Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction

Article excerpt

Catriona Kelly. Russian Literature: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, 2001. xvii, 165 pp. Illustrations. Maps. $8.95, cloth.

Catriona Kelly suggests her book is neither a canonical outline of the lives and creative legacies of Russian writers, nor a sketch of literary movements and cultural traditions. Instead, it presents both classical and contemporary Russian literature through the prism of Alexander Pushkin's writing, which covers a vast range of cultural themes and subjects, and represents an impressive variety of poetic, prose and dramatic genres. Rather than analysing the development of Russian literature, Kelly is attempting to briefly comment on selected issues in the social history of Russian literature and culture with Pushkin as the conduit from which everything flows in various directions. This approach to the poet's legacy and biography, as well as to the mythology surrounding his literary and epistolary works, his personality, private and public life, and his role in the development of Russian language and literature, can serve as a guide for comprehending and assessing the ideological and cultural values and beliefs embedded in the relevant historical period. s such, Kelly's interest in Pushkin's creative work as a viable medium for exploring Russian literature is fully justified.

Kelly presents a broad, if superficial panorama of Russian literary praxis from the eighteenth century to the present, while lines of Pushkin's poem "Monument" serve as chapter titles and points of departure for her readers' journey through Russian literature. Selected issues are cursorily touched upon, including nineteenth-century literary salons; Russian Orthodox faith and practice; responses of Russia and the West; Pushkin's cult as part of Russian reverence for writers and their social status; the recent commercialization of culture; and others. In addition, she also comments on the significance of some of the material products of cultural history, such as monuments, statues, wall plaques, graffiti, and selected cultural practices.

The book itself has a convenient pocket format. Besides the eight chapters, it also contains twenty annotated illustrations, maps of the Russian Empire and downtown Moscow showing the locations of literary and cultural associations, and an index. The latter is not free from typographical errors and missing entries, for example, Nadezhda Mandelshtam is referred to as Natalya, Nadezhda Durova's name i s absent, as is Kornei Chukovsky's, although he is quoted on p. 50.

The text is marked by the author's undisguised subjective perception of Pushkin's legacy, as well as of Russian literature and culture in general. This approach is somewhat reminiscent of Marina Tsvetaeva's essay "My Pushkin", although it is a less emotionally driven and more scholarly interpretation than the latter. It should be noted that Kelly successfully fuses a cursory scholarly analysis with her strong personal touch resulting in the text's appealing readability and provocativeness. Her non-systematic approach to the subject matter allows her to randomly select several major topics for discussion.

In particular, she examines the Russian literary canon before and after Pushkin, gender and social issues, the relationship between Russianness and otherness as represented by numerous ethnic minorities, the juxtaposition of the material and spiritual worlds in Russian culture, and evolving societal values, demands and expectations of literary and cultural leaders.

It is obvious that within the book's present format, Kelly could not provide a detailed comprehensive study of every topic she broaches, nor support them with extensive background information. Therefore, there are blank spots and missing or too briefly noted names, facts or movements. …