I’ve been slowly reading the January 14, 2010 issue of NYRB (very slowly—I keep it in my shoulder bag for emergency reading), and I’ve just gotten to a review that angered me enough to vent publicly. At the end of last year I posted about Vladislav Zubok’s Zhivago’s Children: The Last Russian Intelligentsia; toward the end of the NYRB issue I found a review of Zubok’s book by Michael Scammell, and it’s a kind of review I particularly dislike, the kind that attacks a book for not being the kind of book the reviewer wishes had been written.
Now, Scammell is no dummy; he translated The Defense and most of The Gift by Nabokov, and has written well-received biographies of Solzhenitsyn and Koestler. But he apparently loves the cliché narrative of late Soviet times (in which brave dissidents Fight the Power) so much that he can hardly bear to read anything different, even when he recognizes how groundbreaking and well researched and written it is. He eventually gets around to admitting that “Zubok is a reliable and prodigiously well-informed guide to the opinions, attitudes, and changing fortunes of loyal Soviet intellectuals… Zubok tells his story with a density of detail and complexity of analysis that is truly remarkable… His book is scholarly but also highly readable and accessible, and is rich in anecdotal material that enlivens the sociological analysis.” But first he bats Zubok around for his alleged omissions, and afterwards he bats him around for his ideologically incorrect orientation, and in general he clearly regrets that Zubok chose to write about the people he did; apparently Scammell is so wedded to the familiar stories of Solzhenitsyn, Brodsky, Sinyavsky, and Daniel that he would rather have seen yet another retelling (and he takes up much of his review with yet another retelling). It is as if he were reviewing W. Bruce Lincoln’s In the Vanguard of Reform: Russia’s Enlightened Bureaucrats, 1825-1861, a magisterial work on the bureaucrats who beavered away in government offices in St. Petersburg and elsewhere, laying the groundwork for the Great Reforms of the 1860s while the infinitely more famous dissidents like Herzen were thundering anathemas at tsarism from abroad, and complained that Lincoln was writing about such people instead of penning yet another paean to Herzen & Co. As I wrote in this thread, foreigners love to focus “on writers who got actively suppressed and weren’t able to publish their great work (Bulgakov, Platonov) rather than on those who managed to publish fine work under existing conditions,” and this is another example of the same prejudice.
Scammell annoys me in other ways as well. In his first paragraph he writes “If the classic nineteenth-century authors of Russia marked the golden age of Russian literature, and the modernists of the early twentieth, its silver age, the writers of the latter half of the twentieth century constitute a kind of bronze age,” perpetuating the mindless “Silver Age” terminology I complained about here and topping it with an absurd extension to a “bronze age,” as if the tale of Russian literature were one of foreordained degeneration (I guess twenty-first-century Russia is doomed to experience an iron age of literature). On page 54 he takes a gratuitous swipe at ’60s poets by calling their readings at the statue of Mayakovsky in downtown Moscow “a pale imitation of Mayakovsky’s own public readings,” just as though he’d been there a century ago and could compare for himself. (But hey, it’s bronze versus silver, right? Bronze has to lose.) And on the last page he counters Zubok’s “one may suspect that Russia needed its critical intelligentsia and its high culture only as long as it suffered from tyranny, misery, and backwardness” by citing “the brilliance of the modernist movement in Russia, starting with Alexander Blok and Andrei Bely, and continuing with the generation of Mandelstam, Pasternak, and Akhmatova”—as though the tsarist Russia those writers lived in were not a place of “tyranny, misery, and backwardness”!
No, it won’t do. If you disagree with Zubok, by all means say so, but don’t blame him for not writing a different book (especially since that book would have been a rehashing of familiar material), and spare me your false teleologies.