Varlam Shalamov

Elena Mikhailik

Potentialities of Intertextuality in the Short Story On Tick Varlam Shalamov: Problems of Cultural Context

Varlam Shalamov starts his story On Tick (На представку) with the following sentence: ‘They were playing cards at Naumov's, a mine horse driver.’[1] Many researchers have noted that this opening travesties the first phrase of the Queen of Spades (Пиковая дама) by Pushkin: ‘They were playing cards at Narumov's, an officer of the Horse Guards.’[2]

This abrupt opening forces the scholar to confront a number of questions.

What is a dazzling if a bit light-minded Horse Guard doing in the barracks unsuitable even for his chargers? What is Alexander Sergeevich Pushkin, whose most gloomy, most gothic works are still overflowing with rich post-factum, school-ingrained positive associations, doing in the bleak limbo of the prison camps? And what is a quotation from a work so classical that it is considered to be one of the foundation stones of Russian prose doing as an opening line of a story by a self-proclaimed creator of a ‘New Prose’?

For Varlam Shalamov, author of the Kolyma Tales (Колымские рассказы), did define his prison camp short stories as a ‘New Prose’. He was of the opinion that in a vastly changed contemporary world ‘after Hiroshima, after the self-service [crematoria] of Aushwitz and after Serpantinnaja in Kolyma, after wars and revolutions...’[3] the very nature of literature had to change. In his Manifesto on the New Prose as well as in other theoretical works, Shalamov established a claim for a new form of prose, one that makes possible a direct projection of the author's experience upon the consciousness of the reader, one that transforms a reader from a spectator into a participant of the story.

The "New Prose" is the action itself, it is a battle and not the description of it... Prose, that is experienced as a "document". The effect of being present, of authenticity is only in the document itself[4] .

The outcome suggests that Shalamov did in fact succeed in creating the text that is taken at a face value, experienced as an unadorned, authentic, unchallengable fact. (In his ‘theses’ for The 1991 Shalamov Readings Mikhail Zolotonosov clearly formulated an opinion widespread among literary critics:

Shalamov manages to reach such a state of prose that it means nothing except the things it directly reports or indicates. There are no metaphors, no allegories, no "deep meanings”, no ambiguity of any kind[5] .

However, even a perfect stylistic camouflage (and Shalamov’s ‘documentary’ disguise is noticeably - and deliberately – imperfect[6] ) could not totally sever a work of literature from its cultural bedrock. The label ‘New Prose’ in itself implies a well-developed and complex relationship with the ‘Old Prose’ - the correlation is established by the very fact of rejection and abnegation. The whole volume of the previous literary tradition solidifies into the role of the Other.

Whether this relationship is propelled by Harold Bloom’s ‘anxiety of influence’ or Josef Brodsky’s ‘need for an echo’[7] , it perforce maintains a state of a very intense and multifaceted dialogue. (A side effect of such a dialogue could well place Pushkin’s aristocratic gambler in the horse miners barracks, slumping over the Kolyma permafrost.)

Shalamov, however, had further complicated an already labyrinthine situation, not only proclaiming the need for a radical change, but stating that the change (at least in his case) is to be of a specific nature.

Shalamov maintains that the aim of an artistic work is ‘the resurrection of life’[8] . I.e. the literary text must somehow acquire the intensity of a first-reality experience. ‘Prose, that is experienced as a document...’ demands a high tension informative and emotional current. This objective dictates the form of the work (in the limited space of the short story it is naturally easier to maintain a sensorial load comparable to the information pressure of real life) and the extreme functionality of the artistic devices.

The need to augment the informative intensity in the limited volume of the text compels the author to use codes - combination of signs known both to the author and the reader. Thus, the signifiers are often embedded in the descriptions, and the text is enriched not only by the signs themselves but also with the whole system of relationships that engendered the given code. With the addition of the third co-ordinate - that of a code - the structure of the text is expanded beyond the plot-and-image oriented narrative surface into a three-dimensional semantic continuum[9] .

Shalamov writes that in the ‘New Prose’ a detail ‘... is always a detail-symbol, it is a sign that shifts all the story into another plane, that creates a textual undercurrent...’[10] Text is not an equivalent of code: text can contain several nonintersecting and sometimes contrary codes. Those codes can be addressed (with various degrees of effectiveness) to different groups of readers.

However, one of the most (or perhaps the most) powerful and complex systems of codes that is available to literature is literature itself.

Intertextual relationships create the cultural space or the ‘environment’ within which the work of literature exists. Characterising a person, object or event, quotations, allusions or references form a multilayered sign that at the same time indicates:

  • a) the subject;
  • b) the mode of description, i.e. paraphrase;
  • c) the source of the quotation or reference: the whole of which this citation is a part;
  • d) the compound of cultural and literary associations shared by the given extract and the work as a whole;
  • e) the compound of cultural and literary correlations that are associated with the very idea of quotation or referral[11] .

Therefore by using intertextual relationships the author embeds into the story a loose, constantly shifting set of interacting cultural continuums.

Not only do intertextual correlations radically increase the semantic density of the text - once the text reaches a certain saturation point, they begin to originate spontaneously, often without author's will or knowledge. Once began, the process goes like an avalanche, generating the ever-increasing number of possible associations. (As Boris Gasparov’s study of Master and Margarita [Мастер и Маргарита] has proved, the resources of the semantic periphery are almost inexhaustible.)

Thus the author of the ‘New Prose’ has to face a formidable challenge: not only he has to achieve an extremely intense sensorial load, he also must find a way to subsume the crystallising intertextual clusters while preserving his creative identity.

The opening line of the story On Tick shows that Shalamov acknowledged the challenge.

In this paper we would like to examine the attributes and functions of intertextual relationships in the Kolyma Tales as well as the nature of their interaction with other structural elements of Shalamov’s poetics.

For all practical purposes the story On Tick is the opening piece of the First Death (Первая смерть), the initial cycle of the Kolyma Tales. (The preceding story Through the snow [По снегу] serves as a preface to the cycle and is mainly concerned with establishing a relationship between the Author and the Reader of the Kolyma Tales.)

The story On Tick, serves as a first point of contact both with the universe of the prison camps and with the artistic apparatus of the Kolyma Tales. Accordingly, we can suppose this particular text includes some criteria that would permit the reader to recognise all the subsequent stories of the cycle as belonging to the same paradigm. Therefore it seems to be appropriate material for our analysis.

The plot of the story is based on an ordinary game of cards played in the barracks of the horse drivers. This particular night the gambling contest between criminals ends with the murder of a spectator: a ‘political’ prisoner, who came to saw wood. Though, the reaction of both the narrator and the characters implies that such a finale is not something too unusual for the neighbourhood.

The first reading already shows a sharp compositional disproportion: three and a half pages of the six-page story are devoted to the exposition. The slow, meticulous Dickensian description of the barracks’ interior gives way to the no less painstaking contrastive portrayal of the participants of the impending gambling duel. The narrator is thorough in his description of the circumstances that brought him and his partner Garkunov to the horse-drivers' barracks on this particular night. (They were to saw firewood in exchange for a bowl of thin broth.) The narration is weighed down by an overflow of subordinate locutions as well as by the strings of complex sentences and parenthetic clauses.

He was older than his partner (but then, just how old was Seva? twenty? thirty? forty?): a black-haired chap with such a mournful expression in his sunken black eyes, that if I had not known that Naumov was a railroad thief from Kuban I would have taken him for an itinerant monk or for a member of the well-known religious sect "God Knows" that had been cropping up in our camps for decades[12] .

In Russian this syntactic construction consists of the main sentence, one parenthetic and three subordinate clauses. It includes:

  • a) the description of the brigade leader's appearance;
  • b) indication of the altogether illusory nature of the said appearance;
  • c) information about Naumov's true occupation;
  • d) a short additional denotation of his partner Seva;
  • e) and finally a footnote about the religious sectarians that were systematically ‘cropping up’ in the prison camps.

The unerring thoroughness of the narration together with the detached, ‘objectified’ intonation imparts to the exposition a scholarly ‘ethnographic’ hue. The exposition of the story On Tick could be seen to some extent as analogous to Brodie's report by Borges.

Such a ‘delayed’ introduction creates an atmosphere of tense expectation. This ambience is maintained by yet another device: the narrator mentions that a weak home-made kolymka lamp lit only the card-playing area and all those present were watching the game from darkness.

We ate in absolute darkness - the barracks’s gasoline lamps lit the card-playing area. … At the moment we were watching Seva and Naumov gambling[13] .

Thus the lit section of the barracks becomes a stage, the gamblers turn into dramatic characters and all the others (including the narrator and his partner Garkunov) become spectators, who are removed to the ‘outlying darkness’, outside the boundaries of the plot.

Just as the reader finally familiarizes himself with the narrative that proceeds with a stately pace of a glacier, the tempo of the story abruptly changes. The rolling ‘landscape’ of the game gives way to a headlong rush of action. As the speed increases so does the density of the narration: the number of events per unit of text. The unending chain of Naumov's losses is shown through the list of the things that change hands and through the laconic remarks of the characters.

- I’ll play the blanket,- said Naumov hoarsely.

- Two hundred,- Seva responded indifferently.

- A thousand, you scumbag!- Naumov shouted[14] .

The syntactical structure becomes palpably simpler: the subordinate clauses disappear and are replaced by strings of active verbs. At the same time, the narrator changes his intonation and manner of speech: the meticulous ethnographic style of Dickens or Borges slips into a tough jerky vernacular of a suburban ballad.

At the culmination point the tempo and density of narration increase to the maximum.

On losing all his stakes Naumov asks to play ‘on tick’ (And here Shalamov offers none of his usual painstaking commentaries, leaving this gambling term of criminal jargon as a threatening mystery.). Seva agrees to the proposal. Naumov starts a new game. His fortune is compacted into one sentence: ‘He won back the blanket, pillow and pants, then he lost everything again.’[15]

The action is wholly focused on the game - all the other matters are removed from the field of vision. However, at the instant when the accumulated tension is seemingly going to discharge into some sort of denouement, the narration changes. The reader is forcefully immersed into a long detailed account on what chifir[16] is, how it is prepared and what it is drunk with.

An abrupt tempo break, utterly unexplained by the semantic surface of the text, signifies the fracture in the story. The current of the narration has been carefully preparing the reader for a conflict among the card-players, however, a quite different thing happens. The author focuses the 'scene' and the 'auditorium' upon a single point.

The compositional displacement is marked by the re-assimilation of the antithesis "light vs. darkness" that was embedded into the exposition. The narrator describes his unexpected transformation from a spectator into a character with the words: ‘I came out into the light.’[17] The gamblers, who previously were the sole dramatic personae, are transmuted into bystanders. Naumov's loss and his obligation to repay the debt swings the plot around, demoting the preceding narration to a kind of introduction. The murder of Garkunov, whose sweater is used to pay Naumov's debt, is committed by one of the spectators - the very man who poured Garkunov his soup - and causes emphatic displeasure of the gamblers. (‘- Couldn't we get along without it?- shouted Seva.’[18] ) At the literal level of perception this murder comes as a complete surprise both for the reader and the characters and (being a surprise, an explosion) carries an intensified informative and emotional charge.

In fact, in the finale of the story Shalamov engineers a collision between the ‘grammatical’ meaning of the composition and the semantic surface of the plot. He uses the energy of this collision to create a sensorial load comparable to the information pressure of real life.

However, even at the level of the ‘direct report or indication’ the system of semantic relationships in the short story On Tick is not exhausted by the binary correlation between the plot and composition. If we turn to the motive structure of the story, we will find that the narrator, who took such pains to build a stunning unanticipated finale, was at the same time littering the text with the signs of warning, trying to persuade the reader not to take anything at face value. The background motif of the story is formed by the motif of a sham, falsification and profanation.

The card-playing area is lit not even by a candle but by a makeshift weak kolymka, which does not give a proper light and therefore could not be considered a ‘real’ lamp. The deck of cards was ‘cut from a book by Victor Hugo’[19] : the author painstakingly describes the process. Speaking about the current fashion among the criminals, the narrator mentions the fixes - a kind of adornment: ‘gold, that is, bronze crowns put on completely healthy teeth’[20] - and the self-proclaimed (i.e. fraudulent) dentists that produced them. The cross on Naumov's chest indicates not his belief in God, but rather his membership of the ‘order’ of professional criminals. Moreover, the game itself is presented from the beginning as blatant sharp practice: ‘... an honest thief's game is a game of deceit...’[21] .

The basic ‘light vs. darkness’ opposition is overturned in the same manner: within the context of the story darkness is associated with safety, warmth and food, while light is equated to cold, danger and death. ‘In the flickering of the gasoline lamp Garkunov's face became gray.’[22] Even the murder itself is a false one: it is committed as if by chance, out of habit. In the next-to-last phrase of the story Garkunov's sweater is folded into a plywood (makeshift, substitute) suitcase. This connotation of duplicity is implanted into the very title of the story. In Russian the words On Tick (На представку) could be understood not only as a slang term but also as a part of the paradigmatic string ‘представка-представитель-представление’ (performance-to perform-a spectacle).

This motif of duplicity and deceit develops in a direction contrary both to the semantic surface of the text (i.e. to the literally read plot) and to the ‘grammatical’ meaning of the composition. These three currents of messages form the ternary, three-dimensional and consequently variable semantic system of the story.

However the affiliation between the cavalry guard and horse driver that was declared the first phrase of the story adds to this system a fourth axis of co-ordinates that submerges this episode of the prison camp life into the less immediate, broad context of the traditional culture.

The paraphrase: ‘They were playing cards at Naumov's...’ - ‘They were playing cards at Narumov's...’ is built on the comparison-alienation scheme. The noble Horse Guard Narumov loses his 'r' and turns into a prison camp brigade leader. However, he immediately receives his title and position back, because the author explains that in the camps the horse drivers are aristocracy and their leader represents créme de la créme of the local society[23] . His servants have servants of their own: ‘When we finished, Naumov's orderly poured cold ‘yushka’ into our pots - the leftovers from the ‘Ukrainian dumplings’, the one and only dish ever served in our mess hall - and gave us a piece of bread each.’[24] . Between the narrator and Naumov lay at least two steps of the prison camps social staircase.

The beginnings of On Tick and the Queen of Spades have one more thing in common: in the both works the gamblers play at night. However, Pushkin's card-players finish their night with a supper and champagne in a brightly lit hall. Shalamov's characters sup on thin soup in the barracks lit by a kolymka. Having the affinity established the author underlines the differences.

The paraphrase of the Queen of Spades presents the story to the reader as a description of the fatal (for one of the participants) game of cards.

This notion is supported by the whole progress of the exposition. Describing the process of card-making the author supplements the image of the game by the motif of defilement, sacrilege: a book, an embodiment of culture, is remade into a deck of cards[25] . The narrator adds that ‘today's cards’ were cut from a book by Victor Hugo. Three novels by Hugo were especially popular in Soviet time: 1793, Les Miserables and Notre Dame de Paris. By mentioning Hugo the author encodes into the story the gloomy (and in the case of Les Miserables the criminal) romanticism of Hugo’s novels.

The technology of card-painting is demonstrated on the example of jack of spades (a direct connection to the Queen of Spades). Other suits are not even mentioned. The narrator only remarks that ‘The suits were of the same colour...’[26] . It follows that all the cards in the deck were black and therefore ill-fated[27] .

A new deck of cards was lying on the pillow and a one of the gambles was patting it with a dirty hand that had slender white fingers of a nonworking man. The nail of the little finger was of unnatural length ... The sleek yellow nail was gleaming like a jewel[28] .

Medieval demonologists maintained that the devil could not completely assume the image of a human being, since it also is an image of God. The appearance of the Devil always contains aspects of the Beast: horns, hoofs, or ‘unnaturally long claws’. This description of the famous expert (i.e. the card shark) Seva reinforces the ‘black’, Gothic associations of the story, the more so, because ‘foul’ play is considered to be the Devil's favourite pastime.

While describing the opponent of the sharp-clawed Seva the narrator (as we have already mentioned) remarks on the lead cross that hang on his bare chest and immediately explains that the cross was for the criminals ‘a kind of symbol, like a tattoo’[29] . Then the narrator adds that not only had the criminals used the cross as a kind of Identification Document (profanation) but that they had also painted their crosses ‘with their favourite subjects: a heart, cards, a crucifixion, a naked woman.’[30] .

It is widely known that defilement of the cross was a part of the Black Mass: it was a standard ritual by which the Devil's minions were able to recognise one another.

It [the cross] hung on Naumov's bare dark-skinned chest, blocking the blue tattoo, which was a quote from Esenin, the only poet the criminal world recognised and canonised:

How few my roads,
How many the mistakes[31] .

This direct quotation from S. Esenin is employed simultaneously on several levels of the text: the verse turned into a tattoo signify the place and rank of literature in the criminal world, defining the unverving hostility the criminals feel towards the culture of any kind. This construction also carries an additional motif of sacrilege and profanation (one can recall that not long ago it was the cross that was equated to a tattoo). The extent of the profanation is exemplified by the fact that this tattooed quote from Esenin is actually a misquotation. The meditative ‘So’ of the original poem (‘So few my roads,/ so many the mistakes.’) is replaced by the rhetorical exclamatory ‘How’ of the criminal lament. At the same time the semantics of the story is enriched at the expense of sentimentally romantic criminal associations, that are related both to the poetry and personality of Esenin. This particular poem belongs to the ‘hooligan’ cycle - no wonder that it was popular among the criminals. The poem is also permeated by images of death and dying: ‘... gnawed bones of birch-trees’[32] . Thus the reader's premonition of bloody conflict between the gamblers is given indirect support. And, of course, the ‘canonisation’ in the shape of a tattoo carries a tangible mark of the already mentioned Black Mass.

Thus, a collective image of the criminals in the story On Tick acquires a definitely infernal nature:

Seva's fingernail described elaborate patterns in the air. The cards would disappear in his palm and then appear again... Seva was scratching the pillow with his nail[33] .

This allusion is supported not only by folk-lore but also by literary intertextual relationships.

In the final part of the exposition the narrator mentions the leftover dish of ‘Ukrainian dumplings’: the wood-sawing wages he and Garkunov were graciously given by Naumov's orderly. Among the long string of stakes lost by Naumov there are ‘a Ukrainian towel embroidered with roosters, then a cigarette case with the pressed profile of Gogol’[34] . These verbal echoes refer the reader directly to the works of Gogol’s Ukrainian period and especially to the Evenings near the village of Dikanka (Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки)

In one of the stories of this collection - The Lost Letter (Пропавшая грамота) - the Cossack has to play cards with witches and petty devils with his soul as the stake. The inexplicable wave of losses under which the Gogol's character has nearly perished is similar to one that is sweeping Naumov.

Thus by inserting folk-lore associations and reference to Gogol the author narrows the definition that was established by the paraphrase of the Queen of Spades. The game in question is not even a matter of life and death, it is a game played against the Devil himself for the possession of a human soul.

The series of losses force Naumov to ask for a game ‘on tick’, i.e. (as the ‘forewarned’ reader thinks) he offers his soul as a stake. What happens next completely conforms to the folk-lore image of the devil-ridden game: Naumov wins back some of his possessions and then loses everything including the mysterious ‘tick’.

Here - at the culmination point - the smooth flow of the semantic current stops. The murder of Garkunov was not ‘pre-ordained’, moreover, it contradicts the encoded intertextual messages[35] . However, the sweater that seals Garkunov’s doom turns out to be red. It is visible a parallel to the fatal Red Jacket (свиток) from Gogol's Fair at Sorochinitsi (Сорочинская ярмарка). The Red Jacket belongs to the Devil and brings ruin to anyone who touches it.

The sweater was red and the blood on it was hardly noticeable. Seva folded the sweater into a plywood case - carefully, so as not to dirty his fingers[36] .

The stake of the game was a soul indeed. The soul of another man.

At the end of the story the narrator remarks: ‘I went back to my barracks. Now I had to find a new partner to cut wood with.’[37] . The Queen of Spades ends on a similar laconic note. (Lizaveta Ivanovna of the Queen of Spades was a poor relative of the countess. When her capricious patroness died Lizaveta married and “Lizaveta Ivanovna in her turn is bringing up a poor relation’[38] .)

From the beginning the literary allusions are presented as ‘upside-down’ ones: both the Fair at Sorochinitsi and the Queen of Spades are concluded (at least on the plot level) by the disgrace of the culprits and a happy marriage. For the narrator in On Tick the semblance of the happy ending lies in fact that it was not he who died that night.

It should be noted that the development of the intertextual semantic current is practically similar to the one of the ‘grammatical’ messages of the composition. In fact, one of the functions of the intertext is to strengthen and intensify the composition processes.

Within this shifting framework almost any interpretation could be valid. For example, on a certain level the story could even be read as a Bible-derived morality play. When Garkunov comes to the horse driver’s barracks, to the very abode of the devil, he comes of his own will, intending to sell his services for an earthly benefit - a bowl of broth. The same bowl of broth Esau had sold his birthright for. By making a deal with the demoniac criminals Garkunov relinquishes his hold upon his birthright, his life, his soul and in the end is killed by the hand who fed him. There is another overtone to this interpretation. Ukrainian dumpling broth Garkunov was fed had been dubbed ‘yushka’ - ‘watery soup’ - for its altogether insubstantial nature. However in the street vernacular ‘yushka’ also means ‘blood’. Garkunov bargained his services for ‘yushka’. That ‘yushka’ turned to be his own.

Of course, the role of the intertext is not limited by this capacity.

By presenting the events of the story as a projection of the classical story-lines upon the reality of the prison camps Shalamov gives the reader an opportunity to assimilate the unknown world through the familiar one. The classical story-lines are used as a probe: the extent and the nature of the damage caused by the new context enables the reader to make judgments about the prison camp environment.

(It is curious that all three books that are re-assimilated through the course of the story - the Queen of Spades by Pushkin, any of the Hugo novels and the Evenings near the village of Dikanka - belong in the reader's perception to the same ('black', Gothic) literary tradition. In the short story On Tick Shalamov is incidentally settling his account with the romantic trend of the 19th century: all the terrors and horrors of the Gogol’s Terrible Revenge (Страшная месть) or Hugo’s Notre dame de Paris seem to be whimsical bagatelles in comparison with the routine of the prison camps.)

Shalamov employs intertextuality both at the structural and semantic levels. The intertextual connections form two groups of meanings.

According to Shalamov (his opinion differs greatly to the one of the other writers of ‘prison camp literature’) the prison camps are a ‘negative experience for a human being’. The prison camp destroys a human being with backbreaking toil, with hunger, with cold, with a system of degradation and humiliation. It destroys human beings even when it is amusing itself, even at play.

In the exposition of the short story On Tick Shalamov painstakingly marks the borders of the ‘stage’ and the ‘auditorium’, raising between them an impenetrable twin barrier of composition and intertext.

The sequence of perception is as follows:

  • a) the illuminated ‘stage’ where the game proceeds;
  • b) the ‘auditorium’ which is cut off from the stage by darkness, though it remains in the same barracks and the same story;
  • c) and, at last, the reader, who is cut off from the event by both space and time.

At the moment when the barrier between the ‘stage’ and ‘auditorium’ collapses the semantic fields of the story are expanded by the possibility of the disappearance of the second barrier: the one between the story and the reader.

If one immovable rule was breached, the second one could be breached too. The status of a bystander, of a spectator, protected by darkness and anonymity, does not save Garkunov; the status of a bystander, of a spectator, protected by the fact that his experience is second-handed, may not be sufficient to protect the reader.

In the story On Tick Shalamov actualises the idea later formulated by Brodsky in his Nobel Speech: ‘In a real tragedy it is not the hero who dies. It is the chorus’[39] . In the creative world of the Kolyma Tales the prison camp kills everybody who touches it: ‘Nobody had ever left this place alive.’.

An instant degradation of the classical story-lines on their collision with the prison camp reality signifies (according to Shalamov) the death of the culture. The inability of the culture (not only the traditional one, but culture per se) to assimilate and comprehend the phenomena of the prison camps. In the universe of the prison camps the so called ‘eternal themes’: love, evil, art, even death itself, stop to be not only eternal but even worthy of attention.

The motif of deceit, of substitution indicates the values that seemed imperishable are now hopelessly discredited and compromised. In On Tick the death of the culture and that of a human being happen simultaneously: right after the report on the especially strong northern variant of tea.

This study does not by any means exhaust the semantic relationships in the story. The short story On Tick is a complex interactive system of three-dimensional semantic continuums, where the presumed reader serves as a focal point. The energy of the text is built by the reciprocity and mutual penetration of these continuums. We could name as a principle of this construction the formula of Pasternak's: ‘as image builds itself into another image and as object cuts through another object’[40]. (Boris Pasternak was one of the Russian poets most respected by Shalamov.) This four-dimensional system that constantly generates new messages cannot be fully represented by a two-dimensional projection of a literary analysis. We can speak with a high degree of certainty about the possibility of these interactions revealing themselves in, figuratively speaking, the atomic and quantum levels of the text.

All this gives us reasons to perceive this complex and well-developed hierarchy of intertextual relationships - that includes direct and indirect quotations, verbal echoes, culture-based associations and hidden allusions - as a major element of a multilayered self-duplicating highly functional system, aimed to achieve the greatest possible impact on any given reader.

The intertextual connections in Shalamov's prose are powerful story-line building factor on both the structural and semantic levels. These connections permit the story to exist as if in several cultural volumes, they also intensify the informative and emotional pressure inside the text. In the short story On Tick Shalamov employs intertext as a general-purpose tool for solving both composition and semantic problems. Such an intensive use of the culture's capability for dialogue as an artistic device is uncharacteristic even for post modernist Russian prose and has analogs only in modern poetry.


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  • 1. Шаламов В. «На представку», Воскрешение лиственницы, Художественная литература, Москва, 1989, с. 5 (перевод мой – Е.М.).
  • 2. Пушкин А. «Пиковая дама», Собрание сочинений в трёх томах, Художественная литература, Москва, 1985, т. 3, с. 188 (перевод мой).
  • 3. Цит. По: Шрейдер М.«Варлам Шаламов о литературе», Вопросы литературы V, 1989, с. 241 (перевод мой)
  • 4. Loc. cit.
  • 5. Золотоносов М., «Последствия Шаламова», под ред. В. Есипова, Шаламоский сборник, №1, Издательство института повышения квалификации и переподготовки педагогических кадров, Вологда, 1994, с. 178 (перевод мой).
  • 6. By the time the story was written the Queen of Spades has been a part of a secondary school curriculum for at least 60 years. ‘A game of cards at Naumov’s’ is a signpost few readers would miss.
  • 7. In his paper Примечания и комментарии (A Footnote to a Commentary) Brodsky maintained that a mature writer (as well as a mature culture) often welcomes and nurtures outside influences - and definitely would not try to exorcise them.
  • 8. Шаламов В., «О прозе», Левый берег, Современник, Москва, 1989, с. 551 (перевод мой).
  • 9. The spatial imagery will be used throughout this paper since the complex relationship between semantic strings and the resulting semantic fields can be better represented in terms of geometry.
  • 10. Ibid., c. 550.
  • 11. This list by no means does encompass all the potentialities of intertextual correlation. For example, intertextual relationship may be retroactive. By inserting a quotation, one changes not only the new text but also (with various degrees of intensity) the manyfold ways in which original text is perceived. Thus Новые стансы к Августе (the New Stanzas to Augusta) by Joseph Brodsky expands the quoted text with the new groups of meanings, restructuring the semantic field of The Stanzas... by Byron, despite the fact that these poems were written 150 years ago.
  • 12. Ibid., c.7 (перевод мой).
  • 13. Ibid., c. 8.
  • 14. Loc. cit.
  • 15. Ibid., c. 9.
  • 16. ‘Chifir’ is a Northern variety of a very strong black tea, especially favoured by the truck drivers and criminals.
  • 17. Loc. cit.
  • 18. Ibid., c. 10.
  • 19. Ibid., c. 5.
  • 20. Ibid., c. 6.
  • 21. Loc. cit.
  • 22. Ibid., c.10.
  • 23. Shalamov calls the art of card-making one of the subjects of 'knightly' training among criminals
  • 24. Ibid., c. 8.
  • 25. It was believed in the Middle Ages that cards were the Devil's parody of the Bible (The Book). Thus the criminals in the story are following an ancient and respectable tradition
  • 26. Ibid., c. 6.
  • 27. In the criminal jargon, which is relevant to the story, “пиковый интерес” (the ‘spade interest’) means bad luck, defeat and sometimes even death.
  • 28. Loc. cit.
  • 29. Ibid., c. 7.
  • 30. Loc. cit.
  • 31. Loc. cit.
  • 32. Есенин С., Стихоторения, Москва, Государственное издательство художественной литературы, Москва, 1955, с. 191 (перевод мой).
  • 33. Шаламов В. «На представку», с. 8 (перевод мой).
  • 34. Ibid., c. 9.
  • 35. In the Queen of Spades Germann also is changed from a spectator into a participant of the game, but this transformation comes by his own will.
  • 36. Ibid., c. 10.
  • 37. Loc. cit.
  • 38. Пушкин А. Пиковая дама, с. 191 (перевод мой).
  • 39. Бродский И. Нобелевская речь, Набержная неисцелимых, Слово, Спб, 1990, с. 191 (перевод мой).
  • 40. Пастернак Б. Избранное, Художественная литература, Москва, 1985, с. 303 (перевод мой).