Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View

By Davidson-Pegon, Claire | Woolf Studies Annual, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View


Davidson-Pegon, Claire, Woolf Studies Annual


Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View. Roberta Rubenstein (NY: Palgrave, 2009) xvi +265

Rare are the scholarly studies that combine timeliness, impressive originality, and acutely precise and detailed analysis with a gently reassuring sense that we are not so much engaged in "criticism" as being invited to read over a writer's shoulder and catch the very passions and wonder that they might have felt as they read. What a delight then to come at last upon Roberta Rubenstein's Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View. Why "at last"? The answer is simply that no matter how poisedly and confidently critics have affirmed the close bond between Russian literature in translation and English modernism, or referred authoritatively to the particular significance that reading the Russians had for Virginia Woolf, no book-length study had yet been devoted to the question. The gap was indeed intriguing: Neil Cornwell's James Joyce and the Russians, after all, dates back to 1992. Our critical insights for Woolf relied on analogies, intimate convictions, Rubenstein's own unpublished thesis, a growing number of articles (such as the valuable work by Laura Marcus, Darya Protopopova, Emily Dalgarno and Natalya Reinhold to name but a few) or biographical accounts. Our impressions are at last challenged, explored and borne out, in a superb account that does not just range with impressive ease over the entire Woolf ceuvre, but also anchors Woolf's Russian point of view in a sense of history and chronology as her interests dawned, matured, waned and evolved.

In so doing, Rubenstein charts Woolf's Russian readings from the honeymoon Crime and Punishment to Tolstoy in the bleakness of the Second World War; she examines very precisely the force and repercussions of the four Russian "greats" on various facets of Woolf's own creative processes, and also offers a profound understanding of Woolf's richly comparative approach to reading, as the Russians were not just read per se, but explored via the complementary tangents of re-reading and reading alongside English fiction. And while Rubenstein's approach focuses on Woolf's individual reception of the writers, rather than on a more broadly construed cultural reception, it does sketch the posterity of Woolf's vision, tracing her intuitions through to contemporary Russian scholars' works: George R. Clay, Orlando Figes, Joseph Frank, Lucia Aiello. Such interdisciplinary dialogues and overtures make Rubenstein's book not just a significant contribution to Woolf studies, but to comparative Slavonic studies too.

Each chapter of the book is devoted to one author in turn, thus eschewing those cultural commonplaces that abound when one speaks too glibly of "The Russians" and "their literature" as some homogeneous entity in time and space. Looking at Dostoevsky, Rubenstein explores the very tangible impact of his dialogic poetics feeding into Woolf's own representations of random consciousness and passing "trains of thought" whereby she sought to open up the world within. The potential interweaving of Dostoevsky's and Woolf's intensely personal experiences of "mental extremity and a wish for self-annihilation" (47) is also tackled with immense skill and sensitivity. In this chapter, as throughout the study, what makes Rubenstein's approach so very successful is that she interweaves essays and reading notes (cited in full in the rich appendices here that have been transcribed for the first time from the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library) so that we follow the notes Woolf made as she interrupted her readings to record her own impressions. Another very welcome editorial strategy adopted by Rubenstein is to refer the reader back to the very page references in the Russian text itself, so that we see Woolf's thoughts emerging in perfect dialogue with the novel's own fabric. This is particularly striking when, without Rubenstein's guidance, we may have read these notes without perceiving whose voice we were hearing, Woolf's, or the Russian author's. …

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