Jane Costlow, who teaches Russian language and literature at Bates College in Maine, has provided a lovely introduction to Zinov'eva-Annibal's work and life; please be sure to refer to it as you read.
Lidiia Zinov'eva-Annibal was born on February 17, 1866, in Kopore, in an aristocratic family. As an adult she adopted the second part of her surname (from her mother's ancestry, and a name that showed her distant relationship to Aleksandr Pushkin's famous African great-grandfather, Annibal). She was eduated at home, the norm at the time for aristocratic girls, and briefly attended a private school in St Petersburg before being expelled "for her refractory disposition." She haad particularly serious training in singing. In 1884, against her family's better judgment, she married her tutor, Konstantin Shvarsalon, who was a historian and a socialist propagandist. They had three children before separating in the early 1890s. Z.-A. took the children to Florence, where she settled to study music and voice. She met Viacheslav Ivanov in Rome in the summer of 1893, but Shvarsalon would not agree to a divorce; because of his threats to kidnap the children, she and Ivanov moved around Europe. Their daughter Lidiia was born in Paris in 1896. They were able to marry only in winter of 1899. They returned to Russia in 1905 and began to host the famous "Tower" meetings (so named because their apartment in St Petersburg had a round room that looked like a tower from below).
Z.-A. seems to have shared with Ivanov not only an interest in classical antiquity (he was a translator and a philosopher as well as a poet), but also a willingness to bring elements of Greek culture into their daily lives -- she would host their literary/philosophical meetings wearing a Greek chiton and with a garland of fresh flowers on her head. The Symbolist milieu, with its attention to the aesthetic angle and significance of life and its sometimes militant (in the context of the time, polemical) insistance on art for its own sake, offered women a broader and quite different set of images from those favored in the Positivist period, from the 1860's on. Z.-A. began to experiment with writing in the Symbolist style and evidently struggled to find a voice of her own, particularly given the influence and authority of her husband, a major Symbolist poet. Her play Rings was published in 1904; she began to contribute short pieces to various journals, and in 1907 published both the explicit, problematic lesbian novel Thirty-Three Abominations and the collection of stories (or novel) The Tragic Menagerie (Tragisheskii zverinets). Z.-A. was in ill health during the winter of 1906-1907, and was hospitalized with pneumonia. In summer of 1907, while the family was living on an estate in the Mogilyov province, she contracted scarlet fever while nursing local children in an epidemic, and she died on October 17, 1907. Ivanov soon married the oldest daughter from her first marriage, and he later emigrated from Russia after the Revolution.
Not surprisingly, given her late flowering as a writer and her sudden death at the age of 41, a great deal of Z.-A.'s writing was left incomplete, and a good part of it has still not been published, despite Ivanov's efforts. In many cases this was because the Tsarist censorship found her treatment of terror or other revolutionary topics unacceptable, but the later Soviet censorship would have considered her work effetely aesthetic, sexually perverse, and marred by her own class origins. Until recently, Z.-A. has received scholarly attention, when at all, as the wife of Ivanov.
Kristi Groberg says this about The Tragic Menagerie: "Tragic Menagerie is a collection of short stories, the focus of which is the gradual emergence of the moral and religious consciousness of a young girl. It is related by an adult who selects key moments from her childhood to depict the tragic connections between the lives of people and animals. The narrative is perceived through the prism of adult experience, but the painful and joyous process of the child's development is presented with a great sense of immediacy. Blok admired it as a protest against the human proclivity for cruelty, as well as a lovely book about youth, ecstasy, and compassion. Gippius saw a work rich in images from the author's past. Marina Tsvetaeva later called the book picturesque and feminine. Anastas'ia Chebotarevskaia, [Iulii] Aikhenval'd, and [Andrei] Belyi perceived a tendency of the author to accept some principles of revolutionary socialism" (Ledkovsky, Rosenthal and Zirin, eds., Dictionary of Russian Women Writers, p. 754). Most contemporary readers regarded the book as autobiographical; readers today may be better equipped to read its ecological contents. The posthumously published story "The Head of the Medusa," translated by Jane Costlow in Tomei, ed., Russian Women Writers, offers a painful and thought-provoking examination of the ways male artistic ambitions objectify women, and in turn "fossilize" the men themselves.
1. Many thoughtful readers of Russian literature (including Vera Dunham, Andrei Sinyavsky (aka Abram Tertz) and Barbara Heldt) have pointed out that the heroines of nineteenth-century Realist novels are really too good to be true -- distinguished by what Heldt calls a Terrible Perfection. Think of Ivan Turgenev's Liza Kalitina (from A Gentry Nest), that type of young woman. Whether an idealized female character was intended to pay tribute to beautiful, kind, and integral woman the author has known, or whether more insidiously she was meant to hold real living Russian women to an impossibly high standard, her function was clearly to inspire, intimidate, and by contrast shame the Superfluous Man. Zinov'eva-Annibal has given us a very different kind of heroine: her Vera is shaped by the close attention to the female creative personality that followed publication of Marie Bashkirtseff's Diaries, a tendency towards what Anna Tavis has nluntly called female narcissism. Women in Russia had never before been encouraged to take themselves as subjects of inquiry or even fascination, and even in the US today Vera's combination of upper-class upbringing and her self-absorption may alienate the reader. What is there to like about this character?
2. Zinov'eva-Annibal's second husband was Viacheslav Ivanov, the noted Symbolist poet. Does this work show a tendency to look behind the elements of everyday life for their sublime, philosophical or ultimate meaning?
3. Similarly, the book gives a child narrator who both sees and does not see (because she is not equipped to understand) the significance of the events and emotional changes in her parents' lives. How much can this kind of "unreliable" narrator convey to the attentive reader?
4. Z.-A. is writing before Freud's theories of formation of the human personality were widely known (though of course she had read the Realist novelists, most famously Fedor Dostoevsky, from whom Freud learned a great deal). Do you find the evolution of Vera's character convincing?
5. How is the presence of sex in the novel differently inflected from what we might find in literature today?
6. The name Vera meanas faith in Russian; like Hope (Nadezhda) and Love (Liubov'), it is a frequent woman's name. Why is Hope an appropriate (or else -- a surprising?) name for this character?
The only complete translation of this novel currently available in English is Jane Costlow's, from Northwestern University Press (1999), ISBN 0-8101-1483-6. The Library of Congress catalogue number is PG3470.Z5 T713 1999. Temira Pachmuss's Women in Russian Modernism gives translations of four of the stories -- see below.
* I've scanned the picture given in Pachmuss, Women Writers in Russian Modernism, following p. 192.
Return to The Great Russian Novel of Conscience.
Home page of Swarthmore College.
Sibelan Forrester's Home Page