The University of Wisconsin Press

Russian & Slavic Studies / Literature & Criticism / European Studies

How the Russians Read the French
Lermontov, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy
Priscilla Meyer

Winner, University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies, American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies

"How the Russians Read the French
should be of interest to an audience larger than the Slavic community, because it lucidly demonstrates the superiority of treating intercultural traffic as dialog, rather than monologic influence.”

—Michael Holquist, Yale University, author of Dialogism: Bakhtin and His World

Russian writers of the nineteenth century were quite consciously creating a new national literary tradition. They saw themselves through Western European eyes, at once admiring Europe and feeling inferior to it. This ambivalence was most keenly felt in relation to France, whose language and culture had shaped the world of the Russian aristocracy from the time of Catherine the Great.

In their novels, Mikhail Lermontov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Leo Tolstoy responded to the French realists by setting the French works into dialogue with Russian and biblical texts. Answering the French novels with Pushkin’s prose as well as with the Gospels, the Russian authors created moral and philosophical works of art based in the spiritual values they felt the French had lost. Meyer argues that each of these great Russian authors takes the French tradition as a thesis, proposes his own antithesis, and creates in his novel a synthesis meant to create a genuinely Russian national tradition, in dialogue with rather than imitative of Western models.

“Meyer intertwines a deftly accurate outline of historical contexts, rigorous research on literary subtexts, a sound exposition of the French ‘intertext,’ and insightful new readings of canonical Russian texts. This book will prove invaluable for anyone interested in nineteenth-century literary culture.”—William Mills Todd III, Harvard University

“By analyzing Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, Gogol’s Overcoat, Lermontov’s Hero of Our Time, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina in their dialogue with the European tradition, the book provides new insights into the genesis of major Russian texts.”—Ksana Blank, Slavic & East European Journal

Priscilla Meyer is professor of Russian at Wesleyan University and the author of Find What the Sailor Has Hidden: Vladimir Nabokov's Pale Fire.

A video of the author discussing How the Russians Read the French is available on this YouTube video.

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Cover of book is blue, white and red with a black and white illustration of men.

May 2010
LC: 2008012316 PG
296 pp.   6 x 9   10 b/w illus.

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Paper $29.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-22934-4
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• Winner of the 2009 USC Book Prize in Literary & Cultural Studies from the American Association for the Advance- ment of Slavic Studies

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Updated September 8, 2010

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