Donald Rayfield

Midwife to Genius

Furious Vissarion: Belinski's Struggle for Literature, Love and Ideas


London School of Slavonic and East European Studies 204pp £13.99 order from our bookshop

THE BEST RUSSIAN Literary critics of the nineteenth century wrote worse than Hazlitt or Lamb and knew less than Coleridge or Sainte-Beuve. But their power to make or break a writer and the longevity of their reputation were such that Western makers of opinion can only rage with impotent envy. From the 1830s to the 1930s (at which point Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin, the literary critic to end all literary critics, smashed other opinion-makers), Russians read novels and poems which had the imprimatur not of a censor but of those literary obstetricians they called ‘life teachers’, ‘radiant personalities’, ‘lords of thought’. Vissarion Belinslui, writing fiom the mid 1830s until hls premature death hm TB in 1848, was the first and the exemplary Russian literary midwife. In hundreds of persuasively and insistently argued book reviews he helped a newborn poet or novelist to breathe independently, or in some cases ensured that the mallormed novice was strangled at birth. Word by word, Belinslui nudged his readers’ perceptions and shaped Russia’s expectations of literature. For the next hundred years or more, Russians mostly believed that novels and poems should mingle the idealism and vitality of Romanticism with the sociological validity of realism, that writers should be on the side of the angels (reforming, exposing, campaigning), and that literature should be for the untutored reader, not the klite, and should make up for the poverty of the political and philosophical writing in Russia’s censored medla.

In this rigorous tradition, Belinskii is more attractive a figure than his successors. His evident selflessness, his relentless toil (the cause or the consequence of tuberculosis?), his poverty and illness earned him an aura of saintly authority, which when imitated by later critics of the 1860s (such as Chernyshevsky and Pisarev) appears more like crassness or crankiness. Above all, Belinskii got it right at least three times in h~lsif e and work. Firstly, over a decade after Pushlun’s death, he persuaded his readers that Pushhn was not just an elegant turner of verse but a phenomenal and universal poet, from whom everything that future generations might need would flow. Secondly, in the early 1840s, he spotted (with others) the originality behind the sentiment and pastiche in Dostoevsky’s first work, ‘Poor Folk’, and thus sowed in Dostoevsky’s mind the conviction that he was in fact a genius. Lastly, with moribund fury, he attacked Gogol for retreating from satire and fantasy into a sterile obscurantist mania. That attack on Gogol, expelling him fi-om the canon of Russian literature, was grossly unfair: a madman’s delusions are not crimes to be denounced. But, by mounting that attack, Belinskii put the critic on the barricades and showed writers that there were authorities whose judgement was even more terrible than that of the Tsar’s ministers.

Richard Freeborn’s studies of the Russian novel, produced over a period of forty years as a critic and translator, have attracted a wide audience. In deciding to write a monograph on Belinskii he has acted with an altruism worthy of his Belinskii: critic subject. Western readers know the great Russian novelists and a fair bit of Pushlun in translation. However, the names (to say nothing of the works) of Russia’s thinkers and literary critics are largely foreign to them. Belinskii’s successor, Chernyshevsky, is the most familiar, solely because of the outrageous spoof biography of Chernyshevsky (who ‘literally bathed in ink’) that is Chapter 4 of Nabokov’s greatest novel, The G$. Even somebody as cruel as Nabokov would not subject Belinskii to such treatment, and Freeborn has nobly come to praise Belinskii, not to bury him.

The difficulties facing the author are considerable. In the don or so words Belinskii wrote it is hard to find a witty aphorism, or even anyhg outrt. As a previous academic biographer hmted, it is easiest to have a high opinion of Belinskii’s mind if one just takes at face value the estimation of his more distinguished contemporaries – Turgenev, Bakunin, Dostoevsky. His private life, shaped by poverty, inexperience and disease, is uneventful: his coarse parents, his very bourgeois wife and sister-in-law, his tmigrte daughter, even with Freeborn’s coaxing, never become three-dmensional in this study. For a man who wrote so much, Belinskii left a remarkably small handful of personal documents behmd hm.

Thus the testimony of the geniuses whom he helped into the world i; the best evidence of Belinskii’s importance. the bawicades Turgenev dedcated Fathers and Sons to his memory; Herzen declared he ‘loved and pitied’ him; even Dostoevsky (who shared Stalin’s conviction that ‘gratitude is a dsease of dogs’) crowned Belinslui as ‘the most hurried man in Russia’. ‘Furious [or Frantic] Vissarion’ is Russian posterity’s ironic epithet for Belinskii it implies that all that mass of ill-paid hackwork prevented him fiom having a wide, calm perspective on the world of ideas. But for better or worse, Belinskii created for Russia an ideal of what literature must do for its readers, an ideal that made writing and readng more important in Russia than anywhere else on earth. That is why Richard Freeborn’s book, however modestly published (perfect-bound, no illustrations), is essential reading for anyone exploring Russian mindsets.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter