Friday, February 1, 2013
Liza Knapp on Russian Literature
Looking at my poor blog's record of annual activity, I noticed a marked decline in productivity from on year to the next. Determined to reverse the trend, I will post something very brief today about Liza Knapp's audio lecture series, The Giants of Russian Literature: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov. What shall I say about this Modern Scholar course? Only that it left little impression on me. No matter: today I'm going to be a good student of Soviet production by committing to the quantity rather than the quality of my posts. Dear reader, the problem is not all on my side: audio courses about literature rarely seem to succeed. I'm all for literacy criticism, but most audio courses dealing with novels seem to offer little more than thinly disguised synopses. While I have nothing negative to say about this particular course, I can't see how it benefits anybody to spend more than fifty percent of a lecture describing how characters move through time toward marriage, or worse, death.
At any rate, Knapp gives us some biographical detail about these four authors of genius. We're reminded that Turgenev was a master stylist, an unrepentant Westernizer, the father of an illegitimate girl, the lover of an opera singer (the physical aspect of this relationship not absolutely proven), and the author of a book, Notes of a Hunter, which helped to discredit the institution of serfdom. We're also reminded that Dostoevsky--Christian mystic, Slavophile, and literary innovator (Knapp uses Notes from the Underground as well as the Diary of a Writer to prove the point)--was once condemned to death for joining the ranks of a minor conspiracy against the government. And Tolstoy? Knapp discusses his multidimensional life, in which he played a shockingly large variety of different parts, including moralist, landowner, author, aristocrat, Christian penitent, autodidact, translator, bee-keeper, ersatz peasant laborer, patriarch, and saint. Knapp's emphasis with Chekhov is his dualism as both doctor and writer.
Knapp's course is long on description but just a little short on analysis. Her purpose, however, may be limited to getting us interested enough in Anna Karenina or the Underground Man or the Lady with a Dog to go out and read the novels or short story. Her thesis about the nature of the Russian literature is that it offer English readers something special: an expanded understanding of the nature of love. That is to say, the great Russian writers don't limit discussions of love to physical and romantic love. Instead, they explore many other kinds of love, including love for one's fellow human beings, love of personal or social transformation, and love for the transcendent.