Xtreme Literature

I have always tended to think of Russian literature as Xtreme literature. It’s a view influenced by my impression of the Russian writers (their lives and writing, often in that order, I admit) and also by D H Lawrence’s remark (in his In Studies in Classic American Literature) that   ‘two bodies of modern literature seem to have come to a real verge: the Russian and the American’.  I can see the point Lawrence makes about the extreme consciousness reached by Poe, Melville, Hawthorne and Whitman. But I feel it better applies to the great Russians (Dostoevsky, Gogol, even Tolstoy). Interestingly, Lawrence’s sense of the greatness of Russian writers seems to have rested on the translations of Constance Garnett which today are regarded as unreliable. Apparently, Garnett left out awkward passages and made serious mistakes. But in her day Garnett’s name was synonymous with the Russian masters she translated. ‘Turgenev for me is Constance Garnett and Constance Garnett is Turgenev,’ wrote Conrad. Like Shakespeare (as reported by his players), she seems to have never blotted out line (Ben Jonson’s riposte: ‘would he had blotted a thousand’).

I re-read Crime and Punishment recently. As often is the case with my reading, it was dictated by my classroom needs. While teaching The French Lieutenant’s Wife, I often found myself making dismissive comments about the Victorian omniscient narrator. But a feeling of falseness nagged me. Re-reading Crime and Punishment reminded me how wise the omniscient narrator can be (though the story is mostly told from Raskolnikov’s fevered perspective, it is a third person narrative). Dostoevsky’s understanding of human nature is exceptional. It’s better to sit at the feet of the master. One can only learn from him.  Your democratic, postmodern relationship between reader and author doesn’t apply this case. One can’t help wondering how Dostoevsky wrote his novels. Addicted to gambling, frequently penniless, often struck by epileptic fits, Dostoevsky certainly didn’t enjoy the peace and quiet we sometimes believe is necessary to the creative artist. He led a life that was troubled and tortured (he was rescued from being shot by a firing squad at the very last minute).

Without doubt, Crime and Punishment is one of the most impressive novels I’ve read. A psychological study, yes, but embedded in the social context of the time: poverty, social reform, the rise of rationalism, nihilism etc. More specifically: in the 1860s Russian radicals thought a revolution was round the corner and were engaged in re-thinking the notion of conventional morality. In contemporary Russian radical thinking ‘rational egoism’ was preferable to the Christian idea of conscience. But his own experiences had taught Dostoevsky to have little faith in the prevailing radical idea of the power of rationality to control and dominate the human mind. Raskolnikov is rational, proud and paranoid. He conceives of the crime in rational and theoretical terms: exceptional people like Napoleon override moral concerns in the pursuit of some higher purpose. Having killed the old woman, Raskolnikov loses his nerve. This torments him because it shows that he is no Napoleon but a ‘louse’ like most ordinary people. However, it is the extension of society in Raskolnikov that makes him crave for confession, though he despises himself for it. Dostoevsky’s distrust of reason is evident throughout Crime and Punishment. There is a dystopian vision of a world infected (literally) by reason in the final pages. Raskolnikov’s conversion, which happens very late (in the final pages), stresses the need for love, acceptance of others, and the power of irrationality.  Dostoevsky certainly knew that man is an irrational being – the story of the drunkard Marmeladov is particularly illustrative. Incidentally, I find Raskolnikov’s conversion quite convincing; his compassion and kindness towards the poor and broken (Marmeladov, Sonya and his dead fiancé, for example) prepares one for it. Also, he has an irrational side from the very beginning.

Nineteenth century Russian literature certainly has immediacy for Indian readers. Crime and Punishment contains some of the starkest descriptions of poverty I have read. It shows the utterly crushing effect of poverty (on Raskolnikov himself, but also his sister and mother, and the Marmeladov family, including Sonya). St Petersburg is no grand imperial city but like an Indian city (Kolkata perhaps): the mean taverns, the dirtiness, the cramped living spaces (Raskolnikov’s room is more closet than room), the underprivileged citizens (prostitutes, including child prostitutes, drunks, beggars etc). Of course, the city is a mental landscape since the novel’s perspective is coloured by Raskolnikov’s psychological condition but Dostoevsky’s familiarity with low life is evident. There is a highly charged quality to Crime & Punishment. Since we are quite often inside Raskolnikov’s fevered mind there is a distortion in perspective. For one, the time frame of the novel seems much more extended than that of a fortnight (between the murder and the confession). The novel’s heightened subjectivity of course is an important step in the European novel’s journey towards the depiction of psychological states (Proust, Joyce, and Woolf).

I am been struck by how central poverty is in the writings of the classic Russian writers. It is also a very bureaucratic and hierarchical world (again rather Indian); many of the characters in Gogol (Dead SoulGovernment Inspector, ‘Overcoat’ etc) and Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment) are conscious of importance of title, rank, social status, and power. In interpreting ‘The Overcoat’, said to be the most famous story in Russian literature, it is important to not lose sight of the obvious fact that it is a story of poverty – about a poor clerk who cannot afford an overcoat to keep him warm. To quote the madman in ‘The Diary of a Madman’: ‘It’s always noblemen or generals. All the good things in this world go to gentlemen of court or generals’. Gogol writes a lot about poor clerks, corrupt civil servants (usually minor), men obsessed with rank and power etc. which has an immediate relevance to our situation. Crime and Punishment too is a story of crushing poverty.

Tolstoy’s writing is epical but then so was his life. His spiritual and philosophic beliefs led Tolstoy to abandon his family and property when he was 82. Great men have this ability to put their beliefs into practice, to make departures in their lives no matter how extreme. Gandhi is another example but he was of course influenced by Tolstoy (remember Gandhi’s Tolstoy Farm in South Africa?).

My favourite Tolstoy passage is this one from War and Peace. It is about a minor character, whom we never meet again. Tolstoy writes about him without condescension and without sentimentality but with complete humanity. The setting is a formal dinner at Count Rostov’s:

The German tutor tried to memorize all the kinds of dishes, desserts, and wines, in order to describe everything in detail in his letter to his family in Germany, and was quite offended that the butler with the napkin-wrapped bottle bypassed him. The German frowned, trying to show by his look that he did not even wish to have this wine, but was offended because no one wanted to understand that the wine was necessary for him, not in order to quench his thirst, nor out of greed, but out of a conscientious love of knowledge.

Osip Mandelstam epitomizes my idea of the Xtreme Russian writer. (I have just realized that I haven’t said anything in this post about Alexander Solzhenitsyn, arguably the most famous of the suffering twentieth century Russian writers.) A brilliant poet Mandelstam couldn’t remain indifferent to the sufferings of the kulaks under Stalin. He wrote a satiric poem on Stalin which he read out to a group of 11 and was betrayed by one (or more) of them.  Ordered by Stalin to be banished (‘isolate but preserve’), he was to die in a transit camp near Vladivostok. But his is also a great love story because his wife Nadezhda (meaning ‘hope’) who accompanied him on his exile also learned his poetry by heart in order to preserve it for posterity (after all, memory cannot be censored, confiscated or  destroyed). Her memoir, Hope Against Hope, is one of the books I have most eagerly devoured.

However, there is a salutary but necessary corrective to my idea of Xtreme literature. It comes from another great Russian poet (and exile) Joseph Brodsky.  ‘It is an abominable fallacy,’ Brodsky wrote in his obituary on Nadezhda Mandelstam, ‘that suffering makes for greater art. Suffering blinds, deafens, ruins, and often kills. Osip Mandelstam was a great poet before the Revolution. So was Anna Akhmatova, so was Marina Tsvetaeva. They would have become what they became even if none of the historical events that befell Russia in this century had taken place: because they were gifted. Basically, talent doesn’t need history’.