The Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe since 1945

By Wachtel, Andrew | Canadian Slavonic Papers, March 2009 | Go to article overview
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The Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe since 1945


Wachtel, Andrew, Canadian Slavonic Papers


Harold B. Segel. The Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. xiii, 405 pp. Index. $75.00, cloth.

In The Columbia Literary History of Eastern Europe Since 1945, Harold Segel attempts valiantly to provide a narrative history of literary developments in all of the communist countries of Eastern Europe save the USSR (though he does briefly consider the postSoviet situation in Ukraine and Lithuania) since World War II. Having already produced an encyclopedic treatment of this same geographical region, Segel has chosen in this case to divide the material into eleven more or less coherent thematic chapters ranging from the unavoidable (the treatment of the war itself, prison literature, and literature and emigration) to the unexpected (Eastern European women poets, and America through Eastern European eyes). Within each chapter, the material is divided into separate national treatments of a given topic.

Considering the exceptional breadth of the potential subject matter, the number of unrelated languages, and the differences in the histories of the national literatures of these countries in the pre-war period, one's first impression is that Segel has taken a reasonable, if inevitably idiosyncratic, pass at an inherently impossible task. When one reads more closely, however, a number of questions arise that ultimately vitiate the utility of this book as a reference and raise significant doubts as to its value as history. For a very simple snapshot of what is wrong, let us examine how Segel treats a single work, Menjave koz (Skinswaps) by the Slovene writer Andrej Blatnik. It is mentioned for the first time in the section on Eastern European post-modernism in an aside in a sentence devoted to a Romanian novel: "The 'exuviae' are skin sheadings (or 'skinswaps', to borrow from the title of a major collection of poems by the Slovenian poet Andrej Blatnik)" (p. 204). Some ninety pages later, in a chapter devoted to views of America through Eastern European eyes, Segel mentions Blatnik again: He is "[kjnown primarily for his 1990 novel Menjave koz (Skinswaps)" (p. 295). Finally, on page 338, we read: "Blatnik is best known for his short-story collection Menjave koz (Skin Swaps), a significant portion of which was written in the Ledig House International Writers' Colony in northern New York (see chapter 10) and which appeared at the beginning of the 1 990s." It is hard to know what to make of this other than that the copy-editor employed by Columbia University Press should be fired immediately. Did Harold Segel actually open Blatnik's short story collection (which, though he doesn't mention this fact, exists in a very nice English translation in Northwestern University Press's "Unbound Europe" series)? And if mistakes like this appear in the discussion of the cultures that a given reviewer knows well (we find such small but annoying howlers as references to Boris rather than Borislav Pekic, the title of MeSa Selimovié's celebrated novel Tvrdava rendered as Trvava, and the title of Solzhenitsyn ' s debut work presented as Odin den ' ?

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