With its inviting jacket illustration—Leonid Pasternak’s TWO MEN READING BY LAMPLIGHT—and its double-column format, this history of Russian literature has a deliberately old-fashioned quality. Who will read it, and why? For ready reference, a reader would turn to Yale’s HANDBOOK OF RUSSIAN LITERATURE, edited by Terras. The one-volume CAMBRIDGE HISTORY OF RUSSIAN LITERATURE, edited by Charles Moser, provides an up-to-date chronological survey with individual chapters written by specialists. The field would appear to be pretty well covered. So what’s distinctive about Terras’ version?
Surprisingly, Terras’ history turns out to be an enjoyable bedside book—not a volume to be consulted for reference, but rather a leisurely tour through Russian literature from its beginnings all the way to the 1960’s. Terras’ ideal reader will be familiar with Pushkin and Gogol, Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Chekhov, Nabokov, and Solzhenitsyn, but will not be acquainted with many lesser figures. By placing the landmarks of Russian literature in the context of a narrative history, Terras invites reflection on the endless progression of literary forms, styles, and movements. The literary forms of our own time seem to be transparent, natural, and yet before long they will appear to be as stylized as an epistle in verse.
Far from showing any simple cause-and-effect relationship between historical circumstances and the literature of a given period, Terras’ narrative implicitly suggests that literature moves on a parallel track, related to its time yet following the logic of its own development.