Review: Russian Literature: a very short introduction, by Catriona Kelly

Sometimes I feel like my entire education is made up of “very short introductions” to a myriad of subjects. As if I know that I don’t know everything but feel that, should I come across a given subject on Jeopardy, I could handle it pretty well – many subjects at least. And then I read these perfect 150-page Oxford University Press bundles of wonder that end up putting my own education, my owns claims of knowledge, to shame.

I literally knew nothing about Russian literature. I avoid Chekov, sparing no expense, and I tried reading Anna Karenina at age thirteen. Yeah that didn’t work out. I think I got through chapter eight of part one. I know. Fail. War & Peace has always been of interest to me, but I supplemented it by watching "North & South" starring Patrick Swayze instead. I figured the ampersand counted for something. The closest I’ve ever gotten to a stage version of something actually Russian (I'm leaving Kushner out here) was Gogol’s The Inspector General, both at Fordham and on the TV show "Wishbone." Win.

But neither of those two experiences drove me to pick this book. Actually, I didn’t pick it. It was a Christmas gift from my mother who knows I like the “Very Short Introduction” series. Russian Literature is not one I would have picked up. I have to say, I’m doing that a lot lately – reading books that I wouldn’t have picked up if someone else hadn’t suggested it or given it. What that says about my taste, I’m not sure, and I don’t think I’m ready to have that conversation with myself.

So, moving on: I’ve always lived on what I think of as an anglicized literature timeline: American Lit, British Lit, and English-language translations. So when I read that imaginative literature was a Western concept, I had to stop and think. Have I really only been reading Brit lit? I had never really thought about it before. While the bourgeois Western Europeans were writing their little ditties, “textual production in medieval Russia was dominated by ecclesiastical needs.” Ooooohhhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

So really, Russian literature (in the commonly understood Western sense) is not that old at all. Well slap me in the forehead do I feel dumb. In my senior year at Fordham, I took a class with Andrew Furer called “Literature of Social Change” which examined the socioeconomic effects on American Lit. Keyword American. I don't criticize Prof. Furer for leaving it as American, but I'd have appreciated knowing about Russia.... I’d never really thought about it in other countries. Not that I was assuming that there were no socioeconomic causes and/or effects, but that I’d never considered what they were, really. Kelly’s narrative goes pretty in depth to explain the economic changes, social changes, class structure changes, government changes, and sexual revolutionary changes that affected the mode of Russian Lit.

It took everything I knew about Russia and the Soviet Union, itself, and broke it into little pieces of real understanding – not a series of dates and names. On top of that, never having taken a class in Russian language, and not really paying attention to the language when I worked on Kushner’s Slavs!, I hadn’t grasped the uniqueness of the written language itself – the way the language works compared to the Romantic languages (and even German) that I’ve been exposed to – the way the adjective can move around in a sentence to give it a different meaning every time you said it….I never knew that. Slavs was funny and very poignant to begin with but now, looking back with all of this knowledge, it’s even better!

One of my favorite passages was on the limits to the centredness of Russian literary tradition – how 19th and 20th century writers in Russia retained an “imperial” mindset in which everything other, everything non-Russian, is ethnic, is exotic – until they didn’t. Eventually they came to find the beauty and other within Russia, spreading the germ that eventually allowed literature to go beyond the bourgeois. Ironic since Americans seem to still have that mindset about, oh, just about everything. Way to go, America. Anyway, it’s good stuff. Whether you want to know about Russian Lit or not, it's good stuff.


  1. I am happy you go so much out of it. That it stretches your brain is a happy bonus. Much Love, Mommy.


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