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Briusov and Kuprin

Valeriii Briusov (1873-1924) and Aleksandr Kuprin (1870-1938)

Information and questions for reading: Briusov and Kuprin

The anthology Worlds Apart contains some introductory sections by Alexander Levitsky that are very densely filled with information, including writers who never wrote science fiction or fantasy (or whose work could be connected to these genres in only tenuous ways), without always providing many details about the writers whose work is included in the anthology. Checking for information online is a good idea, or consult one of the standard reference works:

  • Neil Cornwell, ed., Reference Guide to Russian Literature (PG2940 .R44 1998, in McCabe Reference Section - though I'm told that it is missing now)
  • Victor Terras, ed., Handbook of Russian Literature (PG2940 .H29 1985 in McCabe Reference Section)

I've included the call numbers in part because there are other useful reference sources beside these on the adjacent shelves.

(Notice that both these authors were translated by Leland Fetzer, who does a marvelous job of conveying a fin-de-siècle style. Some translation theories hold that a translation should read the way the author "would have written" if he or she were a native speaker of the target language. Fetzer really managed to achieve this.

Valerii Briusov:

Valerii Briusov (or Bryusov), 1873-1924, was born in Moscow in a mixed-class family (one grandfather had bought his own freedom from serfdom). As a bright and ambitious college student, he wrote in his diary that he wanted to be the head of a literary movement. With Russian Symbolism, a school that treasured poetry (and music) above other genres and modeled itself on the French Symbolists, Briusov very nearly achieved this wish. He wrote in all kinds of genres (poetry, criticism, "publitsistika" - perhaps best translated as 'passionately engaged social commentary,' long and short prose, and translation), using a variety of pseudonyms and creating important work in every genre. He wrote for or edited a number of journals and was founder of the premier Russian Symbolist publishing house, Skorpion ('scorpion' or 'Scorpio' - the Russian fin de siècle was very interested in occult sciences, including astrology).

Briusov's other works include the novel Огненный ангел ('The Fiery Angel,' 1908), set in the middle ages and dealing with witchcraft and the Inquisition, but based on a long adulterous affair Briusov conducted that was also a competition with another Symbolist poet (I forget who fancied whom in the love triangle). I have a copy of this in translation, and BOY is the cover lurid.

After the Revolution, Briusov (who had supported the provisional government that took over after the February 1917 revolution and the Tsar's abdication) ingratiated himself with the new Bolshevik regime and promptly became a censor, a literary bureaucrat, and a prominent figure in the new educational institutions devoted to literature. (In order to develop truly socialist art, the new government began teaching writing to workers.) He died in 1924 of pneumonia.

If you'd like to read more by VB, a couple of poems and a wonderfully decadent, but not at all science-fictional, story "The Sisters" (translated by R. L. Patterson), are at

Questions for reading:

  1. How much do you know about the Southern Cross (a constellation not visible from the northern hemisphere), and what implications does this name (and constellation), and the possible religious associations, cast on the Republic imagined in the story?
  2. Any special significance in the fact that it's a Republic (which Russia was not in 1905)? What kind of political system does a "republic" imply?
  3. What's your reaction to the architectural, industrial, economic, scientific, and political set-up of the Republic's territory?
  4. With its artificial light and heat and its perfect spoke streets, Star City is even more of a "created city" than Saint Petersburg. (Petersburg was founded by order of Peter the Great in 1703, on swampy land where construction famously claimed the lives of many serf laborers - so part of the Petersburg Myth is that it was built on the bones of the Russian people. Because of Petersburg's location, it also suffered frequent floods, and the poor would suffer the most; the weather was cold, wet and nasty much of the year.) What do the descriptions here suggest? (Does Antarctica really have any grass in the summer? - But could Briusov have known that in 1905?)
  5. What about this nefarious Trust that so regiments the lives of the residents?
  6. How does the economic arrangements described compare to good old Martian socialism à la Bogdanov?
  7. Russian Symbolism was first called Decadence (by its enemies), and you can see that Briusov is quite the decadent. How do the "underground" sleazy elements of Star City before the epidemic compare to the violent and disgusting parts of the collapse of society later in the story (the odd fascination with sexual violence against women and children, as well as cannibalism)?
  8. What do you make of the "heroic" Horace De Ville (whose last name means "of the city")?
  9. What clues are we given to date the events described in the story? (p. 310, "And so, after three hundred years, capital punishment returned to the earth," for example.)
  10. What do you make of Mania contradicens? How does it stack up compared to currently recognized psychological disorders? How compared to those disorders that were recognized in the early twentieth century?
  11. What does Mania contradicens suggest about the pressures of the life the story describes?
  12. What light might stories of polar exploration cast on this narrative, especially the ones available by 1905? (Briusov could read English, though probably not Norwegian.)
  13. At the story's end, why are they cleaning up and planning to start again?
  14. Is there a moral in this story?

Whereas Briusov is always mentioned and often read in classes where Russian Modernist literary movements are discussed, Aleksandr Kuprin (1870-1938) is less well-known in the West. Along with Maxim Gorky, Ivan Bunin (winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1933), and Leonid Andreev, Kuprin was part of a group of realist prose writers in an era when for many readers THE genre was poetry, and he wrote short prose in an era when it was the great Russian novels of the nineteenth century that were being translated and discovered in the West.

Kuprin was born in the province of Penza but grew up in Moscow. As a young writer he had to work at a variety of jobs to make ends meet, but his experiences from these often fed into his writing. He emigrated from Russia in 1919 and lived for many years in Paris, but he returned to the USSR in 1937, already in ill health (so at least when he died in 1938 it was in his own new bed).

Questions for Reading:

  1. Did you notice that "A Toast" is set in 2906 - exactly 1000 years in the future based on the story's date?
  2. As far as I know, Kuprin was a leftist but not a particular fan of the anarchists (unlike the grand-daddy of them all, Mikhail Bakunin, with his thick beard and fitness to appear in a poster holding a smoking bomb). What do you make of this beautiful future of worldwide anarchy?
  3. For a piece set in the distant future, "A Toast" is oddly (narcissistically?) focused on 1906. Do you ever think about the distant past in any way like this? On the other hand, the 1905 revolution, the hopes it raised and the disappointment of its failures, really left a significant mark on Russians at the time.
  4. "Liquid Sunshine" feels to me very much like an imitation of H. G. Wells, down to the English narrator. Have you read any similar stories in English? Why didn't Kuprin "translate" his idea into Russian and Russia?
  5. What is a dibble, and could this have any possible significance here?
  6. What kind of society does Kuprin depict, as our narrator travels around in Europe?
  7. How even remotely plausible is the science here?
  8. Any surprises in the plot?
  9. So was it carelessness, or was it suicide?
  10. What's the significance of the impairment of Henry Dibble's memory after the disaster?


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