Russian Fairy Tales (RUSS 047/LITR 047R) -- Spring 2008 -- Swarthmore College

Lecture notes for April 30, 2008

Sibelan Forrester

Nina Sadur

Don’t forget that I’ll be handing out the Final Exam on Friday (May 2): if you can’t make it to class, you’ll have to stop by my office or otherwise arrange something. (Hand out the outline with sample questions.

Any leftover comments about Tolstaya?

Nina Sadur: born 1950 in Novosibirsk, writes prose and plays. She was a leader in the “new drama” of the 1980s, writing what some critics (either Socialist Realist leftovers or intelligentsia idealists) called чернуха 'chernukha' – topics like drink, abortions, all kinds of unpleasant incident and lots of messed-up characters. Her father (Kolesnikov) was a poet, and her mother a schoolteacher, so she grew up in an intellectual family but was fascinated by the common folk (the "Other"), her neighbors. Got a degree in library science at Moscow Institute of Culture, but discovered a talent for dialogue that got her into some workshops for young dramatists and then the very prestigious Gor'kii Literary Institute in Moscow. She graduated in 1983 (she was 33). No success at first: she had to work as a cleaning woman in a theater, and friends took up collections on her behalf. She joined the Writer’s Union in 1989, at which point she still lived in a communal apartment with her daughter (Katia, now also a writer). They say she’s an alcoholic and difficult person; lots of Russian readers even now object to her “ambivalent, apocalyptic vision” (Melissa Smith, p. 556) – though glasnost' came soon enough after her debut that she could hang in there and find an appreciative audience. She has adapted several works of classic Russian lit for the stage, including Gogol’s “Vii,” as “Pannochka.”

“The Cute Little Redhead” (or better, “Cutie, Little Redhead” – digression: there are lots of small problems with this translation! Who would say “a Muscovite” if speaking or writing on the stylistic level of this story!? They'd say "She wasn't from Moscow" or something, "She wasn't a resident of Moscow." And the cat’s purring, not singing. What would you make of “people the size of infusorians”?). It’s from the collection Pronikshie (1990), a cycle of stories that focus on the struggle of good and evil, black magic and Orthodox Christianity – Melissa Smith (who works on Sadur's prose and is a scholar of contemporary Russian theater) writes that the collection presents “brief glimpses of the witches, demons, and gnomes who inhabit the realm that lies barely beyond everyday consciousness” (Ledkovsky, Rosenthal and Zirin, eds., Dictionary of Russian Women Writers [Greenwood Press, 1994], p. 555). And lots of stories with non-intelligentsia characters: what kind of school is Natashka attending? A trade school – roughly, vo-tech high school. Her lower class background shows in the language (hers, and the narrator's).

What can you say about the narrator, what kind of relationship does she have with Natashka, with the story’s events, and with the reader? And then: what folklore elements, what bits that are familiar from fairy tales? (Think of Cashdan and his treatment of Vasilisa!) What exactly is happening in this story, can you summarize what it’s about? Very realistic treatment of the difficulties you have to put up with in a communal living arrangement (Sadur told an interviewer that what she was most afraid of was her neighbors and the bad things they might do). “Good sign or bad” – looking everywhere for omens (приметы, primety). Why does Natashka have to ask the little redhead “Good sign or bad?” How does “A little bit good” fit with the rest of the story?

What about the story’s sexual content: suggests a secret, taboo process of maturation that makes Natashka ready for a marriage that’s as sudden, and as much of a rescue, as any W* in a fairy tale. What was the problem with the tranquilizers (sleeping pills)? How about the role of the cat?

“The Witch’s Tears” – What can you say about the girl Nadia’s relationship to magic? (The purse that turns into a dove; the flowers outside the witch’s window that cry and push like little babies?) (Nadia is short for Nadezhda, which means ‘hope.’) “No one should ever kill anyone” – and then she drowns. How did that happen? Why does the witch let her die instead of Vitka, the little soldier? Why was Nadia more deserving of death? And what kind of afterlife does Nadia get? (rusalka: traditionally it's a girl who drowns herself because she was spurned in love, seduced and abandones, and now she gets to scare people on the river. Rusalki were also supposed to come from the souls of unborn children: Natashka had an abortion).

For Friday: think what questions have you not had a chance to ask or discuss, what important things have these readings brought to your attention. What’s your relationship now to Russian folk culture and fairy tales, and to fairy tales in general? How does your greater knowledge interact with pleasure in reading, or listening?


Return to the class syllabus

There are no lecture notes for Friday, May 2.