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How the Russians Read the French

Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy

Priscilla Meyer

Publication Year: 2008

Russian writers of the nineteenth century were quite consciously creating a new national literary tradition. They saw themselves self-consciously through Western European eyes, at once admiring Europe and feeling inferior to it. This ambivalence was perhaps most keenly felt in relation to France, whose language and culture had shaped the world of the Russian aristocracy from the time of Catherine the Great.
            In How the Russians Read the French, Priscilla Meyer shows how Mikhail Lermontov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Lev Tolstoy engaged with French literature and culture to define their own positions as Russian writers with specifically Russian aesthetic and moral values. Rejecting French sensationalism and what they perceived as a lack of spirituality among Westerners, these three writers attempted to create moral and philosophical works of art that drew on sources deemed more acceptable to a Russian worldview, particularly Pushkin and the Gospels. Through close readings of A Hero of Our Time, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina, Meyer argues that each of these great Russian authors takes the French tradition as a thesis, proposes his own antithesis, and creates in his novel a synthesis meant to foster a genuinely Russian national tradition, free from imitation of Western models.
Winner, University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies, American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press

Title Page

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pp. i


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pp. iv


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pp. ix-x


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pp. xi

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pp. xiii

This book was inspired decades ago by my then-colleague in the Romance languages department, Michael Danahy. We co-taught a course on the French and Russian novel, which has continued to develop over the years with the help of Wesleyan students. Several wonderful colleagues who have written on related subjects generously read my drafts and led me to new insights....

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Introduction: The Russians and the French

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pp. 3-14

The nineteenth-century Russian novel has a philosophical depth and moral power that distinguishes it from its European peers. Where does this come from and can it be located? Russian censorship constrained the discussion of political and philosophical questions in expository prose, so that the issues had to appear in disguised form in fiction, but that is only part of the answer; Russian authors...

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1. From Poetry to Prose: Pushkin, Gogol, and the Revue

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pp. 15-33

The Revue

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2. Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time

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pp. 34-88

A Hero of Our Time effects a remarkable synthesis of Western European and Russian literature of the first third of the nineteenth century. Lermontov set himself the task of inventing modern Russian prose and founded a tradition of psychological realism, drawing from Pushkin to go beyond the themes and heroes that Russian Romanticism had learned from Western Europe, in particular from France...

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3. Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment

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pp. 89-151

In Crime and Punishment, French novels about prostitutes and young men who abandon virtue for vice are set into opposition to the Russian cultural universe in order to be assimilated into it through biblical truth. We will explore four tales of prostitution that contribute to the characterization of Sonya and four tales of sinner-criminals that structure the hero’s quest for redemption. In the first group, Balzac’s is the most substantive subtext;...

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4. Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

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pp. 152-209

The richness and ambiguity of Anna Karenina arises from the conflict between its sympathy with both the adulteress and the family. In his novel, Tolstoy at once empathizes with Anna and reaffirms the biblical understanding of adultery as sinful, while including a vision of family that could prevent it. Tolstoy’s antidote to the decadence he found in the French novel of adultery is made up of...

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pp. 210-222

The intertextual achievement of the novels we have discussed involves, as Laurent Jenny puts it, “not a confused, mysterious accumulation of influences, but the work of transformation and assimilation of various texts that is accomplished by a focal text which keeps control over the meaning.”1 Russian literary prose, developing only in the second third of the nineteenth century, assimilated French genres that had been absent in the Russian...

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pp. 223-224

The wind turns to the west, and presses from the ocean rain clouds that for three weeks have torn the grey veil of a harsh winter. The sky has regained all its brilliance; it is under the influence of a pure sun, of a warm and balmy air that opens the month of March of the year 1789. It is about seven o’clock in the morning; great activity reigns in the port of Nantes: and yet, an extraordinary thing, none of its numerous dockyards...


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pp. 225-248


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pp. 249-261


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pp. 263-277

E-ISBN-13: 9780299229337
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299229344

Publication Year: 2008