The Children of Catastrophes: On Vladimir Sharov’s “The Rehearsals”

There is very little dialogue. Eventually Nikon hires Sertan, who tries to pass himself off as a Protestant (the religion of his birth, more acceptable to the Orthodox than Catholicism), to produce a mystery play on the Life and Passion of Christ. The third insight occurs later in the same interview. Parts which, having broken their ties, having freed themselves from each other’s constraints, from the need to answer to one another, from the need to undertake common, mutually agreed actions, are beginning to grow uncontrollably. Russia was on the cusp of a new age of the novel, Sharov predicted, just as it had been in the 1920s: “All genuine novels are the children of catastrophes.”
With exquisite artistry, Oliver Ready has been recreating these novels in English, gathering translation prizes as he goes: Sharov’s third novel, Before and During (1993), in 2014, and now the second, The Rehearsals (2018), which was written between 1986 and 1988 and appeared in Moscow in 1992. It was caused by a confrontation over details of worship between ecclesiastical reformers, led by Patriarch Nikon, and the dissenting but equally fierce traditionalists, most famously the charismatic Archpriest Avvakum, martyr for the Old (or, as he preferred, the True) Belief. The actors are being freed from their own present. For Sharov’s particular type of novel recognizes only the recurrent event. But with whom did God have the Covenant? The first insight comes from an interview in 2008 with Mark Lipovetsky, a leading Russian-American specialist on postmodernism and a resolutely secular scholar. No time or space for that. Gradually, the reader comes to realize that these secondary carriers of the plot serve to peel history back for the first-person narrator (known to us only as Seryozha) and generate the aura in which he lives. I write the absolutely real history of ideas, intents, faiths. The play, retitled Christ the Counter-Revolutionary, becomes an official part of the anti-religious propaganda agenda of the Cultural-Educational Sector. The distinction between freedom and necessity is gradually erased. The Rehearsals is 350 pages of solid prose without down time. With the influx of so many Trotskyites, kulaks, and traitors from other parts of Russia, the plot becomes diffuse. Watson Armour III University Professor Emeritus of Slavic Languages and Literatures at Princeton University. But one detail is worth special attention. All eyes are on 1666, Year of the Beast. But the neobaroque is a child of secular postmodernism. (Kobylin, we later learn, has been supplying the narrator with old manuscripts from Siberia.) Why this had to happen becomes clearer and clearer, as the drama (that is, the acting troupe that performs the drama) moves from New Jerusalem Monastery outside Moscow through arrest, exile, imprisonment in the Gulag — rehearsing whenever possible, at every rest stop or lull in its cycle of torments. The rehearsals cannot include Jesus, because the point of the drama is to redirect God’s attention to the New Holy Land, the New Chosen People, to create a vacuum that His Son will voluntarily, joyously come to fill, thus assuring the Second Coming on Russian soil. How peculiar to Russia is this rhetoric? A lofty Old Testament intonation infuses this final stretch of text, recalling a time when books of the Bible were named not after social classes or groups but after individuals: Matthew, Isaiah, Judith, Ruth. The actors are all untutored peasants who must learn their roles, word by word and for years on end, from Sertan himself. He had little interest in the outer shell of 20th-century history: mass uprisings, class conflict, conspiracy theories to explain a political victory. But he insisted that those “dialogues with God” were tightly tied to the Revolution, that the Bolshevik century was thoroughly of one piece with Russia’s past, and that this past was always oriented toward the proper End of the World. As Sertan wrote in his diary about his peasant actors:
They are not separate people, but parts of a single whole. Of course things get very, very bad before the absolute end (for example, the advent of the Antichrist). He might even have added a 21st-century coda to his Rehearsals, featuring true believers in this most current repetition. But Russia’s variant on messianic exceptionalism is distinctive, Sharov seems to suggest, in that it lacks even the feeblest liberal corrective. Sharov considers the cataclysmic Raskol to be the wound from which the Russian people never recovered, and sees in the 1917 Russian Revolution its direct heir. Two men, a woman, and a small child. Some of them collaborate to protect “their” Jews, others become double agents or traitors, but “becoming informers had broken them: they could no longer act or rehearse.” The novel ends on a love story so curious and unexpectedly poignant that the reader can scarcely bear it. 1645–’76, and father of Peter the Great), the government chose not to heal this wound but, as Sharov put it, to “amputate it.” True believers on both sides dug in their heels. The hidden hand of the state is benevolent, however; director and troupe are exiled to Siberia in a single convoy. He had succeeded in seeing his ninth novel through to publication. But Oliver Ready demurs. Clearly, Peter the Apostle reasons, Christ is not coming as promised because the Jews, although aware of their role in the play, are reluctant to crucify Him; this is as bad as calling for His crucifixion. If it is true — and I believe it is — that translation requires the most intimate dialogue possible with another’s consciousness, then Sharov’s rebirth into English in such staggeringly fine prose is the perfect tribute to commemorate the departure of his mortal body. This is difficult, since late-medieval Muscovy has no concept of secular culture. Midway through Sharov’s novel, the actors effectively lose their birth names. […] God judges us not only for our deeds, but also for our intents. Hanging in the balance was whether or not the Russian nation was God’s new Chosen People, whether Moscow was indeed the Third (after Constantinople) and final Rome, whether the True Russia could stay the course — and if it could, then all that mattered was proper preparations for the Second Coming and the End. During that era, the contours of popular faith were the maddest, and religious obstinacy most necessary for spiritual survival. With Sertan (and with Russian subjects more generally, then and later), what begins as a free hire ends in arrest and compulsion. Individuals emerge — as lovers, as faces, as distinct families — only at the point where the novel focuses in on the Jews, who try (while living and dying) to do justice to their scripted parts. The presence, or absence, of a real (although invisible) divine interlocutor and its compatibility with the violence of the Marxist-materialist Soviet experiment is an issue that Lipovetsky raised with the author during his 2008 interview:
Volodya, you’re an historian by training, the author of a dissertation on the Time of Troubles, and almost singlehandedly you have created a new type of historical narrative. These transitions are always times of heightened insecurity and dread. Sertan dies en route, but the rehearsals continue. Your characters, historical or quasi-historical, carry on a maximally stressed, at times furious dialogue with God, but at the final moment they cannot sustain it — and their fate, their quests turn out to be uninterruptedly tied to Revolution, to the Terror. Starting with Tsar Alexei (second ruler of the Romanov dynasty, r. Sharov’s style is harrowing. Mark Lipovetsky, whose 2008 interview with Sharov opened this review, has called Sharov’s prose “neobaroque.” The term is intriguing. When the Christians balk, or are uncertain what their roles dictate, forced expropriations begin. Sharov did not entirely disagree. For time in this novel, as in all Sharov’s work, is not open-ended or developmental but cyclical and figural. But the way in to this story and its eschatological energy is fantastically complex, meandering like a monstrous nested doll over all of Eurasia. By the 19th century, Siberia is filling up with exile convoys as the Russian imperial administration dumps its dissenters beyond the Urals. The core narrative begins as a 17th-century diary, written in Breton, that Seryozha acquires from Kobylin and has translated as part of his research. In his 2008 interview, Sharov pointed out that the 17th century gave birth to a peculiar conviction among Muscovites, still potent in the post-communist era, that Russian society could have dealt with the Raskol and cured itself of its trauma if it weren’t for the perpetual hostility and perfidy of her external enemies: at first the Greeks (the Mother Church), and then Ukrainians, who governed the Russian church for almost a century. In Russian, the word for rehearsals is repetitsii (from the French les répétitions), a resonance that the English title cannot duplicate, except perhaps as “re-hearing.” Rehearsals look toward the future, a repetition emphasizes the past — but in both cases, the re- is everything. Three insights he offered into his own creativity might serve as epitaph and as preface to his life’s work. Christians, Jews, and Romans (the latter long in alliance with surrounding Yakut tribes) need one another to keep the play going. The core story and (literally) central drama of The Rehearsals begins during the time of Patriarch Nikon. But it isn’t easy for the actors to stay together. “Most likely all my novels, one way or the other,” Sharov said, “are about the collision between our — for lack of a better term — secular life and its logic, and a logic that is utterly, wholly turned toward God.” Six years earlier, the literary critic Elena Ivanitskaia had asked Sharov to explain the “absurdist comicality and black humor” in his novel The Resurrection of Lazarus. As it happens, this too is a recurrent current event, with an explosive political charge. In fact, piety will look primitive, deluded, or naïve. This is the country that existed. “But there’s not a trace of absurdist comicality anywhere!” he protested. Their growth is equal to their freedom. The particular catastrophic focus of The Rehearsals is the Great Schism, or Raskol, in the Russian Orthodox Church that tore the Muscovite state apart in the mid-1670s. It will always prefer irony to piety. The prosperous and law-abiding Jews are the first to see that rules have changed — now one has to give everything away in order to survive; they start working with the communists. The Patriarch’s goal is to create one vast, historically accurate open-air theater for the Passion. If so, then Sharov’s Rehearsals might prove the most ambitious attempt since Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita to integrate biblical plots and the terror of the Living God into the fabric of Russia’s horrific 20th century. Such a worldview was in keeping with the teaching of Seryozha’s PhD advisor in Tomsk, who insisted that the Russian state was not built on economic ties or everyday realities “but on ideas, on its understanding of its place and territory in the world of ideas, on its understanding of its destiny, its mission, of what set it apart from the destiny of everyone else.” Remove that sense of the whole, and self-respect as well as legitimacy crumbles. Oliver Ready, it is said, translates Sharov’s novels the way Sharov himself composed them: pacing the floor, speaking the words out loud, making sure the accents and rhythms serve the flow of the thought. Convicts (“zeks”) from Sertan’s acting families get release time to rehearse. She is the author of The Cambridge Introduction to Russian Literature (2008) and has written extensively on Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Mikhail Bakhtin, the Russian critical tradition, and Russian music. The subtext to all this data collection is not a dissertation, however, but something eerily timeless, static, indispensable for the proper accomplishment of the End. The Apostles fuse with the secret police. But the play never has an opening night, and its actors, in despair, hand their roles and their hopes down century after century to their children, who gradually lose all identity except their part in the play. This is not a story to be summarized in linear fashion. Parts feel more vigorous, more courageous, and more like historical agents if they remain obedient parts, not individuals. When tensions become too great, Christians stalk Jews. At the time of writing (October 2018), the word “schism” is being widely used in the crisis between Constantinople and Russia over Ukraine’s bid for an autocephalous church. The title is straightforward. The dissenters withdrew from the secular Russian state. How all this plays out between these exhausted groups, inherited roles, and shifting power hierarchies in the final hundred pages is scorching. ¤
Caryl Emerson is A. Although the Orthodox faithful consider theater — the wearing of masks — a demonic activity, some in the tsar’s entourage are curious to sample the cultures of Europe. The reader’s mind jumps ahead to the early Bolshevik years, where the Revolution in Petrograd was reenacted by casts of thousands in scripted mass spectacles, their shape and intensity replacing the historical event as an icon replaces errant flesh. If Christ is that absence, the description is indeed appropriate to The Rehearsals. I am a realist — and life, such as I depict it in my novels, fully corresponds to what really exists. Over six years, the land, rivers, and villages around the monastery are resculpted and renamed to duplicate ancient Palestine, the paths where the Messiah walked and preached. Although lay philosophers and professors pontificate their worldviews — and overall the novel cautions us against becoming teachers, for students are children who never grow up — the book supplies little readerly relief in the shape of small talk, friendly banter, or casual flirtations. Sharov, I suspect, would smile at the thought that Christ was absent from his second novel. Devoted to “keeping everything the same,” but isolated in self-contained communities, Old Believers devolved into hundreds of different sects. There are no chapters. Sharov answered obliquely. NOVEMBER 27, 2018
VLADIMIR SHAROV, trained as a historian of early modern Muscovy and Russia’s most visionary historical novelist, died of cancer in Moscow on August 17, 2018, at the age of 66. Much of this meandering seems haphazard until the final 20 pages, where all signs align and blaze up like a Burning Bush. Generations are marked, every dozen years or so, by the passing on of roles from mother to daughter and father to son: a newer and younger Apostle, Zebedee, Caiaphas, Pilate, Magdalene, moneychanger in the temple. In either event, a pogrom is justified. Suffice it to say that Sharov puts to good use the familiar novelistic device of the “discovered private document,” so popular in Sentimentalist and Romantic fiction, albeit shorn here of its chatty domesticity, its personal griefs, jealousies, and routine love interest. Massacres begin. One can only wonder, as nation-states around the globe swing to the populist-nationalist right. This is good policy, because that flow is everything. He is taken captive by the Russians and is brought first to Moscow, then to New Jerusalem Monastery just outside the city, to meet the Patriarch, Nikon, then in and out of favor with the Muscovite court. But the boundaries of the novel as Sharov wrote it, three centuries from 1653 to 1965, respect his habit of peaking in the Stalinist years. And in the space of a page, with a cadence so swift, powerful, and efficient that we can hear the chord resonating back throughout the novel, the final paragraph snaps us back to the opening scene, and resolves the whole. By the mid-1930s, Mosslands has been reclassified as a prison camp. One Russian critic compared Sharov’s style to Ivan Bunin’s: dense, cerebral, monotonic, its rhythm “like the drum of rain on the roof.” Like nature looking in the window, it’s hard to pinpoint an addressee. The more awful the documented reality (persecution, pogrom, Gulag), the more perfect the fit between personal fantasy and the promised Miracle. But with the Revolution, and especially with enforced collectivization after 1929, dumping is not enough; integration into the present is required, and Siberia obliged to pull its weight. Some hid away, others burnt themselves in protest. He hears and renders into English many stylistic registers, reminding us that Sharov began his creative life as a poet. The actors’ community, a bog-ridden stretch along the river called Mosslands, becomes a collective farm with delivery quotas of grain and peat. The meaning of their lives is no longer mired in what merely is under their feet, thus they bear no responsibility for it. Catastrophic situations repeat on ever smaller patches of space; failure does not shake the heroes’ belief but merely heightens their search for more subtle patterning. Its author is Jacques de Sertan, a theater director and Catholic convert from a Breton-speaking region of France, who is trapped with his acting troupe in war-ravaged Poland in the late 1640s. But no one is cast as Jesus. They also suggest a way of looking into Putin’s Russia — not at, but into — that can supplement the news clip, blog, or talk show on current events. Lipovetsky had asked Sharov if any single “meta-plot” runs through his fiction, so full of fantastical invention, improbable intersections, provocative variations on documented fact, yet invariably culminating in the Revolution and its latent nightmarish bloodletting. Matters have become so very bad that the Second Coming must be nigh. He is chosen to assist his professor with collecting data from the abandoned Old Believer communities that dot Siberia, devastated first by persecution and then by the collectivization of agriculture. How events recur, and into what fabulous mesh of myth, faith, ecstasy, and horror they are integrated in the collective mind, is the history that Sharov has been telling since his first novel was published in 1991, just as the Soviet Union and its myths were falling apart. (The Ukrainian church came under Muscovite jurisdiction in 1686, five years after Nikon’s death — and the intervening time, it seems, has been but a blink in the Cosmic Eye.) One suspects that Sharov would have taken this latest layer of the Raskol palimpsest in stride. On October 15 of this year, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, in the person of President Putin’s close ally Patriarch Kirill, threatened to sever all ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople if Ukraine’s “schismatic” bid for independence succeeded. Sharov’s novel opens in 1965 with the statement that in 1939 the Jewish nation, in the person of one Isaiah Kobylin, finally ceased to exist. But badness is itself a good sign: if one stands firm, Apocalypse will come — and with it purification and salvation. I am often accused of creating an alt-history [para-istoriia], but that’s nonsense. Such an end would connect the world’s Christianity with Russian soil, with a Russian seeker. The neobaroque, by his definition, is theatrical, performative, repetitive, explosive, obsessed with fragments, labyrinthine with a wandering center — or better yet, the center is altogether absent. The novel really does concern rehearsing a play. Finally, some formal considerations. Metaphysical and historical themes are introduced in a leisurely way by transitional storytellers (a visionary tour guide in Kuibyshev; exiled, eccentric professors in that city and in Tomsk; a Russian-French-Jewish translator stranded in Siberia), each voice possessing its own past and philosophy. Through a random series of university courses and field trips, Seryozha becomes a historian, a student of the Schism.