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This review is taken from PN Review 51, Volume 13 Number 1, September - October 1986.

AUTHORIAL LIFE Tzvetan Todorov, Mikhail Bakhtin: The Dialogical Principle, translated by Wlad Codzich (Manchester University Press) £8.50 pb.

What we knew as 'the Bakhtin school' or 'Bakhtin and his circle' has turned out to be one man. Mikhail Bakhtin (1895-1975) wrote as Voloshinov on linguistics, as Medvedev on literary scholarship and as himself on specific authors such as Rabelais and Dostoevsky. Tzvetan Todorov is not much concerned with Medvedev, so refers throughout his study to 'Voloshinov/Bakhtin'. Whatever the nomenclature, the significance of the work studied is this: the extension of the Russian formalists' interest in how texts work to comprehend the Marxists' interest in how history works.

Todorov might at first seem ill-suited to honouring this endeavour, since his own reputation has been that of a thorough-going structuralist: hence one who shares the pure formalist's distaste for temporal process. As recently as 1975, in The Fantastic: a Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, he still worked defiantly within the synchronic dimension. That is, he was treating language and literature as timeless, given systems to be explained by abstract theories of signification and syntax. How far has he tailored such measurements to suit Bakhtin?

For the trouble with Bakhtin is that it is he who seems to suit everybody else. He has proved especially convenient, however, not to structuralists but to some of their inheritors. For example, a neat affinity has been assumed between Bakhtin's principle of 'carnival' and Derrida's deconstruction. Bakhtin related Rabelais' comic subversion of the categories of medieval ideology back to the folk festivities of the medieval period itself. He also ...


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