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What Makes the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive? - Francine Prose and Benjamin Moser



What Makes the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?

Francine Prose and Benjamin Moser

 

Sunday Book Review

 - NOV. 25, 2014

Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, Francine Prose and Benjamin Moser discuss the great Russian writers and their approach to the human heart and soul.
By Francine Prose
I could cite the wild imaginings of Gogol, who can make the most unlikely event seem not only plausible but convincing.
Trying to answer this difficult question in 650 words or less, I could say that part of what makes the 19th-century Russian writers so distinctive — why we still read them with such pleasure and fascination — is the force, the directness, the honesty and accuracy with which they depicted the most essential aspects of human experience. Not the computer-dating experience, obviously, or the airplane-seat-rage experience, or the “Where is the takeout I ordered an hour ago?” experience. But plenty of other crucial events and emotions appear, unforgettably, in their work: childbirth, childhood, death, first love, marriage, happiness, loneliness, betrayal, poverty, wealth, war and peace.
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Francine Prose Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

I could mention the breadth and depth of their range, their success at making the individual seem universal, the fact that — though they inhabited the same country and century — each of “the Russians” is different from the others. I could applaud their ability to persuade us that there is such a thing as human nature, that something about the human heart and soul transcends the surface distinctions of nationality, social class and time. I could cite the wild imaginings of Gogol, who can make the most unlikely event — a man wakes up to discover that his nose has gone missing — seem not only plausible but convincing; the way in which Dostoyevsky’s people seem real to us, vivid and fully present, even as we suspect that no one ever really behaved as they do, flinging themselves at each other’s feet, telling their life stories at extraordinary length and in excruciating detail to a stranger in a bar; the mournful delicacy of Chekhov, his uncanny skill at revealing the deepest emotions of the men, women and children who populate his plays and short stories; the ambition and insight that suffuses Tolstoy’s small moments (jam-making and mushroom-picking) and epic set pieces (a disastrous horse race, the Battle of Borodino); the subtlety with which Turgenev portrays the natural landscape and his meticulously rendered but ultimately mysterious characters.
Alternately, I could suggest that anyone seeking a more complete answer to this question read Nabokov’s “Lectures on Russian Literature.” Certain aspects of the book can be irritating: Nabokov’s aristocratic prejudices, his contempt for Dostoyevsky’s “neurotics and lunatics,” his dismissal of almost all Soviet-era literature. (What about Akhmatova, Platonov and Babel?) On the other hand, no one has written more perceptively about two of Chekhov’s most affecting stories, “The Lady With the Little Dog” and “In the Gully,” nor presented such a persuasive argument for the brilliance of “Anna Karenina.” And however we may bristle at his suggestion that if we can’t read Gogol in Russian, we probably shouldn’t read him at all, our admiration for Gogol is heightened by Nabokov’s explanation of how he replaced the conventions “inherited from the ancients. The sky was blue, the dawn red, the foliage green” — with fresh and precise descriptive language. “It was Gogol . . . who first saw yellow and violet at all.”
Better even than reading Nabokov on the Russians is to read the Russians. Or reread them, since their books so often strike us as more beautiful and meaningful each time we return to them; they seem to age and change along with us, to surprise us much as we are surprised to meet a dear friend, grown older. If I were to tell someone where to start, I’d advise beginning with Gogol’s “The Overcoat”; or Turgenev’s “First Love”; or Chekhov’s “The Black Monk” or “Ward No. 6,” “The Bishop” or “The Duel”; or that greatest of all page-turners, Dostoyevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov.” I’d say read Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” which is perhaps my favorite novel, or his “The Three Hermits,” which is to my mind the best story ever written about the limits of pedagogy. I’d say read them all, discover your own favorites, and when you reach the last sentence of the last book on your shelf, start over and read them again.
Francine Prose is the author of 20 works of fiction and nonfiction, among them the novel “Blue Angel,” a National Book Award nominee, and the guide “Reading Like a Writer,” a New York Times best seller. Her new novel is “Lovers at the Chameleon Club, Paris 1932.” Currently a distinguished visiting writer at Bard College, she is the recipient of numerous grants and awards; a contributing editor at Harper’s, Saveur and Bomb; a former president of the PEN American Center; and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

By Benjamin Moser
Dostoyevsky depicted humans as beings whose lunacy and lust and terror were held in check by only the gauziest of veils.
An odd characteristic of Russian literature is that the first novel to appear in the vernacular was not an original work but a translation from the French — and not until the 18th century. This was at least 200 years after the rest of Europe had shelved their churchy tongues: Dante praised the “eloquence of the vernacular” at the beginning of the 14th century; Du Bellay offered a “Defense and Illustration of the French Language” in the 16th; and languages with far fewer speakers — Dutch, Portuguese, Polish — had broad and distinguished literatures when all the Russians had were a scattering of medieval epics and devotional works written in the ecclesiastical language, Church Slavonic.
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Benjamin Moser Credit Illustration by R. Kikuo Johnson

Even at the end of the 19th century, Russian, as readers of Tolstoy know, still reeked of bog and tundra. Classy people spoke French, and the relation of French to Russian in the 19th-century Russian novel offers an uncomfortable metaphor for the society as a whole: an elegant foreign language stretched like a glistening membrane atop the “real” language of the people. As the classical colonnades of St. Petersburg never quite hid the destitute swamp upon which they were built, the language of Descartes never supplanted the hallucinated utopias that populated the dreams of the Slavonic saints.
French was civilization; Russian, its discontents. A generation before Freud, Dostoyevsky — a favorite of Freud’s — depicted humans as beings whose lunacy and lust and terror were held in check by only the gauziest of veils. The village idiot admonishes the magnificent czar; the pretty princess, back from Baden-Baden, brushes gigglingly past the soothsaying hag. In a land that knew no Renaissance, the superstitious medieval village, with its thunderclaps and forebodings, inevitably swamps the Gallic palace. The Russia of Dostoyevsky and Pushkin lurks in the alleyway behind the mansion, a materialization of the id.
The experiences of the Russian writers echoed their particular national history, but there is nothing particularly national about the volcanic passions that threaten to burst through the carefully maintained surfaces of every human life. That they explored the depths did not mean that the great Russians neglected their brilliant surfaces, whose Fabergé luster makes them irresistibly romantic, and makes us feel the pathos of their destruction.
When that destruction came, the surface — the heritage of Cartesian formalism — would keep the demons at bay. If, a century before, French seemed like a froufrou frill, the vision of humane culture of which it was a symbol now offered consolation, however meager. Amid the Stalinist terror, nothing is more self-consciously classical than the poems of Akhmatova, who wrote sonnets in besieged Leningrad; of Tsvetayeva, who looked longingly, insistently, to Greece; or of Mandelstam, who, in an instance unique in literary history, committed suicide by ode. If Dostoyevsky insisted on the enduring reality of the irrational, the 20th-century poets described — but refused to reflect — the chaos swallowing them, and clung to form as to a vital lie.
Joseph Brodsky wrote that Russia combined “the complexes of a superior nation” with “the great inferiority complex of a small country.” In a nation so tardily arrived at the banquet of European civilization, its mentality makes the world’s biggest country strangely provincial. But its smallness and its bigness offer an obvious metaphor for the extremes of the human psyche. “I can be led only by contrast,” Tsvetayeva wrote. In the eight time zones sprawling between the galleries of the Hermitage and the frozen pits of Magadan, there is contrast enough. Awareness of this unbridgeable distance makes Russian books, at their greatest, reflections of all human life — and suggests that the old cliché, the “Russian soul,” could lose the adjective.
Benjamin Moser is the author of “Why This World: A Biography of Clarice Lispector,” a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award, and the general editor of the new translations of Clarice Lispector at New Directions. A former New Books columnist at Harper’s Magazine, he is currently writing the authorized biography of Susan Sontag. He lives in the Netherlands.

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/11/30/books/review/what-makes-the-russian-literature-of-the-19th-century-so-distinctive.html
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