Adventures of the Literary Elifs 

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The L:Do you find that Americans and Russians idolize different Russian writers?
EB: Definitely in Russia the poets are valued more highly than they are here. In Russia, more things are named after Pushkin than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The 20th-century greats are considered to be Pasternak (for his verse, not for Zhivago), Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva and Mayakovsky.

This disjuncture is surely because Russian poetry, especially the 20th-century poetry, is so difficult to translate into English.

The L: In your book you say: "As Foucalt observed, the concept of authorship depends primarily on the author's liability to state punishment. In other words, the more authors are oppressed, the stronger the institution of authorship. It's true that Russia subjected its writers to an unusual degree of state control; consequently, it's also true that nowhere in the world has literature been taken more seriously." Why has Russia in particular, among the many nations with oppressive governments, produced such a wealth of serious, extraordinarily talented writers?

EB: This is a huge question... as academics say, it's really "beyond the scope of the current investigation."

If I had to take a guess, I'd say it has to do with the high development of literary culture and the high prestige of literature (novels, short stories, and lyric/narrative poetry) that existed in Russia, even before the rise of a Russian national literature. The educated upper classes in 18th- and 19th-century Russia knew French (and, to a lesser extent, English and German) literature very well—they all spoke and wrote French (often better than they spoke/ wrote Russian)... so they had Western European-type literary aspirations. They had a model of what a European national literature is, and they had the level of education and literacy to carry it out, which might not have been the case in other oppressive regimes.

There are other places that had oppression and high literacy, like China, and this definitely isn't my area of expertise, but insofar as few Chinese authors are household names in the United States or Europe, I would guess it's because they were writing within a different literary tradition—i.e., unlike Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, they weren't writing the kinds of texts that Western cultures particularly understand/ value.

Insofar as the novel as a form is about the disjuncture between lived experience and pre-existing literature ("Why doesn't my life resemble the lives in my favorite books?"), I think it's also possible that Russian writers were uniquely positioned to see the world in novelistic terms. Russia was close enough (geographically, politically, culturally) to Europe that Russian readers could have the experience of losing themselves in European novels. Russian readers could imagine reality as mediated by Rousseau or Richardson or Byron or Goethe. And yet, Russia was also different enough from Europe that the disjuncture between (Russian) life and (European) literature would be felt particularly strongly, meaning that Russian writers might have felt a special imperative to rewrite the European models to accommodate Russian reality.


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