Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Liza Knapp's "The Giants of Russian Literature": Audiobook Review


I checked this out [in The Modern Scholar series at over seven hours total] via my library to hear, as an introduction to the big four, Turgenev and Chekhov as well as Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. I've read some of the latter two, along with a few stories by Chekhov. Liza Knapp, from Columbia U., addresses us as she might her beginning students. She takes the theme, crediting both Woody Allen and E.M. Forster's "Aspects of the Novel," to emphasize the existential themes of love and death in the four. Her delivery is acceptable, but she hesitates a lot in her speech patterns, halting sometimes at odd moments in her sentences.

She aroused my curiosity about the comparatively lesser appreciated (at least in renown abroad today) "Fathers and Sons" as an exemplar of a well-crafted fictional creation of the same century that found the novel so perfected in Britain. Frankly, while Turgenev does not sound that exciting, I was interested to learn that he influenced the Irish writer William Trevor, who made his "Reading Turgenev" novella in "Two Lives" on this inspiration. I'd have liked more from Knapp on the wider impact of Turgenev, as he is now eclipsed by the three admirers who followed him.

Dostoevsky's dramatic life follows, and Knapp refers us to his biographer Joseph Frank for more detail. She takes "Notes from the Underground" with its carping narrator as a harbinger of what so many after him next century would harp upon. (A star deducted as the "Notes" lecture is not a half-hour as the rest of the main ones, but it cuts off mid-sentence at under thirteen minutes.) She reminds us how these later 19th c. works only found translation via Constance Garnett (and the Maudes) at the start of the 20th c. among English-language audiences then creating quite an effect. "Crime and Punishment" gains center stage here as the set-text. Similarly, Tolstoy's "Anna Karenina" dominates that next section.

Finally, Chekhov in a few stories shows his own background; as with the previous three, Knapp guides us as to how each came from a class system that left a firm mark on their outlooks and attitudes. I found it surprising that Chekhov professed (like a man between wife and mistress) going back and forth between his medical profession and his writing avocation when he got bored with the charms of one and then the other.

In conclusion, Knapp suggests that the answer tor the meaning of life may lie in the love that carries us on in the face of inevitable death. She credits the four Russian giants as pioneering the Big Questions in fictional form which have preoccupied so many of us, writers or readers, since. (Amazon US 3-27-17)

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