Though largely unknown in the West and for the time being somewhat neglected in her disordered homeland, Lidiia Ginzburg is regarded by those familiar with her many writings as a brilliant student of modern European literature and as one of its leading 20th-century Russian practitioners. Her efforts as a historian, critic, and theorist are a masterful investigation of the still vital energies of the past and a penetrating analysis of the nature of verbal art. In compelling and original ways they address such diverse yet connected topics as the evolution of poetic diction and the shaping of the lyric hero in Russian poetry of the early 19th and early 20th centuries (the so-called Golden and Silver Ages); the epochal redefinition of the self in Russian epistolary prose in the third and fourth decades of the 19th century; changing conceptions of individual personality and the rendering of literary character in the 18th- and 19th-century European memoir and autobiography; the larger theoretical issue of the reciprocal relation between literary images of identity and the dominant personality types of an age; and the complex assumptions, methods, and cognitive insights of the 19th-century psychological novel and its predecessors and heirs.
In this wide-ranging discussion and in her handling of a variety of related topics, Ginzburg gives always incisive and sometimes classic treatment to an impressive array of major Russian and European literary figures, including the memoirist Saint-Simon and the autobiographers Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Aleksandr Herzen, the critic, polemicist, and letter writer Vissarion Belinskii, the novelists Gustave Flaubert, Lev Tolstoi, and Marcel Proust, and the poets Aleksandr Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, Fedor Tiutchev, Aleksandr Blok, Innokentii Annenskii, and Osip Mandel’shtam, as well as to a host of lesser, but historically still significant memoirists, novelists, and poets of the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries—an achievement of extraordinary learning and broad conceptual reach.
Comparable to Ginzburg’s learned legacy in importance if not in scale, and originating from the same impulse to engage evolving historical reality within the structures of literary language and form, are her zapisi (notebooks), memoirs, and quasiautobiographical narratives—what she called her “documentary” prose. This work is an aesthetic achievement of very high order and an indispensable contemplation of the changing moral and intellectual climate of virtually the entire Soviet period, inasmuch as Ginzburg came of age shortly after the 1917 Revolution and died roughly a year before the Soviet Union’s ultimate collapse. The sheer longevity of her career, culminating in her ninth and arguably most productive decade, is itself notable: it means she was able to witness and then at some remove address the full span of Soviet life from its tumultuous beginnings through its years of repression, war, and fitful relaxation to its oddly feeble end. Her experience of the Russian 20th century with its terrible suffering as well as its enormous courage is deeply representative. But her transformation of that experience in her scholarly and creative writing stands forth as an individual accomplishment of surpassing integrity, stamina, and will.
Of the documentary genres practiced by Ginzburg, perhaps the most arresting is the esse, a form somewhat belied in her case by the usual cognate translation of “essay,” since the English term suggests something rather more discursive than is appropriate. As may be seen from her principal literary publication, the compendium Chelovek za pis’mennym stolom (1989; A person at the writing table), with its decade-by-decade arrangement of memoiristic, philosophical, and literary-critical material taken from the notebooks she began in 1925 while a student in Leningrad and kept on a regular basis till the very end of her life, her esse is closer to the pensée or meditation than it is to the more relaxed, digressive form that emerged with Montaigne and that typifies the essay not only in Englishspeaking countries but also in Russia—Herzen’s S togo berega (1847–50; From the Other Shore), for example, or the literaryphilosophical studies of Konstantin Leont’ev and Vasilii Rozanov. Ginzburg’s esse is highly compact, even laconic, but like the more leisurely essays of her compatriots, it is often frankly theoretical in the kinds of themes it is willing to entertain. It also reveals, in its more personal moments, an interesting affinity to the biographical sketch, the sharp delineation of individual personality stemming from the French neoclassical portrait and caractère,
genres that she had taken up in O psikhologicheskoi proze (1971, revised 1977; On Psychological Prose) and that had in their day influenced those of her Russian predecessors to whom she not coincidentally gave much of her scholarly attention—the poet Petr Viazemskii, an edition of whose Staraia zapisnaia knizhka (1813–78; Old notebook) she had published in 1929, and Herzen, on whose vast Byloe i dumy (1852–68; My Past and Thoughts) she had written a monograph in 1957. Thus, the Ginzburg esse is sometimes devoted to portraits of Russian literary luminaries, of such people as the Formalist critics Iurii Tynianov, Boris Eikhenbaum, and Viktor Shklovskii and the poets Anna Akhmatova and Vladimir Maiakovskii, to name but a few from the earlier period of Ginzburg’s long life.
Ginzburg’s style in her esse and in the longer pieces she wrote on social and political themes—in particular her influential examinations of the intelligentsia’s ambiguous role in Russian revolutionary culture and of the all-pervading moral temper of Stalinism, “Eshche raz o starom i novom (Pokolenie na povorote)” (1986; Once more on the old and the new [a generation at the turning point]) and “‘I zaodno s pravoporiadkom…’” (1988;
At one with the prevailing order…)—as well as in her fictional and memoiristic writing, is pithy, even aphoristic, with a rich, sometimes scholarly lexicon deployed with great precision, and a powerful analytical bent tempered by a dry sense of humor happily disinclined to leave any shibboleth unturned.
Lidiia Iakovlevna Ginzburg. Born 5 March 1902 in Odessa. Studied at a secondary school in Odessa, graduated 1920; State Institute for the History of the Arts (GIII), Leningrad, studying under Iurii Tynianov, Boris Eikhenbaum, Viktor Zhirmunskii, Boris Tomashevskii, and Viktor Vinogradov, 1922–26; Leningrad State University, candidate degree, 1940; Institute of Russian Literature, doctoral degree, 1959. Taught history of Russian literature at GIII, 1916–30, and in the rabfaky (workers’ faculties) at the Civil Aeronautics Academy and the Post-Secondary School of the Labor Movement, 1931–34; lectured on Russian literature for the Leningrad Municipal and Regional Public Lecture Service and the Section for Artistic Propaganda of the Leningrad branch of the Soviet Writers’ Union, 1930–40; taught history of Russian literature and Russian aesthetic doctrine at the All-Russian Academy of Arts, Leningrad, 1944–46, and at the Karelo- Finnish University, Petrozavodsk, 1947–50; taught monograph courses as a part-time instructor at Leningrad State University, 1948–50. Editor in the literature and drama section of Leningrad Radio during World War II and the Leningrad blockade, receiving two awards for valor; freelance editor responsible for numerous scholarly and academic editions of Russian classical authors, 1929–90. Awards: State Prize for Literature, 1988.
Died in Leningrad, 15 July 1990.
Essays and Related Prose
O starom i novom: Stat’i i ocherki (On the old and the new: articles and essays), 1982
Literatura v poiskakh real’nosti: Stat’i, esse, zametki (Literature in search of reality: articles, essays, notes), 1987
Chelovek za pis’mennym stolom: Esse, iz vospominanii, chetyre povestvovaniia, 1989
Pretvorenie opyta (The transubstantiation of experience), edited by Nikolai Kononov, 1991
Other writings: Tvorcheskii put’ Lermontova (Lermontov’s creative path), 1940;
‘Byloe i dumy’ Gertsena (Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts), 1957; O lirike (On Lyric Poetry, edited and translated by Judson Rosengrant, forthcoming), 1964, revised 1974; O psikhologicheskoi proze (On Psychological Prose, edited and translated by Judson Rosengrant, 1991), 1971, revised 1977; O literaturnom geroe (On the literary hero), 1979; Blockade Diary, translated by Alan Myers, 1995.
Rosengrant, Judson, “L. la. Ginzburg: An International Chronological Bibliography of Primary and Secondary Works,” Russian Review 54, no. 4 (October 1995):587–600
Bibler, V.S., “Lidiia Iakovlevna Ginzburg i sud’by russkoi intelligentsii,” ARKhE: Kul’turo-Logicheskii Ezhegodnik 1 (1993): 422–27
Bitov, Andrei, “Prorvat’ krug,” Novyi Mir 12 (December 1986): 245–51
Frank, Joseph, “Subversive Activities,” New York Review of Books, 1 December 1994:44–48
Grekova, I., “Proza uchenogo,” Oktiabr’ 2 (February 1985): 203–05
Grekova, I., “Samoosuzhdenie i samoopravdanie,” Oktiabr’ 4 (April 1989):200–02
Harris, Jane Gary, editor, “Lidiia Iakovlevna Ginzburg: In Memoriam,” Canadian- American Slavic Studies 28, nos. 2–3 (Summer-Fall 1994):125–285
Mikhailov, E., editor, “Tsel’nost’: O tvorchestve L.la. Ginzburg,” Literaturnoe Obozrenie 10 (October 1989):78–86
Pratt, Sarah, editor, “Lidiia Ginzburg’s Contribution to Literary Criticism,” Canadian- American Slavic Studies 19, no. 2 (Summer 1985):119–99
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