Catriona Kelly: Russian Literature

December 18, 2013

You may have noted from earlier posts that I belong to a Russian literature reading group. So far, I’ve had a very scattergun approach to what I’ve read, but I’ve now been motivated to try and develop my knowledge and understanding a bit more systematically, and to do some background reading on the subject. Our group leader recommended Catriona Kelly‘s book, in the ‘Brief Insight’ series, among some others.

I had never really realised how relatively recently literature as we know it had developed in Russia – from about the eighteenth century onwards – or how much Pushkin, who wrote in the early nineteenth, is their equivalent of our Shakespeare, in terms of veneration, at least. It had occurred to me that there was very little writing by women, at least that I’d come across in my personal reading. Then I thought about the fact that American literature is also very ‘new’ compared to ours, where we can go back to the fourteenth century in terms of what is recognisable to the lay reader as English, and much earlier in the realms of Anglo-Saxon literature.

It had certainly become clear to me over the years that Russians wrote and thought quite  differently from the English; this is surely explained, among other things, by the vastness of the land, the extremes of the climate and the fact that they have no democratic experience compared with many Western nations. And that’s without the mental gymnastics intellectuals had to engage in during the Soviet era. Russians’ experiences and society seemed to me to be much more communal/ collective compared with our greater development of individualism. Their writers were inclined to explore and wrestle with big ideas, and spiritual (for want of a better word) themes. This contrast is particularly clear if you look at the kind of things Russian and English authors were writing in the nineteenth century. I haven’t come across the English equivalent of War & Peace or Crime & Punishment, for instance, or the Russian equivalent of Persuasion or Villette.

Kelly’s book is a curious kettle of fish, really: if you know a little about the subject already, then you will make some sense of it, but if you were new to Russian literature, then I’m not so sure. She adopts a thematic approach, which makes sense, but links everything to Pushkin and changing approaches to him over time, which I’m less convinced by. There are plenty of illustrations and examples, but I was frustrated by the lack of detail in the end; a book on Russian literature, even an introductory one, which doesn’t really say very much about War & Peace? Anna Kerenina? most of Dostoevsky’s novels? I ended up feeling a little wiser, but not much, really I could have saved the eyeball time and the money and stuck to the reference books I had already…

However, I am glad to be re-discovering Russian classics that I’d read years ago and almost forgotten, and some that I haven’t met before.

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