The other day I read a response to a public discussion on education in Russia whose author claimed that he has no use for literature. Being an engineer, he does read technical literature, but cares none for fiction. There is no need to verbalize your way through life anyway, he wrote, and visualizing solutions is much more efficient. It is true that it takes more time to come up with a structured verbal definition of a solution to a problem then it does to act on instinct. Besides, reading often leads to confusion and frustration. You know, those awkward moments when everybody is talking about some great literar work of art, while you yourself found one half of it to be incomprehensible and the other half simply dreadful. Which is why we generally agree that tastes should not be discussed and leave it at that.
When discussing the value of a written word, several things come to mind: first, it is a unique testimony of thought processes, which remain hidden in other forms of art. Second, adequately ordered words and ideas provide a feeling of comfort, exactly the kind of medicine required for a being whose survival depends on resisting entropy. There is also a quality that is difficult to define, which is usually called inspiration. Lastly, writing has a crucial value in historiography, as we would know much less about the past if it weren’t for folk songs, epic tales and eyewitnesses’ testimonies. For instance, in case of Russian literature, we would not be able to follow the path from an epic Tale of Igor’s Campaign to a Russian county prefect who gets sodomized by a Young Pioneer girl with a strap-on in Vladimir Sorokin’s recent collection of short stories. Even if we discard the past as useless, one can’t help being a bit concerned about how things seem to develop over centuries. Draw a line from a poem dedicated to glorifying warriors’ courage to a collection of short stories featuring psychodelic absurdity and bitterness… and then dare to extend it.
For now, I would like to focus on how we got here. Why do we write, why do we read, why do we choose not to read. The subject of our studies – Russian literature, both its origins and its offsprings. Many Russian authors have gained popularity in the United States: Nabokov, Solzhenitsyn, Dovlatov, Druzhnikov. It is only natural that we should bring closer the origins of their ideas and style to American readers. My attempt at this will be unbiased, as I have visited the States as many times as I’ve visited Russia, and I am neither American nor Russian. So here it goes, with a final note - all precaution will be taken to avoid the spread of Russian fatalism in the process.