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Contemporary Soviet Women Writers

Contemporary Soviet Women Writers

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Contemporary Soviet Women Writers
BY
SIGRID
MCLAUGHLIN
We may safely assert that the knowledge that men can acquire of women
...
s wretchedly imperfect and superficial andwill always be so until women themselves have told all that they have to tell.
-
ohn Stuart Millost Soviet women who write would shudder at thelabel I have given them in this title: women writers.If this is so, clearly, the context in which they writemust
be
quite different from ours. Indeed, it is. Theterm "woman writer" is derogatory. The renowned contempo-
rary
Soviet literary critic, Natalya Ivanova, subsumes under it apreoccupation with women's concerns -stories of failed and ofhappy female lives, weddings, divorces, betrayals
-
nd nar-rowness of outlook, triviality, coquettishness, and fastidious-ness. Of the most visiblecontemporary women authors,LyudmilaPetrushevskaya feels that women's prose implies superfluousornateness or decorativeness. She sees herself
as
writing in the"male manner," which means to her, a focus on the essentials ofplot and character. Women's writing to Tatyana Tolstaya is anysuperficial work with a philistine outlook, it is "the confusion ofdaily routine with life, a saccharine quality, beauty smacking ofa fancy goods store, and the author's mercantile psychology."Others feel similarly.'
A
number of factors in the Russian and Soviet cultural traditionprompted this negative attitude
to
women's writing.
In
fact, onecan hardly speak of the existence of
a
woman's tradition inRussian literature. Up to and throughout the 19th century it wasmen who created literary models of womanhood and definedfemininity. Men's image of a woman was that of a being subjectto different laws than men
-
being with inborn and superiorqualities against which the male hero was measured and defined.Femininity, motherliness, and self-sacrifice became synony-mous. The pressure to live up
to
superior ethical standards, andto adhere
to
the limiting roles men created for women, made self-disclosure in a mode other than autobiography and
poetry
almostpsychologically impossible during the 19th cent~ry.~omen'sinadequate education was an additional stricture. There is noRussian Jane Austen, GeorgeEliot,no Bronte sisters, no Madamede Stael. While ma(i)nstream writers were grappling with philo-sophical, ethical and social issues, the few women who did writefiction dealt with the little segment of life accessible o them: highsociety, marriage, love, children, the bedroom, and householdmanagement. At the turn of the century sexual emancipationbecame an additional theme that entered women's fiction, soonstigmatized
as
libertine, narcissistic, and sentimental. Not sur-prisingly, later women writers whose lives had changed funda-mentally felt little kinship with their predecessors. During theSoviet period, an equivalent kind of women's trivializing fictionseemed to revive after Stalin's death
as
a
reaction to the deper-sonalized, mellifluous literature glorifying Party and state andwritten in compliance with the doctrine of socialistrealism. Thus,women writers' allergic reaction
to
being placed in this categoryis understandable. Yet this reaction also points to another latentissue.In pre-revolutionary
as
well
as
Soviet times, the woman whoaspired to write was in a double bind.3 On the one hand, heridentity as a woman removed her from the mainstream of cultureand invited her to go against the maxims of convention placed onthe rendering of female life in fiction. This meant deconstructingthe male discourse and finding her own. Even if she succeeded,mainstream critics would condemn her to marginality, seeing hersensibility and her truth
as
deviations from some obvious maletruth, and the encoding of her experience
as
inferior. On the otherhand, she could pursue resembling the mainstream. She couldforce her experience nto the straightjacketof the traditionalmalecanon, and produce new traditional versions of female life. Com-peting with those who set the terms, her place in the literary
VOLUME
10,
NUMBER
4
77
 
pantheon would again be in the rear.By and large, Soviet women writershave chosen the second option, believing
that the desiderata
of
fiction
are
universal
constructs, and hoping to
be
good enoughto reach the front ranks of the pantheon.Thus, critic Ivanova argues that women'sprose shouldn't be differentiated fromprose in general because there is onlygood and bad prose, both written by menas well as women. And Petrushevskaya,similarly, contends that the writer in theprocess of creating is "another being,"namely "he (sic) is genderless." "If he(sic) defends his sex he is in trouble. Hemust
be
a man and a woman, and a child,and a rooster, and the sun.'" Thereforewomen writers have oriented themselveson the best male authors of the Russianand to some extent West European tradi-tion
-
ften Chekhov, Tolstoy, Gogol,solved. Censorship barred access toWestern feminist literature and to thewritings of Alexandra Kollontai, their own
feminist.
And
lastly, a deeply patriarchaland conservative mentality effectivelyhelped to keep women in inferior posi-tions, although equal rights were offi-cially
granted
in all spheres of life. Thus,it is no surprise that women are only asmall minority in the male-dominatedSoviet literary establishment. The organsof the Writers' Union and the editorialboards of publishing houses and journals
are
in the hands of men. Women writers,thus, have had
to
meet male criteria ofliterary value, having internalized themhas been almost a sine
qua
non for gettingpublished, not to speak of being success-ful.The fiction of Soviet women writers ofthe last twenty-five years shares a numbering. Most women yearn for a man, anyman, because,asauthorViktoriaTokarevaput it in a personal interview,
an "unat-
tached" (literally "lordless"
-
beskhoznaya) woman is a tragedy. In or-der to catch and keep a man, women areobsessed with king feminine, which isstereotypically defined as looking pretty,being well-dressed, well-groomed, unas-sertive, accommodating, and agreeable.At the same time, left with few illusionsabout men, they are at times indifferentand cynical. Heterosexual relations tendto be portrayed as unfulfdling and antago-nistic. Men are frequently portrayed asapathetic and remote, insensitive and irre-sponsible, unfaithful and egoistic. Bothwomen and men adhere to traditionalconceptions of gender roles.A chronological look at women's fic-tion indicates that the gallery of women isUNAWARE OF THE DOUBLE-BIND. THEYARE NOT SEEKING TO EXPRESS THEIR EXPERIENCEINNON-TRADITIONAL FORM, OR TO
WRITE
WHAT SO
FAR
CANNOT BE
WRITTEN.
OR
ARE
THEY INTERESTED
IN
FURTHERING
THE
CAUSE OFEMANCIPATION
BY
WHAT
WE
WOULD CALL CONSCIOUSNESS RAISING IN FICTION.Nabokov, Pasternak, but also ThomasM~M, roust, Marquez. To them, fo-cusing on women's problems is too nar-row ("men suffer
too")
and
so
is writingfor a female audience. Instead, like theirmale predecessors, they aspire to "univer-sality" and want to express a "humanisticorientation." Unaware of the double-bind,they are not seeking to express their expe-rience in non-traditional form, or to writewhat so far cannot
be
written. Nor are theyinterested in furthering the cause of eman-cipation by what we would
call
conscious-ness raising in fiction. Emancipation,which they understand as right to equaleducation and employment, s consideredachieved and, at that, a very mixed bless-ing. Didn't it, after all, settle hem with thedouble burden? And feminism,
to
them, isthe outlook of extremists, unhappy out-siders, troublemakers, or ethical nihilists.Such attitudes are, of course, not at allsurprising given the
social
context in whichSoviet women have lived. Until Gor-bachev's ascent, state propaganda por-myed the problems of emancipation asof characteristic thematic and stylistictraits. The heroines are usually urbanwomen
-
ost women authors live incities
-
ho fulfill familial,
social
andprofessional roles and belong
to
differentage groups and a wide range of occupa-tions and social backgrounds. Thus, theprinciple dilemmas confronting the hem-ine
-
he struggle
to
survive the multipleduties and claims on her time and energywhile searching for the straw of personalhappiness that makes the struggle worth-while
-
ave been pictured in a 5eatvariety of contexts.Often, the family
is
less than nuclear.The man is absent, and the unwed mother,widow, or divorcee raises her child alone,sacrificing her personal life. Motherhoodis still the ultimate role for
a
woman, andthe woman most frequently is a mother-nurturer
to
her men, children and friendsbefore all eke. Yet, some fictional hero-ines are singlelmanied, childless careerwomen. Some fret in this position, othersare at peace with their lives, assertive in
their
pursuits,
and
no longer self-sacrific-expanding rapidly, and that increasinglyless glamorous aspects of women's livesenter literature. If women used
to
be
pre-dominantly self-sacrificing, maternal,moralistic, and sexless, they are shown
to
be increasingly self-indulgent, opportun-istic, ruthless, selfish, deceptive, manipu-lative, pragmatic, materialistic, and occa-sionally aware of their sexuality. Signifi-cant areas of life are just beginning toenter Soviet women's ficti~n:~rostitu-tion, women's alcoholism, women'shealth, infant care, poverty, violence, andchild abuse. But lesbianism, women'sexperiences in labour camps, crime,
rape,
the nature of female and male sexuality,drug addiction, mental illness, undergo-ing an abortion are still taboo areas, as faras
I
can tell from my reading.Women authors usually use a third-person narrative voice, often of a limitedviewpoint, to render predominantlywomen's experiences of reality. The proseis realistic, following 19th century con-ventions. Stylistic differences
are
subtleor absent, so that some works
are
virtually
78
CANADIAN WOMAN STUDIESlLES CAHIERS DE LA FEMME
 
interchangeable, which makes for consid-erable monotony. Descriptions
are
abun-dant, and often the plot line is thin. Under-statement and other varieties of ironyproduce the detachment or critical dis-tancing essential for clarifying the au-thorial point of view. Female authorsfavour the short form, the story or thenovella. There is little stylistic or narra-tive experimentation except occasionaldisplacement of chronology.Of the numerous women writers, I wouldlike to introduce, firstly, the oldest andmost established living authors, NatalyaBaranskaya and I. Grekova, both bornabout a decade before the Revolution of1917. The former's
A
Week Lib
Any
Other, 1969, was immediately translatedinto English and interpreted
as
an irnpor-tant feminist piece in the West.6 Thenovella outlines a week in the life of aand affect psychology and temperament.By biology, then, the female
is
nurturing,caretaking, and selfless. Thus, Grekova,
in
arecent interview, conceded that womenshowed fewer creative achievementsbecause of "their special psychologicaland neurological make-up
...
nd theirenslavement to problems of love, mar-riage, and the family."Many of Grekova's works reflect thelot of women her age who lived throughthe deprivations of World War
II
and itsaftermath
-
overty, hunger, over-crowding, and the absence of men. Shecaptures the dynamics of the suffocat-ingly close relationships of the one-parentfamily, the overnurturing, the over-em-powering,and thepsychological and socialconsequences of such parenting ("Sum-mer in the City").
Or
she refers to the guiltof a mother who put her children secondedy is absent from her works. Humourandlightnessprevail, although lasting ovebetween the sexes seems elusive, and aresigned and at times cynical accommo-dation is the norm. Men are usuallydominated by women, at times wrongedby them, but often weak, boring, andzapless. Her most recent story of 1989,"The First Attempt," reflects the newopenness to formerly taboo themes, suchas cruelty, nakedness, and sexuality. Achild observes how her mother graduallydrowns a rat; the heroine cures a man'spsychologically caused impotence; andthe narrator, reminiscing about "her love"on an expedition, relates losing her bras-siere and being shamed.
An
admirer ofChekhov, she sees herself as his followerin themes and methods.The two most exciting women writingshort prose today are Petrushevskaya and
T
E NOVELLA OUTLINES
A
WEEK
IN
THELIFE OF A YOUNG SOVIET WIFE, MOTHER,
AND
PROFESSIONAL, WORN TO SHREDS BY THETAXING DEMANDS OF HER ROLES. BUT IT DOES NOT
OCCUR
TO
THE
HEROINE TO LOOK FORCAUSES OF HER DEPRESSION OUTSIDE HERSELF.young Soviet wife, mother, and profes-sional, worn to shreds by the taxingdemands of her roles. But it does not occurto the heroine to look for causes of herdepression outside herself. Baranskaya,however, had no feminist critique of pa-triarchy or of society
in
mind. Her pur-pose was
to
capture the rich and difficultlife of a typical Soviet woman, she said
in
an interview. This is also the intent of herother works: two volumes of stories and abook of memoirs.Like Baranskaya, I. Grekova (pennamefor
E.
Ventsel) is a professional andsingle mother whose husband perished inWorld War 11. A reputable mathemati-cian, Grekova came to writing later in hercareer. Mature women and single mothersin a dominantly male professional envi-ronment or in communal living situationsare her typical heroines. Resourceful,strong-willed, dependable, asexual, cou-rageous, self-sacrificing, hese women fitthe Soviet gender stereotype which is
based
on the commonly held belief
that
character traits are biologically derivedto her career in a story, 'The Lady'sHairdresser," that established her as amaster at reproducing linguistic id-iosyncrasies and jargon, as well as thefiagrnentariness of interior monologue anddialogue. Unlike other women writers,Grekova
also
wrote longer fictional works,among which the most acclaimed is
The
Ship
of Widows,
1984.
Over a generation younger than Baran-skaya and Grekova, Viktoria Tokarevacaptures the different mentality and out-look of women entirely formed by theSoviet experience. In search for happi-ness, which they often equate with fallingin love or finding a man, they are self-confident, strong, and manipulative. Theyuse their sex
as
well as their head
to
acquirepower, statusandconsumergoods,at worst, and to get essential services andscarce goods, at best. The image thatepitomizes their kind is "a tank coveredwith flowers" from Tokareva's story "ALong Day," 1986. It is not unusual for her
heroines
to
feel secure
as
professionals
and as mistresses of married men. Trag-Tolstaya. Their stories violate existingparadigms,offer anew fieldof vision, andtell a different story of their culture thanmen. Both break down stereotyped im-ages of women -and not only women
-
thus undermining the rendering of femaleexperience in fiction. Yet they do so with-out what we could call "feminist con-sciousness."More known
as
a playwright than anauthor of short fiction, Petrushevskayapublished her first collection of "mono-logues" and third-person stories, Immor-
tal
Love
only this year. Set in urban envi-ronments,
these
"incidents" and anecdotes,this "folklore within the confines of anapartment house,"
as
she calls her shortprose elsewhere, tell of existence in themidst of catastrophe. She catches herheroines at their most vulnerable mo-ments, when they
try
to clutch at whatseems the essence of happiness: a hus-band, a child, an apartment, and an in-come above poverty level. But usuallythey
don't
succeed and end up single, inone room, with
an
insufficient income,
VOLUME
10.
NUMBER
4
79

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