The Millions

A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson

I’ve read a lot of Russian literature and a lot about it, several general histories (starting with ’s classic) and a bunch of more specialized ones. Frankly, I didn’t think any book could add much to my understanding. But the massive new by , , , and is a revelation. It gave me a fresh outlook on almost every page, adding not just new names but new connections between them, and new ways of looking at the subject. In their introduction, the authors say they want “to bring out the recurrent stories and national frameworks through which literature responds to social, historical, and political reality, and through these interactions to demonstrate the transformations of literature,”, , and , not just cited but used thoughtfully and well). Of course, the fact that it’s an academic history means you occasionally have to wade through dense academic prose, but thankfully such patches are rare; a more representative sentence is “ himself was an interesting example of modernist experimentation: he considered his mentor, a personal friend, and his competitor.” This is not only clean, readable writing, it exemplifies their emphasis on interrelationships. Another result of the book’s academic nature, inevitably, is that it focuses on material about which academically interesting things can be said; I was initially taken aback when pages about were followed by a mere paragraph on Bunin, Bunin being a much better writer, but then it occurred to me there’s nothing really to about Bunin, especially for an academic. He didn’t join literary groups, he didn’t radically change style, he didn’t emigrate and then return and have a complicated relationship with the Bolsheviks like Gorky, he just wrote great short stories, decade after decade (which presumably also explains the omission of fine short-story writers like ).

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