Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1755
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 castiron stove.” Isolating one couple, Martin Martinych and his wife, Masha, Zamyatin records how the customs of civilization give way to the more primal instincts for survival. Needing fuel for the stove, Martin struggles with his urge to steal his neighbor’s wood. As Zamyatin describes it, there were two Martins “locked in mortal combat: the old one, who loved Scriabin and who knew he must not, and the new one, the cave dweller, who knew—he must.” In the frozen wasteland of this city, all choices are bad, and Zamyatin’s taut narrative manner heightens the aura of entrapment and despair.
Zamyatin’s other memorable urban setting—the futuristic city of the novel We—transcends the boundaries of contemporary Russia and attains dimensions of universality. Influenced by his readings of H. G. Wells’s utopian writings and repelled by the inflamed rhetoric of the new Soviet state, Zamyatin constructed an anti-utopian novel that both amuses the reader with its ironic humor and unsettles the reader with its startling prediction of totalitarian repression.
Written in the form of a journal by D-503, an engineer building a rocket ship to carry the ideals of the United State to less advanced worlds where people may still languish “in the primitive state of freedom,” We describes a world in which nearly every action of its citizens is carried out according to strict schedules set by the government and its ruler, the Well-Doer. Even sexual activity is regulated by a rigid system of registration and appointments. Beneath the comic aspects of this society, however, lie such troubling phenomena as rigged elections, denunciations of one’s fellow citizens, and the torture and execution of political dissidents.
The plot of the work centers on D-503’s discovery of elements within himself that do not harmonize with his belief in order and control—the irrational emotions of love and passion. The object of his arousal is a female number, I-330, a member of a revolutionary group seeking to overthrow the government and to revitalize the world by reintroducing into society the energies of a primitive people who live beyond the Green Wall encircling the United State. I-330’s conversations with D-503 contain the ideological message of the novel. An advocate of perpetual revolution, she articulates the fundamental concept that two forces exist in the world—entropy and energy: “One leads into blessed quietude, to happy equilibrium, the other to the destruction of equilibrium, to torturingly perpetual motion.” She, of course, prefers the latter, but her revolutionary plans are uncovered by the secret police, the Guardians, and at the end of the novel, the forces of the United State seem to be winning the battle: I-330 has been arrested, and D-503 has undergone an operation to remove the source of his pain—his “fancy.”
We unfolds at a rapid pace. D-503’s journal entries are laconic, often breaking off in midthought; as in his other works, Zamyatin relies on bold imagery in characterization and description. Thus D-503 notes with shame that he has hairy, apelike hands—an indication of atavistic tendencies within him—while I-330 is distinguished by her black, slanting eyebrows, which form an X on her face—a kind of mathematical variable or unknown that troubles D-503. Zamyatin also makes use of vivid sounds and colors. At times, his manipulation of sounds recalls the prose of Andrey Bely, and his use of color creates an intense network of symbolic associations. Red, for example, is the color of blood and fire, and it is associated with the revolution and surging passion, while pink, a diluted version of red, is the color of the official forms through which the state regulates sexual contact. Zamyatin’s handling of color and sound reflects his conviction that “a word has color and sound. From now on, painting and music go side by side.”
Mathematics provides another major source of imagery in We. D-503 loves the precision of the multiplication tables and abhors imaginary and irrational numbers. Zamyatin’s own support for the concept of the irrational in human affairs filters through D-503’s opposition to it, and the reader recognizes that the writer owes a substantial debt to the works of Fyodor Dostoevski, particularly his Zapiski iz podpolya (1864; Notes from the Underground, 1913) and Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1911). Reminiscent of the former work is the glass-enclosed world of the United State, in which human happiness is calculated according to exact mathematical formulas. This recalls the diatribe of Dostoevski’s underground man against a world in which all human facts will be listed in something like logarithmic tables and people will be urged to live in an indestructible crystal palace. Zamyatin even invokes specific imagery used by Dostoevski. The underground man’s animosity toward the “stone wall” of mathematics, symbolized in the simple equation 2 2 = 4, is echoed by D-503’s ardent love for this same formula.
From The Brothers Karamazov, Zamyatin draws on the parable of the Grand Inquisitor to underscore his distaste for a self-serving ruling order that boasts of having eliminated individual freedom of choice for the sake of human happiness. We is a remarkably resonant piece of writing. Fusing dark dimensions of human oppression with light notes of affectionate satire, Zamyatin’s novel remains an impressive model of the anti-utopian genre.
After several years of working in the charged narrative mode of the early 1920’s, Zamyatin gradually began to simplify his narrative techniques, and the tight austerity of his late fiction endows that body of work with understated power. The writer himself commented on the conscious effort he made to achieve this kind of effective simplicity: “It turned out that 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.”
Zamyatin’s evolution as a writer reflects the conscious striving of a dedicated artist, and the work he produced as a result consistently exhibits high quality. His innovative approach to narrative and descriptive techniques lends his fiction a special vibrancy and life, while his sensitivity to the demands of the human spirit and his aversion to all forms of repression add moral depth to his art. Although Zamyatin’s work appeared as a draft of fresh air in the 1910’s and 1920’s, its appeal far transcends that time, and he has earned a place of lasting significance in the history of modern Russian literature.