Furious Vissarion: Belinski's Struggle for Literature, Love and Ideas by Richard Freeborn - review by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield

Midwife to Genius

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

By

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

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