Reasserting Russia’s literary status

Viv Groskop in the Financial Times:

ScreenHunter_603 May. 04 18.55Once upon a time it was the greatest literature in the world. When William Faulkner was asked to name the three best novels of all time, he cited the book Dostoevsky described as “flawless”: “Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina, Anna Karenina.”

In rankings of the world’s literary greats, Russia tends to figure more prominently than any other country. Anna Karenina, War and Peace, the stories of Anton Chekhov and Lolita (written in English and self-translated into Russian) are unfailingly on such lists, alongside Shakespeare, Proust, F Scott Fitzgerald, Mark Twain, Flaubert and George Eliot. And that’s without even mentioning Gogol, Pushkin, Turgenev, Pasternak and, of course, Dostoevsky, the writer who did down-to-earth plain-speaking just as beautifully as Tolstoy did lofty spirituality. From Notes from the Underground: “I say let the world go to hell but I should always have my tea.”

Where, though, are today’s equivalents? The question is of more than academic significance. Last December, Vladimir Putin convened a “Literary Assembly” featuring descendants of Pushkin, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy (whose great-great-grandson Vladimir is the Russian president’s cultural adviser). Putin declared that there was “a responsibility to global civilisation to preserve Russian literature” and expressed dismay that Russia could no longer boast of being “the best-read country in the world”. “Russians spend an average of only nine minutes per day reading books, and that figure is decreasing,” he said. “I think that declaring 2015 the Year of Literature in Russia is worth thinking about.”Recent events seem to have put that idea on ice.

Still, some see Russian literature as on the cusp of a recovery, pointing to the success of writers such as Mikhail Shishkin (compared to Nabokov and Chekhov) and Lyudmila Ulitskaya, the first woman to win the Russian Booker, the country’s leading prize for fiction.

More here.

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