A Year in Reading: Stephen Dodson

December 3, 2018 | 9 books mentioned 2 5 min read

I’ve read a lot of Russian literature and a lot about it, several general histories (starting with D.S. Mirsky’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 A History of Russian Literature by Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman, and Stephanie Sandler 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 they do so consistently—this is not a list of authors and works but a dense description of a web of interconnections, relying on the latest scholarship (and I was very pleased to see some of my favorites, like Valerie Kivelson, Leo Livak, and Vladislav Zubok, 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 “Kataev himself was an interesting example of modernist experimentation: he considered Bunin his mentor, Olesha a personal friend, and Nabokov 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 Gorky 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 say 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 Yuri Nagibin).

coverBut that’s a minor issue; in general their coverage is comprehensive, and it starts at the very beginning, with the 10th-century acceptance of Christianity by Kievan Rus. Indeed, the first section (“The Medieval Period,” over 100 pages) and the second (“The Seventeenth Century,” almost as long) are so through and well written that I can’t imagine their being superseded in the foreseeable future—most histories merely glance briefly at everything before the 18th century. The scope and length of the book mean that the authors can take the time to discuss individual poems at length, quoting them in both Russian and English. Another useful feature is the “case studies,” which focus on particularly important authors and topics; for example, the discussion of the Lay of Igor’s Campaign puts it in context and sets out its contents more intelligibly than in any other short account I know, and following it with a long case study of the discovery and loss of the manuscript and the controversy about its authenticity is brilliant and justifies the idea all by itself. Other excellent case studies are about duels, Gogol, Formalism, Bakhtin, and Nabokov. There are fine descriptions of authors usually ignored, like Alexander Veltman and Aleksei Remizov, and I was particularly pleased to see the prominent attention given to one of my personal heroes, Nikolai Polevoi. The authors even take the time to mention some of the superb Soviet translators of foreign literature. The index is hit-and-miss, but fortunately one can use Google Books to compensate. In short, the book is indispensable for anyone seriously interested in Russian literature, and I’ll be consulting it for years to come.

covercoverThree years ago I wrote here about Stephen Kotkin’s Stalin: Paradoxes of Power, 1878-1928; last year Kotkin published the sequel, Stalin: Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, and I spent the first couple of months of this year engrossed in it. This volume is focused much more tightly on Stalin himself; as Kotkin says, it “takes place largely in his office, and indeed, in his mind.” It focuses on three major topics—the brutal collectivization of agriculture in 1929, the mass terror of the late 1930s, and the 1939 pact with Nazi Germany—and anyone interested in them will be fascinated by Kotkin’s detailed explanations, backed up by 160 pages of notes (many of which make useful reading in their own right). Here’s a portion of his explanation for the Terror:

Everything Stalin did during the years 1936–38 he had been talking about for years. … Stalin had stated that he was building socialism against all manner of implacable class enemies; that the class struggle sharpened as the country got closer to the full victory of socialism…, that the Zinovievites, Trotskyites, and the right deviation were interlinked and tied to the military…  that enemies had become desperate and resorted to all-out terror… and that Trotsky and his supposed followers were the most diabolical threat to socialism and the Soviet state.

It all made sense to Stalin, and when you’ve finished the book it will make sense to you, appalling as it all was. I can’t wait for the final volume.

covercovercovercovercoverAs a follow-up I read Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers, which while not as scholarly as Kotkin is compulsively readable and gives an unmatched portrait of Soviet life for (mostly) ordinary people, and Vladislav Zubok’s A Failed Empire: The Soviet Union in the Cold War from Stalin to Gorbachev, which is a brilliant summary of that period. On the non-Russian front, I was bowled over by David Reich’s Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past; it starts with the history of genome studies (which have exploded in the last few years) and the surprising new things that have been learned about ancient humans and their migrations and minglings, and even I, who am functionally illiterate when it comes to the details of genetics, could follow along and understand what he was talking about.  And among the novels I read, I can particularly recommend Zadie Smith’s On Beauty; also, this year I read Crime and Punishment for the first time, and it’s just as good as they say!

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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.

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