Reasserting Russia’s literary status

Once upon a time it was the greatest literature in the world. When William Faulkner was asked to name the three best novels of all time, he cited the book Dostoevsky described as “flawless”: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina.”

In rankings of the world’s literary greats, Russia tends to figure more prominently than any other country. Anna KareninaWar and Peace, the stories of Anton Chekhov and Lolita (written in English and self-translated into Russian) are unfailingly on such lists, alongside Shakespeare, Proust, F Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Flaubert and George Eliot. And that’s without even mentioning Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev, Pasternak and, of course, Dostoevsky, the writer who did down-to-earth plain-speaking just as beautifully as Tolstoy did lofty spirituality. From Notes from the Underground: “I say let the world go to hell but I should always have my tea.”

Where, though, are today’s equivalents? The question is of more than academic significance. Last December, Vladimir Putin convened a “Literary Assembly” featuring descendants of Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (whose great-great-grandson Vladimir is the Russian president’s cultural adviser). Putin declared that there was “a responsibility to global civilisation to preserve Russian literature” and expressed dismay that Russia could no longer boast of being “the best-read country in the world”. “Russians spend an average of only nine minutes per day reading books, and that figure is decreasing,” he said. “I think that declaring 2015 the Year of Literature in Russia is worth thinking about.” Recent events seem to have put that idea on ice.

Still, some see Russian literature as on the cusp of a recovery, pointing to the success of writers such as Mikhail Shishkin (compared to Nabokov and Chekhov) and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, the first woman to win the Russian Booker, the country’s leading prize for fiction. “Russian literature is healthy. It’s probably the healthiest part of Russian society, actually,” says Vitali Vitaliev, a writer and long-term UK resident (he defected in 1990). “To paraphrase Tolstoy: writers need a bit of hardship. You don’t want to be sentenced to death in order to be creative. But there is a huge internal protest at Putin’s power.”

Perhaps the effects of this are not yet fully evident, though, as many of the popular literary books in Russia at the moment are definitely not critiques of the regime. Instead they come under the awkward label “fantasy”. The post-Soviet dystopias of Viktor Pelevin, Vladimir Sorokin and Dmitry Bykov – all feted at home and with a small but enthusiastic audience abroad – fit into this genre. Other big sellers include Sergei Lukyanenko, the sci-fi author best known for his vampire blockbuster Night Watch (1998), and Boris Akunin, whose literary Erast Fandorin detective stories intentionally channel Sherlock Holmes by way of Dostoevsky.

Akunin is sceptical about claims of a reassertion of Russia’s literary status. This may be because he refuses to read contemporary novelists himself. “I’ve been reading only non-fiction something like 15 years,” he says by email from Moscow. “I believe it’s not healthy to read other people’s writing when you write yourself. But my wife reads everything and she says that, no, we are not in good shape. There is an occasional spark. But as a whole the landscape is depressing.”

“Why don’t I engage with the contemporary context?” Akunin wonders. “I do. But not in fiction. I write in my blog about everything that interests me – directly, without fictionalising.” (Typical extract: “I would enjoy talking to Putin about literature after all the political prisoners are released. Until then, it is not possible.”) “Fiction is for me, well, fiction. A territory for games and imagination, not to be taken too seriously. Probably a lot of my compatriot authors feel the same way, which might be the answer to the question as to why Russian literature is less than great.”



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