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May 28, 2014
  • Richard at Caravana de recuerdos is reading A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891-1924 by Orlando Figes. In this post, Bertrand Russell writes “If you ask yourself how Dostoevsky’s characters should be governed, you will understand.” Gor’kii asks if the revolution only brought out “the exceptional cruelty of the Russian people” in this post on peasant sex and violence, which makes Russian peasants sound too unselfconscious to be human but too sadistic to be animals. The next post taught me that Gor’kii was at one time an icon painter and has an interesting debate on whether the peasants were “ripe for manipulation by the Bolsheviks” or (as Figes believes) could fill any post-revolutionary vacuum with their own “moral order or ideology.” (This fits with my pet idea that peasant ideas about gender roles were quickly dressed up in Bolshevik language and pushed out the remnants of 1860s free-love feminism.) Also read about why Figes starts in 1891 (a major famine and cholera outbreak), plus an appreciation of Figes’ Tacitean style.
  • Via Alexei K., a U.S. court concludes that an allusion to the Man in Black from Pushkin’s “Mozart and Salieri” (Моцарт и Сальери, published 1831) was “too obscure (and too vague) to be defamatory.” The expert witness seems to have misunderstood who killed Mozart in the play, and Eugene Volokh highlights AK’s comment explaining matters.
  • I think Languagehat is quoting Peter Hodgson with approval here: Dostoevskii “experimented with patently inadequate European forms, not so that he might hit upon a combination of techniques which would ‘mirror’ the familiar Nevsky Prospect but because he felt that Russian literature had yet to give form to the psychological and moral reality of his countrymen. In following Gogol’s lead and exploiting the native baroque traditions which resided in the subculture, Dostoevsky drew on a set of literary forms which were appropriate to the peculiarly unwestern aspects of Russian reality. At the same time, however, he manipulated their innately irreverent tendency as a weapon against the inappropriate European forms which had accrued to legitimate Russian prose during a century of Europeanization.” I’m curious how this is different from Belinskii’s call for “national character” (народность) in literature, which LH discussed with less approval here.
  • Don’t miss Elena Gapova on Gogol’s “Viy” (Вий, 1835) and a recent movie version of it. I’m a little skeptical that the world “is becoming more visual than textual” when the younger generation communicates more in writing than by telephone, for the first time since their great-grandparents. If there was a time when people didn’t “watch more than they read,” I bet it was before television, if not before newsreels and early cinema; if you count the stagecraft of church services as visual, most Europeans for a thousand years have watched more than they read. This nitpicking aside, what Gapova has to say about Gogol and the way Russian literature is or isn’t sold to the world is well worth reading.
6 Comments leave one →
  1. May 28, 2014 8:32 am

    I’m curious how this is different from Belinskii’s call for “national character” (народность) in literature

    Because Belinsky was a critic who was trying to shape all Russian literature according to his own (increasingly constricted) ideas of what literature should be, namely a handmaiden to social progress, whereas Dostoevsky was a writer doing what all good writers do, namely using whatever images and ideas come to hand to write something new and interesting. I don’t care whether a writer is a nationalist or an anarchist, a fascist or a communist, has crazy ideas about gyres like Yeats or a hidden world like Nabokov, as long as they write something new and interesting. The more writers are herded into a single pen (in Russia, preeminently the one the Soviets would wind up calling “socialist realism”), the less likely they are to write something new and interesting. Let a hundred flowers bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend.

    • May 28, 2014 10:41 am

      I think I see Belinskii’s view as closer to yours than you do – he’s not a nationalist who wants the one true Russian way to stamp out everything else; he wants to cultivate Russian flowers to add to the world’s hundreds, instead of filling the world with transplanted Paris and London flowers in greenhouses.

      And he’s kind of the exception as a pure critic. Others were trying both to create new and interesting works of art and to influence the path of the literature they were part of. Pushkin, Nekrasov, and Dostoevskii were editors and critics. Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, Pisemskii, and Leskov were critics, and from the other side Chernyshevskii wrote a novel and Dobroliubov wrote poems. Gogol, Turgenev, and Tolstoi used their literary celebrity to make proclamations about what art should and should not be. Apart from their critical articles, writers were all trying to herd each other in certain directions in metaliterary sections of their fiction and poetry.

      Even being in one pen doesn’t have to be bad – I’d switch the metaphor around and argue that a writer doing something no one else nearby is doing is a tree cut off from its mycorrhizae. Good writing can come from people responding to and stealing from others doing a similar kind of writing, at least for a while.

      Anyway, I’ve probably argued this point before, and I realize you have good reasons for seeing things differently – I only brought it up again because I was struck by the phrase “a weapon against the inappropriate European forms” in the Hodgson quote, which sounded so militant.

  2. May 28, 2014 8:34 am

    Oh, and thanks for pointing me to Caravana de recuerdos — I am always recommending the Figes book to people who want to understand the Bolshevik revolution and what it grew out of, and I look forward to seeing what Richard has to say about it.

    • May 29, 2014 2:03 am

      Figes is worth reading for the sheer amount of source material in his book. Apart from that, my impression is that he cashes in on other people’s work (in The Whisperers, researchers from Memorial) but tends to be sloppy (as in Natasha’s Dance) and incredibly vain (writing anonymous praise to himself at Amazon).

      • May 29, 2014 6:43 am

        Everything you say about those books, and the Amazon foofaraw, is true, but none of it diminishes the value of A People’s Tragedy, which is superb.

  3. May 28, 2014 9:31 am

    Caravana de recuerdos is a great blog. He’s the punchiest reviewer I know.

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