John Sturrock

  • Handbook of Russian Literature edited by Victor Terras
    Yale, 558 pp, £25.00, April 1985, ISBN 0 300 03155 6
  • Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time by Roman Jakobson, edited by Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy
    Blackwell, 208 pp, £25.00, July 1985, ISBN 0 631 14262 2
  • Historic Structures: The Prague School Project 1928-1946 by F.W. Galan
    Croom Helm, 250 pp, £22.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 7099 3816 0
  • BuyMikhail Bakhtin by Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist
    Harvard, 398 pp, £19.95, February 1985, ISBN 0 674 57416 8
  • The Formal Method in Literary Scholarship: A Critical Introduction to Sociological Poetics by M.M. Bakhtin and P.M. Medvedev, translated by Albert Wehrle
    Harvard, 191 pp, £7.50, May 1985, ISBN 0 674 30921 9
  • Dialogues between Roman Jakobson and Krystyna Pomorska translated by Christian Hubert
    Cambridge, 186 pp, £15.00, August 1983, ISBN 0 521 25113 3
  • The Dialogical Principle by Tzvetan Todorov, translated by Wlad Godzich
    Manchester, 132 pp, £25.00, February 1985, ISBN 0 7190 1466 2
  • Rabelais and his World by Mikhail Bakhtin, translated by Hélène Iswolsky
    Indiana, 484 pp, $29.50, August 1984, ISBN 0 253 20341 4

Roman Jakobson and Mikhail Bakhtin agree on so little as theorists of literature that they must count as alternatives. To read one and then the other, preferably Jakobson first and then Bakhtin, as a sort of anti-Jakobson, is a literary theoretical education. Where Jakobson is dry, Bakhtin is convivial; where Jakobson is technocratic, Bakhtin is impulsive; where Jakobson is magisterial, Bakhtin is a groundling. Jakobson’s theories are known about, because he came to the West to work on them; Bakhtin’s we are only now starting to learn about, because of the shocking obscurity in which they were kept in his lifetime.

These two Russians led lives as different as their philosophies – after the Revolution at least. Jakobson’s life went much better than poor Bakhtin’s. Jakobson was the younger by a year, born in 1896 to a father who was a chemical engineer and an industrialist in Moscow. He studied languages and what then went with them, notably folklore, and in 1915 was one of the creators of the Moscow Linguistic Circle, whose advanced and contentious ideas did a lot to shape the course of Russian Formalism in the Twenties. He was also close to the local avant-garde, a sophisticate who rode the new wave of abstraction in the arts and was a friend of Russian Modernists, both painters and writers. By the time of the Revolution he had his first teaching job at the university and was one of those free-thinkers who had much to hope for intellectually from the desecration of the old order.

But Jakobson soon gave up his country. In 1920 he was sent to Prague by the new regime as an official translator. He never went back to Russia. Why, I have not seen explained; all that one finds in his large and enthusiastic entry (written by his widow) in Yale’s informative Handbook of Russian Literature is that he left the Soviet service ‘in order to resume his studies at Prague University’. But he still didn’t return home even when his new studies were finished. Those were the years when the frost was settling over intellectual life in Russia and when Jakobson’s friends and collaborators there had begun to suffer. He was well out of it: but there seems to have been no precise break with the regime. He is not very political in his writings even when he has cause to be. His lament for his friend, the poet Mayakovsky, who committed suicide in 1930 – this piece is reprinted in Verbal Art, Verbal Sign, Verbal Time, and is the best thing in the book, which is an otherwise random and insufficient selection of his essays – is more fatalistic than angry: for Jakobson, Russia has always been a society too gross to support such fine geniuses as Mayakovsky. Rather than dwell on the poet’s fate, Jakobson turns to the characterisation of his poetry.

Jakobson remained in Prague until the Nazis came, teaching, writing and, along with Jan Mukarovsky and others, helping to create Prague Structuralism, whose history and doctrines are thoroughly and intelligently traced in F.W. Galan’s Historic Structures. After Czechoslovakia, his next, and final, home was the United States. He arrived in New York in 1941, by way of Scandinavia. There, he taught linguistics at the university in exile started by the Free French and Belgians. One of his first New York friends was a fellow teacher, Claude Lévi-Strauss: the two of them went to one another’s lectures. Listening to Jakobson’s still revolutionary ideas on phonology made Lévi-Strauss realise for the first time that he himself was a structuralist, and that he had been given the model he had been missing on which to found his theory of human culture. The exquisite if suspect binarism on which Lévi-Strauss’s system came to rest was there, waiting, in Jakobson’s analysis of the phoneme into its ‘distinctive features’. Jakobson was a ‘dazzling’ lecturer, according to Lévi-Strauss (he is not a dazzling writer), and a tiring friend, because he wanted to talk and to drink all night. Lévi-Strauss took in the ideas, but without the vodka – this proved a let-down to his exuberant associate.

Jakobson lived, taught and published in the United States for forty more years after this, first at Columbia and later at Harvard. He made constant raids out of linguistics and into literary theory, putting his case that if the study of literature was ever to be specific, and empirical, then it must codify the language of which literature is made. This was the Formalist argument at its most domineering; Jakobson never really changed his literary views after the early Twenties. He died at the age of 86, much honoured as both a Slavist of great range and scholarship and a theoretical linguist who had rewritten the laws of phonology.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in