"Forgive Me, Lev Nikolaevich!" Tolstoy and his Arab Readers
Margaret Litvin (Boston University), Benjamin Meaker Visiting Professor
Lecture Theatre 3, 17 Woodland Road
Attracted to the Orient and ambivalent about European modernity, Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) made a perhaps paradoxical bearer of modern literary forms. Why, then, did Arab readers receive him as a great harbinger of social and artistic progress? Why did the Mufti of Egypt write to inform him, “The light of your thought has illuminated us, and the suns of your ideas have risen in our skies”? Why did The Kreutzer Sonata, a bizarre polemical novella, get translated into Arabic long before any of Tolstoy’s other fiction? On Tolstoy’s death in 1910, why did Arab poets compete to eulogize him? And how did later Arab writers deploy his oeuvre and his personal legacy? Attending to the contingencies and ironies that mark all international literary reception, this talk will explore some of the resources that Tolstoy’s long and tangled career offered to would-be modernizers of Arab societies and Arabic literature.
Margaret Litvin is the author of Hamlet’s Arab Journey: Shakespeare’s Prince and Nasser’s Ghost (Princeton, 2011) and an Associate Professor of Arabic & Comparative Literature at Boston University. Her current book project, Another East: Arab Writers, Moscow Dreams, has been awarded funding by the American Council of Learned Societies (Frederick Burkhardt Fellowship), and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Another East draws on novels, memoirs, poetry collections, travelogues, journalistic reports, documentary films, and archival research, as well as personal interviews with writers, filmmakers, and other Arab alumni of Soviet educational institutions.