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MUD AND STARS by Sara Wheeler


Travels in Russia With Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age

by Sara Wheeler

Pub Date: Nov. 5th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-5247-4801-2
Publisher: Pantheon

The veteran British travel writer roams around Russia, inspired by some of its most storied writers.

In the introduction to this adventurous but not always cohesive book, Wheeler (Access All Areas: Selected Writings 1990-2010, 2011, etc.) notes that she aspires to show how Russian literary titans like Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, and Tolstoy spoke both to their time and to present-day Russia. However, in most of the pages that follow, she’s not engaging in socio-literary criticism so much as using those authors to lend gravitas to her efforts to grasp the country’s current melancholic mood. Near Pushkin’s ancestral home, she met a man boozily complaining about Putin; a chapter ostensibly about Dostoyevsky detours into her struggles learning Russian, nearly getting mugged at a St. Petersburg train station, and meeting some couch-surfing youths. Wheeler notes that her Russian teacher adores Turgenev but never explains why; a trip to the Caucasus to walk in Lermontov’s footsteps leads to some digressive grousing about the country’s poor preparation for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi and sour conclusion that “being Russian has always been miserable.” This rhetorical disconnect is especially unfortunate because the text sings when Wheeler thoughtfully weaves her chosen writers with her travels. In Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel, Oblomov, she finds a Bartleby-esque symbol of the national character, particularly in his hometown in Russia’s far eastern region, where there are now “dozens of sets of traffic lights, many of which work.” Wheeler’s admiring visit to Tolstoy’s estate thoughtfully captures the author’s mordant mood and his hypocrisies—e.g., his churchy pronouncements about austerity belied more than a dozen illegitimate children). More often, though, the book is best appreciated as light travelogue bolstered with some literary history.

Wheeler is impressively well read in Russia’s literary golden age, but her pocket biographies could better blend with her excursions.