On Psychological Prose
Lydia Iakovlevna Ginzburg is not a name widely known outside Russia except to Slavists, but this excellent translation of perhaps her most important book, On Psychological Prose, should help to introduce her to a larger public. Until a few years before her death in 1990, when she was eighty, one could hardly say that her reputation was widespread even in Russia, except in scholarly circles. There she was highly respected as the author of a series of impressive studies of Russian writers, including Lermontov (1940) and Alexander Herzen (1957), as well as on such broader literary subjects as the Russian poetic tradition (On the Lyric, 1964).
The present book, however, brought her increased attention when it was first published in 1971 because it deals with both Russian and Western European writers in a manner running completely counter to the Marxist-Stalinist insistence on the inherent virtues of the Russians and the inherent short-comings of the Europeans. On Psychological Prose treats Vissarion Belinsky, Nikolai Stankevich, Turgenev, and Herzen on equal terms with the Duc de Saint-Simon (not the Utopian Socialist of the 1800s, but his great-uncle, the memoirist of the court of Louis XIV whom Proust so much admired) and the Rousseau of the Confessions. Tolstoy, who dominates the last three chapters, is discussed along with Benjamin Constant (Adolphe), Stendhal, Balzac, Flaubert, and Proust.
Soviet Russian readers were not accustomed to such impartial and judicious handling of foreign writers, who were most often denounced rather than studied, even in the work of specialists. Moreover, the book ends with a chapter on the question of individual moral responsibility as raised by Tolstoy—a question that was not supposed to trouble good Soviet citizens since it had been answered once and for all by the Bolshevik Revolution. So Ginzburg’s subtly subversive emphasis gave her presumably innocent work of scholarship a distinct ideological edge.
The young Lydia Ginzburg’s circle of friends included both her Russian Formalist teachers at the Institute of the History of Arts in Leningrad (Boris Eikhenbaum and Yuri Tynianov among others), and many of the leading Russian writers of the 1920s and 1930s such as Mayakovsky, Blok, and Mandelstam; she was especially close to Anna Akhmatova. Teaching at the institute herself until it was closed by Stalin in 1930, Ginzburg then found work teaching adult education courses in factories and wrote a detective novel, The Pinkerton Agency, for adolescents. Between 1947 and 1950 she obtained a post at Petrozavodsk University north of Leningrad, one of the provincial schools considered safer for Jewish intellectuals in those years than institutions in the larger cities. The publication of her memoirs, based on the journal she kept all her life, brought her additional fame in the 1960s, and she continued to produce books and articles throughout the 1970s.1
Her considerable personal influence is evoked in an essay by Irina Paperno (now teaching at UC Berkeley): “For us,” she writes,
the generation that began to study literature in the 1960s and 1970s, conversations with Lydia…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.