Paean to Russian literary giants

Print edition : March 27, 2020

Alexander Pushkin.

Leo Tolstoy.

Nikolai Gogol.

Ivan Turgenev.

The Yenisei river flowing through Russia, seen from a train on the Trans Siberian Railway. Photo: Getty Images

In her latest book, Sara Wheeler travels through Russia to rediscover Russian literature.

Narod bezmolvstvuet (the people are silent) is the famous closing line of Alexander Pushkin’s play Boris Godunov about the eponymous Tsar. Although people want the fall of the Godunov dynasty, they recognise themselves to inadvertently be a legitimising instrument for the powerful.

Contemporary Russians apparently quote the line when they have no say in their leaders’ actions but feel compelled to collectively acquiesce with them. Sara Wheeler’s Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age traces the intellectual and ordinary histories of some of the giants of Russian literature by highlighting how deeply embedded they are in the cultural psyches of the people.

In O My America!: Six Women and Their Second Acts in a New World (2013), her previous book, Sara Wheeler similarly mixed travelogue and history to write about six Victorian England women, including Fanny Trollope (Anthony Trollope’s mother) and Harriet Martineau, who reinvented themselves in the United States. Sara Wheeler follows a similar recipe in her latest book by following the Russian masters quite literally in her travels and her cooking.

The book is loosely devoted to a group of writers though Sara Wheeler claims in her introduction that she aimed for a “flowing whole” rather than a set of literary essays.

The usual suspects abound: Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Goncharov, Mikhail Lermentov, Fyodor Dostoevesky, Ivan Turgenev and Anton Chekhov, among others. If your literary childhood consisted of an avid interest in Russian literature, as did mine, then you can imagine why Sara Wheeler’s journey holds some appeal. Each chapter is devoted to a particular writer in an irreverent way where biography and intellectual milieu are blended tastefully with the author’s travelogue, political commentary, language learning and food preparation.

This fusion works because of Sara Wheeler’s whole-hearted commitment to a simple premise: Russians revere the writer. From the near-mythical proportions of censorship to the preservation of writers’ houses, it is hard to deny the pivotal role that the writer plays in a Russian’s life. In this regard, the larger question has always been the connection between art and politics and the modes of resistance offered by art to political power. Indeed, a number of movements such as Russian Formalism led by Viktor Schlovsky propounded anti-Soviet precepts by divorcing art from the rigidities of Marxist dogma and heralding a future that was decidedly not pro-establishment.

Sara Wheeler captures this utopic intensity of Russian literature perfectly in her analysis of the writers and their work. Russian literature often tends to be discussed sociologically or politically, but the author avoids such straitjacketing in her methodology. While her style is not lyrical or ineffable like that of, say, Pico Iyer, yet the curious synthesis of her offbeat interests such as cooking and the Russian language leads to a poetry of sincere forbearance. There is an air of practicality to her demeanour that is shaped as much by her persona as by her circumstances.

Literature is not simply art; it is also the distinctive stamp of the individual. This is a revealing way to enter the narrative as this avenue works alongside the travelogue to invoke fealty from readers as they follow in the footsteps of the writer. Perhaps it is what produced lines such as this: “I offered picnic contributions, and the three of us talked while eating pirozhki (small meat turnovers), kolbasa sausage, and, of course, cucumber, as the butterscotch light of late midsummer evening settled over Zelenograd, a Russian silicon valley, and after that on swathes of forest, the odd factory, and sharp-roofed chalets set in fields of purple flowers.”

Mud and Stars is ostensibly about the Russian writers of the golden era, which spanned the 19th century. So, it is exciting to see her outlook towards them. For Sara Wheeler, the writer and his work are separate inasmuch as art does not subsume personality or history. This implies that literary criticism that draws actively on the author’s social and political interests exists companionably with criticism that does not.

For example, Dostoevesky’s interest in folk culture that conjoins his countrymen and God in his novels is to be understood simultaneously with his xenophobia and anti-Semitism. In some ways, this discordance blunts the moral force of the literary pursuits of these writers. For, if the writers who denounced the moral turpitude of their times could not practice what they preached, can they be shining beacons for an entire people, an entire nation?

Even so, the writers are the pith of the narrative. Sara Wheeler engages with them to make sense of the Russia she discovers and turns to them constantly for meaning and illustration. She links the dissipation of the country’s wealth at the hands of the rich and the powerful to the history of the untold suffering that the people have experienced across centuries. In their condemnation of the authoritarian powers, writers implicitly provided a history of the common man as victim. Indeed, even the “superfluous man”, a literary figure popular in 1840s and 1850s Russian fiction, is not just a Byronic hero who cherishes luxury and decadence but one who is also indifferent to societal problems and issues.

As in her previous books, these writers intriguingly displace the place from the centre of her travel writing. The writers turn out to be adventurers who pierce the soul of Russia by enwrapping it in memory, history and critique. In doing so, they transcend geography and its vastness but at the same time speak to us more about Russia than anything else. It is this vital concordance between nation, people and literature that Sara Wheeler attempts to flesh out in her travel writing.

Her broader enterprise is a thoroughgoing critique of Russian President Vladimir Putin and his oligarchical Russia. For Sara Wheeler, the persecution of pop stars or the capture of television for propaganda is analogous to the persecution suffered by her literary superstars in an earlier era. This deployment of the past to excoriate the present is stylistically not new, but this familiar route leads Sara Wheeler to some bold conclusions about the country and its people.

Food for thought

The author discovers the cultural history of the people through their customs and cuisine. She cooks using recipes from Anya von Bremzen’s Mastering the Art of Soviet Cooking: A Memoir of Food and Longing (2013) and points out that “a story about Soviet food is a chronicle of longing”. But by sourcing miseries and resignation from the people as testament to their suffering, she overlooks the singularities of this seemingly foreign culture.

She tries the banya, a steam bath with Slavic roots which involves people hitting each other or themselves with dried branches or a bunch of leaves to improve blood circulation. She wrestles with the Russian language but struggles to escape some routine stereotypes about Russia.

Sara Wheeler attempts a mild ethnological account of the country that reeks of ethnocentrism. Perhaps, this is a problem that plagues all travel writing: how to think and feel about another locale when your standards are set by a Western developed society that is premised on a homogeneous hope and idea of development? Thus, modern Russia does not meet her requirements.

Whether it is Tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union or Putin’s Russia, Russia just cannot do anything right. The market economy is as devastating as Sovietisation, according to her. At one point, the author remarks wryly: “The country has two eternal problems—roads and idiots.”

Although she portrays the local people with whom she has interacted in a harmless fashion, her impressions of officials are less benevolent. For the author, the signs of Putin’s depravity are everywhere. She launches a blistering attack on city spaces.

The Trans-Siberian Railway impresses her but elsewhere she sees “scrubby wastelands” and “pools of standing water”. But if you go to homestays and mix with the local people, institutions in small towns are bound to be old and daily life can indeed appear monotonous. Let us not begrudge the average Russian complex inner lives and some measure of joy in the modern era. While it is true that the Russian classics paint a sordid picture of life in general, is there not something more to be said about the country that made possible such great works of literature?

In this vast kaleidoscope of suffering, are there yet not some chinks that we can view as more than simply desolate and dark? Of course, there is no aesthetic that can justify suffering, but the Russian aesthetic even in an utterly bleak novel like Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate (1960) is more than unmitigated despair. Perhaps, the fatalism she misattributes to the Russian people is also a hypersensitivity to historical-personal experience and a world view that imprints on its memory these melancholic dimensions.

It is possible that Sara Wheeler is cynical about politics in general. In the writers of her choice, like in the case of Leo Tolstoy, politics is a fruition of theory and art. In contrast, she connects Putin’s enduring popularity to a kind of restorative nostalgia. Svetlana Boym defines restorative nostalgia as a longing that reconstructs the past in a trans-historical fashion. This is often at the root of religious and national revivals across the world today where the ancient aeons are supposed to provide a salve to the pain of the present.

Is literature meant to envision a utopia? Is this utopia the vision of the author or the need of the people? Is Sara Wheeler’s own utopia, the utopia of the American dream? What do Russians think of America, for instance? Perhaps, America to them is a form of philistinism made rich by McDonald’s and Hollywood.

However, it is certainly not surprising that Sara Wheeler’s account is biased because it never claims to be more faithful to the experiences of the Russian people than to the author’s own experience. Between frenetic activities such as trekking, visiting museums, staying at homestays and learning the language, she remains the very captain of her soul.

Above all, the book is a paean to literature. Russian novels have long outlasted political propaganda in their influence and legacy. They have been inherited through the generations as surely as biology to become part of an ongoing chain of genetic memory. At the same time, they also show us the inner rifts in a work of art: it is not easy to live up to art.

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