An Outline of Russian Literature
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Where Gorky created something absolutely new was in the surroundings and in the manner of life which he described, and in the way he described them; this is especially true of his treatment of nature: for the first time in Russian prose literature, we get away from the “orthodox” landscape of convention, and we are face to face with the elements. We feel as if a new breath of air had entered into literature; we feel as people accustomed to the manner in which the poets treated nature in England in the eighteenth century must have felt when Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley and Coleridge began to write.
Chekhov worked on older lines. He descends directly from Turgenev, although his field is a different one. He, more than any other writer and better than any other writer, painted the epoch of stagnation, when Russia, as a Russian once said, was playing itself to death at vindt (an older form of Bridge). The tone of his work is grey, and indeed resembles, as Tolstoy said, that of a photographer, by its objective realism as well as by its absence of high tones; yet if Chekhov is a photographer, he is at the same time a supreme artist, an artist in black and white, and his pessimism is counteracted by two other factors, his sense of humour and his humanity; were it not so, the impression of sadness one would derive from the sum of misery which his crowded stage of merchants, students, squires, innkeepers, waiters, schoolmasters, magistrates, popes, officials, make up between them, would be intolerable. Some of Chekhov’s most interesting work was written for the stage, on which he also brought Scenes of Country Life, which is the sub-title of the play Uncle Vanya. There are the same grey tints, the same weary, amiable, and slack people, bankrupt of ideals and poor in hope, whom we meet in the stories; and here, too, behind the sordid triviality and futility, we hear the “still sad music of humanity.” But in order that the tints of Chekhov’s delicate living and breathing photographs can be effective on the stage, very special acting is necessary, in order to convey the quality of atmosphere which is his special gift. Fortunately he met with exactly the right technique and the appropriate treatment at the Art Theatre at Moscow.
Chekhov died in 1904, soon after the Russo-Japanese War had begun. Apart from the main stream and tradition of Russian fiction and Russian prose, Merezhkovsky occupies a unique place, a place which lies between criticism and imaginative historical fiction, not unlike, in some respects – but very different in others – that which is occupied by Walter Pater in English fiction. His best known work, at least his best known work in Europe, is a prose trilogy, “The Death of the Gods” (a study of Julian the apostate), “The Resurrection of the Gods” (the story of Leonardo da Vinci), and “The Antichrist” (the story of Peter the Great and his son Alexis), which has been translated into nearly every European language.This trilogy is an essay in imaginative historical reconstitution; it testifies to a real and deep culture, and it is lit at times by flashes of imaginative inspiration which make the scenes of the past live; it is alive with suggestive thought; but it is not throughout convincing, there is a touch of Bulwer Lytton as well as a touch of Goethe and Pater in it. Merezhkovsky is perhaps more successful in his purely critical work, his books on Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky and Gogol, which are infinitely stimulating, suggestive, and original, than in his historical fiction, although, needless to say, his criticism appeals to a far narrower public. He is in any case one of the most brilliant and interesting of Russian modern writers, and perhaps the best known outside Russia.
During the war, a writer of fiction made his name by a remarkable book, namely Kuprin, who in his novel, The Duel, gave a vivid and masterly picture of the life of an officer in the line. Kuprin has since kept the promise of his early work. At the same time, Leonid Andreev came forward with short stories, plays, a description of war (The Red Laugh), moralities, not uninfluenced by Maeterlinck, and a limpid and beautiful style in which pessimism seemed to be speaking its last word.
In 1905 the revolutionary movement broke out, with its great hopes, its disillusions, its period of anarchy on the one hand and repression on the other; out of the chaos of events came a chaos of writing rather than literature, and in its turn this produced, in literature as well as in life, a reaction, or rather a series of reactions, towards symbolism, ?stheticism, mysticism on the one hand, and towards materialism – not of theory but of practice – on the other. But since these various reactions are now going on, and are vitally affecting the present day, the revolutionary movement of 1905 seems the right point to take leave of Russian literature. In 1905 a new era began, and what that era will ultimately produce, it is too soon even to hazard a guess.
Looking back over the record of Russian literature, the first thing which must strike us, if we think of the literature of other countries, is its comparatively short life. There is in Russian literature no Middle Ages, no Villon, no Dante, no Chaucer, no Renaissance, no Grand Si?cle. Literature begins in the nineteenth century. The second thing which will perhaps strike us is that, in spite of its being the youngest of all the literatures, it seems to be spiritually the oldest. In some respects it seems to have become over-ripe before it reached maturity. But herein, perhaps, lies the secret of its greatness, and this may be the value of its contribution to the soul of mankind. It is —
and its chief gift to mankind is an expression, made with a naturalness and sincerity that are matchless, and a love of reality which is unique, – for all Russian literature, whether in prose or verse, is rooted in reality – of that grief and that wisdom; the grief and wisdom which come from a great heart; a heart that is large enough to embrace the world and to drown all the sorrows therein with the immensity of its sympathy, its fraternity, its pity, its charity, and its love.
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