TLS Reviews A History of Russian Literature by Irina Reyfman et al.

Tuesday, August 21, 2018

The Times Literary Supplement (TLS) ran a glowing review of A History of Russian Literature, authored by Irina Reyfman (Professor, Department of Slavic Languages) and colleagues Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky and Stephanie Sandler (22 June 2018). The review was penned by Boris Drayluk, executive editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books.


From the review:

It is just such a broader account that Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman and Stephanie Sandler aim to offer in the 960 pages of their book. Instead of "moving from one masterpiece to the next", the authors build a dynamic structure that is informed by various sociological approaches to the study of literature. Importantly, they give more or less equal weight to the five periods into which they divide their History: the medieval, covering everything from the earliest chronicles, hagiographies and epic songs of Kievan Rus to the emergence of new national narratives under the Muscovite Grand Princes and early tsars; the seventeenth century, which has often been treated as a "transitional no-man's land", but which is here provocatively and productively rebranded as "early modern" - that is, as a time when "the modern notion of authorship began to emerge"; the eighteenth century, when "generations of writers - and a purposeful ruler - worked … to create a national literature that was the equal in polish and taste of older European models"; the nineteenth century, the "conceptual boundaries of [which] remain hard to demarcate", but which saw Russian literature emerge as a cultural product of global significance; and, at last, the tumultuous twentieth and twenty-first centuries, which bring the story up to the present day.
To this extent, the evolution of Russian literature is presented in a diachronic fashion, but each of the book's parts is structured around thematic clusters that take us back and forth across the period in question. Each is also punctuated by "case studies", which can be read as stand-alone essays but also serve to illustrate the phenomena discussed in the surrounding text. "Keyword" boxes provide concise definitions of recurrent concepts such as Baroque and Romanticism, which have particular meanings in the Russian tradition, or skaz (a style of writing that imitates speech) and sobornost' (a Slavophilic conception of social collectivity), which are native to Russia. Throughout, the authors emphasize the role various institutions and milieux have played in shaping literary processes. Their history of Russian literature is not only one of individual talents, but also one of monasteries and imperial courts, the Soviet Writers' Union and the émigré salons, the smoke-filled apartments of underground poets and the pressures of the contemporary marketplace. Eschewing the quest for a definitive canon, the authors instead explore "the relationship of several canons in dialogue with each other": sacred and secular, official and unofficial, metropolitan and diasporic, etc. In keeping with this focus on the literary field at large, they shine welcome light on many secondary and minor writers - who are, on occasion, not so much secondary or minor as simply hitherto unappreciated, for a variety of reasons.