Durham Book Festival – Russia Day

18 April 2011 § Leave a comment

Last Saturday I had a wonderfully indulgent day of Russian literature, courtesy of a one-off Durham Book Festival event. The speakers included Russian Booker prize winning novellists Mikhail Shishkin and Elena Chizhova and included readings from their work. Shishkin read himself, in Russian, a few sentences at a time, followed by a translation, but Chizhova’s work was read only in translation. It was great hearing Shishkin read in Russian, but I really couldn’t follow it at all. He talked about his admiration for Nabokov and his belief that Russian literature today needs to go back into the world, as he put it. He particularly talked about the importance of words that he observes in western European literature, and thinks that Russian literature has lost that. Unsurprisingly he gave Dostoevsky short-shrift and was rather dismissive of him, implying that we like him because we only read him in translation (he was obviously unaware that his audience was made up largely of Durham University’s Russian department, past and present).

By contrast Elena Chizhova thinks that the post-modernist word games championed by Shishkin don’t really transpose into Russian culture; that they don’t fit in with Russia’s cultural heritage and fears that post-glasnost, Russian writers got too carried away with modernism, and forgot their own literary heritage. It was clear from the excerpts read to us, and from what she said about her other works, that she draws heavily on recent Soviet history to explore the universal themes of Russian history. She spoke movingly about the inspiring teachers she had at school who quietly used the classics of Western literature as a passive route to resistance, using literature to teach their pupils universal
values rather than approved Soviet ideology.

Where both writers seemed, depressingly, to concur was on their general state of pessimism about Russia and its future. They both seemed weighed down with weariness and hopelessness that anything would ever change. To my mind, the worst was Shishkin’s remark that literary writers are free to publish what they like in Russia these days because so little notice is taken of what they say that the authorities apparently don’t feel the need to control them in the same way as they do the mass media.

Interestingly, the background to the themes that the Russian novelists addressed had been neatly sketched out for us by the day’s first speaker, Peter Waldron, from the University of East Anglia. He talked about the Tsarist Empire, how its physical geography and its culture had shaped the nature of the regime, and ultimately contributed to its collapse. Although he didn’t say much that was new to me, the way he summarised it was very useful. I was particularly interested in his suggestion that the country’s vast rural population had on the East-West debate – the Slavophiles, with their adoration of the Russian peasantry believed that this vast rural population and its resources and traditions were what made Russia necessarily different from the rapidly urbanising West. And fear of the massive peasant population was what made the Tsars put so much effort into repression and control, and allowed them to perpetuate the myth, still so strong today, that Russia somehow “needs” strong government.

The day finished off with Rosamund Bartlett talking about her new biography of Tolstoy. I was delighted to have the opportunity to meet her too; she was at Durham a few years before me, and had been held up to us as undergraduates as a shining example of someone who had gone on to do great things. She explained how she was inspired to write on Tolstoy because she wanted to explore more why her great hero Chekhov admired him so much. She ends up admiring his uncompromising determination and beliefs, and his willingness to challenge even the Tsar – interestingly she compared him to Khodorkovsky, although unlike today’s imprisoned oligarch, Tolstoy was popular enough to get away with it.

Rosamund Barlett is also working on a new translation of Anna Karenina, although having heard the contemporary novelists talking about how hard it is to get their work published in English translation, it seems a pity that publishers are spending their money on re-issuing the classics instead of giving us the opportunity to read new Russian writers. I’d love to read Chizhova’s work (I’m less convinced that Shishkin would be to my taste) but I fear my Russian isn’t up to reading her at a comfortable pace. I was talking to her English translator, and I really hope that she succeeds in finding a publisher.

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