Russia was the first foreign country I ever visited. I was eleven. I have been looking over my shoulder at it ever since.
I think there are many who share that sentiment, and it makes this genre of memoirs of Russia or travelogues within the country such an irresistible one. Seasoned English travel writer Sara Wheeler writes in Mud and Stars about her journeys to various points of interest, mostly in the Russian countryside and smaller cities, connected to some of its most renowned writers, weaving in memoir elements around the travels and her Russian language learning experience.
My aim…is to show how the best writers of the Golden Age, which I define, broadly, as the period between 1800 and 1910, represent their country, then and now. I followed nineteenth-century footsteps in order to make connections.
It is about that, in some sense, but loosely. So loose that at times the structure feels lost or abandoned entirely. Sometimes Wheeler travels to locations without giving any solid sense of what she’s doing there, despite it being associated with one of the authors. A previous subtitle of the book indicates that it was at least in part intended to be about her learning the Russian language, and some kind of shift in primary focus is evident.
But there’s basically no memoir or travelogue of Russia I wouldn’t pick up, and I find something to love in all of them, so I found this still quite good despite its threads not always coming together and a general meandering feeling. I mention this because if you want a totally cohesive, focused narrative, it’s not this. But for an enjoyable, intelligent travelogue with a humorous literary bent, it delivers: “I hope that besides the fun, these themes contribute to an amateur’s sketch of a country which is lovable despite it all.” It does.
The writers she traces are familiar: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gogol, Turgenev, Lermontov. I prefer the Silver Age of Russian literature, but I’ll read about any of it, especially when it’s combined with a modern travel aspect. I learned in one of my favorites from last year, The Anna Karenina Fix, how fascinating, salacious, and bizarrely entertaining some of these writers’ lives were, so it was interesting to revisit them while comparing the adventures and tone of the two books. There’s plenty of humor here, but a different sort than Viv Groskop employed. It’s more at the expense of the absurd situations and details of some of these lives, and less in the application to one’s own life that Groskop often uses.
Here’s a nice did-you-know about Russian literature’s favorite son:
Pushkin … had time to write only when he had a sexually transmitted disease. A friend once told a mutual acquaintance, (Pushkin) is finishing the fourth canto of his poem. Two or three more doses of the clap and it’ll be done.
The narrative finds Wheeler picking out parts of their famous works and layering the modern locations she visits over the historical ones that held such literary significance. Developments are divided between the quietly meaningful, the gloomy and the amusing, if not surprising: “The police building on Sadovaya Street where Raskolnikov confessed is now an Apple Store.” Determining what these mighty figures in Russian literature have to contribute to the present landscape is a difficult undertaking considering the current mood and atmosphere in Russia, but when she pulls it off it does feel significant.
Wheeler’s observations about people, including herself, are often hilarious — a bit cranky, but wryly funny. (A favorite: “Chekhov felt he had ‘wasted his life on fornication’ — who hasn’t”.) Occasionally, though, some judgement comes on strong or bitter, like calling the Bloomsbury literary group “ghastly” with no explanation to qualify it, or asserting that “Fiction never lies.” Oh come on. This might have stemmed from the loose or somewhat disjointed structure, where these might have been explored further or omitted if the book had taken a more solid direction one way or another.
The book as a project held great personal significance for Wheeler, and I wish she’d explored this aspect more. She mentions it briefly and intriguingly in the introduction, explaining that she put the writing on hold for a few years and when she finally returned to her Russian books and notes, she began to feel like herself again. “Rereading it all, I met myself coming back. These pages give form to the vanished years.” Which I thought was a lovely and relatable sentiment for anyone who’s used literature to claw themselves back to a recognizable, familiar place.
But as quickly as she had me on board with something, there’d come something like this: “Moscow and Petersburg are so unrepresentative of Russia that I avoided them as much as possible.” This always irritates me, this idea that parts of a country are more representative of it as a whole than others. It’s a personal pet peeve, I hate that sentiment repeated in any context, and for the intelligence she shows in analysis elsewhere, it comes across as a lazy criticism.
But some small annoyances and general unevenness aside, it’s a worthwhile travelogue with some exceptional writing and interesting glimpses into literary history and unique biographical angles, and impressively, the author weaves her own bits of memoir into these greater stories very effectively. A must-read for Russophiles and those who appreciate unusual approaches to literary biography. 3.5/5
Mud and Stars:
Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age
by Sara Wheeler
published November 5, 2019 by Pantheon
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.