Hodgson I: The Grotesque.

Thanks to this XIX век post, I discovered the existence of a book that truly excited me: Peter Hodgson’s 1976 From Gogol to Dostoevsky: Jakov Butkov, A Reluctant Naturalist in the 1840′s. A whole book about Butkov? Be still my heart! A friend very kindly checked out a copy for me from the library of the college where he works, and I’m happily engaged in reading it — very slowly, because it’s dense and packed with good stuff about Russian literary history (I haven’t even gotten to the section on Butkov yet). I’m going to be posting a lot of excerpts from it, since it’s long out of print and I think its insights are worth sharing; here’s a bit from section 1 of the Introduction, “The Grotesque and Metaliterature”:

It is not difficult to demonstrate that Dostoevsky did indeed bring Russian prose further than Gogol had into the urban landscape cleared by Dickens and Balzac. And, in their turn, Turgenev and Tolstoy began to move into the realm of poeticized and “psychological” realism claimed by Stendhal and, later, Flaubert. At the same time, however, Dostoevsky’s writing betrays a certain recalcitrance in the face of Western literary and critical influence; if he is an organic part of the forties (which Chernyshevsky calls “the Gogol period” in Russian literature), then Turgenev and Tolstoy belong outside it. Turgenev’s Sportsman’s Sketches (Zapiski okhotnika, 1847) and Tolstoy’s “Childhood” (“Detstvo,” 1852) look ahead, beyond the forties. They anticipate the cultural poise of the novels these young men were to write in the 1860′s, when they had been fully assimilated into the mainstream of European realism. The stories Dostoevsky wrote before his exile in 1849, on the other hand, keep coming to grips with a problem Gogol had faced, namely, how to accommodate European realism within the framework of a native literary tradition which seemed, somehow, to resist it.

There is in Gogol and Dostoevsky an obvious reluctance to westernize Russian fiction, a reluctance which is gradually being recognized as essential to the history of the forties. … I intend to explore the connection between the grotesque in Gogol and Dostoevsky, and their reluctance to fall in line with Belinsky’s utilitarian naturalism. I would like to show that if we apply an appropriate historical perspective to a definition of the grotesque mode in prose fiction, we find that we are dealing with a subversive literary strategy. The grotesque is reluctant naturalism driven to its furthest extreme. (p. 4)

Like the medieval carnival, the novel “offers a field for the joyful exercise of perception, and not a platform for derision.” [Dorothy Van Ghent, The English Novel: Form and Function (N.Y., 1955), p. 23.]

…In order to apply Bakhtin’s historical formulation of the grotesque to Gogol and Dostoevsky in the 1840′s, we must specify more closely the system of Baroque stylistics which in subsequent periods serves the literary strategy we want to call grotesque. I submit that as the grotesque was driven underground—which is to say, spurned by utilitarianism within the literary aesthetic—it increasingly took the form of a preoccupation with the literary medium itself. The grotesque is a subversive literary strategy which exposes literary devices and conventions and thereby discredits the kind of literary sensibility whose utilitarianism cramps its appreciation of the artistic process. (p. 7)

I love “how to accommodate European realism within the framework of a native literary tradition which seemed, somehow, to resist it” and “a field for the joyful exercise of perception, and not a platform for derision”; the latter quote got me to look up its author, Dorothy Van Ghent, who seems to have vanished off the face of the earth after publishing The English Novel — at least, I could find little information online apart from her dates (1907–1967). If anybody knows anything about her, I’m all ears; from what I can tell, she had the kind of approach to literature I like.

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