Literature Today

Relations between Russia and Ukraine have deteriorated in recent years, but now we know the real root cause: on the 200th anniversary of literary giant Nikolai Gogol’s birth, both countries are attempting to claim him. As Tom Parfitt reports in the London Guardian, “While the two countries sprang from a common east Slavic civilisation centred around the proto-state of Kievan Rus, Gogol’s identity is contentious because he lived in a period when Ukrainian national consciousness was awakening. Vladimir Yavorivsky, a Ukrainian novelist and MP, said that if Gogol was a tree, “the crown was in Russia but the roots were in Ukraine”.

From the London Times, the story of TS Eliot’s “snort” of rejection for George Orwell’s Animal Farm,which he turned down for publication because it was unconvincing: As he wrote, “your pigs are far more intelligent than the other animals, and therefore the best qualified to run the farm – in fact there couldn’t have been an Animal Farm at all without them: so that what was needed (someone might argue) was not more communism but more public-spirited pigs.”

At the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC, an exhibit entitled To Sleep, Perchance to Dream explores “the nocturnal landscape of Elizabethan England, which “turns out to be a place in great flux, as new scientific and pseudoscientific ideas jangled with the old, haunted, superstitious ones.” The Washington Post and The New York Times have some fascinating reviews.

The London Guardian reports that subversive cartoonist Robert Crumb has completed his long-awaited take on the book of Genesis. Crumb, working from the King James Bible and (Berkeley’s own) Robert Alter’s translation. In an interview at the New York Public Library recorded by Time magazine, Crumb talks about the difficulties of drawing God for the book: “He had considered, he said, drawing God as a black woman. ‘But if you actually read the Old Testament he’s just an old, cranky Jewish patriarch.'”

In Slate, Jesse Sheidlower reveals that the dirty pun in Britney spears’ newest single is actually a intertextual reference to dirty punsters James Joyce and William Shakespeare, though neither have put out a new single in a while.

Finally, at Psychology Today, Satoshi Kanazawa asks the hard questions: “Is Aaron Sorkin better than Shakespeare?” Evolutionary psychologist Robin I. M. Dunbar “argues that good writers like Shakespeare are rare, because complex dramas like often require the writer to possess a fifth-order theory of mind (or sixth-order intentionality), which is beyond the cognitive capacity of most humans.” And if that is the standard for literary quality, then the answer is apparently yes.