Reference Guide to Russian Literature

By Neil Cornwell; Nicole Christian | Go to book overview
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gesture of mercy, from a position of moral and/or political authority, that broke the predictable form of justice and thereby gave it vitality. By the end of his life Pushkin had left a Russian legacy of Shakespearism never to be duplicated but which took time to be understood and appreciated. He had borrowed without imitating; he had written of imagined others without speaking "only about himself"; he had passed beyond Byron to a salutary self-consciousness that would, as the "origin without origins", feed his tradition indefinitely.

DAVID M. BETHEA


The Classic Russian Novel

The classic Russian novel comprises the major Russian novels published between 1830 and 1880. They form a body of writing in the genre that can be shown to have certain specific characteristics that we nowadays think of as "Russian". These works are classic not in the sense of any "classic-romantic" opposition, but in the straightfoward sense of being accepted as standard or definitive both within the framework of Russian literature and in terms of its influence. They are the works of Turgenev, Tolstoi, and Dostoevskii and their immediate predecessors, or near-contemporaries, Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol', and Goncharov.In short, barely more than half-a-dozen men of outstanding genius, born in the 30 years between 1799 and 1828, created what we can now regard as the Russian novel. In the case of Tolstoi and Dostoevskii their achievement has become traditionally so associated with perfection in the genre that it has earned the Russian novel the distinction of being considered in relation to classical norms of the Homeric, of Attic Tragedy, of Menippean satire, the medieval mystery play, and so on. Their novels have come to be regarded with the same esteem as the classical works of world literature and for this reason alone deserve to be treated as classics in their own right.

It has been a commonplace of criticism to talk about "realism" in relation to the Russian novel. Soviet treatments tended to stress such "realism" in a socio-political dirigiste spirit to the exclusion of practically any other kind of approach. Undoubtedly valuable for its historicity, such a blinkered treatment found difficulty dealing with the greatest works of Russian literature, such as Dostoevskii's major novels and the religious, anti-revolutionary ideas, not to mention the aberrant human behaviour, contained in them. Restricted by the official tenets of socialist realism, scholarly Soviet treatments of the Russian novel were usually so uninspired that they left plenty of room for other approaches to flourish in the non-Soviet world.

Curiously enough, this led to a diktat of an opposite kind. Emphasis came to be placed on such issues as polyphonism (pace Bakhtin) in a spirit that tended to regard the polyphonic or "multi-voiced" novel as somehow superior to the single-voiced novel, with its obvious authorial presence. Formalist considerations, concentration on specific features of the Tolstoian or Dostoevskian novel, quasi-structuralist approaches, no doubt valuable and illuminating in their own right, tended to be as limited in their appraisal of the Russian novel as the politically prescriptive emphasis on "realism".

There is no doubt that the novel in its Russian context reflected social issues, portrayed heroes and heroines characteristic of Russian society, and came to play a more important role than its European counterparts in giving expression to a range of substantive moral issues and choices facing the society of its time. It existed and evolved in a climate of official government censorship largely unknown in the west. Yet it passed through the crucible of that censorship and emerged so strengthened and assertive of its own right to govern opinion that it made censorship seem a futile official irrelevancy.

It is worth pointing out that the creators of the classic Russian novel were for the most part privileged members of Russian society who were not in any radical sense anti-establishment. They were all patriots. They all enjoyed the right to travel, whether in Russia (excluding, naturally, the enforced travel of exile) or in Europe (with the exception of Pushkin and Lermontov); and the freedom to travel in Europe was vitally enriching to Gogol', Turgenev, and Goncharov, if for very different reasons, whereas for Dostoevskii and Tolstoi it had a profound influence in stimulating and defining their work and their attitudes. Intellectually and culturally all those who helped to create the classic Russian novel wrote as Russians, both deeply conscious of being part of a European heritage and aware that they wrote for a Europeanized, if not for a specifically European, readership.

They wrote to justify as well as to expose. They were concerned more with portraiture than plotting, more with ideas than adventure narratives. They made reality seem strange or "defamiliarized" (as in Tolstoi's case) or explored metaphysical reality (as in Dostoevskii's epileptic "penetration of the real") by a propensity for assuming, above all, that fact and fiction need not be distinct entities.

The classic Russian novel asserted detachment as its prerogative from the very start. This was Pushkin's gift to Russian literature. Though always urged in one or another direction by partisan critics, the greatest of the Russian I9th‐ century novelists asserted a freedom to bear their own witness. A prophetic role may gradually have obtruded, lending the classic Russian novel near-biblical powers of moral edification; yet its penetrative honesty and its humanistic concerns are the ultimate touchstone by which its greatness is to be judged.

Pushkin's novelin verse Evgenii Onegin (written 1823-31) has to be regarded as the first Russian novel and is thematically of a classic simplicity. Pushkin, as narrator and first-person participant, may never be absent from his work but he contrives

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