Review: “Essays on Russian Novelists” by William Lyon Phelps

Thumbs up for Essays on Russian Novelists by William Lyon Phelps. Literary criticism.

After I finish this *grrr* book I’m writing, my reward is going to be delving into Russian literature. (If you’re shocked that I consider this a reward—hi, I’m Emma! We clearly haven’t met.) It seemed like a good idea to do a little preparatory reading around the subject so I could know firstly, what to read, and secondly, what works are supposed to be satire, because it can sometimes be hard to judge that without context. Then the Gods played a meta-joke on me, because this book, Essays on Russian Novelists, often had me in stitches of laughter, and I think it’s possible that the author believed himself. Or maybe not. It was written in 1911, back when it was A-OK to make sweeping generalizations about “national character,” but he’s so thoroughly droll (and sweetly devastating to everyone equally) that you rather wish he would go on. He does exactly what critics should do, which is to infect you with their passion for their subject. I doubt I will enjoy Turgenev half as much as I enjoyed Phelps fanboying over Turgenev, but that has a pleasure of its own. Essays is available free on Project Gutenberg and if you are a lit-nerd in need of a laugh, I highly recommend it.

Perhaps if the membership [of a legislative body] were exclusively composed of women, positive results would show. For, in Russian novels, the irresolution of the men is equalled only by the driving force of the women. The Russian feminine type, as depicted in fiction, is the incarnation of singleness of purpose, and a capacity to bring things to pass, whether for good or for evil. The heroine of Rudin, of Smoke, of On the Eve, the sinister Maria of Torrents of Spring, the immortal Lisa of A House of Gentlefolk, the girl in Dostoevski’s Poor Folk; Dunia and Sonia, in Crime and Punishment—many others might be called to mind. The good Russian women seem immensely superior to the men in their instant perception and recognition of moral values, which gives them a chart and compass in life. Possibly, too, the women are stiffened in will by a natural reaction in finding their husbands and brothers so stuffed with inconclusive theories. One is appalled at the prodigious amount of nonsense that Russian wives and daughters are forced to hear from their talkative and ineffective heads of houses. It must be worse than the metaphysical discussion between Adam and the angel, while Eve waited on table, and supplied the windy debaters with something really useful.

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