Vissarion Belinsky – A Russian Idea, or When Critics Go Wild.

By Stephen Randorf

Reviewers and critics during Vissarion Belinsky’s time (1811- 48) desired to say something meaningful and important, something that would impact their society, and since authors have a special talent in word craft as well, they too were expected to use their skills for the benefit of society. That is, to write something meaningful and important; and it was the critic’s job to hold them, the artists, accountable for this purpose. As expressed by Isaiah Berlin:

 For him [Belinsky] the man and the artist and the citizen are one; and
 whether you write a novel, or a poem, or a work of history or philosophy,
 or an article in a newspaper, or compose a symphony or a picture, you
 are, or should be, expressing the whole of your nature, not merely a
 professionally trained part of it, and you are morally responsible as a
 man for what you do as an artist (Berlin 107).

We should also understand the role in which literature and literary magazines played during this period of Russian history. I think it is best if we look at them (novels and literary magazines) in the same manner in which we view our cable news talk shows vying back and forth for the viewer’s attention. During Belinsky’s time, the main outlet to express political opinions was the literary magazine, and what authors and critics wrote had great importance.

Most readers come across Vissarion Belinsky in reference to Fedor Dostoevsky (1821-81) and his first novel Poor Folk (1846), which was highly praised. What Belinsky found of merit in this short work was its humanitarian view point and realistic style (Proctor 58). When Dostoevsky diverged from this form of realism in his second story, The Double, Belinsky’s opinion also changed, no longer was Dostoevsky considered the great up-and-coming writer.

So let’s go a little deeper into the views of Vissarion Belinsky, after all, his opinions, even though they were stretched, expanded upon, and exaggerated, had a great impact on criticism and literature.

Belinsky had two strong underlying beliefs: “faith in the future and dissatisfaction with the present” (Proctor 45). He also believed in progress, “the progress of humanity” (44), as well as the fact that people were good, and it is society that distorts them (57). Understanding that, the rational approach would then be to show (in novels) how society does this and how the lives of its people are affected, and in this way people can then make the appropriate changes to society. In order to do this, however, it is necessary that there be a clear understanding of what these effects are. It is the responsibility of the artist to present the clearest possible picture of reality, so these effects can be seen and then changed. In a letter, Belinsky wrote:

 When I give a penny to a soldier I almost cry, when I give a penny to a beggar
 I run from him as if I had done something terrible, as if I did not wish to hear
 the sound of my own steps [. . .] Has a human being the right to forget himself
 in art or science, while this goes on? (qtd. in Berlin 194).

It is this role of presenting reality which Belinsky gives to the artist and the novelist, and in order to fulfill this role, the artist must portray society as accurately as possible, that is, to present life in the most realistic manner. Did not Stendhal write in The Red and the Black (1830) that the novel is a mirror being carried along the rode that reflects reality back at us? (Dickstein 6-7).

Not only did Belinsky believe that the novel must reflect life, but that the authors should be judged by how well this is done; that it was the critic’s role, the critic’s responsibility, to determine how accurate, the author “represents what exists” in society (Proctor 50).

As I have said, Belinsky had faith in the future, but was dissatisfied with the present (45), which was with Russian life in particular. Consequently, he ended up praising authors who espoused this same dissatisfaction. But he had a third element regarding the artist’s role in society, perhaps a more dangerous one, although at first it may appear benign, and that was the “impulse to act . . .” to change what is, “to accelerate the arrival of what ought to be . . .” (45). In effect, art is a “tool, a lever, an instrument” for this change (74). By presenting what is, one can examine it and change it to how it “ought to be.”

This “ought to be” was determined by whom? This goes back to the presentation of reality, the idea that if people see how they live, what is occurring in their lives, they themselves will, in a rational world, be able to change it. So, it is important for this reason that the way of life, the way one lives, is accurately portrayed and reflected back in works of art.

Belinsky lived a short life of 37 years. N. G. Chernyshevsky (1828-89) was an active author and critic during this same period and quickly moved into the role of Belinsky’s successor, although as Isaiah Berlin states, “he was not a man of original ideas” (Berlin 256). It was in 1863 that Chernyshevsky came out with his own novel Chto delat’? (What Is To Be Done?).

 But he [Belinsky] never believed that it was the duty of the artist to prophesy
 or to preach – to serve society directly by telling it what to do, by providing
 slogans, by putting its art in the service of a specific programme (Berlin 207).

It was Chernyshevsky who saw art as a substitute for life (Proctor 69) sort of as a stand in. So, once life was reproduced in art or literature (like a mirror reflecting everything back at us) life’s circumstances can be explained and judged. Proctor quotes Chernyshevsky:

 A poet or artist cannot, even if he wanted to, refuse to pronounce his
 judgment on the phenomena depicted, and this judgment is expressed in his
 work. This is another significance of art by which art becomes one of the
 moral activities of man (69).

Of course the “moral activities” would not be to change the art or the novel to make it a more pleasant representation of life, but to change life itself, because that is what art represents, once you can see how it is, the reality of life, then you can take action to transform it into what “ought to be.” And in this way, you would not be changing or judging art for what it portrays, but life’s circumstances, in order to create a better future. It was Chernyshevsky in his work What Is To Be Done? who took the author’s role one step further, and that was to give guidance and instruction on what is to be done, presenting what is and also what ought to be in the same novel. As Proctor explains Chernyshevsky:

 . . . what was “real” was that which ought to be. What is real exists, in
 part, in the actual world, but more fully and completely in potentiality
 (in the actual world of the future, as transformed by man’s activity) . . . (71).

As I mentioned in the opening, it was the critic’s task to hold the artist accountable for this purpose, which may not necessarily be the artist’s or the author’s purpose. It should be pointed out that it was the critic who was determining this role for the author, which may not necessarily be the purpose the author had intended. It is here where things get a bit touchy, because the artist may have had something completely different in mind. Instead of using his or her creative work as a “tool, a lever, an instrument” for change, he or she may have wished to create art for its own sake, as they say: art for art’s sake, or for purely entertainment purposes. Either way, this leads to another debate.

We should not forget that it was because of these ideas first espoused by Belinsky and later Chernyshevsky, M. A. Dobrolyubov (1836-61), Dmitry Pisarev (1840-68), which were later adopted for political purposes by Maxim Gorky, Stalin and others, that poets and writers such as Osip Mandelstam and Isaac Babel to name a couple, and later the Night of the Murdered Poets, lost their lives because they chose to express their own opinions on art.

~ ~ ~

Works Cited:
Berlin, Isaiah Sir., Henry Hardy, and Aileen M. Kelly. Russian Thinkers. London:
 Penguin, 1978.
Dickstein, Morris. A Mirror in the Roadway, Literature and the Real World. Princeton:
 Princeton University Press, 2005.
Night of the Murdered Poets.,
Proctor, Thelwall. Dostoevskij and the Belinskij school of literary criticism. The Hague:
 Mouton & Co., 1969.

Copyright © 2017 Stephen Randorf

Edmund Wilson – An American Perspective – Part 2

Edmund Wilson – An American Perspective, by two classic reviewers. Part 2
By Stephen Randorf

One of my favorite reviewers and critics of the past is Edmund Wilson (1895-1972). I use the general term “reviewer” because he reviewed not just fiction, but all the arts: painting, theater, culture. Most of his reviews were short and written in a clear, simple, direct–if not sometimes pointed–manner, and they always brought a fresh way of understanding the subject of discussion. His reviews were readily published in The Nation, The New Republic, The New Yorker, and others, and were then collected and published again.

Wilson arranged these collections by the decade in which the reviews were written, such as Classics and Commercials: A literary chronicle of the forties, which gives us a literary glimpse of that time period: what was written, read, and talked about. He also published longer articles, such as those in The Wound and the Bow (which is one of my favorites, particularly the article on Philoctectes) and Axel’s Castle (including articles on Yeats, Eliot, Proust, Joyce, Stein, Rimbaud). The collection in The Shores of Light: A literary chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties is highly recommended. Mr. Wilson spent much of his later life writing about the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered in 1947 and held a fascination for him and other scholars of his generation.

In Classics and Commercials, he is referring to commercial fiction, the popular books who Mr. Wilson, like many critics during that time (and our time as well), found too often competing with more important literary works. His idea concerning this is expressed in an essay on Finnegan’s Wake:

  Today when we are getting so many books in which the style is perfectly clear
  but the meaning nonexistent or equivocal, it affords a certain satisfaction
  to read something that looks like nonsense on the surface but underneath
  makes perfect sense (Classics and Commercials 189).

A commercially successful novel did not mean that it always lacked merit. He chose one in particular, The Robe, to critique. His 1944 review opens:

  The Robe, by Lloyd C. Douglas has become, from the point of view of
  sales, one of the greatest successes of publishing history. Published in
  October, 1942, it stood at one time at the head of the best-seller list
  for fiction for eleven consecutive months . . . It has sold, in less than
  two years, one million, four hundred and fifty thousand copies, and the
  publishers estimate that it has been read by five times that number of
  people (Classics and Commercials 204).

Due to this novels popularity, Mr. Wilson decided to read it, or as he says “take cognizance of it.” He found the results surprising:

  Instead of the usual trash aimed at Hollywood and streamlined for the
  popular magazines, one is confronted with something that resembles
  an old-fashioned historical novel for young people (Classics and

He mentions young people because he felt the novel diluted the “old grandiose language of . . . ancient Rome with a jargon which sounds as if Dr. Douglas had picked it up during the years when . . . he was a counsellor of college students at the Universities of Michigan and Illinois.” (Classics and Commercials 205-06). I find this comment interesting because it was during my college years (early 70’s) when I read it. I am not sure why I picked it up to read. I must have found a used copy. I do know that at the time, I was not in the habit of reading 500 page novels, even in paperback. But I do remember reading the whole book and enjoying it. Perhaps at the time, I did not know that the dialogue should have been written in the “old grandiose language” of ancient Rome. I do know that Marguerite Yourcenar’s historical novels, which I also enjoyed, were seeing a revival in translation around that time also.

In Mr. Wilson’s critique of The Robe, he does suggest answers for the book’s popularity.

  It is so difficult . . . to imagine that any literate person with even the
  faintest trace of literary taste could ever get through more than two pages
  of it for pleasure that one is astounded and terrified at the thought that
  seven million Americans have found something in it to hold their attention
  (Classics and Commercials, 206).

Well, that quote was not particularly complimentary to the novel. Perhaps it would be better to say, in spite of all its faults, which Mr. Wilson took time to delineate, that there was a moral aspect to it and it is that aspect which appealed to the readers. We should remember that the novel was published in 1942 and Mr. Wilson’s review was written several years later in August, 1944. The world at that time was not in too great a shape.

  It is quite natural that people should find it a relief to hear about some-
  body who was interested in healing the blind and the crippled rather
  than in blinding and crippling people, and in comforting the persecuted
  rather than in outlawing large groups of human beings (Classics and Commercials 207).

  When, therefore, one compares The Robe with the frankly faked publishers’
  goods with which the public is usually fed, one sees that Dr. Douglas’
  novel is a work of a certain purity and that the author deserves a certain
  respect (Classics and Commercials 208).

Mr. Wilson goes on to say, “It demonstrates that the ordinary reader, even in our ghastly time, does long for moral light, that he cannot live by bilge alone” (Classics and Commercials 208).

The Portable Edmund Wilson presents a good sample of his writing style as well. Although it lacks many of the short book reviews and criticisms, which he does so well in The Shores of Light, it does collect a broad sampling of his literary essays and commentaries. One of these reprinted essays concerns D. S. Mirsky (1890-1939), a soviet writer/translator who Mr. Wilson visited in Moscow in 1935 when, as a footnote pointed out, Mirsky’s life was still protected my Maxim Gorky. Mr. Wilson gives us a firsthand account of the complications concerning his visit and then the conversations he had with Prince Mirsky. I do not want to make this visit sound too clandestine, like any visit to Russia in the 30’s, there was red tape involved and Mirsky, himself, had his moments of silence.

Mr. Wilson had a skill in capturing the mood of the times, which is why I particularly like this essay on Mirsky. Wilson met him in Moscow and describes it as follows:

  Almost anything might lurk in those neglected old houses, and a good many
  queer things did. I heard stories of outlandish religious cults, spiritualistic
  seances, dens of gangsters and houses of prostitution . . .The address
  I had took me, I found, through a dark and narrow passage that was cluttered
  by a secondhand bookstall. I came out into a cobbled court where the walls
  had once been painted pink . . . I located Mirsky’s door on the stairway of
  one of the entrances. It was covered–I suppose, for warmth–by what I took to
  be a piece of old carpet. This muted my attempt to knock, so I tried turning
  the bell, which did not seem to ring (The Portable Edmund Wilson 240).

Mr. Wilson had to make a second attempt before the Prince, the learned scholar, came to the door. At one point, Wilson showed Mirsky a list of poets an acquaintance in Lennigrad had drawn up, and after a few comments by Mirsky, Wilson “resolved to destroy the list” for the safety of those on it. They met on occasion for several weeks after that. They met at dinners with his friends, drank cognac, expressed differing views on James Joyce, T. S. Eliot (who Mirsky had known in England), on translating Milton’s Paradise Lost, etc. Evidently, these talks did not go as smoothly as Mr. Wilson had hoped, “I guessed that the constraints of our conversation as due to the difficulty of adapting himself to a visitor from the outside world, and one he did not know” (The Portable Edmund Wilson, 240 – 241). He also mentioned “the dislocation in Mirsky’s whole intellectual life that had been caused by his conversion to Marxism” (The Portable Edmund Wilson 243).

Sometimes in the conversations, Prince Mirsky criticized the well known critic Vissarion Belinsky and accused him of lacking “any real understanding of literary art.” During better moments, he praised the poet Vladimir Mayakóvsky. And there were also moments of foreboding:

  On the other hand, even people who had something in common with Mirsky could
  not afford to know him . . . He had been famous for his arrogance and his
  irascibility among his own social world,and I used to shudder to think of
  the effort of self-restraint that his relations with his Soviet colleagues
  must cost him, and of the consequences when it inevitably broke down (The
  Portable Edmund Wilson
244 – 245).

This was the same man who had lived in London and made tours in Canada and the United States to lecture on literature. Without prolonging this recounting of Mr. Wilson’s visit to the Prince, he ends the essay by attaching a letter that was forwarded to him by a mutual friend in 1952, which confirmed the supposition that Mirsky had died in 1939. The letter was written by a political prisoner who had first met Prince Mirsky in a “transit camp” in 1937, and later:

  I met some of the people from the Moscow group, and they told me that
  Prince Svyátopolk-Mirsky was then in that camp in the hospital barracks.
  He was violently insane. I several time asked for permission to get to
  the hospital barracks, but this was always refused. At the end of sseveral
  weeks, I was notified by the orderly that Prince Svyátopolk-Mirsky was
  dead. I suppose that this was at the end of January, 1939 (The Portable
  Edmund Wilson

One last note on Edmund Wilson. Yes, he did read detective stories and commented on them. At least three of these essays are in Classics and Commercials, which I will be discussing at a later time. For now, let me say, I do not think any of them gave him much pleasure: “I did not care for Agatha Christie and I hope never to read another of her books” (Classics and Commercials 207).

The Internet Library has several of the books by Edmund Wilson mentioned above available to read on line. Located at

~ ~ ~

Works Cited:
Wilson, Edmund. Axel’s Castle. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1984.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: A literary chronicle of the forties.
  New York: Farr, Straus and Giroux, 1950.
Wilson, Edmund. The Shores of Light: A literary chronicle of the Twenties and Thirties.
  New York: Farr, Straus and Young, Inc, 1952.
Wilson, Edmund. The Wound and the Bow: Seven Studies In Literature.
  Columbus: Athens University Press, 1997.
Wilson, Edmund, and Lewis M. Dabney. The Portable Edmund Wilson. New York:
  Viking, 1983.

There are many more books by Edmund Wilson than listed above.

Copyright © 2017 Stephen Randorf

Reviews and Reviewers – Introduction

by Stephen Randorf.

Not all readers check out the reviews for an author’s book before they purchase it. And authors often regard them, the reviews, as a nuisance, especially when they are critical. But for the readers who do read them, I believe what they want, what they are looking for, is some idea of what the book is about: Is this the type of story that I have liked in the past? Will I like these characters? Is this book or author similar to something else I have read? How long exactly will it take me to read this? However, for authors, particularly those in the burgeoning crop of indie authors, such reviews (any reviews) are quite significant for the sale and promotion of their books.

The use of opinions by other like-minded people to judge whether a book is worth their time to read or not – that is – to take that long journey through the pages of someone else’s words and thoughts and come out with a good feeling afterward, is not something new. But I doubt most readers understand the significance of these reviews to the authors. A 5 star review or even a 1 star review? An author parades them like a badge of honor. “Look! See? People like what I have done.”

So I have collected a few interesting thoughts and opinions of reviews from the publishing past of authors and critics who are long since gone. This discussion will be directed more toward reviews and reviewing in general than anything specific to writers of crime fiction.

The first one up in the queue will be Honore de Balzac and his novel Lost Illusions (1837), which is concerned with the commercialization of the publishing industry in the early eighteen hundreds. His characters are used as stand-ins for the wider commercialization of the growing bourgeois class in France at that time. This novel, a wonderful novel and of considerable length, is filled with an interesting cast of characters, including poets, publishers, critics, and reviewers. As one such character in the novel, a reviewer, states: “It’s a dirty business, but I live by it, and so do hundreds of others.” He is referring to taking bribes and selling review copies on the side.

And then I move on to Soul and Form, a short book and one of the earlier ones by Georg Lukacs, an Hungarian writer who frequently wrote on theories of the novel and questioned the commercialized state that our world has moved into. Many of his books are a bit dry and hard trudging, but in Soul and Form his writing is much more lyrical, and in this one chapter (Richness, Chaos, Form.) he uses a dialogue method to review a volume of Laurence Sterne’s work. As we will see he does this by presenting two young men who intellectually compete for the attention of a woman. This dialogue format gives us – the reader – dramatic tension, and with each young man taking opposite sides of each argument, both the pros and cons of Sterne’s work are fully discussed. It is only this one chapter (Richness, Chaos, Form) which I will be referencing.

I personally love the book reviews by Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) almost more for his clear use of language than their content. I think he is read less today because of the fact that most of the books and authors which he reviewed have either become mainstays in our culture and have been written about more fully by others or that the author reviewed has slipped into obscurity and no one cares to write anything more about him. I am grouping Van Wyck Brooks (1886-1963) in this same category of reviewers. He is another writer who one wishes to read just for the pleasure of his use of the American language. Most of Brook’s commentary concerns the early American authors of the 1800’s. Did you ever wonder where the farmers in rural New England or the South bought their copies of The Vicar of Wakefield, Robinson Crusoe or Tristram Shandy? There is a book I would like to tell you about.

Finally, we have Vissarion Belinsky (1811-1848) and his circle of friends, including Chernyshevsky and Dobrolyubov. And what is there to be said about these people? Perhaps that they took literary criticism to the extreme? They argued that the merits of a book should be judged on a moral basis by what it contributes to society. If it does not contribute in a positive, moral way, then is it lacking. This may appear like a good argument at first or at least one worth giving some thought to, after all, most of us writers would like to believe that literature does matter, but what happens to books and novels, under that criteria? What happens if they fall short of this measure? Or what if an author does not wish to influence society in any way? What becomes of their work? Or of them?

There was a time when critics, these critics and their school of thought, actually had an influence on what books should be read and what books were harmful to society. These men might not have been alive when this attitude was institutionalized by others, such as Maxim Gorky, or when fine writers such as Isaac Babel and others who were silenced or disappeared, but they did plant the seed. I will not be discussing the extremes in which others took this school of thought, but I do think that there is a door which we can open safely to consider the idea that literature does matter, and it can be discussed as a counterpoint to the idea of “art for art’s sake” as Vissarion Belinsky did.

Topic headings:
Honore de Balzac – A Cynical View, with examples from Lost Illusions.
Georg Lukács – Soul and Form, presenting an interesting method for reviewing.
Edmund Wilson & Van Wyck Brooks – An American Perspective, by two classic reviewers.
Vissarion Belinsky – A Russian Idea (or when critics go wild.)

Works Cited:
Balzac, Honoré de. Lost Illusions, trans Herbert James Hunt. Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1971.
Brooks, Van Wyck. From a Writer’s Notebook. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1958.
———. The World of Washington Irving. New York : E.P. Dutton & Co., Inc., 1944.
Lukács, Georg. Soul and Form, trans. Anna Bostock. Cambridge, Mass. : MIT Press, 1978.
Wilson, Edmund. Classics and Commercials: a literary chronicle of the forties. New York: Farr,
  Straus and Giroux, 1950.
Proctor, Thelwall. Dostoevskij and the Belinskij school of literary criticism. The Hague ;
  Paris : Mouton, 1969.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf


A Reason And Purpose For Being Here.

These thoughts, which I am presenting, are what happen afterwards, after we put down a good book. Of course, we are filled with many thoughts at that time and, as we all know, there are a lot of good books out there to put down, so I’ve decided to limit my selections to those that I think readers of crime fiction might be interested in and other books, which I believe, might need a little extra attention before they slip into that dark realm of obscurity. The reason for their being here, I hope, will be for what they have contributed to the discussion of writing and what I think will be of general interest to those who want to know more.

Yes, this will be subjective, and I expect most of you will skim through the topics with folded arms while sighing, “Hmm?” And, I have no doubt that this same sigh will be repeated when you realize that so few contemporary crime and mystery writers have been mentioned. Most, many, but not all, will be authors of the past. I, as a person who writes in this genre, find it difficult not to be influenced by what I read in matters of style and substance, so I feel more comfortable in reading the works of those who are more distant in time and/or language. But don’t assume automatically that a writer I have mentioned has passed away. I enjoy picking up a Lee Child’s book and selecting several pages to read at random to refresh myself on the technique of quick pacing or a short story by Ian Rankin to remind myself on how a good tale should be told. But in general, I prefer a Maigret novel by the French author Georges Simenon and the few translated works of Seicho Matsumoto. Both men’s prodigious output I view with great admiration. Of course, these books are read in translation, which I actually enjoy because I find that specific writing style to be clear, simple, and direct. I am sure that a good argument can be made that I am missing the author’s unique style of storytelling, which is probably correct, but it is that clear and simple translated style that I wish to emulate in my own work. As it is, whenever I pick up Matsumoto’s Inspector Imanishi Investigates (Suna no Utsuwa) to clear my head of convoluted sentences and add the pacing of simple words, and start by reading one of his short chapters, I inevitably go on to another chapter, and then another, and another. Well . . . I am sure you know how that ends.

The first couple of Afterwards will include discussions on Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder, an excellent summary of the crime fiction novel’s history; and no doubt a little bit of Dostoevsky. Let’s not forget, his novels were crime novels. And I think a discussion on last century’s critic Edmund Wilson and the earlier Vissarion Belinsky (when author reviews meant something in society) would be interesting. Perry Mason? We haven’t heard that name in a while, other than in reference to the long running TV series. There were actual books written by Mr. Gardner. Wikipedia has over 80 works attributed to him. Most of the novels were published by William Morrow and Company. Perhaps there can be a comment or two regarding his writing style. And maybe Agatha Christi, if I find something to say about her books that hasn’t already been said. And what about our contemporary writers? Don’t worry, I’ll get to a few of those, as well. And, hopefully, any discussion concerning TV crime shows will be limited. I consider most television dramas to be the novel’s evil twin of the entertainment world.

Copyright © 2016 Stephen Randorf