In Marina Vishnevetskaya’s (b. 1955) Came the Moon out of Mist and Get Lost, Crocodile! the search for female identity is formulated as a drama in the genre of lyric parable. The heroines question what it means to “be a woman” in the contradicting societal ideologies of the post-Soviet epoch. The distorted implementation of the laws of capitalist consumption often does not coincide with the patriarchal model of the family, which, in turn, is discredited by cynical views of the Soviet citizen. According to Vishnevetskaya, the heroine can be “freed from the spell,” in other words reveal her essence, or “extinguish”— erase that which is overly incomprehensible. These metaphysical operations either unearth the woman’s essence, or turn her into an automaton. Notably, revealing the trapped female essence or vice versa, repressing it is carried out not so much by the external world, not by the man whom she chose as a lover or who chose her, but by the woman herself.
The problematics of female introspection reaches its climactic concentration in Vishnevetskaya’s Experiences, which was included in her collection Get Lost, Crocodile. These unhappy allegorical stories, told in the first person, depict subsidiary and “background” characters, marginal individuals belonging to various social and age groups of that epoch. The title of each novella in the book corresponds to the initials of the “narrator,” which usually remain undeciphered, and a hinting phrase about a unique experience, which she or he will be sharing with the reader. Structurally, each piece is reminiscent of a confessional monologue about a certain traumatic or healing encounter, which through the process of revelation—or overcoming of the self—construes the female identity in its completeness. Almost all of Vishnevetskaya’s descriptions of mundane experiences—grievance, hope, attraction, parting, monotony, etc. —can be summarized under one encompassing experience of “discovering the self.”
The most intense piece in this text, The Experience of Love, was lauded by critics and received prestigious awards in 2003. A paralyzed woman, dying from cancer and placed in a sanatorium by her relatives, is taping the story of her meager and ordinary biography. She is just over forty, and her provincial childhood had passed during the gray and despondent dictatorship of (communist) party bureaucracy. She had moved to Moscow; studied in an institute; married a man with whom she wasn’t really in love; given birth to a baby in order to increase her living space; received a second degree in law after Perestroika; and begun working at a high-paying law firm, where she meets the love of her life—an investment banker. Of course, her love for him is unreciprocated, as he toys with her heart and then leaves her, quickly tiring of her infantilism and naïveté. One can count thousands of such trivial feminine fates in post-Soviet Russia. And it’s hard to give a single answer to whether these destinies are completely broken and shattered or, on the contrary, have obtained the solid qualities of a rock—unchanging under any circumstances.
Here Vishnevetskaya treats the experience of love as an extension of social inadequacy. In love, the heroine has to reject her prospects for career growth (by allowing her lover to pull a financial trick on the company where she works) and reject her familial duties and everything else that she has painstakingly worked for. By deciding to dedicate herself completely to the object of her love, she doesn’t even bother to question her partner’s motives—what does he really want from their affair? In Vishnevetskaya’s texts, as in traditional Russian literature, the masculine world of commercial success and desire for power is juxtaposed with the feminine world of empathy and gentleness. The issue of dramatization is that “bestial capitalism’s” triumph in the mid-nineties wasn’t capable of valuing emotions like compassion as a worthwhile strategy. And yet it’s the experience of love—recognizing an appalling inadequacy—that allows the heroine to know herself, giving her ordinary, at times even banal biography a certain meaning, as well as a religious dimension. Born into a country of national atheism and living her whole life in renunciation, the terminally ill heroine turns to orthodoxy. She is battling between religious piety or ecstasy and the remnants of pure “instinctual” attraction toward the object of her love. The final pages of the novella suggest that the “instinctual” component of the female character remains unconquered—thanks to which a woman gains herself and becomes capable of analyzing her own actions.
The association between the masculine gaze and the feminine image, which has been the basis of various literary schemes and feminist theories, is treated in a curious way in The Experience of Not Partaking. In an ironic, detached voice the narrator describes his interaction with women as Japanese minimalism —he neither touches nor speaks to them—just exchanges glances. By casting a meticulously terrorizing gaze that forces a woman to freeze in either awe or inexplicable horror, he pulls her into an unfair game, one that she has already lost. As a result of such voyeuristic romances several of his colleagues are forced to quit their jobs; meanwhile, a businesswoman whom he met at a billiards club dies from a car crash (perhaps a suicide or an accident). In a book by a male author, this type of discourse might suggest the character’s desire to see his own imagination reflected upon the woman (as an obedient and well-trained marionette). But Vishnevetskaya is implying the opposite: the most candid male view of women is the ability to see her as a pure enigma, the chemistry of which is incomprehensible to both sexes.
In Vishnevetskaya’s prose the sensitive and ineluctable experiences of separation and breakups appear as fundamental elements in constructing the female subjectivity. In The Experience of Other and The Experience of Disappearing, two completely dissimilar heroines—an old village woman, whose husband was killed years ago and who finds out that her sister’s children were conceived from him, and a young city girl who must reject her lover and whose mother’s clinical schizophrenia is a biological threat to her offspring—are going through an identical experience: the discovery of a certain void (or, psychoanalytically speaking, a trauma), which occurs at the moment of either affected or self-inflicted loss of a loved one. Moreover, the days and years that accumulate from this moment don’t ease the unwanted traumatic effects, but carve the very essence of the woman’s character. Such irreducible themes give Vishnevetskaya’s prose an edge and contemporaneity.
The black humor of The Experience of Demonstrating Grievance definitely stands out from the uniformly lyric tone of the book, enriching its stylistic qualities. The grotesqueness of the story is rendered through the ridiculously difficult process of choosing a proper dress that will emphasize the heroine’s femininity and attractiveness. But she gets to wear her elegant outfits only while attending funerals—at first of her close relatives, then of Soviet chiefs, the general secretaries of the communist party. In the Russian traditionalist culture, dress code appears to be the most significant element of a woman’s symbolic and semiotic behavior. It symbolizes not only her social status but also the psychological particularities of her character. Clothes allow the woman to highlight her own individuality and difference—and at the same time remain confined within the parameters of ethics imposed by the society. It’s ironic, Vishnevetskaya points out, that the contemporary Russian woman dresses elegantly (in other words, recognizes her own particularities) only when grieving, thus completing the task of grievance demonstrated by Freud’s Trauerarbeit. Putting aside the overly hyperbolic parodies of this novella, its significance rests on the most important motif of female subjectivity, constructed not on rational explications of her fate, but on a tensely concentrated emotional experience.
Vishnevetskaya’s Experiences—based on readership success and awards—is one of the most persuasive and compelling instances in the arena of contemporary Russian women’s prose.