Wednesday, November 25, 2020

“[W]herever people who write and think gather together, Russian literature is loved and praised.”

We fell in love with everything Russian – not Soviet. Life as we knew it from Russian novels was more intense than our conventional existence. Saul Bellow wrote of his youth in Chicago with Isaac Rosenfeld: “We were so Russian, as adolescents, and perhaps we were practicing to be writers.”  For the Russians, things, even ideas, mattered. You can understand the attraction this would hold for a teenager mainlining adrenaline, hormones and literature. Above, Rebecca West is writing in her essay “Barbarians” in the January 9, 1915 issue of The New Republic. By then, Aylmer and Louise Maude had translated much of Tolstoy and Constance Garnett was giving the Anglophone world our first look at Dostoevsky and Chekhov. West describes her visit to a London bookshop:


“Yet the first thing I saw in the bookshop of this delicate-spirited suburb was a pile of thick red books which I knew to be, at the first sight of their binding, Mrs. Constance Garnett’s translations of Dostoevsky’s novels.”


There’s a cloying romanticism to West’s understanding of Russia and her literature, not unlike the romanticism some of us knew as young readers. Russia is always ripe for misunderstanding in the West. A Western-facing writer, Ivan Turgenev, friend to Flaubert and James, seems familiar to us, less exotic. A friend roughly my age who has already read much of Turgenev is reading A Sportsman’s Notebook for the first time:   


“The stories are beautifully wrought, as is almost all of Turgenev's fiction, to which I’m more partial than you. Turgenev is given in these stories to wonderful descriptions of nature--trees, birds, skies, weather. He has few equals in this department. He has an unfortunate tendency in several stories, though, to idealize his peasants and/or caricature his landowners. His evident political agenda detracts from the persuasiveness of the work.”


I first learned of A Sportsman’s Notebook from a non-Russian source, Sherwood Anderson, who claimed to have read the book twenty times. West in her essay mentions Turgenev only in passing, classifying him with Tolstoy as an aristocrat who was “inclined to repudiate [his] nationality.” Even so intelligent a writer as West romanticizes and thus misunderstands the Russians:


“And Tolstoy, though he cast off his aristocracy like a cloak, never made anything more of the people than a beloved hobby; the peasants in his books are unnaturally plump and firm and smiling, like the babies in patent food advertisements. It was the poor man, the starveling Dostoevsky, the shopman’s son Tchekhov, the hawker Gorky, who were able to write the story of Russia.” 

1 comment:

Faze said...

Rebecca West's fearless generalizations about Slavs and other ethnicities are among the things that make "Black Lamb, Grey Falcon" so much fun - and so unlike anything likely to pass muster today. West and her readers understand that sweeping generalities aren't the last word on these people, but we get what she's saying, tuck in our minds, and move on.