In the Russian Style
During his travels to Russia in the midnineteenth century Alexandre Dumas père wrote of a mythical “broad spreading cranberry tree” under whose comforting shade, he said, he used to repose his considerable bulk. Soon thereafter this nonexistent tree, the Razvesistaya kliukva (a branchy cranberry), became the synonym for all the nonsense that was being written abroad about the land of the czars, boyars, samovars, etc.
Russians would use the term Kliukva to characterize practically everything foreigners blundered about when they described Russia. The term stuck and remained vigorously alive well into the twentieth century. Geography and topography,1 habits and customs, history and religion, arts and literature, as well as such seemingly minor subjects as cooking or the proper transliteration2 of the Russian language into a foreign tongue—all have been a source of kliukvas of various sizes and degrees of ripeness.
Only toward the second half of our century have things improved and the mythical “cranberry tree” become a much rarer species, partly because Russia, for better or for worse, has moved closer to the West. Still the old cranberry could not be entirely disposed of. In the 1930s minor kliukvas grew in such fields as the “ideological novel” (e.g., Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and André Malraux’s La condition humaine). Later on, in America, there was a crop of kliukvas growing among translations of Russian poetry by indigenous poetasters who botched Russian classics of the Golden and Silver Age. And, alas, as we shall presently see, certain specimens of the mythical species survive, however fleetingly, in quite unexpected places.
The outwardly handsome book (it has a splendid jacket) called In the Russian Style contains a whole field of kliukva seedlings. And it does so in the most maddening way. The flashy layout, the seeming earnestness of purpose and the ill-concealed pretension to thorough scholarship may readily seduce and even interest an innocent reader or viewer.
The introduction, by Audrey Kennett—whom I shall refer to as “the narrator”—promises to deal with the subject of Russian costume, decor, and culture chronologically. “The first to step on the stage,” she writes, “is Peter the Great; which is as it should be, since he created modern Russia….” “Created” is a bit too much, too allumfassend. “Founded” would have been better. But let’s not quibble. Only a few lines later comes the first small lapse. The narrator mentions (and rightly) a fully clad, life-size wax figure of Peter by the architect and sculptor Carlo Rastrelli (“il padre“), which is preserved in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. It is indeed an extraordinary apparition, showing the actual size of this human monster (six feet eight inches), and suggesting the fear he must have inspired in everyone who approached him. Unfortunately, the reader’s appetite is whetted in vain. For some reason there is no photograph here of Rastrelli’s masterpiece (which was done from life, of course). Yet what better beginning could there have been for a book called In the Russian Style than a full-page…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.