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Backwards canon

October 3, 2014

I finished What Is to Be Done? about a month ago, and as you see I’ve been slow to post about it. I think it has to do with the order I read things in. I started with Crime and Punishment as a teenager with little life experience and no knowledge of Russian, and I wasn’t much older when I read Anna KareninaFathers and SonsDead Souls, and Resurrection. When I began to read in Russian in college, The GamblerThe Insulted and the Injured, and War and Peace still seemed like a new thing I was experiencing for myself. And now I thoroughly enjoy books like At Daggers Drawn or Troubled Seas that even after graduate school I’ve heard relatively little about.

But in between there were books like Oblomov and What Is to Be Done? that I’d heard discussed so much before I read them that they weren’t half as much fun as they should have been. It wasn’t that the plots had been spoiled. I felt like more than 100 years of critics’ and readers’ attitudes had been distilled and trickled down to me through offhand remarks and conversations with professors. I knew what I was supposed to think, and it didn’t help that I often did think it.

This has me wondering: does anyone ever read through some set of literary works backwards? Could you decide in advance you were committed to reading classical epic poems, start with the most obscure ones that have been preserved, and work your way up to Vergil and Homer?

Here’s one way it could work for nineteenth-century Russian:

  • Year 1: Gnedich, Zagoskin, Butkov, Krestovskii, Avdeev, Mamin-Sibiriak, Ol’ga N., Vovchok, Sleptsov
  • Year 2: Viazemskii, Merzliakov, Del’vig, Ryleev, Ogarev, Mel’nikov-Pecherskii, Sluchevskii, Nadson
  • Year 3: Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, Gan, Druzhinin, Grigorovich, Tur, Mei, Grigor’ev, Panaeva, Shcherbina, Polonskii, Gleb Uspenskii, Korolenko
  • Year 4: Zhukovskii, Baratynskii, Kol’tsov, Griboedov, Odoevskii, Vel’tman, Pavlova, Goncharov, Gertsen, Maikov, Ostrovskii, A. K. Tolstoi, “Koz’ma Prutkov,” Chernyshevskii, Saltykov-Shchedrin
  • Year 5: Batiushkov, Krylov, Lermontov, Tiutchev, Turgenev, Sukhovo-Kobylin, Pisemskii, Fet, Nekrasov, Leskov
  • Year 6: Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevskii, Lev Tolstoi, Chekhov

You could start on year 2 or year 3 if you wanted, but the key would be to read down the list instead of up. It might be hard to find Zagoskin in translation (though it’s easier than I thought) or to learn Russian well without encountering Pushkin along the way. But if it were possible, I bet it would be amazing. The combination of knowing the context better than I used to, but not knowing the book, made Men of the Forties a great joy, and I’ll always wonder what it would be like to read Eugene Onegin or The Idiot that way.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. October 3, 2014 2:34 pm

    I endorse this idea, although it requires a lot of canonical sophistication to set up. I don’t think I’ve read a word of anyone in Years 1 or 3, and just some scraps of Ogarev form Year 2.

    • October 7, 2014 9:47 am

      There’s also a lot of invisible canonical sophistication that goes into the order we all stumble into by starting with the books that are most often reprinted, (re)translated, and reviewed, I suppose. It’s true that to do it backwards without knowing a particular canon, you’d have to find someone you trusted who did. But I think this could be as simple as finding some sort of literary encyclopedia and looking at whose entries were longer and shorter. My current dream is to do this with (some subset of) Chinese literature, which I know nothing about.

  2. October 7, 2014 1:37 am

    From the perspective of a Russian reader, your obscurity rating is somewhat puzzling. Mamin-Sibiryak may not be known for Приваловские миллионы but his children’s stories are pretty much staple kid food, especially Серая Шейка. Likewise, how can Griboedov rank as low as Veltman and Carolina Pavlova, of whom few Russians have heard? Pisemsky is also pretty much forgotten and few people will be able to quote a line from Batiushkov (undoubtedly a fine poet). Sukhovo-Kobylin’s trilogy gets staged from time to time, but Ostrovsky remains the better known of the two playwrights, and so on.

    • October 7, 2014 9:40 am

      I admit the list is quite arbitrary and that my personal taste and what I’ve happened to read affect it too much. (And not just what I’ve read, but what I’ve read recently: two of the authors you think are too prominent, Vel’tman and Pisemskii, I’ve been reading in the last several months, and Ol’ga N. probably wouldn’t make the list at all if I hadn’t just been reading some of her stories.)

      If a larger group of people spent more time on this kind of list, some sort of consensus could be reached, but it would always be possible to argue for writers to be moved up or down, included or left out.

      What I probably should have done is made a list of works instead of a list of authors. I’d have no trouble putting Горе от ума near the top of a list like that, but I put Griboedov lower (though still not that low) since so much of his reputation rests on that one play.

      • October 8, 2014 3:37 am

        A list of authors has its own advantages over a list of works but obscurity as a criterion could be more useful if it were not the only one. I would suggest an obscurity-influence-merit triad. Let’s say Veltman is almost forgotten now (obscurity) but Dostoevsky surely read him and probably learned from him (influence). You could also look to critics’ assessment of Veltman over the century and a half for “merit”.

    • October 8, 2014 9:58 am

      I agree, and I wasn’t trying to make obscurity the only criterion (though I won’t defend this particular list, which I wrote in a few minutes). No hierarchy can be perfect, and I think the best we can do is to try to take as many factors as possible into account. Fame, influence, and merit, as you say, and within those categories, we can look at popular and critical reception; reception then,now, and in between; reception in Russia and worldwide; quality as high peaks or sustained output or innovation; influence as broad cultural importance or narrow influence on particular writers; and so on. Some writers will do much better in certain categories (Nadson was better liked by readers then than critics now; Ostrovskii and most of the poets are not well-known outside Russia), but there is generally some correlation between all these ways of ranking them.

  3. October 17, 2014 5:58 am

    Reading “backwards” is a great idea, but must confess i haven’t tried it. The problem I have with reading forward is that the first ones you read are so obviously works that need to be re-read, and re-re-read – to be lived with, in short – that I find myself running out of time to get to know the “lesser” works.But one can’t really get to know the peaks unless one knows also the plains they rise from.

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