Slavic 281: Isaac Babel, Konarmiia

W 3-6, Remote. Instructor: Edward Tyerman.

Units: 4

The primary objective of this seminar is to acquaint students with a diversity of methodologies and approaches used in contemporary literary scholarship. The general trajectory of the course will juxtapose formalist, structuralist and poststructuralist approaches to the study of texts with a range of methods (New Historicism, sociology, Marxism, etc.) that seek to connect literary texts to their historical contexts. Our readings also bring together modes of literary study that originate in Russia and Eastern Europe (Russian Formalism, the Bakhtin School, Tartu Semiotics) with methodologies emerging from Western academia (including psychoanalysis, gender studies, and postcolonial theory). These readings will allow us to ask a series of conceptual questions: what is a text? What is an author, and what is a reader? What theories of language can be used to ground the study of literature? What is genre? What are the functions and limitations of a literary canon? How do texts relate to other texts, and to their social and historical contexts? Can formal and historical approaches to literature be reconciled?

We will explore and test these methodologies against a close reading of one core text, Isaac Babel’s Konarmiia. A key artefact of the search for a post-revolutionary literature that animated the Soviet 1920s, Konarmiia is a text that many Slavists teach (in whole or in part) during their careers. Konarmiia is also a canonical text that remains in certain ways peripheral: a collection of interlinked short stories in a prose canon dominated by the novel; a Jewish writer’s account of events in Western Ukraine during a pivotal moment for the historical fate of the Russian Revolution. One key question of this seminar, then, will be to ask what may be gained by approaching key questions of Russian literary history from a peripheral perspective. We will tack between close readings of Babel’s stories and readings that seek to link those stories to broader historical and cultural contexts, from Soviet cultural politics and the history of Jewish culture in the Pale of Settlement to transnational paradigms of modernism and modernity.

Prerequisites: graduate standing; knowledge of Russian. Required of all first-year graduate students in the Slavic Department; also open to more advanced students or students from other departments. Permission of instructor required.

The final grade will be based on:
(a) A number of brief (10-15 minute) oral presentations and participation in class discussion
(b) A series of 1-2 page written assignments, detailed on the syllabus
(c) A term paper (8-12pp.). Students may also opt for a take-home exam in place of a final paper.

Students are expected to have already read Konarmiia in Russian prior to the commencement of the semester. All other readings will be provided online or through the Slavic library.