Literary roundup: Russia’s sacred monsters

Big Russian novels are in the air as of late. At The Millions eight experts weigh in on George Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky question. I read Steiner’s book a fairly long time ago and don’t remember him actually answering that question, which seems to be the standard reaction among the experts. Actually, I think the comparison obscures a more relevant comparison between the great Russian novelists (which definitely includes Gogol) and every other 19th century novelist. In the 19th century novel Olympics those three get the gold, silver and bronze medals.

In Russia Beyond the Headlines readers ask Russian critic Pavel Basinsky about Tolstoy. After a couple of softball pitches (War and Peace in three tweets? A question like that would send Tolstoy running away from home all over again) there are some interesting questions, such as Tolstoy’s conflict with the Russian Orthodox Church, which lately has been chock full of conflicts. Basinsky does say that comparing Tolstoy’s issues with the church to today’s church battles with Pussy Riot are off base. He also recounts the sad fate of Tolstoy’s only known illegitimate son.

As to the question of who the Tolstoy of today is Basinsky said: “I don’t think anyone can compare to him. There will never be another Tolstoy, just as there will never be another Dostoyevsky. Indeed, we don’t even need a new Tolstoy! It’s enough trouble puzzling out the first one.”

At RIA Novosti literary critic Lev Danilkin talks more about contemporary writers and how there has been a move away from post-modernism towards a more accessible realism in the work of Zakhar Prilepin, Roman Senchin, Andrei Rubanov and Alexei Ivanov. Still, the interview is geared towards comparing today’s writers with the big boys, or as Danilkin calls them, “Sacred Monsters,” and he goes on to say that the idea of writing “the great novel” continues to be a goal. (The link is dead, having gone the way of RIA Novosti and Russian media freedom itself).

Why is it though that American writers and MFA students all aim to write “the great American novel” while Russians want to write “the great novel”?

Photo – Gogol burning his “great novel,” the second part of Dead Souls, out of an ascetic distaste for literary frippery or maybe because it wasn’t great enough. Lithograph by Nikolay Dmitrevsky, 1934

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