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The Prophetic Character of Russian Literature

This article is part of a regular series of conversations with the Review’s contributors; read past ones here and sign up for our email newsletter to get them delivered to your inbox each week.


Since 2016 the critic and Slavic-language scholar Gary Saul Morson has written about a number of great Russian writers and thinkers in the pages of The New York Review, including Alexander Herzen, Alexander Pushkin, Isaac Babel, Vasily Grossman, Nikolai Gogol, Alexander Griboedov, and, most recently, Fyodor Dostoevsky (with a detour for Ivan the Terrible). Morson’s articles have shown how important literature is to Russian history, and explored the paradox of a nation that, as he explained in an e-mail this week, reveres its high culture while arguing “about whether it should be abolished altogether.”

Born in the Bronx, Morson had initially planned to study French, but due to a blizzard he arrived late for his entrance exam and failed it, leading him to take Russian instead. He got his undergraduate and graduate degrees at Yale and taught at the University of Pennsylvania before moving to Northwestern University, where he now teaches the largest Slavic-language class in the United States.


Andrew Katzenstein: In an introduction to Dostoevsky’s The Gambler, you wrote that “Russians are all possibility,” owing to their proclivity “for absorbing others’ culture, for extremes, and for sudden transformations.” This national disposition seems to result from a tension between the country’s indigenous culture and Western influence—a tension that runs throughout Russian history and literature. How has it played out in the work of the writers you’ve discussed in the Review?

Gary Saul Morson: By brute force, Peter the Great utterly transformed Russia almost overnight. Noblemen had to learn Western values, shave their beards, bring women out of seclusion, and copy Western manners, and so they had a strong sense of play-acting and impostorship. Customs that had taken centuries to evolve in Western countries and were natural there seemed arbitrary to Russians. They had a strong sense that things could be otherwise because they had recently been so.

High culture itself seemed like a foreign import. Millennia of Western thinkers and writers were absorbed simultaneously, so that, let us say, Sophocles, Dante, and Descartes entered Russia together and seemed like contemporaries who argued directly with one another. This telescoping of cultural history created a sense of urgency, and of the presentness of the distant past, that is absent in the West.

Because of a strong sense of the utter conventionality of genres, the Russian tradition became one of metaliterature. Tolstoy famously said that War and Peace belongs to no recognized genre, and that makes it quintessentially Russian since “not a single work of Russian literature, from Gogol’s Dead Souls to Dostoevsky’s Dead House” conforms to Western norms of genre. It is hardly surprising that the Russian Formalists developed a theory of literature centering on what they called “baring the device.”

The moral urgency of Russian culture, combined with a sense of its conventionality, readily led to the question called “the justification of culture.” Westerners might ask whether high culture should be transformed, but Russians argued about whether it should be abolished altogether. After all, it depended on the labor of oppressed peasants, and therefore was morally suspect. As one critic observed, peasants have suffered greatly so that we can sit in our studies discussing social philosophy. There was a tradition of great writers’ rejecting or burning their own works.

What in Russian history has caused the careers of writers to be so closely linked to politics in ways that are unusual to Western countries? All of the authors you’ve written about were either closely tied to the state, executed by it, or forced by it into exile, which wouldn’t be the case among a random selection of, say, major British, German, or French writers.

Quite true. For reasons hard to specify, more than any culture I have heard of, Russians have revered literature. Reviewing an installment of Anna Karenina, Dostoevsky enthused that at last the existence of the Russian people had been justified. I cannot imagine a Frenchman’s or Englishman’s thinking that their existence required justification, and if they did, they would surely not turn to a novel. We tend to think that literature exists to reflect life, but Russians often seem to assume that life exists so that literature can be produced. It is a sort of bible and may be compared to the way ancient Hebrews viewed their sacred texts when it was still possible to add books to the canon.

Insult Pushkin—or the heroine of his novel Eugene Onegin—and you may be accused of “blasphemy.” Russian writers are prophets, a sort of “second government,” as a character in Solzhenitsyn says. Pasternak remarks that “a book is a squarish chunk of hot, smoking conscience—and nothing else!” When in the mid-1960s the novelist Mikhail Sholokhov proclaimed that the dissident writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel had not received a harsh enough sentence—when he lined up with the oppressors against the writers—the writer and editor Aleksandr Tvardovsky wrote that Sholokhov was no longer a Russian writer! Sholokhov’s books still existed, of course, but a Russian writer was not just a producer of great books.

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In your essays on Grossman and Dostoevsky, we end up at a place where the most consequential political acts are those of common, everyday decency toward those in our immediate surroundings. Is this because violence—perpetrated by the state, terrorists, or revolutionaries—renders political decisions essentially moral, such that the political and personal become inseparable? How do the challenges of forming non- or sub-political communities—whether traditional or radical ones—manifest in the work of these writers?

I address these questions in a book I am writing on the broad significance of Russian literature and experience from 1855 to the present. Russian living conditions have been extreme. In the Soviet Gulags at Kolyma in the far north, for instance, people labored at seventy degrees below zero in camps that supplied too few calories to sustain life. During the terror, people would spend the night dressed and prepared for arrest; they knew that every word was monitored and informers were everywhere so that it became a society of “whisperers.” Personal innocence was regarded as an outmoded concept, and there were camps for wives of enemies of the people. During the famine that accompanied the collectivization of agriculture, millions were starved to death as officials prevented them from gleaning grain left in fields or fishing in rivers. As with the Nazis, people were deliberately dehumanized.

For the Russians, these conditions provided a test of ideas. How would people who thought a given way behave? Who would steal food from a weaker prisoner or turn stool pigeon? Memoirists testified that intellectuals readily succumbed and always had some ingenious way to justify their loathsome behavior.

Soviet ideology taught that there is no such thing as non-class morality, no abstract good and evil; whatever benefits the Communist Party is by definition good. And the result alone counts. That was not the first principle of morality, it was the only one. To believe in the sanctity of human life, for instance, or that one should not be needlessly cruel was to show that one still adhered to ideas derived from religion or idealist philosophy and that one was therefore not a true materialist.

By the same reasoning, compassion was regarded as an impulse to be rooted out, and children were taught to overcome it. People who accepted this way of thinking behaved especially awfully in camps; after all, if only the result counts, why not save oneself at the expense of the life of another? Many people asked: Doesn’t that show there is something wrong with materialism, atheism, and relativism? The camps made it no mere intellectual exercise to argue that all is relative, and, for many, their experiences convinced them, as no arguments could have, that good and evil are as real as the laws of physics.

Evgeniia Ginzburg’s remarkable memoir Into the Whirlwind points out what many observed: the people least likely to behave badly, and to refuse to do what they regarded as evil even under severe punishment, were the religious believers. She describes one group who were made to stand barefoot on the ice because they refused to work on Easter; they withstood the punishment while singing hymns. She and other atheists wondered if that showed heroism or fanaticism. And an uncomfortable question occurred to them: Would atheists have had sufficient courage to resist doing what they regarded as wrong? It was considerations like these that led many—not Ginzburg herself—to become believers.

Westerners often take for granted that the purpose of life is happiness. What else could it be? Mainstream economics presumes that “maximizing utility” is the only human motivation. Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov exposed the shallowness of such a view of life, and Soviet conditions made it seem, as Solzhenitsyn writes, like the prattle of a child.

In short, the Russians asked ultimate questions under extreme conditions. One could, of course, question whether extremes, rather than the everyday, are the reality against which ideas should be tested, and Russians have wondered that, too. Tolstoy insisted that it is the sum total of ordinary conditions that comprise life, and one needs to acquire prosaic wisdom, as Levin, the hero of Anna Karenina and Pierre in War and Peace do.

Your keen attention to the stuff that makes up great works—word choices, sentence construction, the ordering of details, and strategic repetitions—comes through especially strongly in your pieces on translations of the poets Pushkin and Griboedov. What challenges does the issue of literary craft pose for Russian-to-English translators, and what makes a translation successful or—more interestingly, perhaps—unsuccessful?

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It has always amazed me that teachers of Russian literature take so little care in which translation they pick for their students, or that reviewers of new translations seem to miss the very point of translating great literary works. They often focus on word-for-word accuracy, but that means ignoring style, so that peasant dialect becomes professorial English or Biblical cadences are rendered in kidspeak. Some translators even focus on preserving the word order of the original on the grounds that they are trying to convey the author’s style. But how is a reader to know whether a given word order is a bold stylistic choice or just how you say it in Russian?

The question to ask is: Does this version convey what makes the work great? What is the point of a comic novel that isn’t funny? There is only one version of Gogol’s Dead Souls (Guerney, recently revised by Fusso) that is funny. One has to understand a work to know what word to pick. One can’t just choose the first definition in the Oxford Russian-English dictionary. The central concept of Notes from Underground is “spite”—action done just so, harming oneself just because supposedly no one ever does—and so to render the word as “wickedness,” as one version does, is to obscure the book’s whole point.

The Griboedov play Woe from Wit supplies Russian with an extraordinary number of quotable lines—probably more than any other work—and so a translation has to convey that fact. None does. One should capture the tone of the original, as the Katherine Tiernan O’Connor/Diana Burgin version of Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita brilliantly does. When she is translating realist novels—which she understood—Constance Garnett is often very good at that. Years ago, Janet Malcolm, with whom I had communicated about her book on Chekhov, asked me to review a new translation of War and Peace, which, she knew, had to be bad because no good writer would write the way some passages were rendered. To use Mikhail Bakhtin’s terms, one has to regard a literary work as a whole utterance, not a collection of sentences.

Sometimes one need only be a sensitive literary critic to produce a good translation; at other times, one needs the creative talents of a significant poet or prose writer. One does not have to love literature the way Russians do, but it doesn’t hurt.

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