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In the Review’s October 5, 2023, issue, Jennifer Wilson writes about the dark humorist Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s latest novel, Kidnapped, despite a friend’s warning: “If she doesn’t like what you write, she will turn you into a character in one of her stories—the stupid girl in New York who doesn’t know anything.”
It would be hard to accuse Wilson of not knowing anything, and so far Petrushevskaya has not tried. A contributing essayist at The New York Times Book Review, Wilson holds a Ph.D. in nineteenth-century Russian literature—two of her earlier essays for the Review discussed the suffering of Sophia Tolstoy and the racial politics surrounding Pushkin.
Despite her specialization, Wilson has written on a broad range of topics, including contemporary American literature, Antonio Gramsci, and the Real Housewives TV franchise. We discussed some of her deep and varied interests over e-mail: the exoticization of Russia, the war in Ukraine, and proposed reforms to the NBA.
Nawal Arjini: After the invasion of Ukraine, many people—mostly Russians, but also Russophiles—have been called upon to justify their connection to Russian literature and culture. How do you make sense of this demand? Have you been called to account yourself?
Jennifer Wilson: I’ve tried to think about what it means that so many people responded to the war this way, by rethinking their relationship to a literary tradition. It strikes me as deeply unusual. We saw six hundred migrants drown to their deaths off the coast of Greece this July, a completely preventable tragedy, and there were no calls to stop reading Homer or to boycott the films of Yorgos Lanthimos. I think that would have seemed to many of us a bizarre abstraction. Why then are we seeing that precise response when it comes to Russia? On one level, I think Russia is a place that people in the West have mostly encountered through literature, and so it does not necessarily surprise me that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are what they reach for to anchor themselves. And frankly, it’s easier to toss that nine-hundred-page novel you’ve been meaning to get to in the trash than to pay close attention to current events.
In the early days of the war, you saw a lot of members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia and sympathetic scholars amplifying the country’s literary tradition to dispute Putin’s claim that Ukraine was not its own nation with its own distinct culture. I could understand that initial impulse, but I thought one of the most exciting things about Ukraine’s response to the invasion was that they were defending their right to exist as a multilingual, multiethnic state. I was encouraged to see them rebuke the idea that the Russian-speaking parts of the country belonged to Russia for that reason. I worry we’re slipping back into cultural nationalism and erasing just how varied and diverse Russia is. I saw someone say we don’t need more books about Russia right now in response to a book that was going to be set in Siberia—a place many indigenous groups, who have been fighting Russian imperialism for centuries, call home.
Yes, I’ve gotten some notes about continuing to review Russian literature, particularly the classics. It’s a bit frustrating, because my reviews of Ukrainian and Belarusian literature feel like they barely register with readers, and then when I write about Dostoevsky, hundreds of people will suddenly converge on my article complaining: Why are you paying so much attention to this? I don’t feel the need to defend nineteenth-century Russian literature. It’s not in any danger of being discarded, and its continued relevance is self-evident. I do think we need to be very critical of any effort to silence voices on the basis of nationality or choice of language. It’s been the Russian-speaking parts of Ukraine, in the working-class industrial eastern part of the country, that have suffered the brunt of Russia’s imperial violence in this war, and if we stop reading authors who write in Russian, it’ll be their voices we hear less of.
You’ve written about Russia’s unstable position in the Western mind as Europe-but-not-quite. This slipperiness is something you’ve thought a lot about—you’ve brought out different aspects of the confusion in, for example, your review of Pushkin for us and your review of George Saunders for Bookforum, where you wrote that Westerners view Russians as “white with an all-important asterisk, suggestive of depth.” Could you try to encapsulate this phenomenon?
I’m very fascinated by “the Russians” as a concept, not to be confused with actual Russian people. I think Russia has been mythologized by the West as this primitive land full of white people who, untainted by European culture, could somehow also cure it of its ills. I was reviewing a new translation of The Brothers Karamazov, and I came across this quote about Dostoevsky by a contemporaneous English writer: “Here comes the Scythian, the true Scythian, who is going to revolutionize all our intellectual habits.” Eastern Europe in general is this fascinating zone where Europeanness gets defined and contested. It’s like the periphery of whiteness, and I think in that way, it’s a map of the center. There’s a great book by the historian Larry Wolff called Venice and the Slavs. It’s about, among other things, these “civilizing missions” that were carried out by Venetian explorers to the Dalmatian coast and how the figure of the wild, uncouth Slav helped to concretize Venice as an indisputable part of Western Europe.
Do you see aspects of this old-fashioned orientalism in the way people discuss more recent developments in Russian history?
I think so, in the sense that Putin’s invasion repeatedly gets described as an attack on “European values,” as if he’s behaving in a way that’s not only politically aberrant but out of step with the West on a more innate level. A 2018 Wall Street Journal article about Russia’s efforts to wield influence in the countries that once made up the Russian Empire ran with the headline “Russia’s Turn to Its Asian Past,” and it ran with a cartoon image of Putin as Genghis Khan.
You have diverse passions—literature, obviously, but also tarot, basketball, reality TV. Do you identify as a poptimist?
I think you have to in order to stay nimble as a critic. For instance, I loved Chang-rae Lee’s last novel, My Year Abroad. There’s this great line where he’s describing a character who can instantly understand how to exploit any situation and play people off one another, and Lee compares him to a point guard. Then he delivers such an incredible definition of the point guard spot: someone who “sensed what could be done.” I don’t think that line lands for you in quite the same way if you don’t watch basketball. So I guess what I mean is that even though my job is mostly to stay home and read, I like to be out in the world absorbing as much as I can so I don’t miss references or fall behind the rhythms of life that new writers are trying to capture.
How would you improve the NBA?
Better compensation for the people who work concessions in the stadiums. No more calling fouls in the last minute of a playoff game. Whatever happens happens.
The WGA strike is over, and now there are even stirrings of reality-TV labor organizing. Do you see any other promising developments in popular culture, either in the conditions of its manufacture or the culture itself?
I think this victory for organized labor is the beginning of all sorts of new developments in popular culture. If more people are able to work in the culture industries—and not just people from privileged backgrounds, or “nepo babies”—I think we’ll get more and better art. Look what happened to Dostoevsky when he finally achieved financial security (thanks to his wife’s business savvy): he wrote The Brothers Karamazov.
More to read at nybooks.com
“Ludmilla Petrushevskaya gained a reputation for braiding black humor and the absurd together with the Soviet mundane—communal apartments, residency permits, tape as red as the Communist flag—into something like a rope that you might hang your cheating husband with.”
“Every unhappy woman is unhappy in her own way.”
“How could a slave child from what is now Cameroon, purchased in Constantinople (for a bottle of rum, as one rumor had it), have known that his great-grandson would become Russia’s greatest poet, a man known colloquially as nashe vse, ‘our everything’?”
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