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Not for Novices
on June 23, 2004
If you're looking for a basic introduction to Russian literature, this is probably not a very good place to start. Now, I know the title has the words "Russian Literature" and "Introduction" in itóbut don't let that mislead you. Kelly has purposely set out to avoid the "standard" approach to the topic, which she says tends to take one of three forms: a chronological canon of writers and their works, a chronological trip through literary movements and cultural topics of relevance, or a more personal essay of appreciation. In retrospect, I now recognize that, not having read a great deal of Russian literature, I was looking for a mix of the canon and the literary movements. Instead, what I found in Kelly's work was a confusing attempt to attack the material by using the "Russian Shakespeare" (Aleksander Pushkin) as a framing device.
Through the seven essayish chapters, Pushkin is used as a starting point for the discussion, and then various other writers and themes are introduced in relation to his work or attitudes. As one jacket blurb puts it, this is "an unexpected approach to the subject". And as another blurb puts it, "you may love it, perhaps loathe it, or feel perplexed, but not remain indifferent." Well, mark me down for perplexed. I'm not at all opposed to this approach to the topic, it just doesn't seem particularly well suited as an introduction. It's hard to imagine anyone without a solid grounding in the major Russian writers being able to summon up love or hate for this brief work. It simply assumes too much familiarity on behalf of the reader to be of any utility to the newcomer to Russian literature. So, perhaps I'll return to it in 15 years, after I've had a chance to read some of the vital works, but in the meantime, I'm still trying to learn what those might be.