Newspaper article International New York Times

What Made the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?

Newspaper article International New York Times

What Made the Russian Literature of the 19th Century So Distinctive?

Article excerpt

Francine Prose and Benjamin Moser discuss the great Russian writers and their approach to the human heart and soul.

I could cite the wild imaginings of Gogol, who can make the most unlikely event seem not only plausible but convincing.

Trying to answer this difficult question in 650 words or less, I could say that part of what makes the 19th-century Russian writers so distinctive -- why we still read them with such pleasure and fascination -- is the force, the directness, the honesty and accuracy with which they depicted the most essential aspects of human experience. Not the computer-dating experience, obviously, or the airplane-seat-rage experience, or the "Where is the takeout I ordered an hour ago?" experience. But plenty of other crucial events and emotions appear, unforgettably, in their work: childbirth, childhood, death, first love, marriage, happiness, loneliness, betrayal, poverty, wealth, war and peace.

I could mention the breadth and depth of their range, their success at making the individual seem universal, the fact that -- though they inhabited the same country and century -- each is different from the others. I could applaud their ability to persuade us that something about the human heart and soul transcends the surface distinctions of nationality, social class and time. I could cite the wild imaginings of Gogol, who can make the most unlikely event -- a man wakes up to discover that his nose has gone missing - - seem not only plausible but convincing; the way in which Dostoyevsky's people seem real to us, vivid and fully present, even as we suspect that no one ever really behaved as they do, flinging themselves at each other's feet, telling their life stories at extraordinary length and in excruciating detail to a stranger in a bar; the mournful delicacy of Chekhov, his uncanny skill at revealing the deepest emotions of the men, women and children who populate his plays and short stories; the ambition and insight that suffuses Tolstoy's small moments (jam-making and mushroom-picking) and epic set pieces (a disastrous horse race, the Battle of Borodino); the subtlety with which Turgenev portrays the natural landscape and his meticulously rendered but ultimately mysterious characters. …

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