Let Loose the Word: Dr. John Givens on Tatyana Tolstaya and The Slynx

By Nicholas Cosentino


The Slynx, Drawing by HellaCalla: http://hellacalla.deviantart.com/art/The-Slynx-441037401

In 1896, Leo Tolstoy wrote What is Art?[1] as a lament for the lack of morally purposeful art in his time. In an ironic twist of fate, Tatyana Tolstaya, his namesake and a distant heir, laments in her dystopian novel The Slynx (2007)[2] the overemphasis of purpose in art, moral or otherwise, as exists today.

Indeed, as Dr. John Givens[3] argued in a recent guest lecture at Miami University, for Tolstaya the ultimate aim is to see the proliferation of “autonomous art,” that is, “art stripped of moral or historical purposefulness.” Dr. Givens’s lecture was presented by the Havighurst Center for Russian and Post-Soviet Studies, and as part of the ‘Havighurst Colloquium’ series devoted to literature under Vladimir Putin.

His lecture, entitled “The Alphabet of Apocalypse—Language, Literature and Last Things in Tatyana Tolstaya’s Slynx,” was a captivating, edifying and multilingual (for one who does not read or speak Russian language) experience. Dr. Givens’ oration brimmed with humor, enthusiasm, and eccentricity, featured most prominently in his numerous quotations from the novel.

The novel itself centers on Benedikt, the young protagonist and Golubchik Scribe, who from the outset embarks “on a journey of self-discovery.” It is through his self-exploration that the audience comes to know the dystopian world of The Slynx. We come to know of the Blast, the radiological disaster that has produced it, and the Golubchiks, the Degenerators, and Fyodor Kuzmich, Glory Be! We learn of the mysterious and terrifying Sleeeeeeeennnxx, and of the Oldeners, survivors of the Blast and members of the intelligentsia. Increasingly, it becomes apparent that Russian historical experiences, from before the Tsarist period into the Soviet period, are here being reenacted, though their significance is subsumed by “the primacy of art [and] importance of language.” History is treated with “indifference,” while art is bathed in admiration.

It is because of this that Dr. Givens contends The Slynx operates as a vessel through which Tolstaya advances “The primacy of the word, the idea that art is about the how and not the what, and [the contention] that it is time that Russian literature lose its purposefulness once and for all.” This conception of art and Russian literature forms the basis of Tolstaya’s philosophy, present in all of her literary projects.

Tolstaya makes this argument by satirizing ways of viewing art as purposeful through certain characters and their relation to art within their world. Benedikt serves as the example of those who utilize art “as diversion and escapist fantasy.” Kudeyar Kudeyarich, who supplants Fyodor Kuzmich in a coup reminiscent of the Bolshevik Revolution, exemplifies those who would treat art “as something that must be subjected to tight controls by a ruling elite.” And finally, Nikita Ivanich, an Oldener, represents those who would see “art as morality” and who would hold high Alexander Pushkin “as [art’s] symbol and summation.”

Dr. Givens concluded his lecture by stating that The Slynx “is the textual embodiment of the power of the imagination” and proof that “the word [has the ability] to transform the everyday into the magical.” Indeed, the novel is a tour de force of language, one deserving of attention for its contribution to the literary world.

Sadly for those who attended in the hopes of hearing more about the dear Russian President, nary a word was said of him, as “The Slynx has nothing to do with Putin.” Despite this omission, however, and perhaps thanks to it, Dr. Givens’s lecture was able to more thoroughly delve into the powerfulness of the word. A task all should set for themselves.

[1] Tolstoy, Leo. “What is Art?” SUNY Suffolk. http://www2.sunysuffolk.edu/fellenm/Handouts_files/293/Tolstoy.pdf (accessed May 10, 2015).


[2] Tolstaya, Tatyana. The Slynx. Translated by Jamey Gambrell. New York, New York: New York Review of Books, 2007.

Nicholas Cosentino is a senior at Miami majoring in political science.

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