Life as a Russian novel: a lecture by Caryl Emerson

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

This Thursday afternoon, a fascinating lecture at Bond Memorial Hall offered a respite from the cold as Caryl Emerson of Princeton University spoke. Emerson is the Chair of the Slavic Department there, and clearly has an excellent sense of the role the literature of the region fits into the overall culture. In her talk here, “Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and the Burden of a Life that Reads like a Great Russian Novel,” she examined the lives of the two greats and the efforts they both went to control their own public images.

Her enthusiasm for her subject was clear from the beginning. There is “something that shell-shocks you about the Russian novel,” Emerson said, that “asks you to choose to change your lives.” While all great novelists play some role in shaping the national culture, the late-blooming Russian nation matured at such a time that the novels of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy could “fall squarely into the problem of national identity.”

What gives the Russian novel such power? The disconnect between development of Western Europe and Russia had been wide for so long that the fairly rapid narrowing of the nineteenth century put particular stress on the culture. Also, Russian civil society has never had a strong tradition of free speech, so in order to discuss real issues, great thinkers who also happened to be able to tell a story would have to put ideas into fiction to get them past the censors. These writers also had the ability to create a world with some individual autonomy, apart from the absolutist norm.

Perhaps most overwhelming is what Emerson called the “peculiar Russian reverence for the word,” which “wasn’t only sacred, but was almost incantational.” This gave the Russian people the sense that they read more than other peoples, and that the material they read was more spiritualistic and less materialistic than the novels of other nations. This spiritualism gave the characters of the Russian novel a status something akin to that of saints; they were to be role models, and the Russian novel was regarded as a “treasure house of possible ideal lives.”

In this personalistic code of ethics, this sainthood would come to be expanded to include the lives of the novelists themselves. In our modern world, it raises questions about how relevant it is to the works of these men that the reader know the background of their lives and how true the novels are in relation to the lives they lead and the biographical legends they created. For some artists, such a study could serve to create a unity in the body of an artist’s work, while for a writer like Byron, the life itself become a work of art. Regardless of any individual opinions on the validity of these assessments, the fact remains that both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were “naturally successful at contacting their opinion.

Dostoevsky, in terms of leading a life worthy to stand behind his novels, was lucky. He was impoverished until the last six years of his life, he eluded debtor’s prison for years on his brother’s behalf, he was almost executed by the state until pardoned in favor of manual labor, and died of complications involving his chronic epilepsy. Tolstoy, on the other hand, only suffered from a “poverty of events.” He was a count in a wealthy family, fathered thirteen children, and suffered nothing extraordinary other than the midlife crisis that caused him to repudiate much of his earlier works and adopt a spiritualistic, pacifistic lifestyle until his death.

While the life of Dostoevsky proved more exciting as a role model, Tolstoy’s relative serenity allowed to be “an all-purpose carrier for his ideas,” until the burgeoning media culture turned a spectacle into his attempts to get closer to the land and manual labor. All serious students of Tolstoy, Emerson tells us, must come to a conclusion about the disconnect between the publicity Tolstoy received and his professed aversion to public life, and her particular answer is that even though he wanted to let his ideas stand apart from his biography, the peculiarity of his break with society made the publicity inevitable.

Perhaps Dostoevsky was lucky, she suggested, to have died sooner. She closed with some thoughts on what she calls “the extreme oddness of the literary humanist, who teaches fictional worlds for a living.” The duties of such scholars are different than those in the realms of the social or physical science; the interplay between the writer and the written is just one of these. The ultimate difficulty and privilege for the literary humanist, Emerson said, is “to keep the powerful personalities alive and to advocate in some way an inconsistent whole.”

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