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Reviewed by:
  • Exile: The Sense of Alienation in Modern Russian Letters,
  • John Goodliffe
Exile: The Sense of Alienation in Modern Russian Letters, by David Patterson; xii & 204 pp. University Press of Kentucky, 1994, $29.95.

From the title of this book one might expect its principal focus to be on geographical and/or political exile, exile as punishment, of which there have been many examples in Russian life and letters, both before and after the 1917 Revolution. But David Patterson prefers to interpret the word “exile” in a wider metaphysical and existential sense, so connecting it with the problem of alienation and the question of human identity. His purpose is to demonstrate that “the fundamental problem of meaning in human life is a problem of homelessness; that the effort to emerge from exile is an effort to return meaning to the word and thus the self to the other; and that the exile of the word is an exile of human being” (p. xi). (Incidentally this quotation anticipates the rather curious style of English which the author will adopt, regrettably typical of many academics.) The neurosis engendered by this problem of homelessness is one to which Russians have always been particularly prone, perhaps because their geographical situation on a vast inhospitable plain, stretching uneasily between Europe and Asia, has always generated a feeling of insecurity. So it is not at all difficult to find abundant examples of it in Russian literature. As Patterson makes clear in his preface, there are many Russian writers other than the ones he has chosen who well demonstrate estrangement and alienation. Indeed, one is tempted to suggest that a Russian writer who does not suffer from the neurosis is the exception to the general rule. And, pursuing the idea further, it might be possible to show that any novel, any poem, any piece of writing in any language, contains elements of the problem, since it derives almost inevitably from the very occupation of a creative writer.

Thus, from the outset, Patterson runs the risk of making his “exile” definition so wide that the term becomes almost meaningless. It may well be [End Page 514] that his book would have been less diffuse had he kept his definition rather narrower. And since he professes that his aim is “not only to make a point about Russian letters but to draw on these Russian texts in an effort to arrive at a deeper understanding of a much larger, more pervasive problem” (p. xi), Patterson runs the further risk of allowing the texts he uses for his demonstration simply to turn into pretexts for uncontrolled and unstructured digression. It has to be said at once that these risks he proves unable or unwilling to guard against.

From the nineteenth century Patterson begins, inevitably, with the well-worn theme of the “superfluous man.” Nothing very original here, as this particular label has been applied so often and so indiscriminately to Russian literature that it has turned into a kind of critical rubber stamp. But at least Patterson does not go over the well-worn ground of the realist novel, preferring to concentrate on Dostoevsky’s non-fictional Winter Notes on Summer Impressions, as embodying its author’s post-Siberian sense of estrangement from Russia and his search for a new identity, brought into focus by his trip to Europe. However, in the case of Tolstoy, Patterson reverts to fiction, concentrating on The Death of Ivan Ilich and Resurrection. In this connection he is perhaps rather less scrupulous than he ought to have been over the distinction between fiction and non-fiction.

Noting the comments on Tolstoy, the reader becomes increasingly aware that the book is in many respects a more extended sermon than scholarly analysis. This is confirmed by Patterson’s decision in Part Three to include two early twentieth-century religious thinkers, Florensky and Shestov. Here we are guided through comparatively uncharted territory, but with the uncomfortable feeling that we are plunging into an ever darkening and more oppressive jungle of ideas. The feeling of oppression is not greatly relieved by the author’s somewhat heavy-handed style.

The remaining four writers covered are from the “Soviet Period...

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pp. 514-516
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