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Recherche littéraire/Literary Research

Fall 2019


Edited By Marc Maufort

Daniel Acke, Mark Anderson, Eugene L. Arva, Franca Bellarsi, Valérie-Anne Belleflamme, Thomas Buffet, Ipshita Chanda, Mateusz Chmurski, Wiebke Denecke, Christophe Den Tandt, Lieven D’hulst, César Domínguez, Manfred Engel, Dorothy Figueira, John B. Forster, Massimo Fusillo, Gerald Gillespie, Marie Herbillon, S. Satish Kumar, François Lecercle, Ursula Lindqvist, Jocelyn Martin, Jessica Maufort, Marc Maufort, Sam McCracken, Isabelle Meuret, Delphine Munos, Daniel-Henri Pageaux, Danielle Perrot-Corpet, Frank Schulze-Engler, Monica Spiridon, Jüri Talvet, Daria Tunca, Cyril Vettorato, Hein Viljoen, Jenny Webb

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John B. Forster: Olga Soboleva and Angus Wrenn. From Orientalism to Cultural Capital: The Myth of Russia in British Literature of the 1920s. Oxford et al.: Peter Lang, 2017. Pp. 337 + xi. ISBN: 9781787073951.

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Olga Soboleva and Angus Wrenn. From Orientalism to Cultural Capital: The Myth of Russia in British Literature of the 1920s. Oxford et al.: Peter Lang, 2017. Pp. 337 + xi. ISBN: 9781787073951.

The two volumes of Franco Moretti’s The Novel (2006; English translation of Il Romanzo, 2001), which features a judicious selection of essays by experts in the many literatures involved, demonstrated the editor’s program of “distant reading,” as applied to prose fiction and related narrative kinds over three millennia worldwide. Within this long perspective on the genre, the nineteenth-century Russian novel was assigned a pivotal position. Appearing at the end of a unit on “The European Acceleration,” which sketched the novel’s trajectory from breakthroughs in Spain to a fuller realization in France and England, it looked ahead to a unit ambitiously titled “The Circle Widens,” with essays (among others) on Japan, India, and Africa.

The monograph reviewed here, by two comparatists at the London School of Economics, provides what could be called a contrasting “close reading” of one important aspect of this transition. In considering how some leading British writers of the 1920s responded to Russian culture, especially to Russian fiction from Turgenev to Chekhov in counterpoint with the much-heralded performances of the Ballets Russes beginning in 1909, it circles back to a European sphere. Within English literature, it tends to validate one of the points made by the layout of Moretti’s book, that nineteenth-century Russian fiction represented the culmination of European fiction as it had developed up to that time. On the other hand, it should be recalled that the translations of classic Russian novels into English during this period also furthered awareness of those novels in India and Africa. They contributed in that way to reconfiguring the novel as a world literary genre, or in Moretti’s title to another unit, “Toward World Literature.”

After an introductory chapter on the British image of Russia prior to 1900, Orientalism/Cultural Capital turns to how six writers and well-placed opinion makers during the 1920s helped to transform that image. ←183 | 184→A country that for centuries had been dismissed as a cultural outsider, subjected in its own way to the relentlessly repeated clichés of Saidian orientalization (here as a “far east” of Eastern Europe rather than as an Asian “Near East”), started in the 1890s to gain cultural prestige in a manner described by Bourdieu. Ultimately, for a brief interval in the twenties, “Russia” seemed to have risen to a certain insider status.

Scare quotes are needed here because, as the figures studied by Soboleva and Wrenn suggest, at least three different Russias were at stake. First, there were the achievements of Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky during the golden age of Russian fiction (from the 1850s to 1881), which became widely known in English translation only decades or even a near half-century after their novels came out during the relatively liberal reign of Alexander II. Then, there was the Soviet Union, which soon after it came into being late in World War I abandoned the Russian alliance with Britain. Still, the new regime’s darker tendencies were not yet fully understood, at least by H. G. Wells, whose views are presented in Chapter III of this book. Finally, there were the Russian exiles, at this point still mainly fugitives from imperial Russia. Their allegiances were as diverse as those of the anarchists gathered in London who tutored Constance Garnett in Russian (she was long the best-known translator of classic Russian fiction into English), or of Diaghelev, the impresario for the Ballets Russes, whose aesthetic credo broke sharply with ballet patronized by the Russian court. Or, again, there was S. S. Koteliansky, who translated Chekhov for the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press and introduced D. H. Lawrence to Shestov and Rozanov as exemplars of Russian thought in the turn-of-century decades before the Bolsheviks placed strict limits on philosophy.

The book’s last three chapters chronicle the evolving and distinctive Russian involvements of Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, and T. S. Eliot. Among the many insights into these now-canonical British modernists, we are invited to reflect on the affinities in The Rainbow between the Ballets Russes and Ursula’s impulsive dancing, on a Russian in Orlando with the gender-neutral name of Sasha, and on the implications of the note to The Waste Land that cites Hermann Hesse on Brothers Karamazov. At the same time, however, some ingenious intercultural close readings indicate that, even with these authors, the prestige assigned to “Russianness” could lead to outcomes with some of the superficiality marking the commonplaces of orientalism. At stake are errors involving Russian names, which reveal that none of them knew enough Russian to be aware of their mistakes.

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With Woolf attention focuses on “Lappin and Lapinova,” a story of uncertain date dealing with a young couple’s fantasies about rabbits, where the wife’s Russian-sounding nickname should properly be “Lapina,” as Woolf could have deduced from having read Anna Karenina. Perhaps she was misled by John Maynard Keynes’s marriage to Lydia Lopokova from the Ballet Russes, whose last name, derived from a masculine counterpart with a final “v” rather than an “n,” may have suggested the Lapinova coinage. A similar situation arises with the temptress Grishkin, with “her Russian eye,” who dominates the second half of Eliot’s “Whispers of Immortality.” That name (if it actually existed) would properly be “Grishkina,” unless it should be considered a twisted memory, via Ezra Pound who also toyed with the name, of Grushenka in Brothers Karamazov (280, 286–87). In reality this woman was a ballerina for the Ballets Russes, whose performances Eliot had found deeply stirring in Paris ten years earlier. But in this poem the connotations of Russianness (or perhaps of avant-garde art or even of femininity) have become decidedly more ambiguous.

With Lawrence attention focuses on the divided heritage of the Brangwens, the family at the center of both The Rainbow and Women in Love, the loosely linked novels that he wrote during and immediately after World War I. This farm family’s rootedness in the English countryside swerves abruptly into a remote cultural context when Tom Brangwen marries a Polish refugee, and then, in the next generation, when her Polish daughter from an earlier marriage marries a Brangwen nephew. Ursula, a daughter from that marriage, will herself have an affair with a young man of Polish extraction; but later, in the second novel, she and her sister Gudrun pursue relationships with Englishmen. Yet, oddly, the family name that Lawrence chose for the Brangwens’ initial Polish connection is Lensky, who was the young man killed in a duel in Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin. Soboleva and Wrenn hesitate to push this irony further, but do note that at the time much of Poland was an integral part of the Russian Empire (213), perhaps facilitating the formation of a “pan-Slavic” outlook in Lawrence’s mind that could blur the lines between the two cultures. Be that as it may, the tempestuous vacillation of sympathies in the emotional lives of the three Brangwen generations, both toward and away from intimacy with this brand of “easternness,” carries over to Lawrence’s on-off, love-hate responses to Tolstoy and Dostoevsky.

Before the chapters on these three younger writers, who were in their thirties when the 1920s began and now enjoy much more cultural authority, Soboleva and Wrenn treat three figures from an older ←185 | 186→generation who were then better known to the British public. Their point of departure is a 1929 poll in the Manchester Guardian that asked which contemporary novelists would still be read in 2029, to which the respondents chose, by large margins, John Galsworthy (to be awarded a Nobel Prize in 1932) and H. G. Wells. Along with Arnold Bennett in third place, these were the very novelists Woolf had targeted in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” a manifesto-like essay that drew a sharp line between an “Edwardian” generation from before 1910 and younger “Georgians” like herself, who came of age under George V. However, even though Orientalism/Cultural Capital mentions Bennett’s striking judgement that the “twelve best novels of the world were all written by Russians” (65), here Galsworthy and Wells are joined by J. M. Barrie, listed fifth by the Guardian, who is represented by a little-known short play or sketch, “The Truth of the Russian Dancers.”

This project, which was revised many times, faced a variety of staging issues, and was left unpublished by the author, raises questions about the depth and/or spirit of Barrie’s interest in the Ballets Russes or even in “Russianness” in general. Thus the text can suggest that he may have created either “a skillful parody of or [emphasis added] a tribute to the unrelenting Russian craze” (145). This chapter also gives considerable background, from a British rather than a Russian or French viewpoint, on Diaghelev, the dancers in his troupe, and the composers and set designers who worked with him. As a result, it brings out the freshness and power with which the Ballets Russes had exposed British audiences to this special, only marginally domestic facet of Russian culture. In this conjuncture, novels that had been written many decades before but only recently translated into English could take on new life, never mind any specific connection with the ballets.

As indicated earlier, the Wells chapter focuses on his response to conditions in the Soviet Union, mainly on the basis of a week-long visit in 1920. His sympathy for the collectivist plans of the Bolshevik elite is interpreted largely in terms of what could pass through “the prism of his own attitudes and political concepts,” though he did admit that “everyone is shabby on the street” (139, 133). As these words suggest, this chapter is where the book is the most explicit about the potential for cultural capital to reveal some intercultural myopia of its own. Of some literary interest are citations indicating how Wells addressed the presence of socio-historical factors in the novel, both in Turgenev (“a group of typical individuals at the point of action of some great social ←186 | 187→force,” 111–12) and in War and Peace, with its “animation of history by fictitious moods and scenes” (113). During his 1920 visit he was enthusiastic about Gorky’s efforts to sponsor a book series devoted to world literature in Russian translation (135).

This reviewer must admit to lacking much exposure to the writings of John Galsworthy, the first of Soboleva and Wrenn’s authors. By the 1960s in the United States, he had practically vanished from the British literary curriculum, at which point the question posed by their chapter title, “Is It Possible to ‘De-Anglicise the Englishman?’ ” (cited from a Galsworthy essay) would have applied more directly to D. H. Lawrence. It had also become easier for readers to go directly to the great Russian novels, so that, having read some Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, I could be puzzled when I learned of British readers who preferred Turgenev. This chapter indicates that Galsworthy probably had a hand in forming this attitude. Having read widely in the Russian novel, he admired Turgenev as its leading figure for having brought an artistic sensibility and deeper psychological insight into the realist fiction of his time. For Galsworthy Tolstoy was insufficiently “suggestive and intuitive” despite his “vigour” and “freshness” (77), while Dostoevsky’s “insight was deep” but marred by “incoherence” and “verbiage” (71).

These points have their weight, of course. But one could cite J. M. Coetzee’s The Master of Petersburg, written as apartheid was ending in South Africa, as a basis for objecting that the relative stability of Galsworthy’s England kept him from registering the full force of Dostoevsky’s insights. For a dissenting opinion on Tolstoy, consider Vladimir Nabokov, who has memorialized his youthful affection for the art movement out of which the Ballets Russes had sprung. To be sure, in his autobiography Speak, Memory he names other figures than Diaghilev when he recalls “the ‘Art World,’ Mir Iskusstva – Dobuzhinski, Alexandre Benois – so dear to me in those days” (236). Here, clearly, is an early source for this author’s pronounced artistic sensibility. As for Tolstoy’s “suggestive and intuitive” powers, this master of fiction in both Russian and English chose, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, to invoke the incandescent lyricism of William Blake when he honored Tolstoy’s writing for being “so powerful, so tiger bright, so original and universal” (138).


John B. Forster

George Mason University

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