Friday, October 02, 2009

"A History of Russian Literature from its Beginnings to 1900" D.S. Mirsky

First published in 1926 in English, Mirsky’s book is rightly a classic in its field. It gives a complete survey of Russian literature from the earliest monastic chronicles up to and including Chekhov. Prince Mirsky (he renounced his title in his youth) was a Professor of Russian Literature at London University during the Twenties and his book developed out of the courses he gave there. More than any of the other emigres who fled the Revolution, Mirsky worked to provide a better understanding of Russian literature in English, and English literature in Russian. He published (his own) translations of contemporary English poetry into Russian, a history of Russia in English, and a history of the English intelligentsia in Russian. He retuned to Russia just as Stalin was purging the intellectuals in the early 30s, and predictably, perished in the gulag.

One of the great difficulties of Russian literature is that the genre boundaries between fiction, philosophy, political/religious polemic, and social and literary criticism are not so clear cut as they are in English. Mirsky in his survey sticks to fiction, poetry and drama, but there are sections on Belinsky, whose influence on post 1840 literature was incalculable, the journalists of the 1840s, and the great Russian sages, Herzen, Mikhaylovsky, Lavrov and Leontiev.

Mirsky’s method is to mention in passing the names, biographies and chief works with comments of those many minor or now forgotten writers who form the stream of Russian literature, and then to discuss in detail and at length the boulders that stand out above the waters of literary history: Dostoevsky, Toltosy, Chekhov, Leskov, Pushkin, Lermontov. He also looks in passing at the underlying intellectual and political currents that might have informed the biographies and interests of each writer, as well as the changing tastes of the Russian reader. Mirsky is devoid of any theoretical axe to grind, and his observations are trenchant, witty and wise; and if perhaps from the perspective of modern literary studies they are a touch naïve, they make up for this in abundant common sense and an obvious passion for and deep reading of the entire field. He is always alert to the problems of translation, and does his best to explain to the English reader the special characteristics of each writer’s Russian.

Here he is on Dostoevsky:
The deeper, the essential Dostoevsky is one of the most significant and ominous figures in the whole history of the human mind, one of the boldest and most disastrous adventures in the sphere of the ultimate spiritual quest. The superficial Dostoevsky is a man of his time, comparable – and not always favourably comparable – to many other Russian novelists and publicists of the age of Alexander II, a mind that had many rivals and which cannot in any way be placed apart from, or above, Herzen, Grigoriev, or Leontiev.

And on Tolstoy: he seems to have been given to the world for the special purpose of being contrasted with Dostoevsky.

And on Chekhov: It is left to the future to show… whether the advanced elite of the Western world has definitely reached a stage of mental senility that can be satisfied only by the autumnal genius of Chekhov.

And on Garshin: He is hardly a great writer. His manner is too much that of the degenerate age. His technique is insufficient, and … there are irritating lapses into the inadequate….

Reading this survey, one is left, as an English reader, with an intense yearning for more, a burning curiosity to read some of those works mentioned in passing and which, for a multitude of reasons, have either never been translated, or have fallen out of print, or have simply never reached the attention of an international audience. Works such as Pushkin’s letters, Years of Childhood by Aksakov, Radishchev’s Journey from Petersburg to Moscow, Leskov’s Hare Park, the poetry of Fet and Baratynsky, and the journals of Marie Bashkirtseva, to name just a few of the long- buried riches of Russian literature revealed in this super book.

(Pushkin’s poem King Saltan) has high seriousness, for what can be more highly serious than the creation of a world of perfect beauty and freedom open to all?

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