Baffling to the Mind

TLS - 22 June 2018.jpeg

Just in time for the World Cup, this week’s issue of the TLS (22 June) brings us a star-studded formation of Russia- and Ukraine-related pieces, featuring: Stephanie Sandler’s lyrical appreciation of the latest collection of Gennady Aygi’s essays and poems, Time of Gratitude (New Directions), “well-translated and splendidly chosen” by Peter France, who “has done more to make [Aygi’s] poetic world available to English-language readers than” any other translator; Oliver Ready’s shrewd, witty assessment of Mikhail Epstein’s provocative work of “literary metaphysics,” The Irony of the Ideal (Academic Studies Press, translated by A. S. Brown); Sarah J. Young’s take on Donald Rayfield’s new translation of Varlam Shalamov’s harrowing Kolyma Tales (NYRB Classics); and Stephen Lovell’s fascinating essay on post-truth and post-pravda. It also includes my review of Andrew Kahn, Mark Lipovetsky, Irina Reyfman, and Stephanie Sandler’s A History of Russian Literature (Oxford University Press), which I open with the immortal lines of Fyodor Tyutchev:

“Russia is baffling to the mind, / not subject to the common measure…” So begins, in Avril Pyman’s trans­lation, one of the best-known quatrains in Russian literary history. This poetic crystallization of the spirit of Russian exceptionalism, which Fyodor Tyutchev first jotted down on a slip of paper in 1866, has been appropriated in the ensuing century and a half by arch- nationalists and bitter cynics alike. For good or ill, it suggests, the country stands apart and defies comprehension. One can easily extend Tyutchev’s dictum to the realm of Russian literature, haunted as it is by loose, baggy monsters and supposedly untranslatable verse. What common measure could one apply to such a vast and varied terrain? What single mind could take stock of it?

I go on to mention the ever-quotable History of Russian Literature written by D. S. Mirsky — whom I quoted just last week in my post on Denis Davydov — and to praise the broader account of the Russian literary field given by the authors of this new History.


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