A WINDOW ON RUSSIA
For The Use Of Foreign Readers
The glory of the late Edmund Wilson, as Frank Kermode remarked, has always been "his ability to identify, even if he could not completely describe, the master-spirit of an age." Other critics are more analytic or more systematic, but none quite match Wilson's grasp of culture and history, of movements and men. In A Window on Russia, which Wilson modestly calls "a handful of disconnected pieces, written at various times when I happened to be interested in the various authors," we encounter that rare pleasure of entering a living world where the dead hand of academia never casts its shadow. True, the essays are uneven, the earlier surveys of Gogol and Chekhov, for instance, are slight affairs, without the range and poignancy of Wilson's studies of Turgenev and Tolstoy and Pushkin. True, he is no phrasemaker. He tells us that "Gorky rightly said that Tolstoy and God were like two bears in one den," and there is nothing in his own remarks on Tolstoy that equals the pithiness of Gorky's remark. Yet how memorably Wilson builds up a character, an era; how fascinating are his fussy data and leisurely summaries; how easily he makes his points: the bureaucrats who flourish under the Soviets as they did under the Tsars, the peasants who suffer from one regime to another, the melancholy authors who universally despair of Russia yet cannot bear to be parted from her. Included in the current miscellany is the famous controversy between Nabokov and Wilson over Evgeni Onegin, which first appeared in The New York Review, and two really splendid chapters on Svetlana and Solzhenitsyn which appeared in The New Yorker.