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Romantic Encounters: Writers, Readers, and the 'Library for Reading.'

Romantic Encounters: Writers, Readers, and the 'Library for Reading.' By MELISSA FRAZIER. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. 2007. 264 pp. $55. ISBN 978-0-8047-5517-7.

Melissa Frazier's monograph makes a significant contribution to Slavicist and European literary and cultural history. Romantic Encounters examines Romanticism in Russia, focusing not on the usual suspects of canonical Russian literary history, but rather on the figure of Osip Senkovskii, and on the Library for Reading, the journal he edited with remarkable commercial success (measured by unprecedented subscription rates) and so much critical condemnation from 1834 until the late 1840s. Frazier does full justice to Senkovskii's complexity: he was a Polish-born Russian-identified capitalist-entrepreneur, a polymath with a prodigious intelligence that facilitated a successful career as an academic, and that also enabled him to produce a vast amount of material in the Library for Reading under various pseudonyms (e.g. 'Kritikizada', 'Baron Brambeus', 'Three Landlords from Tver', 'Dr Karl von Bitterwasser', 'O. O ... O!') and on a dizzying range of subjects. Senkovskii thus dominated the literary marketplace of the 1830s, creating not only material 'for reading', but effectively new 'readers' out of a population that until the Library for Reading had been excluded from the literary (or even literate) sphere.

This alone should be enough to make scholars of nineteenth-century culture attend to Frazier's study, particularly when such a prolific figure as Senkovskii has been all but expunged from accounts of Russia's literary 'golden age'. But this is only the beginning of the compelling argument Frazier makes about the achievements of this remarkable individual, in which she suggests that Senkovskii's use of flagrantly artificial personae in the Library for Reading, and the success of these with a people struggling to arrive at a coherent sense of national identity, cast light on certain core elements of Romanticism. These elements, Frazier argues, have been obscured in traditionalist accounts of Romanticism, which take at face value the Romantic insistence on textual artlessness and authorial originality, and of these in their turn as manifestations of an unproblematized national spirit.

Frazier's study proceeds from the 'complicated marginality' (p. 3) of Senkovskii and the derided yet enormously popular Library for Reading to the elusive constitution of the Russian reading public, and then to Russia itself, the negated 'void' of European literary histories. Frazier interweaves her discussions of the Russian context with intelligent and detailed studies of European comparator texts and marketplaces. The first chapter considers the significance of commercialism in the formation of Romanticism, and indeed, as the following chapters discuss, in the development of a 'reading public', while the following chapters proceed from Frazier's acknowledgement of the incommensurability of material realities of readership with the personae of 'reader' and 'writer' that emerge from various Romantic narrative conventions (Frazier reminds us that such play of identities was characteristic not only of Senkovskii but also of such authors as Scott and Constant, as well as Pushkin, Gogol, and Odoevskii). The final chapters discuss the imaginary spaces created in Senkovskii's writings: these include the 'library' itself, the antiquarian past, and the Orient. Here, Frazier discusses Russia's own brand of orientalism (in which, of course, Senkovskii, as the holder of the St Petersburg University Chair of Arabic and Turkic languages, was an expert, as were his alter egos, 'Osip Morozov' the orientalist travel writer, and 'Tiutiul'dzhiu-Oglu-Mustafa-Aga', '"actual Turkish philosopher"' (p. 155)). Like Monika Greenleaf, as well as Ewa M. Thompson and Susan Layton elsewhere, Frazier exposes the aporia in Edward Said's arguments with regard to Russia, which, in Frazier's words, 'leave no room for an Orientalizing power as uncertain of its place between East and West as Russia'.

There is insufficient space in a review of this length to do justice to the multiple contributions to our understanding of Russian literary history and nineteenth-century culture that Frazier's study offers. This is an intriguing, thoroughly researched, and elegantly written work of scholarship, that should rightly oblige us to reconsider our preconceptions of the nineteenth-century canon both in and beyond Russia of the 1830s.


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Author:Adlam, Carol
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2008
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