Friday, January 22, 2010


Version at BMCR home site
Zara Martirosova Torlone, Russia and the Classics: Poetry's Foreign Muse. Classical Diaspora. London: Duckworth, 2009. Pp. x, 254. ISBN 9780715637173. $33.00 (pb).
Reviewed by Grigory Starikovsky, Ramsey High School/Montclair State University

[Table of Contents is listed at the end of the review.]

This volume, published in Duckworth's new series 'Classical Diaspora', explores the reception of Greco-Roman antiquity in Russian poetry during the three centuries after the Petrine reforms of the early 1700s. Throughout the book, Zara Martirosova Torlone both provides the background information indispensible for understanding Russia's cultural idiosyncrasies and also examines the lives and works of prominent Russian poets, focusing on twentieth-century literary figures. In the book, biographical data are intertwined with critical analysis of the selected works: while evaluating each poet's relationship with the Greco-Roman classics, Torlone points out how that poet redefined and sometimes even relived classical motifs.

In Chapter 1, Torlone discusses the socio-political and religious specificities of Russian history, such as the country's political isolation and its close ties with the Byzantine Empire until the demise of the latter. Even when the classics became available, the "higher [than in Europe] degree of heterogeneity and intermittence in classical reception" (9), as Torlone points out, was largely due to the "isolation of the Russian literary canon from the Greco-Roman heritage." The author cautions the reader that the Greco-Roman classics never triumphed in Russia as they did in Western Europe. Rather, the classics, imposed upon Russia's cultural milieu by Peter the Great and his successors, were simultaneously accepted and shunned (13). Even when the classics were welcomed into Russia's literary environment in the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, authentic classical sources, the author reminds, were often superseded by the French and German regurgitations of antiquity (9).

Chapter 2 covers the classical influences on the works of Russian poets of the 18th and the early 19th centuries, starting with Peter's younger contemporaries, Antiokh Kantemir (1709-1744) and Vasilii Trediakovskii (1703-1769), both famous for their renditions of classical authors. Next, Torlone addresses the works of Russian classicists, Mikhailo Lomonosov (1711-1765) and Alexander Sumarokov (1718-1777). Lomonosov, influenced by Homer and Pindar (28), put the ancient heroic tradition to the service of Russia's growing empire: he forcefully conflated the idealized grandeur of the Roman Empire with that of contemporary Russia (31). Another notable literary figure of the 18th century was Gavriil Derzhavin (1743-1816), who employed Greco-Roman literature "to create his own realm of images inseparable from his private thoughts and feelings" (35). Derzhavin, inspired by Horace and Anacreon, projected his own poetic voice as an essentially private one, though Derzhavin clearly assumed the Pindaric stance when he composed his victory odes, following in the footsteps of Lomonosov (ibid.).

In the same chapter Torlone discusses classical influences upon the poetics of Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), Russia's most celebrated literary icon, whose "relationship to the classical heritage," as Torlone points out, "is much more subtle than that of the representatives of Russian classicism and even Derzhavin" (38). Torlone shows that Pushkin's "deep engagement" with ancient literature started at the time of his exile in Bessarabia (Moldova) in 1820-4 (43). In his exilic poetry Pushkin more than once recalled "the shadow of Ovid," banished by Augustus from Rome to the Black Sea. There, Pushkin "re-writes" Ovid's exile, "contradicting the ancient poet himself in his view of exile as a poetic death." Pushkin, unlike Ovid, believed that poetic immortality was worth the sufferings of exile (47). In one of his later engagements with the classics, in 1827, Pushkin redefined the myth of Arion in the eponymous poem. In contrast to the legend, the poet presented himself as the sole survivor of a shipwreck, an allusion to the short-lived revolt of the Decembrists, many of whom were Pushkin's friends. Finally, Torlone examines Pushkin's poem Monument against the backdrop of Horace's Carm. 3.30, discussing the similarities and differences between the Russian poem and its Roman prototype, such as the recognizable Russian landscape and the poem's political import (52-53).

In Chapter 3 Torlone examines the lives and works of two Russian literati from the turn of the 20th century, Innokentii Annenskii (1855-1909) and Viacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949), each of whom received a thorough classical education. Ivanov studied under Theodor Mommsen and translated Aeschylus and Pindar, whereas Annenskii, trained as a classical philologist, wrote on Lycophron and rendered into Russian all the surviving tragedies of Euripides. If Annenskii wrote very personal, often extremely pessimistic yet unobtrusive verse, Ivanov indoctrinated his muse: the poet believed that one could organically unite Dionysiac religion and Christianity (61-62). He sought to introduce "church and folk" elements even into his renditions of Greek authors, for example, into his translation of Pindar's First Pythian Ode (64). Later in the same chapter, Torlone discusses Ivanov's admiration for Rome. Ivanov, who, upon his emigration from Soviet Russia, settled in Rome, identified himself with Aeneas, finding similarities between the famous Trojan émigré and his personal experience (69).

Torlone then discusses the pre-revolutionary classical plays of Ivanov and Annenskii in the context of the so-called 'Slavonic Renaissance,' a literary phenomenon of early 20th century Russia. If for Ivanov tragedy was a ritualistic mystery (bearing the stamp of Aeschylean influence), Annenskii's "interest in classical tragedy was primarily aesthetic..." (77). Annenskii, loyal to the shadows of Euripides and Dostoyevsky, wrote psychological tragedies. In comparison with the obfuscated language of Ivanov, Annenskii's characters are modernized and "speak a simpler language" (84). Yet for all their endeavors to popularize the classics, Ivanov and Annenskii failed to revive interest in antiquity through their plays (91); the Russian revolution (and the forces that led up to it) eclipsed them.

In Chapter 4 Torlone examines the two classical plays by Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), Ariadne and Phaedra. Though Tsvetaeva often denied that she was familiar with Greco-Roman antiquity, the poet's intimate knowledge of classical motifs, Torlone maintains, can hardly be doubted. Raised in the family of the legendary Russian classicist Ivan Tsvetaev, founder of the Moscow Museum of Fine Arts, Tsvetaeva was certainly exposed to Greco-Roman culture. Furthermore, Torlone suggests that the poet almost certainly read renditions of the Theseus myth by Euripides, Catullus and Seneca (94). Thus, the agon between Bacchus and Theseus in Ariadne testifies to the poet's classical expertise (99). Torlone suggests that this agon "might be patterned after Euripides' Bacchae, especially the confrontation between King Pentheus and the captive Dionysus," but in the case of Tsvetaeva's Theseus the hero "acknowledges his powerlessness and his hybris in face of the divine" (101). Torlone then proceeds to examine Tsvetaeva's other tragedy, Phaedra, arguing once again that the Russian poet "was a careful reader of Euripides" (107). At the same time, Torlone points out that Tsvetaeva's Phaedra, whose character reflects poet's personal struggles, is presented not as "a duplicitous female character," but "as a tragic victim of unrequited love" (111).

The classical influences on the poetry of Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938), Tsvetaeva's contemporary and one-time friend, are examined in Chapter 5. For Mandelshtam, antiquity was a series of idealized locales which the poet frequently evoked. For the poet, Hellenic motifs served as a means of communication between the dreary present and the glorified past. Homer, the champion of the Hellenic spirit, was perceived by Mandelshtam as "the perfect combination between music and logos" (124). Among the poems discussed in the chapter, perhaps the most striking instance of Mandelshtam's dialogue with antiquity is The Horseshoe Finder, which was initially subtitled 'Pindaric Fragment' (129-131). Evoking Pindar's poetics, Mandelshtam contemplated his relationship with the Soviet State. The Horseshoe Finder symbolizes the rift between "the brave new world" and the classical tradition of which the "dusty horseshow" is only a disturbing vestige.

One of Mandelshtam's idealized locales was Ancient Rome, a recurrent motif in his poetry. Rome was perceived by Mandelshtam as "a unified and natural body" (134), juxtaposed with the St. Petersburg of his youth. Mandelshtam's verse accentuates the tragic dichotomy between the idealized Rome (physis) and St Petersburg (nomos) (135). The poet acted out his own tragedy to the end. In the late 1930s Mandelshtam was arrested and "disappeared into the abyss of the GULAG" (121).

In the final chapter of the book, Torlone evaluates the influence of Greco-Roman classics upon Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996), unquestionably the greatest Russian literary figure of the latter part of the 20th century. Brodsky, persecuted by the Soviet authorities in the '60s and expelled from his native St. Petersburg in the early '70s, artfully conflated classical motifs and personal experiences. Thus, in his poem Odysseus to Telemachus, written soon after Brodsky's banishment from Russia, the figure of Odysseus united the ancient epic and the poet's own exile (159-160). Discussing Brodsky's references to Ancient Rome, Torlone demonstrates that, as did Mandelstam, Brodsky juxtaposed Rome and the Soviet Empire; however Brodsky, unlike Mandelshtam, saw very little difference between the ancient and the contemporary political entities. Thus the poem From Martial has a recognizable Roman setting, but once again it is permeated by subtle yet recognizably disturbing references to Soviet Russia (179).

Discussing Brodsky's famous piece Dido and Aeneas, Torlone observes that "in Brodsky's poem the focus was primarily on Aeneas; Dido was only a shadow of his destiny..." Brodsky, a careful reader of Vergil, effectively rewrote the portrait of the Carthaginian queen, blending Dido's despair with the future downfall of Carthage. In a way, Brodsky outdid Vergil in intertwining personal turmoil and the drama of the doomed Punic city (169).

Throughout the book Torlone demonstrates that a constant redefinition of the Greco-Roman heritage, rather than blind imitation, is a hallmark of Russia's three-century long relationship with the classics. This accessible, detail-oriented and theoretically sophisticated volume is of interest to students of both Russian literature and the classical tradition. Lastly, all original Russian texts found in this volume are transliterated and meticulously translated by the author.

Table of Contents:

Preface and Acknowledgements vii
Note on Translation and Transliteration ix
Introduction 1
Chapter 1. 'Russian Antiquity' 7
Classical tradition and reception studies: where does Russia fit? 8
East or West? 10
From Byzantium to the 'Third Rome' 13
Peter the Great and the classics 14
Chapter 2. From Russian Classicism to Aleksander Pushkin 23
Antiokh Kantemir and Vasilii Trediakovskii 24
Mikhailo Lomonosov and Aleksander Sumarokov 26
Gavriil Derzhavin 34
Aleksander Sergeevich Pushkin: the vates 36
Chapter 3. Poetae Docti and their Discontents 55
The twentieth century 55
Innokentii Annenskii: a singer of sorrow 58
Viacheslav Ivanov: between the worlds 61
Russian neoclassical tragedy and the 'Slavonic Renaissance' 74
Chapter 4. Marina Tsvetaeva's Tragic Heroines 92
'Theseus': trilogy interrupted 96
Chapter 5. Osip Mandelshtam: 'Yearning for World Culture' 118
Greek dreams 121
'I was born in Rome and Rome returned to me' 132
Chapter 6. Joseph Brodsky: 'The Uncommon Visage' 153
The anxiety of influence 153
Mythological inversions 156
Wrestling with Empire 174
Epilogue to Exegi monumentum 186
Post Aetatem Nostram: A Brief Postscript and a Very Short Introduction 197
Notes 199
Bibliography 235
Index 250

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