Northern Illinois University Press

A Century of the Russian Joyce

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Joyce’s postscript to Ulysses reads “Trieste-Zürich-Paris 1914-1921.” With those five words, the Irish writer condensed the seven years of intense creative labor, peregrinations across Europe, frustrations, and breakthroughs that culminated in, to my mind, the greatest monument of European Modernism.

At the risk of eliciting claims of delusions of grandeur, it was a pleasant surprise to find myself with at least a similar postscript for my book, All Future Plunges to the Past. From conception to publication, this project occupied my mind between 2014 and 2021. In that period, I investigated how Joyce found his way into Russian writers’ texts. I visited Moscow to comb through literary archives and to talk about Joyce with today’s readers. I spent six productive weeks at the Zürich James Joyce Foundation, picking up Joycean wisdom and anecdotes. These were my seven years of soaking in the Russian Joyce.

I spent six productive weeks at the Zürich James Joyce Foundation, picking up Joycean wisdom and anecdotes.

And now we find ourselves on the eve of the centenary of Ulysses’s first appearance in 1922. It’s a fitting confluence of dates and publications, one that I think Joyce would have appreciated. He was, of course, obsessed with every detail in his texts, but he also claimed, via Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses, “A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.” In other words, it’s also a matter of chance and coincidence that makes art and, well, life fascinating.

In All Future Plunges to the Past, I consider such connections. The main body of the book consists of case studies addressing the novels of Yury Olesha, Vladimir Nabokov, Andrei Bitov, Sasha Sokolov, and Mikhail Shishkin. It details the history of how Joyce was received in Russian literature in its Soviet, émigré, and post-Soviet versions. On the one hand, the nature of these responses is largely based on their contexts. In other words, there’s no monolithic Russian Joyce, just as there is no single Joyce in general. But the Russian authors’ conceptions of Joyce are united by a fascination with his theories of (literary) paternity.

“A man of genius makes no mistakes. His errors are volitional and are the portals of discovery.”

The conclusion, on the other hand, embraces a different mode of telling the story of the Russian Joyce. It presents an oral history featuring the voices of various contemporary writers: Ksenia Buksha, Dmitry Bykov, Anna Glazova, Aleksei Salnikov, Ivan Sokolov, Marina Stepnova, Zinovy Zinik, and many others. Here, instead of a chronological study with close readings and intertextual excavations, I allow various links to be made across their statements. This part of the book highlights the chance connections of Joyce’s influence.

What does Joyce’s art mean to Russian writers?

Together, these two approaches allow us to consider anew Joyce’s masterpiece a century on. What does Joyce’s art mean to Russian writers? Why and how did they adopt/adapt it for their own purposes in their fiction? What does he represent to them as a Western writer? Does the modernist experimentation of the early twentieth century still offer new insights to today’s readers and writers? Can there be a “Russian Joyce,” in either sense of the phrase? Does there need to be one? 

When Joyce wrote that Ulysses would leave “the professors busy for centuries arguing” over its meaning, he probably didn’t factor in the exponential effort it would require to trace the novel’s effects on other authors. All Future Plunges to the Past, a century in, is one more step in that direction.

*Featured photo: James Joyce, Graveyard Fluntern. Credit: Jacques Bopp.

All Future Plunges to the Past
Cover image of All Future Plunges to the Past.
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José Vergara is Assistant Professor of Russian at Bryn Mawr College.

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