Venturing Into Russia's Literary World

Rosamund Bartlett and Anna Benn make rather lofty claims for Literary Russia: A Guide in their foreword, but the book will doubtless be subjected to more pedestrian uses by residents of the country who want to check out the street where they live.


Though there is no plaque outside my building on St. Petersburg's Mokhovaya Ulitsa, it was intriguing to learn that the young Vladimir Nabokov went to school just a few doors away in the pre-Revolutionary Tenishev Academy, which was also attended by the poet Osip Mandelstam.


A little farther down the road in an imposing gray building now crammed with post-Soviet bureaucrats, Maxim Gorky established his World Literature Printing house with the aim of disseminating the best international literature among the masses.


As it transpired, the house played a more important role in sustaining impoverished Russian writers through the civil war years, including Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam.


But the most striking revelation relating to my street is that Ivan Goncherov -- the author of "Oblomov," the classic paean to aristocratic idleness -- lived for most of his life in an anonymous, crumbling edifice which I have unknowingly walked past every day. Doing the shopping will never be quite the same again.


Bartlett and Benn express the hope that "Literary Russia" will not only serve as a bible for tourists and expatriate residents of Russia, but will also "be read with profit by those who intend to venture no further then their armchair. For it is not just a literary map of Russia that is sketched out here, but a social and political one as well."


Intellectuals in Russia, runs their argument, still forage through the pages of Dostoyevsky for insights into the elusive "Russian Idea," the ideological glue that it is hoped will bind together the many peoples scattered over the country's vast territories.


Russian readers still hunger for moral guidance through the minefield of contemporary life from their writers.


So any book that can successfully chart the lives of Russia's great writers will inevitably help to foster a deeper understanding of the intricacies of the Russian character. And while it is unlikely that many people other than book reviewers will have the patience to trundle through the entries without venturing outdoors, "Literary Russia" does deliver on its broad objectives. The reader gets a tangible sense, almost from the first page, of how precarious were the lives and careers of so many of Russia's greatest writers as they scurry across the guide's alphabetically listed streets, propelled along by the tsarist police, the hardships of the post-Revolutionary period and the purges of the Stalin era.


The poet Anna Akhmatova, who was to lose many of her loved ones to the Gulag, moved 11 times during her lifetime.


The tragic and restless Marina Tsvetayeva had 16 addresses to her name, including the home in the Tatar town of Yelabuga where she hanged herself in 1941 at the age of 49. And Turgenev, one of the most prodigious rovers included here, seems to have covered practically every inch of Russian soil.


Each entry has been exhaustively and lovingly researched, combining incidental detail, such as the description of the surviving secret compartment where Nabokov's mother once kept her jewelry, with sprightly, uncluttered historical background.


Some entries are sparkling, such as the passage that describes the stationmaster's house in the village of Astapovo where Lev Tolstoy spent the last few days of his life, having fled from home and been forced off a train by illness.


Equally engrossing is the site of Pushkin's fatal duel with D'Anthes, an officer accused of a dalliance with the poet's wife.


Although Benn and Bartlett do venture into the provinces of European Russia and Siberia in search of literary locales, the bulk of the book is taken up with the cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg.


The authors painstakingly excavate the many locations of Bulgakov's Moscow classic "The Master and Margarita" and Dostoyevsky's Petersburg novel "Crime and Punishment," a process that transforms grubby corners of both cities into resonant literary landscapes.


Unfortunately, there is a howling error in the foreword, which shakes the reader's confidence at an early stage. According to Benn and Bartlett, the capital was moved back to Moscow "following Lenin's death" in 1924. In reality the move was orchestrated by Lenin himself in 1918, then very much alive. Readers may also be frustrated by the inexplicable omission of certain writers, such as Andrei Bitov and Yury Dombrovsky, from the volume.


Also, the Imagist poetic movement of the early 20th century is quaintly transliterated from Russian as "Imaginist."


And the index is littered with frustrating inaccuracies. Benn and Bartlett opt for a curious form of Cyrillic transliteration which, while it is not so noticeable when applied to the poet Yesenin (referred to throughout as Esanin), would transform the current president of the Russian Federation into Boris Eltsin. Perhaps, the authors were assuming that Mr. Eltsin's literary endeavors would never merit a mention in a book such as this one.


Even these flaws, which will surely be rectified in future editions, do not detract from the overall quality of "Literary Russia: A Guide," destined to become an indispensable tool, both for bookish travelers and for Russophiles hoping to deepen their knowledge.


In a country where writers have long been worshipped as prophets and critics are regarded as high priests, carefully tending the flames that successive political regimes have tried to snuff out, any guide to Russia's literary riches has the potential to be so much more than a diverting amble through aging monuments and dusty memorabilia.


Every page reinforces the reader's awareness of the huge distances, both physical and metaphorical, between people and their ideas, which Russian writers have had to bridge; and it is only then that the full magnitude of this country's literary heritage be fully appreciated.





"Literary Russia: A Guide" By Anna Benn and Rosamund Bartlett. Papermac Paperback. 495 pages, ?12 ($20).