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Writer or Witness: Problems of Varlam Shalamov's Late Prose and Dramaturgy

  • Author(s): Lundblad Janjić, Linnéa Josefina
  • Advisor(s): Naiman, Eric
  • et al.

This dissertation aims to illuminate the late works of Varlam Shalamov, a Russian writer most famous for his six prose cycles of Kolyma Tales based on his experiences in the Gulag. While previous scholarship has focused mainly on the earlier cycles, I explore the aesthetic and ethical shift that takes place in his later texts. Drawing on theories of late style in art by Theodor Adorno, Edward Said, and Joseph Straus, I detect the breaking point in Shalamov’s trajectory as a writer in his 1965 literary manifesto “On Prose” and argue for a distinct difference in the works he wrote after it. I attribute this difference to his struggle with, and often against, the moral and formal demands of Russian literature and the constraints of Soviet censorship, as well as to his personal circumstances (internal) exile and disability (deafness). My analysis of Shalamov’s late style centers on the tension between the imperative for a Gulag survivor to bear witness and the need for a professional writer to claim authenticity and maintain creativity. The dissertation offers new insights into Shalamov’s sense of what it meant to be a writer in his contemporary context and explores the problematic encounter staged in his works between Russian literary tradition and the complexities of narrating the Gulag experience.

Chapter I deals with Shalamov’s literary manifesto, which articulates his writing as a ‘new prose’ for Russian literature. I treat “On Prose” as a manifesto and examine Shalamov’s motives for writing it. Although rooted in a legitimization project, this manifesto serves not so much as the making of a literary theory as it is the unraveling of a literary practice from within. As one of its consequences, I formulate the notion of a transitory hero encompassing both the first person narrator of a text and the historical person ‘Varlam Tikhonovich Shalamov’ and detect within this concept a collision between the writer and the witness.

Chapter II analyzes The Revival of the Larch, the fifth cycle of Kolyma Tales. I argue that this cycle, which is usually considered an aesthetic masterpiece, already contains a foretaste of the difficult and ultimately unreconciled late style that haunts Shalamov’s later prose. Several of the short stories become closer in form to testimony by imitating authenticity – I focus on “The Life of Engineer Kipreev” and “The Golden Medal” – yet the voice that emerges in them is no longer solely that of a witness – but also of a writer.

Chapter III investigates Shalamov’s longer autobiographical works The Fourth Vologda (about his childhood) and the antinovel Vishera (about his first incarceration in the Northern Urals). Both works appear shaped by literary conventions, as narratives of childhood and youth. However, they are permeated by an omnipresent challenge to traditional notions of form and content. Although set in the past, they are products of a period of literary experimentation in search of a new mode of expression – subjective, intimate, and emotional – the essential task of Shalamov’s late style.

Chapter IV examines The Glove or KT-2, the unfinished sixth cycle of Kolyma Tales. This last cycle undoes the attempt at closure in The Revival of the Larch and is rough in both its incomplete form as well as in its harsh content, coming closer to the harrowing perspective of the “goner” than ever before in its mode of narration. I explore the fraught communication between the writing ‘I’ and the ‘you’ of the reader in “Love Lessons” and “Athenian Nights.” These stories anticipate the impossibility of address as well as of an addressee.

Chapter V focuses on Shalamov’s last longer work: Evening Discourses. This incomplete ‘fantastical play’ (his own generic designation) stages confrontations in Butyrka prison between his transitory hero and the four Russian Nobel laureates in literature at the time: Ivan Bunin, Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Sholokhov, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Instead of declaring himself the real winner of Russian twentieth-century literature, Shalamov in this fragmentary text articulates a complicated and conflicted relationship with not only his contemporaries and compatriots, but also with his own identity as a professional writer who never stopped being a witness to some of his century’s worst atrocities.

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