My Russian lit office is set up for the winter. Actually, it’s my bed.
We had our first snowfall today, so I retired to my warm bed to read a Russian novel. The wintry scenes in Russian novels brace me to endure the cold. I picture myself as Natasha in War and Peace, mischievously dressed up as a Hussar, riding in a sleigh at Christmas with the mummers; Chichikov in Dead Souls, driving through the provinces in a “rather handsome, smallish spring britzka, of the sort driven around in by bachelors”; or Eugene Onegin (in the Mitchell translation) dealing with winter ennui under his lonely roof because:
What pastime can you find that’s pleasing?
Out in the backwoods? Walking? Try.
For all the countryside is freezing.
Here’s how Russian lit-crazy I go in winter: this week I’ve reread three Russian novels, Gogol’s Dead Souls and two by Turgenev, The Home of the Gentry and First Love.
And I recently found an old college notebook (that tatty green thing in the snapshot above) with my notes for a class in Russian Literature in Translation. My sketchy notes are strangely touching–I do like myself as a young woman discovering Russian literature–and have also inspired me to go back to the nineteenth century.
We spent a lot of time reading Turgenev. I am very fond of Turgenev. I recently reread Fathers and Sons. Turgenev brilliantly personifies the split between humanism and nihilism as a generational conflict. The hero, Bazarov, is a nihilist, a recent science graduate who dissects frogs and despises art and literature. On a visit to the country home of his nihilist friend Arkady, Bazarov clashes with Arkady’s uncle and patronizes Arkady’s father, both humanists. Bazarov’s father and mother cannot understand his views. And he comes to a tragic end. Some of my notes on Turgenev are quite interesting, but I am most impressed by scribbled questions (perhaps to consider for an essay? Or class discussion? God only knows.):
- Is the novel really about generational split?
- the use of philosophy and political discussions
- Integration of love affairs
- which characters truly similar and dissimilar
- In what respects is Bazarov a positive hero?
- Is Bazarov a victim or suicide?
By Dec. 3, near the end of the semester, my notes were mere hieroglyphs. They reflect a bullet-list undergraduate ennui:
- Dostoevsky spokesman for conservatives: THE Christian writer, but also convincingly presents views of radicals. Polit left to polit right, possibly because of experiences in prison.
- Question of existence or non-existence of God.
- intellectual and moral honesty in novels.
- religion helped him endure his hard life.
- Belinsky thought D’s works should do for Russia what Dickens did for England.
Could I possibly have elaborated on those topics! What was I thinking? I can only hope I read the introductions to my Dostovesky books!
To supplement my erratic notes, I got out Nabokov’s Lectures on Russian Literature. He did not like Dostoevsky, who was never one of my favorites.
My position in regard to Dostoevski is a curious and difficult one. In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me–namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius. From this point of view Dostoevski is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one–with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.
And here I thought it was just the translations. Well, perhaps I’ll try the Pevear and Volokhonsky translations. Or perhaps I’ll skip the rereading of Dostoevsky.