Russian writers of the nineteenth century were quite consciously creating a new national literary tradition. They saw themselves self-consciously through Western European eyes, at once admiring Europe and feeling inferior to it. This ambivalence was perhaps most keenly felt in relation to France, whose language and culture had shaped the world of the Russian aristocracy from the time of Catherine the Great.
In How the Russians Read the French, Priscilla Meyer shows how Mikhail Lermontov, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and Lev Tolstoy engaged with French literature and culture to define their own positions as Russian writers with specifically Russian aesthetic and moral values. Rejecting French sensationalism and what they perceived as a lack of spirituality among Westerners, these three writers attempted to create moral and philosophical works of art that drew on sources deemed more acceptable to a Russian worldview, particularly Pushkin and the Gospels. Through close readings of A Hero of Our Time, Crime and Punishment, and Anna Karenina, Meyer argues that each of these great Russian authors takes the French tradition as a thesis, proposes his own antithesis, and creates in his novel a synthesis meant to foster a genuinely Russian national tradition, free from imitation of Western models.
Winner, University of Southern California Book Prize in Literary and Cultural Studies, American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies