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Essays on Russian Novelists   By: (1865-1943)

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etext by James Rusk (jrusk@mac


By William Lyon Phelps



The Japanese war pricked one of the biggest bubbles in history, and left Russia in a profoundly humiliating situation. Her navy was practically destroyed, her armies soundly beaten, her offensive power temporarily reduced to zero, her treasury exhausted, her pride laid in the dust. If the greatness of a nation consisted in the number and size of its battleships, in the capacity of its fighting men, or in its financial prosperity, Russia would be an object of pity. But in America it is wholesome to remember that the real greatness of a nation consists in none of these things, but rather in its intellectual splendour, in the number and importance of the ideas it gives to the world, in its contributions to literature and art, and to all things that count in humanity's intellectual advance. When we Americans swell with pride over our industrial prosperity, we might profitably reflect for a moment on the comparative value of America's and Russia's contributions to literature and music.

At the start, we notice a rather curious fact, which sharply differentiates Russian literature from the literature of England, France, Spain, Italy, and even from that of Germany. Russia is old; her literature is new. Russian history goes back to the ninth century; Russian literature, so far as it interests the world, begins in the nineteenth. Russian literature and American literature are twins. But there is this strong contrast, caused partly by the difference in the age of the two nations. In the early years of the nineteenth century, American literature sounds like a child learning to talk, and then aping its elders; Russian literature is the voice of a giant, waking from a long sleep, and becoming articulate. It is as though the world had watched this giant's deep slumber for a long time, wondering what he would say when he awakened. And what he has said has been well worth the thousand years of waiting.

To an educated native Slav, or to a professor of the Russian language, twenty or thirty Russian authors would no doubt seem important; but the general foreign reading public is quite properly mainly interested in only five standard writers, although contemporary novelists like Gorki, Artsybashev, Andreev, and others are at this moment deservedly attracting wide attention. The great five, whose place in the world's literature seems absolutely secure, are Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoi. The man who killed Pushkin in a duel survived till 1895, and Tolstoi died in 1910. These figures show in how short a time Russian literature has had its origin, development, and full fruition.

Pushkin, who was born in 1799 and died in 1838, is the founder of Russian literature, and it is difficult to overestimate his influence. He is the first, and still the most generally beloved, of all their national poets. The wild enthusiasm that greeted his verse has never passed away, and he has generally been regarded in Russia as one of the great poets of the world. Yet Matthew Arnold announced in his Olympian manner, "The Russians have not yet had a great poet." It is always difficult fully to appreciate poetry in a foreign language, especially when the language is so strange as Russian. It is certain that no modern European tongue has been able fairly to represent the beauty of Pushkin's verse, to make foreigners feel him as Russians feel him, in any such measure as the Germans succeeded with Shakespeare, as Bayard Taylor with Goethe, as Ludwig Fulda with Rostand. The translations of Pushkin and of Lermontov have never impressed foreign readers in the superlative degree. The glory of English literature is its poetry; the glory of Russian literature is its prose fiction.

Arnold told Sainte Beuve that he did not think Lamartine was "important." Sainte Beuve answered, "He is important for us... Continue reading book >>

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