A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson (Languagehat)

December 1, 2014 | 6 books mentioned 2 5 min read

coverI earn my living copyediting books, usually for Oxford University Press; while this is a reasonably pleasant occupation, and I often learn things from the material I edit, it doesn’t usually intersect with the range of books I read for pleasure and report on for The Millions. This year, however, I was lucky enough to work on Ivan Pavlov: A Russian Life in Science, by Daniel P. Todes, a book I would have been glad to read under any circumstances and the most impressive biography I’ve read in years, in places having the feel of a classic Russian novel. Todes has a gift for explaining the details of biological research in a way that I, no science maven, could follow without difficulty, but I will leave to others the evaluation of the scientific part of the book; the aspect that enthralled me is indicated by the subtitle.  This is very much a Russian life, and because Todes knows Russia well (he has spent a great deal of time there and speaks the language), he gets the details right and puts them in an illuminating perspective, something all too rare in foreign accounts of things Russian. Chapter 1 begins, “Every Russian name contains a bit of family history,” and Todes traces the name Pavlov back to a peasant named Pavel who “became a reader and chanter in a small rural church in central Russia” during the reign of Peter the Great. He correctly identifies service to the church as “a rare means of upward mobility” in tsarist Russia, which sets up the drama of Ivan’s refusal to follow in the footsteps of his father the priest (who was furious) and rejection of the church in favor of science. Young Ivan got his only formal education in psychology, surprisingly, at the seminary, and Todes describes in vivid detail how he was taught. But reading materialist scientists like Ivan Sechenov and radical political thinkers like Dmitry Pisarev turned him permanently away from religion, and he never wavered in his unbelief, even mocking his wife’s faith until (in a touching scene) he realized how much it hurt her. Both he and his wife, Serafima, were strongly influenced by Fyodor Dostoevsky (she considered her meetings with him “the most important moment in my religious life”), and there is a distressing account of how the great writer was cool to her until he realized she was a gentile (she was usually called by the nickname Sara, which he assumed was Jewish). The account of the young couple’s rocky road from extreme poverty to the security he achieved in 1891 as head of a well-funded physiology lab is riveting, and still more so is the even rockier road through the horrors of World War I and the October Revolution and ensuing civil war (in which he lost friends, coworkers, and his favorite son) to his final status as the hero of Soviet science, protected by his 1904 Nobel Prize and international fame. It’s amazing enough that a Russian born in 1849 lived to 1936; what’s nearly unbelievable is that Pavlov did so, dying in his bed of natural causes, while maintaining a firm and unyielding public opposition to the brutality of Joseph Stalin’s regime. Pavlov’s life intersected with those of many others, from Dostoevsky to Nikolai Bukharin, and I was particularly delighted to encounter one of his assistants, whom I had known from her literary work: “One newcomer to the IEM lab in 1924 was the writer Rita Rait-Kovaleva (then still known by her original name, Raisa Chernomordik), who would later translate Vonnegut and Faulkner into Russian.” It goes without saying that anyone interested in Pavlov will want to read this first serious biography, but anyone who cares about the modern history of Russia should do so as well. It’s one of those rare works that actually deserve the adjective “magisterial.”

coverTwo very different works of criticism have changed my thinking about Russian literature in the last year. Peter Hodgson’s From Gogol to Dostoevsky is a groundbreaking look at perhaps the most crucial decade in Russian literary history, the 1840s, when the effervescent mix of styles and approaches that had existed until then was channeled into the socially conscious “realism” that we are familiar with from the classic Russian novelists. Hodgson takes as his focus the unjustly forgotten Yakov Butkov, an ambitious, self-educated writer from the provinces who died young and poor after publishing the remarkable collection Petersburg Attics (and a few other stories), and uses Bakhtin’s concept of the grotesque to analyze Butkov and the other writers of his day: “There is in Gogol and Dostoevsky an obvious reluctance to westernize Russian fiction, a reluctance which is gradually being recognized as essential to the history of the forties…I intend to explore the connection between the grotesque in Gogol and Dostoevsky, and their reluctance to fall in line with Belinsky’s utilitarian naturalism.” I can’t even begin to describe the many insights into how these writers worked and how they were misunderstood by critics like Belinsky (and almost everyone since); I’ll just urge anyone interested in the period to go find a copy. The other work is Gary Saul Morson’s Narrative and Freedom: The Shadows of Time, which focuses on Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Anton Chekhov, as well as Sophocles, George Eliot, and many others, to illustrate ways writers have found to avoid the determinism inherent in the idea of foreshadowing; Morson comes up with the term “sideshadowing” to describe an alternative: “sideshadowing admits, in addition to actualities and impossibilities, a middle realm of real possibilities that could have happened even if they did not.” Bakhtin is put to good use here as well; again, there’s no point trying to summarize, and all I can do is say I was sorry when it was over.

covercovercoverLike many Americans, I tend to pay attention to soccer only every four years, when the World Cup rolls around; this year I decided to remedy my abysmal ignorance of the game, and I read three superb books.  David Goldblatt’s The Ball is Round: A Global History of Soccer, almost certainly the best history of any sport I’ve read, brilliantly combines sporting and social history; to take just one of the many nuggets I got from it: “In a strained compromise [in 1908], indicative of the fundamental weakness of Italian ultra-nationalism, the ban on foreigners was rescinded in return for the official adoption of calcio as the name of the game rather than football.” I always wondered about that. Jonathan Wilson’s Inverting The Pyramid: The History of Soccer Tactics explained its topic so well, using diagrams and biographies as well as descriptions of matches (many of which are available on YouTube, at least in highlights), that I wound up feeling I was starting to understand how the game works. And Robert Edelman’s Spartak Moscow: A History of the People’s Team in the Workers’ State taught me a great deal about the history of working-class Moscow as well as that of the soccer team whose long rivalry with Dinamo is comparable to those of Real Madrid with Barcelona and Celtic with Rangers; I recommend it to anyone with an interest in the Russian game.

More from A Year in Reading 2014

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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is a retired freelance editor in Hadley, Mass.; he is coauthor of Uglier Than a Monkey's Armpit, a collection of international curses and insults, and sole proprietor of the blog languagehat.com.


  1. I never knew how much I needed to read about Pavlov – I will be “Russian” out to find this book, as well as the literary essays. This excellent essay lit a fire under me by condensing so many complex ideas into a couple of streamlined paragraphs. Thank you.

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