Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

Tea or coffee? Cat person or dog person? Seer of the flesh or seer of the spirit? There's something so invitingly easy about the dualistic approach to literary criticism that it's no surprise that so many major critics of Russian literature appear to settle for it, including Dmitrii Merezhkovskii, Isaiah Berlin and of course George Steiner. I am returning to the latter's 1959 Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? not to decide which goes best with a chocolate biscuit, however. (I'd be disappointed if that was my plan; despite its title, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? explores the resonances and contrasts between those two nineteenth-century giants, rather than trying to rank them in a photo-finish). Steiner - long retired to Cambridge and discreetly famous, but reviled by many, justly or not, as an egregious name-dropper - is one of the few critics both qualified and unafraid to explore Tolstoy's Homeric and Platonic influences. As I am about to participate in a conference panel on Tolstoy and the classics at this year's ASEEES convention, I find Steiner's elaboration of the same topic from more than fifty years ago freshly relevant.

'Both the Homer of the Iliad and Tolstoy saw action whole; the air vibrates around their personages and the force of their being electrifies insensate nature. Achilles' horses weep at his impending doom and the oak flowers persuade Bolkonsky that his heart will live again. This consonance between man and the surrounding world extends even to the cups in which Nestor looks for wisdom when the sun is down and to the birch-leaves that glitter like a sudden riot of jewels after the storm has swept over Levin's estate. The barriers between mind and object, the ambiguities which metaphysicians discern in the very notion of reality and perception, impeded neither Homer nor Tolstoy. Life flooded in upon them like the sea' (Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? p. 77).

Too florid? Too clever? Despite these very allowable criticisms, Steiner reveals throughout the book a passionate reader's vivid appreciation for both writers' creative and spiritual abundance. As he enjoys recounting, this enthusiasm for reading over the nitty-gritty of footnotes and references cost him his PhD first time round. He was rescued by the Fellow in English at Wadham College, Oxford, the intriguingly named Humphry House (to whose memory Tolstoy or Dostoevsky? is dedicated). House, best remembered today for the dubious privilege of having an affair with Elizabeth Bowen during the 1930s (he was described by one of their mutual Oxford friends as a 'large slightly bent & rather forbidding young man')*, was by all accounts an inspiring academic. A leading expert on Coleridge, Hopkins and Dickens, he taught at both Oxford and Cambridge, served in the Royal Armoured Corps during the war, and later lectured for the BBC's Third Programme. When he discovered that the youthful George Steiner, then a doctoral student at Balliol, had failed his viva and taken temporary refuge from academia on the staff of The Economist, he arrived like the cavalry 'in a long black overcoat and wide-brimmed black hat'* to re-educate the renegade in the niceties of dissertation discipline. Steiner graduated successfully in 1955, but House did not live to see it, dying suddenly of thrombosis at his house in Cambridge's elegant Bateman St at the age of only forty-seven, only days before Steiner's largely formal viva. The dissertation became The Death of Tragedy (1961).

Sharing, as we do, a love of Russian literature, old-fashioned bibliophilia and Wadham College, George Steiner and I have plenty to talk about. Hedgehog or fox, anyone? Or as old dinosaurs like George and I like to say, coelacanth or plesiosaur? I'll be reporting back soon on both types of Russianist scholar from the ASEEES convention.

Me with George Steiner at his Cambridge home
* Cited from a letter by Mary Fisher, daughter of the Warden of New College, 27 June 1933, in Isaiah Berlin, Flourishing: Letters 1928-1946, ed. by Henry Hardy (Random House, 2012).
* See Steiner's Errata: An Examined Life (Yale University Press, 1999), pp. 143-4, for an account of his work with House.