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Literary Russia by Anna Been and Rosamund Bartlett

H. V. Cramond

Because this book is organized geographically, it can only be used if Russia is thought of as a literary geography.

Literary Russia

Publisher: The Overlook Press
Subtitle: A Guide to the Authors, Characters, Scenes and Streets
Author: Rosamund Bartlett
Price: $37.50
Display Artist: Anna Been and Rosamund Bartlett
Length: 515
Formats: Hardcover
ISBN: 9781585674442
US publication date: 2007-12

As a casual admirer of Anton Chekhov and Leo Tolstoy, I eagerly awaited the arrival of Literary Russia. I've always been a big fan of what I call "writer porn": semi-accurate, lovingly rendered portraits of the writers themselves. I have probably read Hemingway's descriptions of F. Scott Fitzgerald's relationship problems more times than I've read The Great Gatsby. And here would be a new glimpse at the master of short story and stage himself.

Alas, not so much. To begin with, Russia prides herself on being a highly literary culture, and creates museums or landmarks to some several hundred writers, many, but not all of whom are named in this book. However, the book is not organized by author; it's organized by geography. Major regions have their own sections and are briefly described. If you turned to, say, Moscow, you would find a street-by-street, building-by-building account of who lived where when. And of course, more contemporary writers were often poor and had to move around quite a bit, so that adds more places of note to the list.

An entry reads something like this: First, the street and address are listed, at the end, if it is a museum with hours, any special information regarding official visitation is included. In the middle, the information is something along the lines of: Here, Alexander Herzen met with General so-and-so to discuss taxes on Herzen's previous estate. The two liked knitting because it showed them the plight of the Russian people, and they often made hats together.

I found myself thinking, who is Herzen? Has he written yet another of the masterpieces that I have overlooked? Should I Google him? And what about general so-and-so? Is he important other than that he fed Herzen's knitting habit?

I have two major issues with this book, which may not be issues for another reader, depending on how the book is used. First, there's the issue of quantity. There are simply too many authors and too many six month sublease apartments listed to consider this a readable book. Russia is a huge country with, as I said, a history of producing great writers. Granted. The introduction suggests a disappointment that not every literary museum could be mentioned. Really? There are more? So many addresses are listed that one wonders what percentage of the total literate population is considered writer-enough to have made the cut.

The list of authors named is nine pages long, and only includes a name and a description of less than a sentence. Perhaps if the book focused on the five, ten, or even 20 greatest writers, one could start to piece together relationships between writers and locations. It would be, of course, difficult for a lover of Russian literature to limit themselves in this way (500 pages -- isn’t that a novella?), but perhaps the authors could be chosen by influence on literature as a whole, or some other criteria than geography.

However, it's possible that this book was not meant to be read as we traditionally read a book. It is, after all, a reference book, a guidebook. Which brings me to my second issue: organization. If the book were smaller in scope as I suggested, the organization might not be an issue because the reader could piece together relationships between the authors and places. But a book of this scope organized geographically makes focus on a single author nearly impossible. For example, Herzen, an author whose work I’ve never encountered, is listed on 23 pages. Chekhov has a whole column of listings, and the pages are all over the book. None of the entries, which are at most a paragraph long, are sufficiently meaty enough to justify such wild intra-book travel.

At the end, of course, a lesson: the way to use this book is just as the title suggests. Rather than blast the book for not being what I wanted it to be, one can use this book as simply a guidebook. Because this book is organized geographically, it can only be used if Russia is thought of as a literary geography. So if one lives in Russia or is planning a site-specific vacation, this book would be helpful in learning about that location; it functions as a Let's Go for the literary crowd, which perhaps was the compilers' intent.


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