“Pluto, not Orpheus”. Shalamov and the biographical in the literature of the camps.
Throughout his life the Russian writer Varlam Shalamov was firmly convinced that literature – and first of all the novel – after Kolyma, Auschwitz, Hiroshima had forfeited its right to exist and urgently needed to be replaced by a radically new prose. The author of the “new prose”, according to Shalamov, ceased to be a “mere spectator, a tourist, he directly takes part in the drama of life”. The new kind of creative should not be like Orpheus, but like Pluto; like the “Pluto who comes up out of Hell, and not Orpheus who goes down into Hell”. With his twenty years spent in the Gulag the author of Kolyma Tales was the embodiment of what he regarded as a necessary condition and foundation of the new literature: Like Pluto, before he became a writer, he had undergone his biographical experience of the hell of the camps. He never tired of stressing that the material should be researched in one’s own skin, not just in one’s own spirit. Traditional literature had to be “stripped of its clothes”, made naked; everything imagined, imitated, all “copycattery” should be pitilessly swept away.
Primo Levi predicted in Is this a man?: “If the camps had existed for longer, a new, hard language would have been born; it was needed, simply to be able to explain what it is to be flayed the whole day in wind and frost [...].”
The Gulag lasted ten times longer than Auschwitz, and what was new in the behaviour of a human who is reduced to the level of an animal was examined very precisely, in numerous details, by Shalamov in the Kolyma Tales.
(The Lecture will be held in German)