Bryn Mawr Classical Review 98.3.05


Peter I. Barta, David H. J. Larmour and Paul Allen Miller (edd.), Russian Literature and the Classics. Studies in Russian and European Literature Vol. 1. Langhorne, PA: Harwood Academic Publishers, 1996. $60. ISBN 3-7186-0605-4.


Reviewed by Vasily Rudich.

One must only welcome what in fact is the first collection in English of essays dealing with the influence of Classical Antiquity on Russian Literature. The present volume covers the time period from the later half of the eighteenth century, when Russian literature, in the full sense of the word, came into being, to the present day. The articles included discuss the work of Gavrila Derzhavin, Fedor Dostoevsky, Andrei Bely, Vyacheslav Ivanov, Vasilii Grossman, Aleksandr Kushner, and Joseph Brodsky. A very conspicuous omission which one cannot but regret is that of Aleksandr Pushkin, whose work is permeated with classical material and who indeed exercised a major impact on the Russian view of what is poetry and how it must be written. To a lesser degree, this is true in regard to the greatest Russian twentieth century poet Osip Mandelshtam, whose appropriation of the Graeco-Roman heritage merits a separate treatment, even though some of the issues relevant to him are raised in the article on Brodsky.

The writings in the book are, with exception of the Introduction by the editors, for the most part, happily free of postmodernist jargon and procedures. Three essays stand out, in terms of both insight and interest: on the prophetic aspects of Greek tragedy as reflected in Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment, on the mythopoetic constituents in Andrei Bely's Petersburg, and on Vyacheslav Ivanov's cultural-religious synthesis of Hellenism and Christianity with special attention to his ambivalent poem "Palinode". All three articles exhibit not only fine appreciation of the said authors, but also elucidate the complex controversies surrounding their oeuvre.

Naomi Rood, author of the essay on Dostoevsky, did a service to both Classicists and Slavicists by drawing attention to the literary critic of the 1920s Lev Pumpyansky, whose name and work undeservedly sank into oblivion. Rood places into Bakhtinian perspective the critique by Pumpyansky of Vyachelav Ivanov's interpretation of Dostoevsky's novels in terms of Greek tragedy, and then proceeds to elaborate on the function of prophecy in both. She concludes that although the tragic hero and the hero of Dostoevsky stand "in a tensely bound and discreetly separate relation to the divine", in one case an emphasis is placed on the closeness, and in the other on the distance of that relationship.

Mary Jo White offers an elaborate and compelling analysis of the role played by classical myth in Bely's novel Petersburg, which Vladimir Nabokov considered among this century's greatest literary achievements. The author explicates the methods by which Bely successfully integrated the philosophical influences of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors, such as Nietzsche and Vladimir Soloviev, in his own "theurgic" act of creation, so that classical allusions became inextricably blended with the cultural myth of Russia.

Finally, Pamela Davidson's learned argument clarifies the confusion as regards Vyacheslav Ivanov's alleged repudiation of his lifelong enthusiasm about classical Greece in one of his famous later poems. By closely reading the text, Davidson convincingly demonstrates that Ivanov intended no such retraction; rather, the poet takes a moment of respite for contemplation before laying down the premises for an effort of yet even higher synthesis of Hellenism and Christianity, rooted in docta pietas, akin to that of the early Renaissance humanists. (It may be added that Ivanov sought and found a precedent for his view of Greek culture as the stage or/and aspect of revelation in the claim by Clement of Alexandria that everything beautiful and good is Christian, and in the work of the Cappadocian Fathers.)

Of the remaining authors, Charles Bryd interprets Derzhavin's poem on the pleasures of country life as an example of "anxiety of influence" and the poet's "filial" relationship to Horace. This juxtaposition of Derzhavin's verse epistle with Horace's second epode makes sense even though one may have doubts regarding the author's suggestion that literature celebrating patrimonial ownership "also depends in some way on systematic patriarchal laws of affiliation." Frank Ellis attempts to discern classical underpinnings in the work of Grossman, the important Soviet writer who produced a monumental saga of the Soviet Union's involvement in World War II. To my mind, this is the weakest piece in the volume, owing perhaps to the somewhat mechanical manner of argumentation. David N. Wells' account of the interaction of classicism and modernism in Kushner's poetry is informative. It could have probably benefited, if the author chose a smaller selection of poems, but treated them in fuller detail. The book concludes with Dan Unurianu's elegant discussion of Brodsky's idiosyncratic vision of conflict between time and space, in which the heritage of Greece is seen as representing the former, and that of Rome relates to the latter, the conflict present in and transformed by the poet's own experience as an Imperial exile.

In sum, this volume makes a credible collective effort despite the sense of disappointment left by the Introduction replete with clichés, such as "the cultural package that arrived in Kiev from Byzantium", which occasionally simplify or even distort the issues. I am truly amazed that the three co-editors managed to misname the great Russian philosopher Soloviev (by calling him Mikhail instead of Vladimir), and one might wish that the enigmatic Faddei Zelinsky, of whom no Western classicist may have heard, is at some point identified as the eminent Tadeusz Zielinski (1859-1944), the author of numerous scholarly works published largely in German, who left St. Petersburg for his native Poland after the Bolshevik coup d'êtat in October 1917.