Professor Michael Basker is professor of Russian Literature and Head of the School of Modern Languages. His interests include 19th- and 20th-century literature and his specialism is Russian poetry, particularly that of Pushkin and the major Symbolist and post-Symbolist poets of the early 20th century.
Q. What projects are you currently working on?
At the moment, I’m writing an article on a novel by Andrei Bely, the Russian Symbolist writer. It’s the most experimental of his works. I’m looking at what Bely was trying to do in portraying psychology from a more modern point of view.
This is meant to be part of a larger project on Russian Symbolism (although that may not happen). I’m also writing a book on poetry and power, including the power with which poetry is invested in Russian culture.
Q. What first attracted you to studying the Arts?
At school, I had to make a serious choice at the age of about 14 or 15 as to which A-levels I wanted to take. I had to choose between Russian and Maths; I wanted to take both but wasn’t allowed to. I chose Russian because the language, with its different alphabet and grammar, fascinated me. You see the world quite differently through the prism of another language and, in that respect,it’s probably quite similar to Maths. What persuaded me to take Russian in the end was the literature, but the language came first.
Q. How did you come to work in the Arts as a career?
Probably by accident! It was the result of a series of choices; first between Russian and Maths A-levels, choosing to study Russian and French at university, then dropping French as I had a bad French teacher. I had the chance to go to Russia for a year during my undergraduate degree, which was really unusual at the time – only six students in the country were given the chance to do it through the British Council scholarship programme. My visa came through later than everyone else’s, so when I arrived in Russia, I was pretty much on my own and was left to my own devices. I had to write a dissertation, too, so I read and read. I only got into reading Russian poetry by accident. I was limited by what was on the shelves of the university library and, as this was during the Soviet era, certain books were off-limits. I learned Russian by reading what was available. And because I had supervisions discussing the meanings of different words, I got into very detailed reading.
As to how I ended up going down the academic route, I wanted to stay in the field of Russian, but was fed up of being an undergraduate. Both my tutors and I took it for granted that I would do research; so I did.
Q. What advice do you have for anyone thinking about studying in the Arts?
If you feel attracted to working in an area, I would say do it; it’s immensely rewarding. And do it for its own sake. It enriches your own being – your mental life and even your spiritual life. Perhaps that’s egotistical, but I think people should be asking the big questions in our society. Final year undergraduates could be going on to do anything, but they find that, for example, studying Zhivago’s search for meaning has enriched their lives. So go for it!
Q. If you could be any fictional character, who would you be and why?
Any Karamazov brother, as they’re all different from me. One’s spiritual, one’s passionate, one’s more rigorously intellectual than I am. But really, I’d rather be a Russian poet. I would like to be Bryusov, the leader of the Russian Symbolists. I think he’s absolutely fascinating: poetry was the centre of culture before the Revolution, and Bryusov was a centre for that. So I’d have the chance to see interesting people and to interact with them.
Michael Basker's lecture, Death-defying magic: Languages, poetry and the search for sense, is on Thursday 20 October at 6 pm, in the Reception Room, Wills Memorial Building, Queen's Road, BS8 1RJ. View full details on our programme or visit our booking facility via the link below to reserve a free place.
To find out more about Michael Basker, visit his academic webpage.