Igor Gulin Does Not Have a Story To Tell You


Igor Gulin is a critic who writes about writers, and/but because of this he thinks people shouldn’t write too much, including himself. “If you don’t have to write, it’s better not to write”—this statement applies pragmatically to both the plodding work of the critic, saddled with regular deadlines, but also more provocatively to the ostensibly more voluntary and creative work of the writer. When I asked Igor how much this statement is driven by the Romantic idea of the wild-eyed writer, driven by divine inspiration to scribble deep into the night, he said—"more like Romanticism turned inside out; it is more correct not to write, not to produce more culture. Only if you are absolutely pressed to the wall.”

So what kind of a writer is Igor Gulin, and what kind of writing is this? The texts published here come from a small body of work produced over a short period during the ferment years of the early 2010s. Capital-city intellectuals—a milieu that Igor somewhat bashfully acknowledges as his native one—were ping-ponging between the still-palpable euphoria of mass city protests in 2011-2012 (raised against Putin’s return to power) and the apathetic despair that accompanied their palpable lack of any effect. “These are pretty context-driven texts,” says Igor. “They were written at a specific moment and geared toward a specific set of readers from a specific milieu—the lefty urban space of Moscow and Petersburg.” Bar a few desultory attempts, Gulin hasn’t really written anything since completing these cycles: “I thought up a way of writing and then exhausted it.” To really write something else, he suspects he will have to think up another new position.

The texts from Lil’ Loaf of Bread and a few other cycles hover around 2014 (the Loaf subtitle, “twenty fourteen prose,” was added later)—the year “we hit bottom.” The texts are explicitly political both in how they perform the search for a specific kind of political subjectivity, and because of how everything in 2014 screamed turning-point: Russian troops crossed the border into eastern Ukraine, Crimea was annexed (cf. the “Anschluice”). Accordingly, this is “extreme writing”: “a radical experiment done on myself, on my subjectivity.” The political and physical violence of the moment plays itself out in the authorial relationship to the subject, as well as to readers. The speakers in these texts make a point of saying everything, of holding nothing back. But the point of this “ultimate candor” is not to “bare the soul,” says Gulin: instead, they aim to create a specific kind of contact with readers—to draw them into a “transgressive, erotic collusion.” Meanwhile, “ultimate candor” eventually turns out to be yet another mask that functions more to obscure than reveal.

For readers familiar with late twentieth-century Soviet literature, the idea of masks immediately raises the specter of Dmitri Prigov, a monstrously prolific conceptualist poet to whom Gulin certainly nods (though Igor is less drawn to Prigov’s struggle with culture and its discourses). Gulin also names the magnificently obscure Soviet underground writer Pavel Ulitin as an important inspiration: an underground writer vis-à-vis the rest of the underground, Ulitin produced a small number of deeply, cheerfully hermetic palimpsestic collage-texts with an astonishing density of half-spoken, tantalizingly referential utterances. In Gulin’s view, this density lends a text incredible power, energy and quality. It also “does things with words,” generating the conspiracy into which the reader unknowingly enters.

Given how context-specific these texts are, it’s rather marvelous to see how they can work in a completely different context—another country, another reading public, another language. English-language readers will surely read their own references into this work, which is peppered with facts and cultural references, some floating on the surface and readily accessible, others buried at depths of obscurity unreachable even by readers who know Gulin (and his aesthetic predilections) well. In English, Igor says, it’s like the texts come back to life, but in a different way. They might even work better than they did in Russian: “the inertia of stylistic perception is gone.” Certain highly characteristic intonational nuances are, necessarily, gone, along with nearly all the references and allusions to other texts in the Russian and Soviet tradition. But for Igor, what’s left is extremely interesting—as well as the wealth of new stylistic and intonational quirks that inevitably come along with the English (especially the collective/palimpsestic English of these collective translations).

more or less co-authored by Igor Gulin and Ainsley Morse

Igor Gulin is a Moscow-based poet, literary critic, and cultural historian.