George Steiner The Times Literary Supplement - Essay

The Times Literary Supplement

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

In Mr. George Steiner's words, it is necessary in approaching [Tolstoy and Dostoevsky] to think "of literature as existing not in isolation but as central to the play of historical and political energies."

In the context of Russian literature this might almost be regarded as a truism. It is difficult to think of any serious and useful criticism of the Russian classics in recent years which does not take the principle for granted. Mr. Steiner nevertheless regards it as one of the characteristics which separate what he calls the "old" criticism from the "new." It seems that the new criticism, "the brilliant and prevailing school" which Mr. Steiner describes as "quizzical, captious, immensely aware of its philosophic ancestry and complex instruments," is concerned rather with form than with content; and it is Mr. Steiner's intention to re-establish the old, which is "philosophic in range and temper" and which has been unduly neglected by contemporary critics, "with the exception of the Marxists."…

[But Mr. Steiner's distinction of the two schools of criticisms] is hardly applicable in the Russian context. All fruitful criticism of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky must necessarily be of the kind which he distinguishes as the "old"; in other words, it must be concerned with the philosophical and ideological content of the novels, and even with their biographical and historical background. The task that Mr. Steiner has undertaken [in Tolstoy or Dostoevsky] is therefore not so novel nor even so re-actionary as he suggests. It is nevertheless unusually well done. The analysis of the two masters' novels in terms of their life and thought and historical surroundings is almost a commonplace of criticism, but Mr. Steiner brings to it a freshness and acuteness which are the marks of a profound critic….

He is concerned not with a catalogue of casual, incidental parallels between life and fiction but with the overmastering ideas which so preoccupied the two men that they could not help finding parallel expression in their lives and their works.

Sometimes they were ideas that sprang from incidents, but incidents of such psychological force that they affected the writer's thought for life: Dostoevsky's narrow escape from execution as a conspirator in 1849, for instance, which found expression in The Idiot; and Tolstoy's "symbolic departure," as Mr. Steiner calls it, from St. Petersburg in 1851, which was reproduced in The Cossacks. It is possible that Mr. Steiner rests on these parallels a weight greater than they will bear. Certainly he does so in arguing that they constitute parallels not only between the life and novels of each of the two masters but also between the experiences...

(The entire section is 1130 words.)