Sunday, November 21, 2010

Erofeyev on Tolstoy

Photo of Leo Tolstoy by F. W. Taylor (c. 1897) / Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The New York Times and the International Herald Tribune just ran a piece by Victor Erofeyev to mark the hundredth anniversary of Leo Tolstoy's death. Erofeyev fascinates me: he has a way of writing clear, simple prose that nevertheless manages to get at profound truths. Two of his essays that appeared in The New Yorker have stuck with me for years, and both of them go right to the foundations of Russian culture: in one, he takes up the subject of vodka; in the other, Russian cursing. (Unfortunately, the magazine won't let you read them without a subscription to the digital edition. But for excerpts from the second essay, read this post by Languagehat.)

In the new piece, Erofeyev claims to get a "physiological pleasure" from reading Tolstoy, since the novelist's words "generate smells, sounds, vibrations of feelings and moods." I suppose that's as good a definition of 'realism' as any. But most importantly, Erofeyev draws a distinction between Tolstoy and Dostoevsky that, from my perspective, hits right on the mark:
André Gide in an essay on Dostoevsky wrote that Tolstoy obscured the greatness of Dostoevsky. But with time, the prevalent view among intellectuals came to be that Dostoevsky’s mountain was higher than Tolstoy’s. Yes, Dostoevsky has clear goals and defined action. The curtain opens and we watch how a godless existence leads inexorably to sin and evil. Crime becomes punishment. By contrast, when Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina throws herself under a train, what is it? Her punishment? High tragedy? The fate of fallen women? A delirious stream of consciousness? There is no answer. For that, in Tolstoy’s logic, you go to the police, not to the writer. In Dostoevsky, life is subservient to thought. In Tolstoy, thought is in a constant spin, like the grenade that will explode and take the life of Prince Andrei Bolkonsky.
As I said, Erofeyev has a knack for expressing something simple, clear, and profoundly true. The next time I teach Russian literature, I may just have to assign this piece to my students.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

The "Blackamoor" of Peter the Great

Statue of A. S. Pushkin in St. Petersburg (on Pushkinskaya St.) 

[Note that the original title of this post was "The 'Negro' of Peter the Great." See the comments section for details.]

Curiosity about Pushkin's lineage seems as strong as ever: Serge Schmemann writes in The New York Times that an African historian, Dieudonné Gnammankou, has discovered that the Russian national poet's great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was probably born in the late seventeenth century in central Africa - not the more palatable Christian kingdom of Ethiopia, as Russians had thought. When he was seven years old, Gannibal was kidnapped, possibly by a neighboring chief, from the ancient sultanate of Logone-Birni (in what is now Cameroon), and given as a gift to the Ottoman sultan in Constantinople. The Russian ambassador then "acquired" him and presented him to Peter the Great.