When characterizing the fiction of Ivan Turgenev in a review of Constance Garnett’s translation of The Two Friends and Other Stories for The Times Literary Supplement in December 1921, Virginia Woolf—as consummate a critic as she was a novelist—describes a scene in which people sit around “talking gently, sadly, charmingly,” but notes that Turgenev provides the moment with “a quality which we find no where else”: One of the characters “ceases, gets up, and looks out of the window. ‘But the moon must have risen,’ she says, ‘that’s the moonlight on the top of the poplars.’ And we look up and there it is—the moonlight on the poplars.” Such seemingly extraneous details enrich Turgenev’s stories with the incongruity of true beauty, for beauty is measured more by where it lies than what it is.
Sara Wheeler, a travel writer who has written books about Antarctica and Chile, is particularly adept at surprising details that elevate a moment to something higher than its mere description. In Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age, she journeys all over Russia to see the places that were significant to the vast country’s nineteenth-century writers. As she walks toward the Pushkin estate in Trigorskoye, she says: “A shower had greened the beetroot fields, and storks swooped in from the river to pick frogs from a tractor’s wake.” At the Adler seafront, she observes “a monkey in a diaper posed for photos.” Traipsing across a mountainous national park in the Caucasus, she notes a “sign indicating that high heels should not be worn” (Wheeler even generously provides a photo of the absurdity).
We read travel writers not just because they go to places to which we might not ever go, but also and mainly because they can characterize the encountered geography in a way that makes it palatable by evoking the sights as well as reactions to those sights. Travel writing is about the reader seeing what the writer sees, yes, but also about making us feel the same way about the terrain under consideration. Wheeler, in this regard, is as successful at conjuring the physical landscape as she is at imparting her opinion of its political and cultural environs.
On the Russian writers who ostensibly occasioned these excursions, Wheeler offers a mix of their biographies, their literary achievements, and their cultural legacies in their native land. It is especially interesting to know how their reputations differ in Russia as opposed to the rest of the world. Wheeler observes that “in Russia, [Chekhov] is best known as a short-story writer, in the West as a playwright. That must tell us something, but I don’t know what it is.” She includes numerous anecdotes about these authors’ work, not always from their lifetimes, as when she mentions Ronald Reagan quoting from Gogol’s Dead Souls at the Moscow summit between the American president and Mikhail Gorbachev in 1988, noting that a “White House official later told the Los Angeles Times that ‘the president was not overly familiar with the works he quoted.’ ” Despite Wheeler’s deep erudition and the knowing way she discusses much of their works, Mud and Stars could serve usefully as an introduction to these masters; indeed, it may provide one with a reason to read them in the first place. The chapter on the lesser-known Nikolai Leskov—who Wheeler says wrote “best over the short distance: the 400-meter short story rather than the Dostoyevskian marathon”—a writer I ’d never read and knew little about, prompted me to correct this ignorance, to much enjoyment and edification, especially from his story “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”
But what sent me to the bookstore even quicker was Wheeler’s commentary on Ivan Goncharov’s 1859 novel Oblomov, which I had heard of but had never had occasion to read. The novel focuses on a “likable nobleman who spends most of his time in his bed” and for whom “a move to the armchair is a major achievement.” Wheeler calls it “the poetry of procrastination,” and her work here contextualizing Goncharov’s novel both inspires you to read it immediately but also provides a useful framework in which to better appreciate its merits. Good literary criticism, like good travel writing, makes you interested in the ostensible subject; great writing makes you want to experience it yourself.
Wheeler also catalogs her attempt to learn Russian, in episodes both humorous and informative; she makes the language’s notorious difficulty funny. Anyone who’s ever tried to learn a second language will find much to relate to here. An example from a journal entry Wheeler provides of her sometimes Sisyphean education: “Spent the whole afternoon in the garden yesterday trying to get three words into my head. Woke up this morning and could not call up those three words. Demoralising.” I’m not sure I’ve ever read a better description of the challenges of language learning than the force of that last word.
Though the reasons for her travels are the great writers of Russia’s past, she necessarily confronts Russia’s present, which according to Wheeler is a mostly bleak affair. She comes face-to-face with the financial and cultural ravages of the Winter Olympics in Sochi, which Russian authorities had “remorselessly touted before and after as the most expensive Games ever.” Despite Wheeler’s perspective on the state of the country, she encounters citizens who support the current regime, such as one of her guides who tells her that due to Russia’s vast size, its leader needs to be “someone with absolute power.” These moments dealing with the people of the land, as opposed to merely the geography itself, prove to be some of the most fascinating of Wheeler’s already riveting account.
Wheeler has written numerous works about exploring vast terrains, as well as biographies of explorers and aristocrats. Mud and Stars, with its mix of personal essay, travel writing, literary criticism, and biography, is a book she was perfectly suited to write. But that assessment is not dependent on knowing Wheeler’s oeuvre; you can determine this just by reading it.
Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age. By Sara Wheeler. New York: Pantheon Books, 2019. 306 pp. $26.95.