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Wednesday, 19 March 2014

On the so-called Jane Austen vs Russian dudes literary grudge match

http://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2011/12/russian-novels-for-a-louisiana-eastern-orthodox/
http://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/austen-vs-tolstoy-literary-grudge-match/

I do notice that it's rather outdated, and the 1st time I saw these 2 posts was also a while ago, but who cares.
My thoughts:
1/ Jane Austen's closer to Tolstoy than Dostoyevsky. 1st, both explore people in society, human relations and interactions rather than the soul, the psyche. 2nd, both depict ordinary people, not extreme, exceptional characters bordering on madness as in Dostoyevsky's world. 3rd, both are realists. 4th, both have a calm, controlled style, whereas Dostoyevsky may once in a while get hysterical, sentimental, mawkish.
Of course, one can list lots of differences between her and Tolstoy, for instance, that she uses a microscope while Tolstoy goes with a telescope, but it's more logical for a person to like both Jane Austen and Tolstoy than to like both her and Dostoyevsky.
2/ I don't think people read and admire Russian novels solely for their ideas, social commentary and existential crises. That may apply very well for Dostoyevsky, whom I see as a great thinker with some flaws as a novelist, but not Tolstoy. Politics and philosophy are indeed important in Tolstoy's works, but such a statement appears to be a dismissal of his ability to depict human beings realistically, slip into their minds and present things from their points of view. This is the reason I see Tolstoy as a genius, a supreme artist, above all novelists I have read in terms of artistic talent.
3/ Jane Austen's fans like her not for the same reasons. Many like her novels for the social commentary and her irony, and see her as a feminist. Some like her philosophy of virtues and regard her books as guides to life and manners.
(Then, of course, there are those who like the romance, the admirable heroines, the happy endings, etc). 
4/ The division here, I think, is rather strange. Not because I like both Jane Austen and Russian literature (at least, a few Russian authors), not because I've seen many other people who do, but because the division here is in the concerns, topics, themes rather than in temperament and artistic vision. The difference in concerns, topics, themes shouldn't be a problem, such different books can be read at different periods, for different mindsets, different moods; there are people who are very consistent, but there are also those who are interested in different things. The difference in temperament and artistic vision, on the other hand, is another story, because it's more than style, and usually may cause a clash. E.g, people can be divided into Tolstoy people and Dostoyevsky people, or Jane Austen people and Charles Dickens people. In this way, a person may not fit the 'theory', but that tends to be uncommon.
5/ I, to be frank, have huge problems with those who link maturity with perception of Jane Austen and who say that one reads Russian literature in teenage years and appreciates Jane Austen more when older, when "order and domesticity have more meaning". 1st, as it goes, I notice that there are a lot more teenagers devouring Jane Austen's books than novels by Russian authors, and among them, a lot of bad readers (Nabokov's standard). 2nd, 1 of the few themes that connect all 6 novels by Jane Austen is self-understanding and correction of foibles, which is more suitable for young people. 3rd, the works by Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Bulgakov... are more complex and broad, and not everything in them can be grasped in 1 reading in teenage years. 4th, such a comment seems to imply that Russian writers deal with intense, exciting things which fascinate teenagers and which don't hold much meaning later whereas the topics Jane Austen tackles are more important and significant. I find that odd, even funny, and can't help wondering what such people ever got from reading the Russian giants.
6/ I can't decide which, among these, I should bring to a desert island. 
7/ The comment comparing Jane Austen to Turgenev is rather misleading. I started reading "Fathers and sons" yesterday, expecting to find no more than a portrayal and exploration of family relationships and generation gap, only to find philosophy and politics as well. To clarify, I'm stating a fact, rather than giving an assessment on whether it's good or bad.
8/ This essay makes me biased: http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1983/oct/27/the-gentle-genius/
It makes me like the idea of liking Turgenev (though in reality, things don't always follow my wishes- I didn't like to like Jane Austen; or I wanted to like Pasternak and didn't; or? methinks it's more common that they do, I did end up liking Emily and Anne Bronte, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Faulkner, Fitzgerald... as I'd imagined). 
OK I digressed. 1 passage captures my attention:
"This resigned determinism is equally true of his letters: there is often regret, but scarcely ever self-reproach. It was what seemed to them Turgenev’s preoccupation with trivial emotions of trivial people, crises in the tedious lives of minor Russian gentry in decaying country houses, his evasion of the central questions of human existence, of good and evil, of the meaning and purpose of the life of the human anthill, his total failure to touch upon what alone mattered—the life of the spirit—it was this that irritated both Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in their very different fashions..." 
I believe this is not the only reason for their conflict, their strained relationships. But, reading it, I can't help thinking what Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky might have thought about Jane Austen's confined world and her focus on trivialities*. Vladimir Nabokov once noted the light streak of philistinism in her, see? And he's 1 of those who refuse to create works that are didactic or moralistic or polemical. 
Anyhow, that's enough for the day. 





*: I reckon this might be disputable. You may argue that emotions, self-understanding, sense, sensitivity, happiness... are not trivialities and I sound as though thinking war and politics are more important. That is not what I mean. You may also argue that her books are comedies of manners. But it can be dull and tiresome very often because of too much gossip, silly conversations and too much focus on practical matters such as income, marriage, etc. One must admit the author can be a bit too mundane sometimes. Unlike the Russians, she's not concerned with politics, philosophy, the soul, the meaning of life, etc. And she has too little ambition, and too little of a rebel in her.

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