The Beating Drums of Literature: Guarini Advisor Angela Brintlinger

Angela Brintlinger has a Ph.D. in Slavic Languages and Literatures from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is Professor and Chair of Slavic and East European Languages and Cultures, and Director of the Center for Slavic and East European Studies at Ohio State University. She held the Fulbright Distinguished Chair of Slavic at Warsaw University and joined the Guarini Institute Advisory Council in Summer 2019.

Professor Angela Brintlinger recently presented her book from Bloomsbury’s Russian Shorts series, Why We (Still) Need Russian Literature (2024) at JCU. The Office of Web Communications interviewed Brintlinger about her book, the relevance of Russian classics today, and the role of literature in general.

Angela Brintlinger
Angela Brintlinger

You are an appreciator of all literature, but an expert in Russian literature. What made you decide to specialize in this area? What is the advantage of studying literature in this day and age?
My experience of the Russian language came relatively early, in the 9th grade, when my high school teacher offered stories, vocabulary, and cultural experiences, including learning to play the balalaika. I had studied French first, and the Russian language appealed to me with its unique mixture of rules that had to be followed and creative opportunities for linguistic play. But even before I studied languages, I was a reader. I love to disappear into a book, to find myself in another place with a different history, and different ways of understanding the world and oneself.

I find that reading any literature fulfills the same need: to see the world, people, and history from another perspective. But Russian literature in particular features masters of language and psychology who are “world builders” and who engage the reader on all kinds of levels.

In a practical sense, studying literature (including foreign literatures) simply makes you a better reader and writer. It enlarges your vocabulary, gives you creative ways of expressing yourself, and improves your understanding of human psychology. This is useful for artists and writers, but also for accountants, psychologists, marketing managers, engineers, scientists, and politicians. 

In your book Why We (Still) Need Russian Literature, you concentrate on four seminal writers from the “Golden Age” of Russian literature: Pushkin, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Chekhov. Why did you choose them specifically?
Russian literature was more or less born in the 1820s and it thrived from the 1850s through the beginning of the 20th century. While there is a lot of great fiction from before and after this period, the authors I chose also have had the luxury of being well-translated, in some cases for almost two hundred years. As such, these are some of the Russian writers who have had an effect on world literature, so learning about them gives you an entrée into books across the globe.

I can imagine writing five or 10 or 20 more chapters for my book, each on one of my favorite authors. But then it couldn’t have been published in the “Russian Shorts” series!

During your book presentation at JCU, you said, regarding Eugene Onegin, that “Books are not about what they are about.” Could you elaborate on this captivating concept? Do you think this feature is exclusive to Russian literature or does it apply to other literatures, as well? 
When I teach Eugene Onegin, I use it to help students understand that fiction (even a novel in verse) is more about how it is written than what. This novel has a particularly boring plot: a flashy young man catches a girl’s eye and she falls for him; he rejects her; she is forced to move on and marry; he comes back and sees her as a poised society lady and now he wants her. I don’t feel like there are any “spoilers” here. These stories happen on the playground when we are in elementary school, and the results are the same: broken hearts and compromises, choices about whether to betray those to whom we have made commitments.

But Pushkin in this novel—and not only Pushkin, not only in this novel—engages his reader, makes jokes, plays, and sparkles wittily. His narrator makes fun of himself for aging, but also of his reader who inevitably will age. The digressions are at least as interesting as the characters and plot, probably significantly more.

"Why We (Still) Need Russian Literature" book cover
“Why We (Still) Need Russian Literature” book cover

Is this true of other literatures? I imagine that it is, particularly in certain time periods (Romanticism or Post-Modernism, for example). Sometimes literature is more straightforward, but often the sound orchestration, the structure of the narrative, the voices have “star power” and they take top billing. Those aspects of literature are harder to retell the way I did with Pushkin’s plot, which means you have to read them yourself!

Do you think the Russo-Ukrainian war will have long-term repercussions on the appreciation/dissemination of Russian literature and culture in the world?
Yes and no. Many people, particularly Ukrainians but not only, cannot read, listen to, or watch anything Russian right now. And the wounds that are being inflicted are deep. They are absolutely right to boycott the culture of a country that attacked their homeland and is killing their citizens.

Other people are actively trying to shoehorn Russian literature into an imperialistic, exploitative framework, suggesting that Russia deliberately and over long periods of time quashed other native cultures with publications, performances, and even policies foregrounding Russia.

But as I often say: “When did you like the Russian government?” Putin is awful, but Peter I was not that great either. And actually, do you love your own government? Russians seem like bullies right now, but plenty of Russian people who are nothing like their government or the aggressive aspects of their country live both inside and outside Russia. You can meet them at a cafe or go watch a film or concert in which they perform. They will remain influential on a personal and cultural level.

The larger concern is whether Russia is destroying its future economic power, becoming isolated, and behaving in such a way that people will shun the country for a good long time. At the moment it’s not safe for many foreigners to go to Russia, particularly Americans. But when I was in school my father told me I would go to the Soviet Union over his dead body. He said the same thing about New York City in the 1970s. And I went to both places (long before he died). I believe that Russia (and New York!) will always be important places that we want and need to know about.

For myself, I will do my best to continue to teach about and disseminate Russian culture, though it seems unlikely I’ll be able to return to Russia any time soon.

In recent years there has been an increasing pressure on students to pick whichever major has the highest employment rate (normally in the STEM/Business field). What does this mean for the humanities going forward?
This is a great question
and one that we in the humanities think about all the time. We can’t seem to convince people that the humanities—literature, languages, history—give you insights and experiences that enhance your personal and professional life post-college. I can’t tell you how often, though, I meet someone like the retired cardiologist I was talking to recently who asserted that he was no longer interested in keeping up with changes in medicine but was still thinking about the novel Oblomov that he read in college … in 1955.

Many businesspeople will tell you that they prefer to hire history majors and that they value the analytical, writing, presentation, and other communicative skills that humanities majors have. Statistics generally show that humanities majors may not start at a high salary, but they gain on their STEM and business classmates over time. These are drums that we in the humanities keep beating, and perhaps someday students and parents will hear them.

In the meantime, it’s not a “crisis.” We’ve been talking about the crisis in the humanities since the 1970s, which means it’s just the norm. We will probably have fewer students in the coming years and will continue to stumble along, doing what we do. And if AI takes over research, perhaps everyone will come rushing back to us!

What makes the Russian Novel an example of unsurpassable narrative today?
Let’s take Ivan Turgenev, a writer Henry James called one of the greatest French novelists. Turgenev has a kind of formula to his writing common to 19th-century fiction: a society exists, maybe a country estate and a stranger enters that society, disrupting things. Characters come to understand their real values and interests, and the stranger leaves.

On the one hand, this is a banal narrative. On the other hand, it’s pretty much what happens in life much of the time. And each of Turgenev’s novels has a different variant, giving voice to children and servants and women—even old women, not just hot young ones! So when a student of mine came to me after he took my course to tell me he’d just read all of Turgenev and couldn’t get enough, I thought: well, Henry James was right. Even Turgenev is unsurpassable!

Anything you’d like to add here.
Literature professors have a hard time reading for pleasure. But I do. I read translated fiction from all the languages I don’t know (Albanian, Slovenian, Portuguese, Japanese, and more) and fiction and poetry in Russian. I tend to like realism better than fantasy, I love historical fiction, and I can savor a poem, especially in the original. What I encourage anyone to do—whether you read my book or not—is pick up something from a tradition that is not your own. The world becomes a better place when we experience each other’s cultures.