Reference Guide to Russian Literature

By Neil Cornwell; Nicole Christian | Go to book overview
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possible fields fiction, drama, philosophical essays, poetry and as editor and publisher as well as writer. While acknowledging the role that Catherine the Great had played in enhancing the prestige of writers, Karamzin drew pointed attention to the essentially amateur nature of her own pastimes with her pen. What distinguished the truly committed professional writer in Karamzin's eyes was his gift of being a unique vessel to hold genius. A writer's personality should be projected in his works, not out of vanity, but as a focus for genius. Behind that confident assertion of the writer's standing in society lay all the strivings to establish foundations of a national Russian literature in the I8th century.

The influence now exercised by the individual author on his society had its darker side. The last decade of the century, it is true, would be known as Karamzin's period in recognition of his intellectual and moral leadership. Those closing years would also be remembered as the time when the Russian state, in the person of Catherine the Great, alarmed by the French Revolution of 1789, moved to silence authors suspected, however unjustly, of being threats to the established political order. Radishchev, whose A Journey from St Petersburg to Moscow might well have been welcomed by Catherine earlier in her reign as an argument in favour of enlightenment, was exiled to Siberia for publishing a book now perceived as seditious. Novikov, whose whole career had been devoted to succouring Catherine's enlightened literary enterprises, was sentenced in 1792 to 20 years' incarceration in the Schlüsselburg fortress, and suspect publications impounded in his presses and bookshops were condemned to be burnt in 1793-94.

As the new century dawned, Russian literature already possessed its martyrs, casting a dark shadow on the triumphal achievements of those pioneers who had discovered a supple literary language, new literary forms, and a confidence to break free from the restraints of foreign Neoclassical models. Russian literature had revealed the power of the individual conscience in the Russian writer.

W. GARETH JONES


Aleksandr Pushkin: From Byron to Shakespeare

It is something of a textbook topos that different national literatures have their own quite different national poets father figures who are considered seminal or originary (the "origin without origin") to the nation's culture and world-view. What is less easily explained is how and why a certain national poet should appear on the scene precisely when he does. Why, for example, should Dante epitomize Italian Catholic culture in the I3th-I4th centuries, Shakespeare Anglo-Saxon culture in the I6th-I7th centuries, and Goethe German culture in the I8th-I9th centuries? Clearly, the problem is more complicated than the serviceable apophthegm of genius "being in the right place at the right time", for what we are dealing with in these special instances is the combination (two-way, mutually interpenetrating) of an individual and a culture/national identity both coming of age, and knowing or sensing, they are coming of age, at the same time. The young man who may have been involved in a libellous deer-poaching incident or the wealthy senior citizen who mysteriously wills his wife a "second-best bed" becomes Shakespeare, going to his grave, as a recent biographer phrases it, "not knowing, and possibly not caring, whether Macbeth or The Tempest or Antony and Cleopatra ever achieved the permanence of print" ( S. Schoenbaum). Great contemporaries such as Spenser or Jonson become instead, on the scales of history, foils of genius Laertes to the Hamlet whose play-within-the-play contains them, rather than the other way around.

One ingredient in this coming-of-age formula is the awareness of the necessity of a mature inside/outside perspective: what is "ours", beginning with a national poetic tradition, has sufficient internal dignity and grandeur that it can, now for the first time, take on the challenge of the larger, supranational context (here European high culture, the classical and Judaeo-Christian traditions, and so on) as an equal. Poised on this inside/outside, ours/theirs seam, the culture, through the creations of this gifted individual, comes to value its own unique character in a manner that seems not parochial but universal. (This is what Dostoevskii was alluding to with reference to universal otzyvchivost', "responsiveness", in his famous Pushkin speech.) A poet's "source material", broadly defined, including historical personages and famous characters from literature, plots, genre conventions, rules of style, rhyme schemes and metres, are no longer simply "imitated" or copied (the relation of the lesser to the greater), but are borrowed freely and boldly and reworked in accordance with this new mature outlook. Shakespeare uses Holinshed respectfully but creatively; Pushkin uses his teacher Karamzin in precisely the same way.

The present essay is an attempt to place Russia's national poet in a correct alignment along this inside/outside seam. My argument, in brief, will be that for Pushkin, Byron and Shakespeare, as creative writers and personalities, represented a crucial choice in the period 1824-26; and furthermore, that being English, these figures offered the "Frenchman" (his nickname at the Lycée) Pushkin a choice of romantic personality (lichnost') versus "romantic" art, but romantic art defined in a special, non- or anti-Byronic way. Pushkin needed the Byronic personality up to a point to define his emerging authorial "I", and in a real sense he never stopped being interested in that personality and never stopped, in his typically masked, indirect way, applying the lessons of that personality to his own life and artistic career. However, at a rather precise juncture, by now

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