Turgenev could be read in English from 1855, Tolstoy had British and American disciples, and Dostoevsky was, in Robert Louis Stevenson's view, 'a devil of a swell, to be sure'. But the English-speaking world's received ideas about Russian literature were mostly laid down in the 1910s and 1920s, the great age of Western interest in the Russian soul - 'its passion, its tumult, its astonishing medley of beauty and vileness', as Virginia Woolf put it. Though there were some who mocked the craze for transplanted Russian soul-speak, most handbooks for fledgling Russophiles 100 years ago took it for granted that readers needed briefing on the paradox-filled Slavic temperament. 'There is a passive element in the Russian nature,' Maurice Baring explains in Landmarks in Russian Literature (1910); 'there is also something unbridled, a spirit which breaks all bounds of self-control and runs riot; and there is also a stubborn element, a tough obstinacy.' According to William Lyon Phelps, of Yale, in his Essays on Russian Novelists (1911), 'your true Russian' is notable for humility, love of theory, paralysis of the will, and a complete lack of 'the healthy moderation of the Anglo-Saxon'. What, Phelps asks, is the general impression produced on the mind of a foreigner by reading Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov and others? 'It is one of intense gloom.'
LRB 17 February 2011 | PDF Download