Novelist, Story Writer, Playwright, Illustrator, Screenplay Writer.
Active 1977- in Russia, Continental Europe
Vladimir Sorokin came to public attention in 2002, when the conservative youth action group «Moving Together» («Idushchie vmeste») tried to imprison him for writing pornography in his novel Blue Fat (Goluboe salo). The court case came to nothing, but Sorokin’s name suddenly became widely known as a Russian writer being persecuted for his works. However, the charge of pornography would have come as no surprise to anyone acquainted with his writings, as they are littered with all manner of sexual degradation and depravity, described in appropriately coarse language, as well as with horrendous and usually irrational acts of violence. Sorokin is a writer who is not only demolishing literary and cultural taboos in his works, but also challenging the notion of literature itself, and the role of the reader in the literary process. In all his major works he seems to be asking the reader: dare you read on?
Sorokin has his own notion of the place and function of literature. He calls his works «texts», and claims that any «text» is dead and delusive the moment ink reaches paper. He looks at literature as an exclusively aesthetic category, rejecting the spiritual and moral imperatives with which it has been infused during the last two centuries. He denies the moral importance of the printed word as handed down by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and the status of writers as «engineers of human souls» as proclaimed by Stalin. Rather, to Sorokin, literature and life are nonintersecting lines, two independent phenomena. Literature is never married to reality, and so the author cannot be held responsible for his fantasies. Literature for Sorokin is paper holding a combination of printable characters, falling outside of moral and ethical categories and never reflecting the real way an author thinks, acts and feels as a human being.
For Sorokin, the act of writing is an author’s attempt to come to terms with his own psyche, or to shield it from reality. Therefore there is a strong aftertaste of psychoanalysis left when reading his works. For instance, in the short story «An Incident on the Road» (Dorozhnoe proisshestvie), the writer describes and analyses his own childhood impressions based on observing the work of a cesspool emptier. This is one of the few works where Sorokin offers not only a description of his characters' emotional and erotic experiences, but also some psychological interpretation. The story is typical of Sorokins technique, in which a new artistic form is born from the dribs and drabs of different texts: a patchwork of separate, unconnected texts of a sexual or physiological nature, of socialist realism and erotic hallucinations. The story, as with many of Sorokin’s texts, ends in phonetically sophisticated gibberish.
Vladimir Georgievich Sorokin was born on the 7th of August 1955 in the Moscow district. In 1977 he graduated from the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas as an engineer, but never took up that profession. Rather, he was much more interested in graphic art, painting, book design and conceptual art. He has illustrated more than 50 books, and been writing since 1977. He has written eight novels: The Queue (Ochered'); The Norm (Norma); A Novel (Roman); Marina’s Thirtieth Love (Tridtsataia liubov' Mariny); Four Stout Hearts (Serdtsa chetyrekh); The Feast (Pir); Ice (Led); and Blue Fat. He is also the author of ten plays, dozens of short stories, and the screenplays of several recent films. These are films such as Alexander Zel’dovich’s Moscow (Moskva, 2000); Ivan Dykhovychny’s The 1970 Kopeck (Kopeika 1970 g., 2002); A Thing (Veshch', 2002), again by Dykhovychny; 4, directed by Il’ia Khrzhanovsky in 2002; and Cashfire (the title is in English), directed by Zel’dovich in the same year. In 2002 he concluded an agreement with the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow to write a libretto for an opera with music by Leonid Desiatnikov. He has travelled widely in Europe and Asia, and continues to live in Moscow with his wife and twin daughters.
Sorokin’s first novel The Queue was published in 1985 in Paris. Highly original in both form and content, it is comprised entirely of snatches of conversation, mostly single words and phrases, from a group of unnamed people standing in a queue. Most of these excerpts of dialogue cover less than one line of text, so that the reader is in the position of one passing along the line and hearing only broken and incomplete phrases. We learn only towards the end of the novel that the characters are standing in line for a delivery of American denims, but by this time the form has become the content. The queue for consumer goods was the archetypal chronotope of everyday life in the Soviet Union, especially in the «stagnation» years when the novel is set. People of all ages and mindsets join the queue, including the older generation who yearn for the «order» of Stalin’s day, and youngsters who enjoy Western rock music. There are no characters in this text, no authorial narrative voice, and even the minimalist dialogue in the end breaks down into the groans, gasps and cries of a couple who leave the queue to have sex in a neighbouring apartment. The text is pared to the bone, and the author appears only through the words of his characters.
The Norm (1994) is similarly innovative. It consists of eight parts, all unconnected and widely diverse in both form and content. Part One takes in a whole
A key feature of Sorokin’s texts is the disintegration of syntax into nonsensical letter and word combinations: it is as if the text has had a nervous breakdown. Sorokin’s text becomes a mirror of the social and political reality it is meant to represent. His writing does not preach or teach, in the classical Russian tradition, but instead urges the reader to be an active participant in the construction of meaning or «significance». Indeed, does literature have any meaning? A Novel (1994) is almost 400 pages long, most of it set in an idyllic rural setting right out of the pages of a novel by Turgenev or Bunin. However, after he has been bitten by a wolf during a hunt, the central character, Roman, proceeds to butcher all his neighbours and family, then his
Sorokin deliberately shocks his reader, and he also plays around with literary conventions, whether they be of the classical variety, as in A Novel, or the pulp fiction that became so popular in Russia in the early 1990s. Four Stout Hearts (1992) can be read as a ferocious parody of a detective thriller, with all manner of sadistic violence and a huge body count, as four adventurers achieve their own goal of having their hearts torn from their bodies and processed into playing dice. Their quest may seem futile, but the author subverts the act and experience of reading itself. Marina’s Thirtieth Love (1995) begins as a celebration of the female sex novel (the writings of Anais Nin come to mind), where sexual experimentation leads to personal liberation and fulfilment. Such
Marina’s Thirtieth Love marks the end of the «
Sorokin’s written work attacks the symbols of totalitarianism, turning both reality and the text into a grotesque and nightmarish phantasmagoria. In his film work he continues to emphasise the absurd, and to mock taboos. The 1970 Kopeck purports to show 30 years of recent history in the fate of a motor car and its different owners, but the
Blue Fat (2002) is made up of various intertwined stories, and draws on science fiction and the fantastic. It is structured in the form of
The narrative is characterized by passages reminiscent of the cloned writers themselves, so that
Vladimir Sorokin not only tests his reader’s fastidiousness, but also questions the boundaries between literature, art and life. His writing overturns the accepted mission of Russian literature, and instead sets out to deconstruct and reject accepted pieties, especially authority figures, and to mock the very idea of literature and its place and function in the modern world. In Blue Fat, in particular, literature is not merely deconstructed — it is metaphorically ripped apart.
David Gillespie and Elena Smirnova, University of Bath
First published 23 October 2003