Russia Discovered: Nineteenth-Century Fiction from Pushkin to Chekhov

Russia Discovered: Nineteenth-Century Fiction from Pushkin to Chekhov

Russia Discovered: Nineteenth-Century Fiction from Pushkin to Chekhov

Russia Discovered: Nineteenth-Century Fiction from Pushkin to Chekhov

Excerpt

If you like, one 'discovery' this book is about is my own. It is an attempt by a reader with no Russian at all to interpret and evaluate the major nineteenth-century Russian writers of fiction as we know them in English. Like so many other people, I have found that these writers, muffled though they must be by translation, move and provoke me far more than most novelists in my own language. I can't imagine what life would be like without them.

My own discovery of them took place, as it happened, in Nairobi, where the chance came up to teach a course on them at the University there. Like 'Africa' in general, 'Kenya' is 'emerging'. People are still trying to find out what the country, and the continent, are, in human and geographical terms, and where they can and should go. In this discovery, it is realized, writers will have to play an important role. We have forgotten how Chaucer and Shakespeare discovered England and how Burns and Scott explored and mapped the meaning of Scotland. But in this island also, writers have helped to give people an idea of who they were by observing places and manners and bringing their observations together into one plausible vision--a 'new edition of human nature', as someone said of Scott's fiction.

There are important books to be written on the part played by literature in the morphology of nationalism. But I am not trying to push a thesis through this one. I simply take it for granted that in that nineteenth century which saw the burgeoning, for good and ill, of modern nationalism, writers in Russia (like writers in Africa now) were aware of themselves as discoverers, reporting to Russians themselves, and of course to the outside world as well, what their country was like, how it compared with Western Europe, why its landscapes were beautiful, what its future might be. Their vision is so fresh, I believe, because they were frontiersmen. The territory which they explored was one which they, by artistic means, could control, but which the Tsars, by political means, in the end couldn't; it was full of people who were subversively free. The glory of Russia is that its novelists and poets have made themselves spokesmen for all the free thought and humane feeling which Tsarist and Stalinist regimes have . . .

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