“Tolstoy, Chekhov, and the music of Russian prose”

The latest CamCREES bibliographical notes look at Dr Rosamund Bartlett’s talk on 3 December 2013 on Chekhov, Tolstoi, music, and English modernism.  They end with explorations of a major new website about Tolstoi and the incredible literary resources offered by the online Fundamental’naia elektronnaia biblioteka (Fundamental electronic dictionary).

The end of Chekhov's short story Student, showing the enormous 94-word concluding sentence, which Dr Bartlett mentioned in her talk (757:23.d.90.96)

The end of Chekhov’s short story Student, showing the enormous 94-word concluding sentence, which Dr Bartlett mentioned in her talk (757:23.d.90.96)

The final CamCREES seminar of the Michaelmas term and the last of the seminars arranged as part of Dr Katia Bowers’ CEELBAS-funded project ‘Promoting the Study of Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature in the UK’ saw an excellent turnout for an extremely interesting talk.  Dr Rosamund Bartlett of the University of Oxford spoke about music and the works of Chekhov and Tolstoi, looking at patterns of musical composition in the writings of these authors and drawing links with Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, whose own work has recently started to be considered in musical terms.  As Dr Bartlett explained, these new angles of criticism cast Chekhov and Tolstoi, traditionally considered realists, in a more modernist light.

Dr Bartlett included a huge number of references to literary and musical compositions and also to critical works – as great in number as the subject area she covered was in size!  An early highlight of the talk was an exploration of the acquaintance and great mutual respect of Chekhov and Chaikovskii (Tchaikovsky).  Dr Bartlett showed photos they sent each other in 1889.  Chaikovskii wrote on his A.P. Chekhovu ot plammenogo pochitatelia (To A.P. Chekhov from an ardent admirer), while Chekhov wrote on his, which was sent in reply, Petru Il’ichu Chaikovskomu na pamiat’ o serdechno predannom i blagodarnom pochitatele Chekhove (To Petr Il’ich Chaikovskii, as a memento of his sincerely devoted and grateful admirer Chekhov).

Hunting down such quotations would until relatively recently have involved a trip to the North Wing of the University Library to look at Chekhov material, and possibly one to the South Front to look in the music section.  While the physical holdings of the Library remain of tantamount value to researchers, Dr Bartlett’s talk allows a digression from Cambridge libraries to look instead at two very significant online resources which are freely available to any internet user.

The first is specifically related to Tolstoi.  The http://www.tolstoy.ru site was set up by the State Tolstoi Museum and the Iasnaia Poliana Museum (Iasnaia Poliana was Tolstoi’s home).  An English-language announcement about the site can be read here on the English-language site of RIA Novosti, the press agency which has recently been controversially “reorganised” by the Russian government (RIA Novosti’s piece on news of their own fate is linked to here).  The tolstoy.ru announcement mentions the efforts made by thousands of volunteers from across the country to proofread the 90-volume collected works of Tolstoi which will be the backbone of the site.  A slightly more in-depth look at the volunteers’ work has featured in the New Yorker and can be read on this page.

The 90-volume set is going online gradually and not all texts have been uploaded at the time of writing, but the site is already a very interesting resource.  Among the most striking material already uploaded are hundreds of photos of Tolstoi and dozens of recordings of his voice.

The other resource has been online for over a decade, but deserves constant championing and is the source from which the Chekhov/Chaikovskii quotations given above were found, easily and quickly.  The http://www.feb-web.ru site is introduced in its English-language front page as follows: “‘FEB-web’ is short for The Fundamental Digital Library of Russian Literature and Folklore, a project instituted in 1995 by the Gorky Institute of World Literature and the Informregistr Center at the Russian Ministry for Communications, and online since July 2002”.  The introduction goes on to explain that FEB-web is made up of “Digital Scholarly Editions (DSE) … Each DSE combines an exhaustive collection of primary texts with all the essential secondary literature and bibliographical works you need to do research on a given author, genre, or work.”

It is a staggering resource which can significantly benefit students and researchers of Russian literature – do take a look.

The CamCREES bibliographical notes aim to link Cambridge library resources with the fortnightly seminars hosted by CamCREES (the Cambridge Committee for Russian and East European Studies) in the Michaelmas and Lent terms of each academic year.  Each set of notes starts by looking at the specifics of a seminar and then goes on to explore related research tips and library issues.  The CamCREES bibliographical notes were introduced in February 2011 on the University Library’s Slavonic webpages, where all earlier notes can be found.

– Mel Bach

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