this dark vision is the colloquial narrative tone Zamyatin adopts in the story. This distinctive tone, in which the neutral language of an objective narrator is replaced by language drawing heavily on the vernacular of spoken Russian, is termed skaz, and Zamyatin’s use of skaz reflects the influence of such writers as Nikolay Leskov and Alexey Remizov.
On the other hand, the devices that Zamyatin utilizes in character description already bear the hallmarks that later distinguish his mature work. A favorite method of characterization is the identification of a character with an object, animal, or distinctive physical attribute. With this device, Zamyatin can stress a character’s personality traits and signal the presence of that character merely by mentioning the established association. When Chebotarikha, the widow with whom Baryba has an affair, first enters the story, Zamyatin notes that she was “spread out like dough.” Later, when Baryba begins his liaison with her, Zamyatin writes, “Baryba turned around andsunk his hands deep into something soft as dough.” The scene concludes, “Baryba drowned in the sweet, hot dough.” Finally, when the woman discovers Baryba’s infidelity, she “shook like dough that’s risen to the edge of the bucket.” It is interesting to note that Zamyatin’s penchant for concise yet striking forms of expression does not create a feeling of lightness in A Provincial Tale. His tone is somber, and images of stasis and grime prevail, as when the narrator sums up the life of his village: “And so they live in peace, sweating like manure in the heat.”
By the end of the 1910’s, Zamyatin had developed the vibrant, expressionistic style of A Provincial Tale to its fullest extent. His depiction in “The Cave” of Petrograd’s urban landscape during the arduous winters following the Russian Revolution remains one of the most impressive representations of that city in Russian literature, which has a long tradition of exposing the unreal or fantastic aspects of the city. For this work, Zamyatin isolates the elements of darkness and cold on a winter night in Petrograd and weaves from them a broad “mother metaphor,” to apply a term used by the critic D. S. Mirsky in his book Contemporary Russian Literature, 1881-1925 (1926). Zamyatin once described his predilection for creating extended metaphoric images: “If I firmly believe in the imageit will inevitably give rise to an entire system of related images, it will spread its roots through paragraphs and pages.”
The central image here casts Petrograd as a prehistoric, Ice Age setting and the city’s inhabitants as cave dwellers who have regressed into a primitive lifestyle that includes worshiping the “greedy cave god: the...
(The entire section is 1755 words.)