Wednesday, 4 March 2020

Kissing Tolstoy, or Dammit, Dostoyevsky!

Regular readers will appreciate that although my posts are often pretty highbrow, I'm most interested in how what's currently perceived as "high culture" gets recycled by so-called "low culture". Hence I've blogged about Poldark and the Brothers Karamazovwhy James Norton doesn't speak Russian; and even about how the BBC uses Great Russian Novels to finger TV villains. There is, however, endless fun in exploring how one of the lowest genres of all - so low you need a bathysphere for access, or at least a bath with lots of scented bubbles and pink prosecco - interacts with classic literature. I have in mind, of course, the Adult Romance. Readers, I give you Penny Reid's Kissing Tolstoy

Fear not, this is no 19th century kiss-and-tell. Tolstoy's presence in the story is purely vicarious (and to judge by the front cover illustration, he's probably Pushkin, anyway). Russian literature, especially War and Peace, inspires clever but self-doubting sophomore Anna to sign up for a senior class in the topic. After running out on a blind date with a man she found disturbingly attractive, Anna resigns herself to being single: as she warns the sisterhood, "Men who ride motorcycles, who wear leather like a second skin, and look hot doing it, they don't date ladies who idolize Tolstoy". After preparing herself for class by reading every book on the reading list (basically all of Russian literature) except for Chernyshevsky's What Is To Be Done and Gorky's Mother (and we sympathize), Anna rejoices: "I was obviously with my people. I was with the lovers of Dostoevsky and Chekhov" (I do hope not). Only moments later, however, she's ruing her decision to take Russian lit: "Dammit, Dostoyevsky! Why did you have to be so tragic and compelling?" 

Not at all predictably, her new professor, smouldering second-generation Russian-Ukrainian emigre Luca Kroft, just happens to be the guy from the bar. As their eyes meet over a stack of Onegin handouts, Anna reflects: "Not only did he look good in leather pants, fabulous in a suit with a bow-tie, was a world expert on Russian literature, but also he apparently spoke Russian. Flawlessly. Flee! He is temptation incarnate. He will steal your soul with sexiness." And while the ending may fail to surprise ("Ms Harris, can you explain what attracted you to the ripped, sensitive, yet masterful Tolstoy-quoting bachelor who is so well-endowed his family funds most of the University's tenured positions?"), we can still value Ms Reid's novel for the innovative use she makes of the classics. First of all, Anna and Luca verbalize their feelings for each other by comparing themselves to Tolstoy's characters: he sees her as Natasha, and thus tells her to wait for her Pierre. When Anna realizes that Luca has cast himself as Andrei, she needs to come up with a new version of War and Peace in which Natasha and Andrei stay together. Secondly, however, Anna draws eclectically on 19th-century prose to put her emotions in context. Here is her response to a tense feedback session with Luca: "If only I had an autopsy to perform - like Bazarov, in Fathers and Sons - it certainly would have been an excellent excuse to flee." Best of all, however, is the moral lesson that Anna (and Ms Reid) share with us in conclusion: "If Russian literature and tragic novels had taught me one thing, it was this: disappointment and heartache might be around the next corner. But adventure, love, joy, and happiness - the living of a rich, meaningful life - was now."

We applaud the message of Kissing Tolstoy (although we fear Tolstoy would not). Another genre author who knows her Lev Nikolaevich is Jilly Cooper. Here she is summarizing Anna Karenina for The Guardian: '... [T]here's lots of sex. And Tolstoy obviously knew all the upper classes backwards, because he was a member of them and moved in those circles. He captures the double standards very well. That's the more terrible aspect of the story – Anna's brother shags the nanny and immediately he's forgiven by the wife and nobody minds at all, and Vronsky goes back into society and everybody goes, "Whoops, oh well, never mind!"'

Thankfully, the Russian classics continue to inspire popular genre-writing: I'm intrigued by Death with Dostoevsky, an American campus thriller by Katherine Bolger Hyde (whose other titles include Arsenic with Austen, Bloodstains with Bronte, Cyanide with Christie and - more surprisingly - Everything Tells Us About God). I expect great things from it. Let's not forget, as Claire Whitehead points out in her excellent recent book The Poetics of Early Russian Crime Fiction 1860-1917 that Dostoevsky himself never fully extricated his characters from the mire of genre fiction; or that, as scholar Cathy McAteer contends in her forthcoming monograph, Dostoevsky's translator David Magarshack's crime thriller Big Ben Strikes Eleven (1934) adapts several formative elements from Crime and Punishment. Clearly, crime pays, and so does Russian literature. As Dorothy Parker never wrote:
Men frequently make passes
At girls who take Tolstoy classes.

Further note to regular readers: Google stopped notifying me about new comments, and for a long time I sadly resigned myself to believing that no-one was reading this blog any more. It was a pleasant surprise when I finally fixed the glitch and discovered that I had many moons of unread comments awaiting approval! If you feel inspired or just critical, please do take a moment to sound off about one of my posts.
I should add that I have just discovered the website Netgalley and I promptly signed up to review two new anthologies of Gogol translations - by Susanne Fusso and Oliver Ready respectively. I will write about both in a new post soon!

Monday, 27 January 2020

The Fact That... (Or, Dinosaurs, Newburyport)

The fact that it isn't possible to read anything these days without finding a reference to a major Russian writer, the fact that I was reading Ducks, Newburyport the other day and I really thought I was safe for once with all those cinnamon rolls and Obamacare but then the narrator segued into talking about Solzhenitsyn, the fact that she was remembering her beloved mother and then bam! Solzhenitsyn just pops up out of nowhere like this:

[...] Mommy smoking, the fact that she used to lie on a towel on the beach and read a book while we swam, book, sunglasses, and I thought she was so beautiful, Jane Austen, the fact that one summer she was reading Cancer Ward, a huge book, and there was a big picture of him on the back, Solzhenitsyn, and he had a sort of Amish beard, the fact that I don't know if he picked that up in Vermont or it's a Russian thing, "It's a Russia thing", the fact that you never see Solzhenitsyn smiling [...]

The fact that (and I'll stop this now) either Lucy Ellmann or her narrator need to get out more, as it's easy to see Solzhenitsyn smiling; he's practically an Internet meme. Here he is, cracking up:

The ubiquity of Russian literature references aside, I am ever-intrigued by those writers who weave a Russian classic into their plot. This kind of intertextuality is de rigueur in Russian prose fiction; overseas, it's more of a surprise - not least because it shows how other cultures have made these texts their own, re-inventing them for new. There is all too little critical literature on how Russian writing, in translation, has shaped non-Western cultures either directly (in terms of imitation) or indirectly (in terms of political or aesthetic attitudes). In Steven Marks’ enlightening chapter section
about Dostoevsky’s worldwide influence, he suggests that the great Russian nineteenth-century writers were so popular in societies such as Japan and the Middle East, where they penetrated in the early 1900s in translation, because 'Russian literature taught the art of social and psychological inquiry, and in particular dealt with the familiar problem of making the transition from a traditional to a new way of life' (p. 97). Hence we get international echoes, for example, J.M. Coetzee using Dostoevsky's own persona and characters in The Master of Petersburg (1994); and even more exotically, Atiq Rahimi's not extremely good recasting of Crime and Punishment in modern Afghanistan, A Curse on Dostoevsky (first published in French as Maudit soit Dostoïevksi, 2011).  Every so often, however, Russian originals get used in an even more subtle way: not as plot templates, but as plot drivers - demonstrating how meaningfully plots and archetypes can persist away from their home culture.

My example for today is from Négar Djavadi’s Disoriental (2016; translated from the French by Tina Kover, 2018). As the narrator of the story is a female bisexual atheist Iranian refugee, it's fairly likely that Dostoevsky would not have personally approved of her. Nevertheless, Crime and Punishment defines a key moment of anagnorisis in the lives of the narrator's father and grandmother. (Disoriental tracks back and forth between a Paris fertility clinic, where the narrator is struggling to start her own family, with flashbacks to her parents and other relatives in mid-twentieth-century Iran). Here, her father, Darius, the most intelligent and politically aware person in the family (not least by his readings of Russian authors) has stolen a gun and is on the verge of shooting his despised father, Mirza Ali. 

Mother burst into the courtyard and inserted herself between the gun and Mirza Ali. [...] "Don't do this," she begged. "Please, son. Don't do this. If you pull that trigger, you'll be a criminal. You'll end up in prison, and..."
As the words tumbled around in my grandmother's head, seemingly having no effect on her son, she became aware of an unexpected flash of clarity in the back of her mind. All of a sudden, she knew with absolute certainty the origin of the anguish that was eating away at him, She had felt the same thing when she read the book she'd found among Darius's things, its pages battered and filled with scribbled notes,. It was Darius she'd seen in that tortured character. Darius who was, who might become...
"What do you want? To end up like Raskolnikov?" she shouted.
The shock of hearing his mother say that name was so great that Darius’ arm fell to his side. Suddenly, reality took on a new dimension. He saw her now. No longer the powerless, docile mother, but the woman who had read Dostoevsky, had patiently deciphered each sentence, had educated herself in silence. This woman, he did not doubt, had the strength to stand up for herself against her husband. She didn't need her son to defend her any more (p. 65-6).

So Darius doesn't shoot, and his mother leaves her husband for a new life in the city. And thus, long before Lolita, Dostoevsky was empowering women in Tehran... Enough irony there to make Solzhenitsyn smile.


  • Steven G. Marks, How Russia Shaped The Modern World: From Art to Anti-Semitism, Ballet to Bolshevism (Princeton, NY and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004)
  • Dover Beach blog, for happy Solzhenitsyn pictures.