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Gregory Freidin talks about "Dante Street: Literature and the Russian Experience" in the "How I Think about Literature" series

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Gregory Freidin talks about "Dante Street: Literature and the Russian Experience" in the "How I Think about Literature" series

Jan 30, 2012

Monday, November 7, 2011

Pigott Hall

            “What is the difference between what I write and what Babel wrote? The difference is I have footnotes,” says Gregory Freidin, Professor of Slavic Languages and Literatures and expert on Russian writer Isaac Babel. “What we do here is falsifiable. What he does is not falsifiable. You don’t like Babel, write your own.” So characterizes Grisha Freidin his work as a literary scholar (including the Norton critical edition of Isaac Babel’s Selected Writings), the output of forty years of teaching and research within the American academic community. Yet the afternoon’s talk, part of a DLCL series on “How I Think About Literature,” was delivered without critical apparatus; dispensing with footnotes, Grisha talked to his audience as to fellow lovers of literature.

            Breaking his talk into two parts, “Love” and “Understanding,” Grisha retraced his steps from amateur to professor, from the private infatuation of an admirer to the public discourse of an expert. Thus it is in the guise of the former that we see him, a “pudgy eleven year old reclining on a couch,” boule de pain in one hand, and volume of literary folklore in the other. Later he is again conjured up, arriving in the US in 1971, armed only with a box of Christmas decorations – a brilliant metaphor for his deeply sensed yet unsystematized knowledge of literature, for which American academia was to provide him, in his memorable phrase, with a tree. This systematic arrangement of knowledge learned at graduate school under Hugh McLean and Martin Malia allowed him to get at, and even help write, that “other story” which he had suspected, even in his Stalinist childhood, might exist outside the walls of his Moscow tenement.

            This “other story” fuelled his search for the wellsprings of literature’s affective power – a power that in 1962 erupted with the publication of Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Although a “pretty thin book, a long short story really,” nonetheless “it for a moment outweighed the Kremlin and the mighty Soviet state.” Ivan Denisovich permitted millions publically to mourn the victims of the GULag, forcing the Kremlin into a tactical show of penance before the people: a Soviet civil society had been born, producing an effect “greater than 9/11.” It was to explain events such as these, showcasing literature’s moments of extraordinary power, that Grisha turned in his work to the fields of cultural anthropology, the sociology of religion, and psychoanalytic theory.

            For literature is full of riddles: why in the Russian fairy tale does the witch Baba Yaga sometimes eat the children, and sometimes guide them home? Why does Philip Roth’s The Ghost Writer contain the same intonation as the writings of Isaac Babel of some fifty years earlier? And why does Babel’s story “Dante Street,” circulated by Grisha in advance, end not with Signora Rocca’s garbled quote from the Inferno, “Love, which absolves no one loved from loving,” but with the image of the historical figure Danton, standing in the hotel named for him and looking out over Paris, the scene of his future death during the French Revolution? To these riddles, and to the stories in which they appear, there is no one answer, argues Grisha, only more questions. Compared to the process of tackling these riddles, Grisha points out, any single answer will always seem flat.

            But the journey itself is at times worth telling: “How I Think About Literature” often prompts exactly this kind of personal story, and we might, he suggests, see the whole series as a continuing “conversation” on this theme. In his talk “Dante Street: Literature and the Russian Experience,” Grisha gave us just this mix of analysis and reminiscence. By means of anecdotes, insights, and reflections, he drew out conclusions from a lifetime of literary experience as inarguable as anything of Babel’s – even without footnotes.

- Luke Parker, Ph.D. candidate, Slavic Languages and Literatures