RaveThe Wall Street JournalOne of Russian literature\'s finest works ... Douglas Smith’s translation captures its appeal: not the scope of events, but the moments of beauty that shine throughout ... At its best, The Story of a Life rivals any autobiography in world literature. Its hero is imagination itself. While the Soviets professed absolute certainty regarding all important questions of life, Paustovsky detected mystery, complexity and hidden poetry everywhere.
PositiveThe Wall Street JournalGeorge Saunders deems his delightful readings of seven stories by Chekhov, Gogol, Turgenev and Tolstoy non-academic, and they are all the better for that ... To be certain that the reading experience is fresh when we consider his analyses, Mr. Saunders includes each story in full in an adequate, if not always the best, translation ... At his best, Mr. Saunders teases out easily overlooked moments of authorial genius ... Mr. Saunders’s faith in \'craft\' sometimes misleads him. He attributes Tolstoy’s unsurpassed depiction of the mind, and his status as \'a moral-ethical giant,\' to \'a technique,\' an explanation Tolstoy himself despised and mocked in Anna Karenina ... Mr. Saunders, most comfortable when discussing realist stories like Chekhov’s, forces those governed by a completely different aesthetic into the realist mode ... Mr. Saunders also projects contemporary politics onto the stories ... Mr. Saunders’s students, we learn, have pointed to passages where these writers demonstrate insufficient wokeness. For the author, any supposed moral lapse of this kind must also be an aesthetic one, to be remedied by supplying appropriate, morally up-to-date additions ... Apparently, the principles of aesthetics just happen to coincide exactly with the values of American intellectuals in the year 2021, while departing from the values of all other cultures at all other periods of history. I cannot imagine how to improve 19th-century novels by making them conform to modern gender standards ... Mr. Saunders’s love of student-speak (\'the crappo version of our story,\' \'can a jerk change?\') also grates ... The enticing brilliance of his careful analyses, as illuminating to the scholar as to the beginner, would have shone even more brightly.
Nikolai Gogol, Trans. by Susanne Fusso
RaveThe New York Review of BooksFusso has done an excellent job with some of Gogol’s stories ... Fusso’s ear for humor makes all the difference. Everywhere Gogol describes a world of incandescent inanity. Things may look fascinating, variegated, and endlessly interesting, as the narrators of his stories sometimes suggest at their beginnings, but by the end the world’s metaphysical boredom shines through ... Gogol creates conversations so insipid as to achieve a kind of negative sublimity.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalThe author offers amusing accounts of Russian living conditions ... As one might expect from an accomplished travel writer, the author is especially interesting as she follows Chekhov on his journey to the island of Sakhalin ... Ms. Wheeler fears that academics will nitpick her discussions of literature and she proudly pronounces herself a generalist, which is all to the good. But is it nitpicking to be irritated at misstatements of basic facts? ... Ms. Wheeler’s love for Russian literature is clear, even when she misreads it. Her attitude toward Russia itself is harder to understand. She writes repeatedly that there is no such thing as Russian culture, since Russia is so diverse. But of course American, Indian and many other cultures are no less diverse. To speak of a national culture is to envisage not uniformity but a specific diversity, different from others in detail and in overall configuration. She might as well say there is no such thing as French or Chinese cuisine ... Like travel, great literature should help us escape the prison house of our island in time, place, class and culture. Otherwise, for all that one can learn, one might as well stay home and watch the telly.
PositiveThe Wall Street Journal... delightful, if sometimes nauseating ... As Mr. Pollock’s book demonstrates, believers have conversions in churches, atheists in banyas.
Vasily Grossman, Trans. by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler
PositiveThe New York Review of BooksFirst published when Stalin was still alive, Stalingrad is considerably less explicit than Life and Fate about its ethical and political themes. Even so, it was, by Soviet standards, remarkably bold ... No version, published or unpublished, fully accords with Grossman’s conception, and some manuscripts include splendid passages that have never been published. The editors of this English translation therefore chose to include as much fascinating material as possible, carefully indicating in an afterword the versions to which particular passages belong. The result is the most complete, most interesting, and artistically finest version of Stalingrad in any language ... In Stalingrad, Grossman relies on the technique Russians call \'Aesopian language,\' which hints at (or allegorizes, like Aesop’s fables) the unsayable. Life and Fate and Grossman’s last novel, Everything Flows, insist explicitly that Communism and Nazism are mirror images of each other, but Stalingrad could not. Instead it criticizes the Nazis for faults that readers would recognize as equally characteristic of the Soviets.
MixedThe Wall Street JournalMr. Boeck’s biography tries to explain how Sholokhov lost the conscience he once had ... Since Stalin’s Scribe is a \'political biography,\' not a literary one, we get no detailed analyses of the literary works, which may puzzle readers who expect the biography of a writer to discuss his writing. In his afterword, Mr. Boeck observes insightfully that faking one’s accomplishments and constructing a false identity were hardly offenses unique to Sholokhov.