Portrait and landscape in Boris Zaitsev’s publicistic writings: style and ethos

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The article represents genre-style etymology of Boris Konstantinovich Zaitsev (1881-1972) publicistic legacy (that includes essays, profiles and critical notes). Style-forming expressions of this outstanding representative of 20th century Russian literary abroad are analyzed within the context of his ethical and philosophical principles. Zaitsev’s portrait and landscape sketches are considered for the first time as figurative-poetic and genre-compositional components of the artist's “visual palette”. One of the effective methods of comprehending the style and ethos of the writer is the disclosure of multi-genre subtexts that reflects the creative worldview of B. Zaitsev, in which aesthetics is closely intertwined with metaphysics, and this, in turn, determines the adjacent disciplinary tools for the study of “literary painting”, actualizes parallels with non-verbal art forms (painting, music). The intertextual phenomenology of B. Zaitsev's publicistic texts is not limited to the artful, masterly and technical depiction. The nature of refined subject-figurative “painting”, as follows from the analysis, is based on the spiritual contemplation of the writer and reflects a rare for the art of the 20th century harmony of the artistic and transcendent.

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Introduction It is truly said that Boris Konstantinovich Zaitsev - the largest literary chronicler of the several Russian history eras - is the latest knight of Silver age. The prose written by this master is a significant part of the Russian literary canon and is a world scale phenomenon. Meanwhile Zaitsev’s basic texts became available in Russia only many years later after his death. He who lived a long life, most part of it being cut off from his native land, where he was born and formed as a person and as a refined master of word art. Hereat Russia - and exactly Russia with its history, art and religion is the main poetical character and Zaitsev’s constant spiritual guide. Even in his worship of “saint miracles” of European culture he remained deeply nationally coloured representative of this world beauty (realised like other realms’ beauty). Zaitsev in his poetics combines two main Russian ontological literary lines: Fabergé-like L. Tolstoy style and religious ethos of Dostoyevsky. But also he retains a phenomenal purity and clarity of his own style, not deviating eclectically into declarative “-isms” or empty polystylistics. The author of “Golden Tracery” and “Gleb's Travel” differs from many of his eminent colleagues in the Russian 20th century literature with his meditatively confessional point of view and ability to see “from here and now to eternity”. A. Platonov noticed in one of his diary lines: “Creative work is endless joy and a hymn to art unto the canted Heaven” [1. P. 11]. Agreeing with the first definition, it is unlikely that Zaitsev could accept the second. His ethos is built upon the statement that Heaven, the divine world is not a dream of “earthly Paradise”, but the focus of Absolute, and to perceive it is the point of art. Having the bright dowry of word “painting”, Zaitsev is not pleased by virtuously made literary plenaries or immaculate photo-like copies. He was more interested in mystical conjugations, momently grasped both by eye and ear, having tactile, even kinetic perception, rather than things of the outer world (in their allsufficient restraint). So separate tones in multidimensional palette and overtonal reflections in the living nature resonate with each other. In numerous landscape sketches and in the full gallery of Zaitsev’s outstanding literary portraits one can be attracted not only by filigreed subtlety of drawing and peculiar soft picturesque glazing, but also by the easily identifiable point of view of this master: wellknown encyclopedic facts, documentary-chorographical material and rather this motionless and “thingish” world: all is transformed, spiritualized and acquires its poetical destiny. The Russian reader has had an opportunity to become familiar with literary publicistic legacy of Zaitsev, which is immense in its size, just in two last decades. It will be a great exaggeration to attribute the most part of Zaitsev 's critical writings to the rank of strict scientific literary analytics. Most of all we have short, telegram-like essays, where the author shares his understanding of poetical cryptography, even if he deals with problems far from art and literature. Numerous publicistic notes of the writer have a great value for understanding his style and ethos because they are often sketch projections of his major (even belletristic) works and they also complete and extend figurative and meaningful space of Zaitsev's large-scaled memoir compositions. It is rarely met in critical publicistics that the subject of the research is harmonically incorporated with the analysis itself. Zaitsev certainly is a pioneer in literary portrait genre; his most important task is to overcome natural borders (time, space, location) between the portraitist and his subject. It is not a coincidence that he says in his conversation with N. Gorodetskaya: “One needs that the person whom you are writing about has become familiar and native to you in some way. Their fate should become your fate, your individual case. Their every problem and its solution should become inwardly important for you… Oeuvre gets clearer for you if you know the author’s life. But you cannot conceive even his life without his works” [2. Pp. 550-551]. Discussion Even an overview on the vast publicistic legacy by the writer allows distinguishing the peculiar literary portrait and landscape forms as a sort of genre and style constants. It is insufficiently to explicate this phenomenon by the unordinary figurative dowry of Zaitsev. The thing which he describes is not an objective or an instrument for him, but the initial point in comprehension of the integral creation's picture. In this sense Zaitsev does not figure the object, but transfigure it. This object is seen through the critic's spiritual contemplation prism, and, due to it, a reader discovers the features of the work's poetical primeval constituent and penetrate into its latent ontological essence. On Durylin's thought, “the art of painting in its greatest achievements is a mystery of seeing”. The truth is that an artist sees not only these things which are presented to him accidentally in visible lines. But - and it is honor of the chosen - the artist sees that he wishes he saw. Here are only a few examples of the pictorial portraiture in which the recognition of an outer image is reached by the remaking of the sub-material dimension, which “thingish” part modulates to the ontological one and the world of art is tightly connected with the transcendental world. Zaitsev do not use the means of the outer (decorative) pictorial art, but he reconstructs the spiritual-historical continuum in which the familiar features are making themselves alive and open the multidimensionality of their “uncommon countenance”. The brief essay “Pushkin (Rereading Him)” - in respect of the communication by the great poet an image emblematic - tells to the reader nevertheless than the pictures by Kiprensky and Tropinin. Predicting the quotation from “Mozart and Salieri” Zaitsev notes: “Pushkin was not a mystic or a dreamer; on the contrary, he is a passionate life nature. But in his art he had the wonder of vivification, consolation and clarification (so it was in himself). It is this spirit of harmony that gives joy - thoughtless. The manner of writing without pressure, fast, dry, always drawing as if a silhouette, this is Pushkin” [4. P. 240]. In this “contour” painting, not only the aphoristic epithets and, in fact, the substantive meanings of observations are remarkable, but also the high mobility with which the “verbal drawing” unfolds. Impetuosity, internal censorship and characteristic (white) type of movement - all this makes the portrait sketch by Zaitsev unusually embossed. A completely different type of reconstruction of the “portrait interior” is used in the essay “The Death of Turgenev”, which - and the author seems to be counting on the possibility of such a metamorphosis in the reader's perception - could be entitled “Turgenev and Death”. Noteworthy is one of the key episodes of the composition, which as a whole, without fear of falling into genre-stylistic exaggeration, can be called a “little Requiem”: “...Petrarch, a religious man, always suffered from the fear of death. He thought about it every day, and when he went to bed, he lay down as if in a coffin. Turgenev (our italics. - M.A.) was not a believer (and considered it his misfortune), but with Petrarch had much in common among other things, and in the sense of death” [5. P. 264]. In this “double portrait” the spiritual image of Turgenev - a writer who had a huge impact on the artistic development of Zaitsev - is given “against the background” of not a randomly selected historical figure. The very pairing of these names speaks volumes. The space-perspective volume of the “palette” (Petrarch - Turgenev) is almost immeasurable. Actually, in this (by no means chronographic or national-geographical) immeasurability Zaitsev finds the key to understanding the spiritual image of the author of “First Love”, which, not being clearly outlined, emerges from the perspective of the depth of the “picture” (that is, literary Being). In the huge literature about A. Blok there are a lot of significant, bright, very detailed descriptions of his life, character and appearance. At the same time, often, even in the most detailed “portraits” escapes the most important thing - the tragic doom that the poet shared with his homeland. Zaitsev has repeatedly approached the understanding of this almost elusive, almost the most mysterious image - a phenomenon in the history of Russian literature. Reflecting on the fate of the poet in a memoir dedicated to the tenth anniversary of his death, he writes: “No one killed Blok in a duel, as was customary for Russian poets of the last century. He died (though in severe physical agony) in his bed. Died relatively young, but already completely broken spiritually. Leaving life not victorious, but defeated. His fate is very significant and severe (our italics. - M.A.). Blok is one of the tragic images of Russian literature, and now for some reason (beyond comparison of talents and meaning) I remember next to him Gogol, his longings of last years, terrible visions... Blok also lived among visions - sometimes seductive, sometimes terrible. He tried to guess something in them, to love something, to accept something as the Truth - but he failed. Some black waves flooded him. Peace to his soul” [6. P. 374]. The general tone of the author's thinking, in the language of musical terminology is “in deep minor key”. There is something twilight Rembrandt-like in Zaitsev's “tonal palette”. A peculiar thickening of the tone increases in each phrase. The brighter the flash of light becomes, illuminating the entire composition like peculiar “Nunc dimittis” at the very end of “Peace to his soul...” This unexpected flash of light seems to illuminate the face of the dying poet, revealing in it the image of a suffering man who hopes for Truth and peace, turning the “sentence” into a prayer. “The image is the likeness of God realized in the face”, wrote the priest P. Florensky [7. P. 23]. There is no doubt that Zaitsev, resorting to a kind of picturesque-“luminescent” metaphysics at the end of the essay, highlights the features of this similarity. The genre of a short magazine article did not hold the writer back in all that concerns expressive means. On the contrary, as in his major biographical compositions, he combines a wide variety of “pictorial techniques”, likening the narrative tone to different - corresponding to the spirit of the depicted - ways of fixing the “living nature”. So, there is something outline-graphic, monochrome austere in the bright “eulogy” to chess player Alexander Alekhine. The stanzaical form of the text and the compositional structure of the essay resemble a blitz party, but the main “pictorial” advantage of a small magazine opus is the phenomenal compactness, the ultimate condensation of the figurative-tonal palette. Aphoristic style of writing is brought to the limit of content intensity and expression. Many who have read the very voluminous great Russian grandmaster’s biographies, will find in the “aphorisms” by Zaitsev not only amazing multidimensional sketches of his appearance, but also a portrait of his fate. Short remark - “Alekhine belongs to the tribe of Russian conquistadors from the time of the revolution” [8. P. 439] - says more about the hero of the story than some biographies. The “chess” essay - as the main pictorial tone - is dominated not by enthusiasm, as it may seem at first glance, but by euphoria. Thanks to this emotional “texture”, the portrait-offering captures one of the main features of Alekhine-chess player and Alekhinepersonality - the ability to think extraordinary and at the same time consciously take risks, and also his chivalrous nobility. The portrait gallery of B. Zaitsev is immense in its personal composition. It would require a special study to consider all the “types” and systematize the writer's artistic tools. Without setting such a goal, it is possible, nevertheless, to identify some important properties of the “small” portrait painting of the writer, which will help in the future to justify a holistic, morphologically conditioned idea of his pictorial and pictorial poetics. For all that distinguishes the “portrait” characters of Zaitsev, who is always sensitive in the transfer of stylistic features of the prototypes themselves, they all appear as characters of intimate, confessional dialogues with the author. This also applies to those persons with whom the writer communicated directly and those whom he discovered, comprehending the culture, history, art of different eras, countries, aesthetic trends. Pushkin and Leskov, Dante and Petrarch, Turgenev and Dostoevsky come to life as contemporaries of the reader along with Bunin and Aldanov, Remizov and Zamyatin, Rachmaninoff and Pasternak. There is no doubt that B. Zaitsev, being a deeply religious man, was well aware of the tradition of religious “hagiography literature” and it found a peculiar response in most of his biographical, “portrait” works. In this tradition, the writer was interested not only and not so much in the hagiographic and doctrinal aspects, but - and this is of crucial importance - the process of the mysterious transition from “life in the world” to being outside the linear dimension with its “dividing” boundaries-dates, milestones, periods, etc. The glimpses of the heavenly world are seen and felt only by those who believe in it and seek it even where the ordinary eye sees only the prosaic everyday life. Zaitsev - with his refined aesthetic and at the same time sharpened spiritual setting of the eye and ear - and in the “prose of life” finds poetry. Admirable in its impressionistic subtlety, B. Zaitsev's “plein air” sketches has nothing to do with the natural-philosophical deification of nature. Here, as in portrait essays, there is a law of spiritual contemplation that allows you to see what escapes even the most discerning eye. “Marveling at the divine beauty of nature”1, the writer focuses not on “bright pictures”, not on the natural elements in their greatness and power, but on the spiritual and emblematic images of the surrounding world, given to man as a reminder of the lost Paradise. Only this can explain the fact that the pictures of nature, even in the publicistic narratives of Zaitsev are never “closed on themselves”. They seem to illuminate the space in which the soul acquires the property of feeling what is usually hidden and invisible. The religious-eschatological implication of this method of feeling is obvious, 1 “From Pindemonti” by A.S. Pushkin. based on the firm belief that “the reality of matter is no less fantastic than the reality of spirit” [9. P. 21]. It is difficult to use Zaitsev's nature essays as travel “Baedekers”. Objective fact is present in them, but it is not of any value in itself. The writer does not dissect, but contemplates the hidden reality of the “speakers” and in his spiritual perception - the everlasting landscapes. In this sense, the short essays on Italy and Finland are very remarkable. “For many of my generation”, writes Zaitsev, “Italy is not just a country: a “better world” where you can escape from the dullness, routine or horror” [10. P. 187]. The finale of the short essay “The Country of St. Francis” is significant: “It is Good to live in Assisi. Death is terrible, and terrible everywhere for a person, but in Assisi it takes the shape of a special-like a rainbow arch into Eternity...” [11. P. 186]. This, almost poetic in its plastic completion of the essay, is preceded by a leisurely, peculiar “muted”, “quiet” story of the wanderer-artist. The very type of unfolding of this story conveys the character of the “silent landscape”, its existential silence. “One can't see anything. To the left is a low border of the coast, dark-blue forests. And ahead, in the distance, on the horizon, an icy-silver, narrow strip of sea and above it white curls and clouds fantastic. North! That's where we sailed...” [12. P. 207] - thus opens the exposition of the essay “Finland. To the Native Land”, which is rich in colors and images, is on a par with the opuses of Levitan and Rachmaninoff. The comparison with painting and music is not accidental. Sound and paint, drawing and melody are the main expressive means of Zaitsev's palette. The architectonics of the essay are akin to small pictorial sketches made in one session and even more embody the compositional space of a musical “prelude” character. In his architectonic sense, Zaitsev is close to Rachmaninoff, who in works of small form - “Preludes”, “Etudes-paintings”, “Musical moments” - achieves a truly poetic rhythmoplasty. The lines between poetry, music and painting are blurred here. The landscape embodiment of the paintings of the Russian North in the microscopic scale and immeasurable figurative poetics essay “Valaam” resonates not only the majestic pictures of nature: “On the stormy and wild Ladoga, in the Northern part of it, is a small island. Granite and mica forms it. On these stone rocks, God knows when created, is a thin layer of earth - like a sediment of age-old dust. On it grew wonderful forests...” [13. P. 212]. Not simplifying narrative by rough stylization, Zaitsev speaks about Valaam nature in a language that has absorbed the power, amazing, especially restrained and recognizable in his ascetic drawing “ornamentalism” of Northern tales. The characteristic phrasing, the “heaviness” of individual words and, in general, the extraordinary accentuation of the “strophic” (as if measured in verse) narrative leave no doubt about this. G. Adamovich wrote that “the secret of writing lies in the feeling of the weight of the word (our italics. - M.A.). Not only in the composition of the phrase, where the weight is of great importance and, with the talent of the writer, intonationally is necessary where the meaning requires support. Not only in the ability to reconcile this weight distribution with the apparently natural flow of speech. But also in most that the word falls on the exactly-anticipated (not to say measured) distance, giving no more, no less, describing that curve, which he intended...” [14. P. 202]. The “skaz” color of the Northern landscapes of Zaitsev, as already mentioned, is far from stylistic imitations. But there is every reason to believe that painting pictures of North Russian nature, the author included in his landscapes (as a kind of spiritually tangible nature) the spirit of the national language, perceived as an organic part of the harsh and majestic landscape. If the people (in the most intimate religious and poetic feelings of the surrounding world) are always the “genius of the place”, then the professional artist, in the mind of B. Zaitsev, makes a gross mistake by ignoring this experience or mechanically installing it. Conclusion As F. Stepun rightly notes, “Zaitsev's style is characterized by a pensive, sad-veiled lyricism. < ... > His sadness is bright...” [15. P. 182]. Let us add that this is not an immanent property of purely psychological etymology. The writer explains the nature of his worldview in a short maxim: “Kindness is the voice of God speaking through man...” [16. P. 463]. In light lyricism of Zaitsev there are almost no sentimental and melancholic notes. Meditativeness, which many critics pay attention to, allows the writer to withdraw from the portrayed, to be “in the shadow” of his own work. This is especially evident in the landscape sketches that bring the writer closer, as if returning to the origins of his soul - to the Homeland. The poetics of pictorial art in Russian literature is not limited to purely craft problems. To a greater extent, this is the sphere of combining aesthetics and metaphysics. The comprehension of genre and style subtexts of B. Zaitsev's publicistic prose, only outlined in modern literary criticism, can contribute to the explanation of the phenomenon of the unique vitality of Russian literature, which according to F. Stepun is not defined “in its best achievements by Kant's formula ‘expediency without purpose’. The goal of Russian art has always been to improve life...” [17. P. 63]. The style and ethos of literary painting by B. Zaitsev is entirely subordinate to this super idea.


About the authors

Marina B. Abdokova

All-Russian Public Organization “Union of Writers of Russia”, Regional Office of the Karachay-Cherkessia Republic

Author for correspondence.
Email: abdokovgeorg@mail.ru

Doctor of Philology, Professor, member of the Union of Writers of Russia (Karachay-Cherkessia Regional Office)

49 Pervomajskaya St, Cherkessk, 369000, Russian Federation


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Copyright (c) 2020 Abdokova M.B.

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