Russian literature

The outstanding Ukrainian writer Oksana Zabuzhko has challenged us to “take a long, hard look at our bookshelves” (“No guilty people in the world?”, April 22). She meant the Russian classics, aiming her criticism at novels by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, as well as short stories by Turgenev, “Mumu” ​​in particular. She has also revisited a polemic between Milan Kundera and Joseph Brodsky in the New York Times Book Review about Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and the “climate of his novels where feelings are promoted to the rank of value and of truth”. While Zabuzhko’s resentment of Brodsky is fully understandable in light of the poet’s strong anti-Ukrainian views – which have recently become more widely known – Kundera has reinvented himself in exile as a lifelong opponent of the Soviet regime, glossing over his own communist past.

Since the start of Putin’s imperialist war on February 24, texts such as Zabuzhko’s have grown in number. Positions are being re-evaluated. However much I admire Zabuzhko’s work and everything she stands for, on this occasion I find her perspective too one-sided. Where in her analysis are Russian women writers? Or representatives of minorities? The imprisoned, persecuted or exiled writers who did not support the perpetrators and lent their voices to the victims? I don’t think it’s right to reduce Russian writing to three famous writers. In addition, there are fundamental ideological and aesthetic differences between early and late Dostoevsky. And not even the tyrant Putin can change the fact that Anna Karenina is one of the greatest novels of all time.

I understand that as a representative of a people brutally attacked by their neighbor, Zabuzhko writes with justified outrage. However, ordinary Russians, and Russia itself, are not the same as Tolstoy’s Dmitry Nekhlyudov or Natasha Rostova. Turgenev saw the story of Mumu, a dog that is indeed brutally drowned by Gerasim, as a critique of servdom and was punished for writing it. Nor did his eulogy of the Ukrainian Gogol make things easier for him. Dostoevsky, far from being one of the favorite classics during the Stalin era, was labeled reactionary and decadent by the ideologues of totalitarianism. Why, in any case, should present-day Russia be equated with older works of literature?

It is not works of fiction that have been stirring up a fanatical hatred of the West in the Russian people, but rather the state-run television and internet. Russians are no longer a fabled nation of readers. Two thirds of the population can no longer afford to buy books and four fifths don’t even frequent libraries, once so popular, but now going to rack and ruin. And it was the people who installed the Kremlin dictatorship and police state. In 1984 the dissident Milan Šimečka pointed out that Czechoslovak culture was destroyed not just by Russians, but also, and with considerable gusto, by our own fellow citizens. Sadly, these days Slovakia is corroded by corruption and we no longer need a foreign power to pillage and destroy our own country. We are perfectly capable of doing that by ourselves.

Zabuzhko’s innovative writing and her powerful female voice have broken taboos, drawing on her own experience as well as on a rich cultural and historical tradition. In her debut, Fieldwork in Ukrainian Sex (1996), she voiced her grave concern for the future of her language and country: “you have no choice … because a curse has been placed on you to be faithful to all those who have died, all those who could have switched languages ​​just As easily as you – Russian, Polish, some even German, and could have lived entirely different lives, but instead hurled themselves like firelogs into the dying embers of Ukrainian” (translated by Halyna Hryn). Those embers have now burst into flames.

Michal Hvorecký
Bratislava, Slovakia

British Isles

A useful geographical term? More like a politically charged insensitivity. In his review of Geography Is Destiny by Ian Morris (May 20), Simon Jenkins stumbles into an anachronistic quagmire through his use of the term “the British Isles”.

This should not be dismissed as semantic, for it is not without consequences for us all. The use of the term enables assumptions – outdated assumptions that are now being tested in different ways in these isles thanks to a misguided reliance on them during the Brexit campaign. Its use creates dissonance in how the relationship between neighbors is viewed: from this side of the water the use implies a tacit sense of ownership by a former colonizer and, if excused by innocent ignorance, this can be construed as conceit. Neither is a good look.

Words matter. Ironically, the book under review was making the case that geography and politics cannot be easily separated. Quite true.

Diarmuid Hanifin
Dublin

Just as much as I cheered David Collard along while reading his highly perceptive and supportive exegesis of Patrick McCabe’s daring new verse Poguemaone (May 20), I was left utterly deflated by his reference to “mainland” Britain vis-à-vis – it is implied – our own off-shore Irish haunts. Or was it a deliberate colonial eruption in the spirit of the masterful McCabe himself? If so, it worked!

Paul Larkin
Na Doirí Beaga, Co Dún na nGall

Lindley Murray

I suppose this phenomenon happens with some frequency in these pages: an author posis a historical hypothesis, carefully weighing the evidence. A reviewer briefly mentions the hypothesis. A reader then writes a letter to the editor triumphantly claiming that the hypothesis should be rejected based on a piece of evidence that the author has fully discussed – the reader being wholly unaware of the book’s contents.

In this case the book is Taming the Tongue in the Heyday of English Grammar (reviewed April 29). I’m the author. The issue involves Lindley Murray’s English Grammar of 1795 – a blockbuster in its time. Three teachers at a girls’ school in York petitioned Murray to write it. This is the fact that your letter writer, Barbara Windle (Letters, May 13), “discovered” to reject my hypothesis that Murray might have had an additional motivation. Windle says she offers “cogent reasons for not swallowing Garner’s imaginings”. In fact, the teachers’ petition cited by Windle is well known to those who know Murray’s biographical details, and is mentioned on pages 53, 56, 58 and 240 in the book. It’s hardly a revelation.

What is new in the historical record is the discovery that in late 1794 Murray, then living in York, contracted to sell his New York property to Noah Webster, who ten years before had written an English grammar. The two men were connected in a major business transaction that none of their biographers has known about. The documentary evidence is detailed in Taming the Tongue (pp. 53–5). Murray learned that he was selling his property to a well-known grammarian, and five or six months later produced his own grammar – a grammar largely derivative of others. Not having been from scratch, it would have taken less time otherwise written to produce than it might have done.

After Murray’s death in 1826, his assistant wrote that English grammar “did not particularly engage his attention until a short time prior to the publication.”

What is equally interesting is that Webster had compiled a speller (1783), a grammar (1784) and an anthology of essays (1785). In the years after the New York real-estate deal, Murray compiled a grammar (1795), an anthology of essays (1797) and a speller (1804). These two authors were the only ones in their day to produce this particular trio of books, and they were all issued in many editions. Coincidence? Perhaps. But can’t we plausibly suggest that these events may have been related? That’s the extent of my “imagining.”

In any event, Windle rightly reminds us all of Murray’s connection to what is now the Mount School in York, where she was head from 1986 to 2000. She informs us that Murray’s Grade II listed summer house now resides on the grounds of the school. Indeed it does, and a photograph of it appears in Taming the Tongue – a photograph kindly snapped for me by Adrienne Richmond, who until recently served as principal of the school.

Bryan A. Garner
Dallas TX

HP Lovecraft

Surely any discussion of HP Lovecraft in the TLS (see Nicholas Royle’s review of a new selection of stories, May 20) is incomplete if it does not quote Ursula K. Le Guin’s verdict from a review of a biography by L. Sprague de Camp that was first published in your pages on March 26 , 1976, and which you have sensibly reprinted more than once since then?

Lovecraft was an exceptionally, almost impeccably, bad writer. He was not even originally bad. He imitated the worst bits of Poe quite accurately, but his efforts to catch Dunsany’s sonorous rhythms show an ear of solid tin. Derivative, inept, and callow, his tales can satisfy only those who believe that a capital letter, some words, and a full stop make a sentence.

Benjamin Friedman
New York

Richardson’s Picasso

James Fenton’s entertaining piece on John Richardson and Picasso (May 6) leaves unanswered (probably because it’s a silly question) something I have been asking for some years: will anyone attempt to finish the biography of Picasso, taking up where Richardson left off? Picasso’s was not one of those lives that become boring once the artist has achieved fame and fortune, so there’s much more to be said about the period from 1943 to 1973. Does anyone know the answer?

Keith Jewitt
Newcastle upon Tyne

Thoyras’s legacy

Surely the most enduring legacy of Paul Rapin Thoyras’s History of England (see Mark G. Spencer’s review of Miriam Franchina’s bookPaul Rapin Thoyras and the Art of Eighteenth-century Historiography, In Brief, April 29) was its pervasive use by Laurence Sterne to construct the character of Uncle Toby and his miniature war games on his bowling green? As to Rapin’s voluminousness (his “Rapinade”), it is observed in the standard edition of Tristram Shandy (University Press of Florida) that Sterne had the “fascinating capacity to condense the essence of four folio pages into four sentences”. On a more sombre note, the editors remark that Rapin’s “detailed and unflinching” descriptions of the horrors of siege warfare gave Stern a “full awareness of the realities of eighteenth-century warfare”, an element of his great fiction as relevant today as it was in 1760.

Melvyn New
Gainesville FL

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