Does Genre Matter?
The Role of Literary Genre and Narrator in Contemporary Russian Caregivers' Narratives
This paper addresses the topic of old age from the viewpoint of literary gerontology. My emphasis is on contemporary Russian literary representations of old age senility (dementia), which I juxtapose with representations of madness and the devices and meanings traditionally embedded in mental disorders. It is a well-known fact that, not unlike madness, dementia is compelling in fiction, but cruel in life. The main questions I pose are: why and how do literary writers reclaim the discourse of the person who is believed to be demented? Is it at all possible to convey in a literary text what it means to be demented? It is asserted that literature provides a flexible mode of expressing and rendering a meaning to the unfathomable complexity of the human mind by illustrating individual situated cases. In literature, madness has found its own rhetoric and logic, and with them, its own champions. But is this true of representations of dementia? Madness has made itself heard and survived as a speaking subject mainly through literature. How about dementia? Does it find a speaking and experiencing subject in literature and how can this be articulated? Or does he/she remain an object of depiction, another case-study told by an outside narrator, e.g. a caregiver or a nurse? How to tell a story about dementia, the plot of which is predictable, in such a way that it may generate empathy and enhance our understanding of the condition? I argue that the success and significance of a dementia story depends on both the literary genre in which it is written, and the literary devices employed. Moreover, the position of the narrator, his/her emotional distance to the story seems to be decisive in invoking empathy, understanding and insight. I explore texts from Russian contemporary literature (Panteleev, Katerli) that share a common theme of old age and dementia while belonging to different subgenres of prose – the so-called documentary prose and fictional prose.