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Showing posts from January, 2015

Leo Tolstoy’s theory of everything

Excerpted from “'Who, What Am I?': Tolstoy Struggles to Narrate the Self” Tolstoy’s first diary, started on March 17, 1847, at the age of eighteen, began as a clinical investigation launched under laboratory conditions: in the isolation of a hospital ward, where he was being treated for a venereal disease. A student at Kazan University, he was about to drop out due to lack of academic progress. In the clinic, freed from external influences, the young man planned to “enter into himself” for intense self-exploration (vzoiti sam v sebia ; 46:3). On the first page, he wrote (then crossed out) that he was in complete agreement with Rousseau on the advantages of solitude. This act of introspection had a moral goal: to exert control over his runaway life. Following a well-established practice, the young Tolstoy approached the diary as an instrument of self-perfection. But this was not all. For the young Tolstoy, keeping a diary (as I hope to show) was also an experimental project aimed…

Sophia Parnok: 'I Construckt My Soul'

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Please allow this intimacy, dear reader, open to us your soul. It's counterintuitive: Sophia Parnok the poet is still very much a recovery project precisely because her work has been obscured by the thickets of literary history and biography. In reaction to Russian academic reticence and cultural taboos, the focus of western attention has been entirely on "the Russian Sappho," Tsvetaeva's erstwhile lover (1914-1916) exemplar par excellence of "women's poetry". To gain a less obstructed view of her work it is thus necessary to first clear these obstacles. 

Born in 1885 into a secular Jewish pharmacist's family in Chekhov's detested birthplace, the provincial capital of Taganrog on the Azov sea; lost her mother (a doctor) at age six (dead after giving birth to twins;) on miserable terms with her stepmother (father remarried the children's German governess;) chronically ill with Grave's disease; began a musical education at the Geneva Conse…

Classic literature gets a facelift in Russian bookstores

While the popularity of e-books is growing in Russia, their sales still account for less than 1 percent of the total book market. However, even in this seemingly robust market for printed books, sales of classic literature are declining. The most popular books in Russia last year included “Fifty Shades of Grey” and a collection of the lives of Orthodox saints. The only classic on the bestseller list was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby,” which had just been made into a popular film.

Publishing houses specializing in classic literature have been quite slow to react to the market slowdown, preferring to continue a conservative approach to the look and feel of their products.
Russia’s three biggest publishers, AST, Eksmo and Azbuka, all publish a classic literature series and have tended to prefer hardback editions illustrated with a portrait of the author or a picture from the era in which the book was written.
Azbuka has been the first to change this approach, publishing a series o…

Notes on a Cuff by Mikhail Bulgakov

It’s one of those enduring literary mysteries: why didn’t Joseph Stalin have Mikhail Bulgakov bumped off? True, few of Bulgakov’s works saw the light of day in his own lifetime, but that could hardly have been a help to the writer, particularly one who so fearlessly – or recklessly – paraded the absurdities of communist rule. One of the stories here – which have been translated into English for the first time (very well, as far as I can tell, by Roger Cockrell) – mocks the Bolsheviks’ well-intentioned policy of educating the masses by having a soldier tell us what he thinks of a performance of Verdi’s opera La Traviata he is forced to attend (he would rather have gone to the circus). For a start, he is puzzled by the conductor: Then this director opened some book in front of him, looked at it and started waving his white stick about ... And, indeed, this director seemed far from being the least-educated person in the place, because he was doing two things at once: reading his book and …

Maxim Gorky Brief life of a great enigma: 1868-1936

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FOR MUCH of the early twentieth century, Maxim Gorky was probably the world’s most famous writer. His early romantic stories from the 1890s, with heroes drawn from the millions of peasants-turned-tramps then roaming the Russian countryside, marked him as an exciting new force in Russian letters that cut across class lines, blurring the distinction between high and low literature. His 1902 play The Lower Depths took his homeland and then Europe by storm. These works and his 1914 autobiographical masterpiece, Childhood, found millions of readers, including many Russians who had rarely, if ever, read before.

He appeared out of the blue, a contemporary critic recalled, “an emissary from the anonymous Russian masses.” Rejecting with contempt Russian literature’s traditional sympathy for “the insulted and injured” along with its glorification of the peasant as a repository of wisdom and national values, he celebrated instead action, will, initiative, creativity. “‘Man’—it has a proud ring!” …