Monday, September 04, 2006

On Russian Literature

I have been reading this remarkable and useful anthology of writings excerpted from the Nineteenth Century Russian Literature. The short introduction to the volume is very nice too. The editor in the introduction makes this interesting point:

Literature in Russia played a far broader role than in other societies. While Winston Churchill's History of the English-Speaking Peoples does not even list Shakespeare in its index, it would be unimaginable for a history of the Russian people not to give lion's share of attention to the country's great writers. They were an artistic, spiritual, and social force. Russian readers (and censors and opponents) looked to the great novelists, poets and playwrights for plots, characters and ideas expressive of the chief issues of their age.
And this is exactly what I love about the Russian literature. They are so deeply rooted in a specific time and place, and yet they paradoxically remain timeless and manage to address universal concerns and questions.

Of course Nabokov would scoff at this idea -- reading books of fiction to learn about culture, history or philosophy! He says, in his essay on Dead Souls, that only a fool would want to read the novel to learn about Russian countryside or life in nineteenth century provincial Russia. (I remember being very impressed with the chracter portraits (or caricatures) and the way Gogol captured life and the landscapes in the countryside and the provinces. It is one of my favourite novels ever. It is certainly one of the funniest books I have ever read.) Similarly Nabokov says that only a lazy and a philistine reader would read Gogol's story The Overcoat as a denunciation of the horrors of Russian bureaucracy.

But neither the person who wants a good laugh, nor the person who craves for books "that make one think" will understand what The Overcoat is really about. Give me the creative reader; this is the tale for him.

To Nabokov literature is all about experimenting with the langauge, inventing new ways of saying things, playing with words, metaphors and images. And this is what he expects from a "creative reader" of Gogol. Needless to say, it is a very narrow view of what literature is about, although certainly a valid one in its own right. I find this formalistic or narrowly aestheticised readings very boring. I am happy to be a philistine. Thank you, Mr. Nabokov. I will continue to read novels to learn about history, culture and philosophy! There is also a funny essay on Philistines and Philistinism in the Nabokov volume. Will write about it later.

17 comments:

bhupinder singh said...

You may find 'Natasha's Dance' an interesting book on this theme, unless you read it already :-)

It is by Orlando Figes, previously the author of (a somewhat flawed book) A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution.

Alok said...

hey glad to see you here! :)

actually a people's tragedy is lying just next to my bed right now waiting to be picked up! I haven't started it yet and it looks a little too daunting. my library has got trostky's book and few volumes by richard pipes. I though Figes's version would be less partisan and more centrist than the other two (both from the left and the right) and picked it up. Also it is more recent than the other two. Do you know any other good book on the bolshevik revolution? I am interested more in socio-cultural history of the revolution than the political aspects.

I have read parts of Natasha's Dance specially the chapters on literature and intellentsia in nineteenth century. I think the chapter was called, "the battle for the russian soul" or something. I should give it another go because I had hardly read anything when I picked up that book last time.

merlot said...

I agree that Nabokov's views about what literature is about is somewhat narrow and rather harsh. I like to think that one can get a glimpse of the English upper class society when reading Jane Austen's books. Or even the opening of Bleak House where Dickens describes the famous London fog - I find it to be a perfect description (and somewhat accurate) of the London weather.

And when reading Lolita, even though style and language dominate the novel, I did learn something about the culture of American motels (sorry, Nabokov).

Alok said...

Hi Merlot,

thanks for visiting...

actually I don't see why appreciating a book for its inventive language and style and appreciating it for "ideas" or socio-cultural insights should be mutually exclusive, as perhaps Nabokov thinks they are.

As you say Lolita can be read as a parody of small town american culture too and that doesn't stop us from appreciating Nabokov's style or his linguistic inventions.

Antonia said...

so this is an interesting blog, its addy is marcel proust And there is the pale fire in the description And there is Isaiah Berlin mentioned earlier on And theres is only one question left: what do you think about Alexandrer Herzen?

Alok said...

Thanks!

Umm. Herzen? I have read some extracts from his memoirs ("My Past and Thoughts") but not enough to have formed an opinion about him. For an anarchist revolutionary, he definitely seemed to have a very symapathetic and even a melancholy character :)

I am still more or less clueless about his exact political beliefs (not having started Berlin's book on Russian Thinkers) but I guess I am generally very symapathetic to all kinds of anarchist thoughts. So I think I would agree with what he has to say :)

Antonia said...

yes I also have not yet read the whole Herzen, so difficult to get hold of his books. But I completely agree with you, he must have been a very sympathetic character and so are his books. Especially interesting I find his psychological observations of that what motivates political actions, he had great insights in this...

Alok said...

I wanted to read Tom Stoppard's play The Coast of Utopia too. It is based on Herzen's life and his memoirs.

link to publisher's page

Antonia said...

great tip, alok....something for the list that just always and only gets longer....

bhupinder singh said...

Seems I missed out on the discussion, have been struggling with the upgrade to blogger beta.

Orlando Figes is just about fine, though he has little original to say, and I would even say that he has craftily made his book look centrist- I myself almost got carried away when I read it first. Also, I felt he has re- written the work by another writer whose name I forget at this moment.

I cann't think of any single definitive book on the Russian Revolution, but Trotsky is very insightful. Perhap's Deutscher's bios of Stalin and Trotsky would be useful too. He was a very fine historian.

Alok said...

Ah that "trotsky trilogy"! the library has got that one too but I think i will have to go on extended vacation to read that one. :) i have heard great praises for that book though.

actually I just saw this evening that you had reviewed Figes's book on your blog long back. Haven't read it yet. Will read it soon and comment.

bhupinder singh said...

You can read Stalin's bio by Deutscher, it is single volume.

Indeed, I did review Figes's book about a decade back for The Tribune, but I think I was too soft on him then. But do read and comment.

Kamalakar said...

About a novel providing insights into the socio-cultural life of a society, your comments are no doubt valid. I like the way Bhaktin characterises language itself as having that property. That all our utterances are draped in socio-cultural and ideological orientations.
Sometimes I wonder why Russia has produced so many great 'novelists'. In fact novel genre would be bare without the enrichment it got from the Russian masters.
You have a nice blog and I am getting hooked.

Alok said...

thanks Kamalakar!! I think Russia produced such great novelists in the nineteenth century precisely because of that reason. they were so in touch with the realities of their time and place that they could grasp timeless truths and efforlessly weave them into their fictional works.

And i find most of the contemporary fiction disappointing for that very reason. they are so detached and indifferent to the realities of our time and place!!

jyothsnay said...

have not run through the thread of discussion over here..promise, will do that soon

Russian literature, for me, has always been about Realism! just a brief scan through the spontaneous feelers...the countryside, those village houses, the peasant babushka look –women in long shirt, with the neck and sleeves embroidered predominantly in red, flowing skirt and head covered in a floral scarves,…and the glowing evening sky over their heads bent in the quiet fields…
I always have read pride in their homeland and what they do for the living in the Russian people through their stories….
then came a phase where I savored the romantic interpretations of the patriotic spirit wandering through the streets, behind the snow covered windows, around the flimsy vapors swirling from conversations…
then,life is such a beautiful sketch, which elevates from a simple conversation between a man and woman in the train, and the subsequent decisions, the travails, the separation pangs, the pauses at alcoholic beverages…I let myself be overwhelmed by the power of simplicity! Tolstoy’s ‘Anna Karenina” urges the woman in me to fall in love, to experience the heady sensation, absurdity and pain of being in love…through the Russian Aristocratic lifestyle, the unbridled passion of rendezvous, the accompanied guilt like a dark shadow, brutality of emotions….while Nabokov, especially his LOLITA is a sweet disruption in one’s loins, an evocative and ecstatic rendition of unrequited love….I caught hold of its fenuvian spirit, reading Nabokov is like a stormy roller coaster ride for those who love words and their intoxicating play....yup,will stop here!

Alok said...

Wow Jyothsna, that was one of the most beautifully written comment my blog ever got. You describe your experience so well and in such a truthful and "poetic" manner. Thank You :)

Di said...

"To Nabokov literature is all about experimenting with the langauge, inventing new ways of saying things, playing with words, metaphors and images."
I don't think he ever said that. It's only what you thought he thought.