Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf and Russian writers’

Review by Tatiana Krasavchenko, Leading Researcher, Institute of Social Sciences Information, Russian Academy of Sciences

Virginia Woolfs Portraits of Russian Writers by Darya Protopopova
Hardcover: 244 pages
Publisher: Cambridge Scholars Publishing; 1 edition (April 1, 2019)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1527527530
ISBN-13: 978-1527527539

From learning to read Chekhov in original, to being haunted by Sophia Tolstoy’s attempted suicide – Virginia Woolf’s engagement with Russian literature was as dramatic as it was essential to the modernists in their search for cultural alternatives urgently needed to revitalize traditional forms in British literature and art.

The first part of this new study of Virginia Woolf’s international context follows the daughter of the conservative Victorian Lesley Stephen as she befriends anti-tsarist émigrés, dresses up like a Russian ballerina, and publishes pamphlets on the Soviet Union.

The main part of the book explores her views on the four Russian writers she most admired: Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Turgenev. Woolf’s essays are set side by side with other writings on Russian literature that were familiar to her, including works by Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Katherine Mansfield, T.S. Eliot, Vita Sackville-West, and Edward Garnett.

However, the book does not simply lay out facts about Woolf’s Russian literary encounters. It uses Woolf’s preoccupation with Russian literature as a key to understanding one of the key processes in European culture – the creation of the cultural Other.

Response to Russian art

The book explores Woolf’s interpretations of Russian literature as part of a wider response to Russian art in British culture of the time. It portrays Woolf’s literary and biographical encounters with the Slavonic ‘Other’ in their full socio-cultural significance. The book carefully documents how Woolf used her essays on Russian writers as a platform for expressing her views on fiction, translation, biography, and, most importantly, on what constitutes new realism in literature.

The major difference between this book and the existing studies of Woolf’s response to Russian literature (see, for example, Rebecca Beasley, Russomania: Russian Culture and the Creation of British Modernism, 1881-1922, Oxford University Press, 2017, and Claire Davison, Translation as Collaboration: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and S.S. Koteliansky, Edinburgh University Press, 2014) is its attempt to place her writings about Russian novelists within a historical context. Woolf was anxious to go beyond seeing Russian literature from the national point of view. She became intensely interested in biographies of Russian writers which showed her how diverse their philosophical and moral positions were, and suggested how impossible it was to unite them under one label of ‘Russianness’. In order to examine Woolf’s dialogue with her contemporaries regarding the national element in literature, this book sets her reviews and essays on the Russians side by side with other modernists’ writings.

The book invites a wider readership with its discussion of the Russian ballet designs familiar to Woolf, paintings by Boris Anrep and Natalia Goncharova, also known to Woolf through her friendship with Anrep, as well as via Roger Fry’s Post-Impressionist exhibitions, and, finally, photographs of Woolf and her Russian friends.

Explores links to Fry and Eliot

Since Roberta Rubenstein’s study Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), scholars have made significant discoveries about the importance of continental art and literature to British modernists. Protopopova’s book continues this line of research, linking Woolf’s essays on the Russians to Roger Fry’s interest in Russian Post-Impressionists and T.S. Eliot’s love for Stravinsky and the Ballet Russes.

The book exhibits the full extent of intimacy with which Woolf knew the then newly translated Chekhov, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev, as a result of her earnest attempts to read the Russians in original. Quoting from the Russian sources, Protopopova illustrated the precision of Woolf’s remarks on Russian literature, thus allowing her readers to continue their own dialogue with Woolf or, perhaps, challenge Woolf’s vision of Russian authors – the vision she at times adapted to fit her idea of new literary forms.

The book is aimed primarily at academic audiences: modernist scholars, art critics, historians of British cultural exchanges, scholars of Russian literature, and specialists in inter-civilizational studies. It will also appeal to undergraduate and postgraduate students of English and Russian literature, as well as a wider circle of admirers of Virginia Woolf and Russian literature.

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A recent query to the VWoolf Listserv asked for sources regarding Virginia Woolf and Anton Chekhov. Here is a compilation of the responses that were sent round, along with several notes of my own:

  • Roberta Rubenstein’s Virginia Woolf and the Russian Point of View (Palgrave Macmillan, 2009). Rubenstein herself wrote to say that her work includes a full chapter on Woolf’s response to Chekhov as well an appendix that includes her own transcription of Woolf’s unpublished review, “Tchekhov on Pope.” “The review, written in 1926, was ostensibly of a new edition of Pope’s “Rape of the Lock” but is as much about Woolf’s interest in Chekhov and the Russian influence as it is about Pope’s poem,” Rubenstein wrote. See the Google preview.
  • Christine Froula’s “‘The Play in the Sky of the Mind’: Dialogue, ‘the Tchekhov method’ and Between the Acts‘” in Woolf Across Cultures (Pace UP, 2004)
  • Karen Smythe’s “Virginia Woolf’s Elegaic Enterprise” in NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. Duke UP 26:1 (Autumn, 1992), pp. 64-79
  • Anthony Domestico’s “The Russian Point of View” on The Modernism Lab at Yale University. Domestico is a graduate student in English at Yale.
  • Darya Protopopova’s “Virginia Woolf and the Russians: Readings of Russian Literature in British Modernism,” doctoral thesis at Oxford University. The author is an alumnus of Oxford’s New College, and Hermione Lee supervised her work. See more information from Darya in her comment below.
  • Virginia Woolf and Bloomsbury, an unannotated database of more than 28,000 records compiled and updated since the early 1970s, although Stuart N. Clarke, who compiled the database, wrote that it did not supply much more of significance on the topic.

Woolf herself wrote “The Russian Point of View,” in which she offers her assessments of three Russian writers: Chekhov, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy. The essay can be found in The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Andrew McNeille. Vol. 4. London: Hogarth, 1994. 181-189.

In Translations from the Russian, Woolf and S.S. Koteliansky translated three works: Stavrogin’s Confession and the Plan of the Life of a Great SinnerTolstoi’s Love Letters and Talks with Tolstoi. This volume was edited by Stuart N. Clarke and includes an introduction by Laura Marcus.

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