- How the Russians Read the French: Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and: The Chekhovian Intertext: Dialogue with a Classic
The issues that an older form of comparative literature used to examine under rubrics like sources and influences, interart relations, or cultural intermediaries now appear, as we know, under the broad, even all-encompassing concept of intertextuality. When it emerged in the 1960s, this term had a dual French and Slavic ancestry, as indicated by its associations both with the ascendancy of Roland Barthes and with the rediscovery of Mikhail Bakhtin, with interest in Bakhtin furthered by two Franco-Slavs, Julia Kristeva and Tzvetan Todorov. The books reviewed here carry on the latter tradition with their distinctive but complementary approaches to the intertextual study of several nineteenth-century Russian classics.
Priscilla Meyer and Lyudmila Parts both begin by paying some attention to Alexander Pushkin, the great inaugural figure in Russian literature. Gogol shares this opening role for Meyer, who with Stephen Rudy once translated a valuable collection of essays on Dostoevsky’s fascinating intertextual connections with that author by Russian formalists like Iuri Tynianov, Viktor Vinogradov, and A. L. Bem, figures whose achievement has been obscured by their contemporary Bakhtin’s popularity in the West. But then, as the titles of Meyer’s and Parts’s books indicate, their discussions diverge, with one dealing with three leading novelists in the period from 1840 to 1880 while the other considers the short story writer and playwright who dominated the turn of the last century. What the titles do not indicate is that in deference to canonization at home and abroad as well as to the need for focus, coverage emphasizes a smaller number of masterworks: A Hero of Our Time, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina in Meyer’s book, and “Ward Number 6,” The Cherry Orchard, and “The Lady with the Little Dog” in The Chekhovian Intertext. In launching their arguments, both critics draw not only on Bakhtin from the Russian school but on Tynianov and, more recently, on Iuri Lotman, while Parts [End Page 184] also takes insights from French intertextualists like Barthes and Michael Riffaterre. Harold Bloom’s theories, which deal mainly with literature in English and which rely on a vocabulary of influence rather than intertext but do so with considerable originality and force, also get some notice.
Meyer plunges her readers back into Russia’s transnational, bilingual literary culture of the early nineteenth century, one that still lingered into the 1860s and 1870s when Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, who had grown up in that earlier world, wrote their famous novels. In particular, she draws attention to the Revue étrangère de la littérature, des sciences et des arts, an under-researched journal that reprinted a selection of writings in the original French for distribution in Russia. It thus could serve as a conduit between French literature, especially Balzac, and various developments on the Russian scene from the 1830s on into the 1860s.
Meyer also emphasizes the importance of distinguishing between subtexts and intertexts. She prefers the former term because it allows critics to pinpoint specific interactions between writers and texts, often ones with a polemical edge, rather than leading them to deal with the broader but more diffuse and at times quite speculative “climates of cultural opinion” which can mark the study of intertextuality. As a result much of her book presents readers with a detailed and carefully correlated examination of passages and situations from French writers that very probably had an impact on key features in the three Russian novels. At times Meyer highlights relationships with classics from the French tradition, most notably Père Goriot and Madame Bovary, but just as often she considers subcanonical works like George Sand’s “L’Orco,” Jules Janin’s “L’âne mort,” or the younger Alexander Dumas’s L’Homme-femme.
At this point it might seem that How the Russians Read the French is mainly concerned with...