Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age

Sara Wheeler

Jonathan Cape, £20.00

Review by Malcolm Forbes

Sara Wheeler has written biographies but she is better known for her travel books, each one an insightful account of an intrepid journey. In her last work, O My America! she combined her strengths, skilfully fusing together those genres with portraits of six Victorian women who crossed the Atlantic to start anew in the land of the free. It proved illuminating, but what really kept the reader entertained was Wheeler’s record of all that she experienced on her American travels while following in her heroines’ footsteps.

Her latest book comes from a similar mould, only this time her subjects are male and the country she explores is Russia. Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age is a chronicle of literary pilgrimages Wheeler made through the length and breadth of the country. Each chapter revolves around a different nineteenth century writer – some premier-league masters, others second-division greats, all loved by the author – and the places that shaped their work. The result is a shrewdly original and endlessly fascinating study of literature, landscape and the state of a nation.

Wheeler starts as she means to go on by visiting an estate, in this case Pushkin’s ancestral home, where in 1824 he found himself exiled for writing anti-royalist verses. During the tour, Wheeler hilariously manages to annoy her guide, a Pushkin devotee who refuses to admit that Russia’s national poet was "a lubricious, bawdy, impetuous, whoring gambler."

One hundred miles east of Pushkin country, in a spa town that has seen better days, Wheeler goes in search of Dostoyevsky, for her "the poet of the slums." In Moscow she enjoys quality time in the house where "barking genius" Gogol saw out his final years, while separate trips south of the capital help Wheeler enlarge her understanding and appreciation of three other writers. She wanders around the forest-flanked estate where Turgenev spent his privileged, if isolated, childhood – the air of which, according to him, was "full of ideas". She visits Nikolai Leskov’s hometown then undergoes a restorative thrashing in a banya in the setting of his acclaimed story The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk. And after a reflective moment at Tolstoy’s graveside she makes a detour to the nearby city of Tula, where on one day in 1863 the writer bought a panama hat and sketched the plot of War and Peace on the back of the receipt.

Mud and Stars has two standout chapters, both of which see Wheeler going off the beaten track. In one she descends into “the cauldron of ethnic soup that is the Caucasus”, the backdrop for Mikhail Lermontov’s novel A Hero of Our Time. Accompanied by her family, she takes in tourist-trail Lermontov landmarks, endures the tawdry Black Sea Riviera, and then purifies herself with hikes in the mountains. In her chapter on Chekhov she ventures even further afield, riding the Trans-Siberian Railway to the shores of Lake Baikal – but unlike Chekhov, makes the journey in the depths of winter.

At the outset of the book, Wheeler explains that her aim was to show how the best writers of the Golden Age represent their country, then and now. She achieves this admirably by immersing herself in those writers’ worlds and through close readings of their work. However, as with her last book, this one is also about Wheeler as an outsider looking in, and as she moves around she shares her encounters with ordinary locals – guides, hosts, drivers, teachers – plus her adventures travelling by plane, train, automobile, and Volga cruise ship.

She describes her attempts to master the Russian language, and tries her hand at Russian recipes with the aid of a Soviet cookbook and one penned by a Russian princess. There are sharp-eyed observations, cultural commentaries, critiques of Putin’s misrule and numerous impressions on Russian quirks and foibles. Gilding the whole proceedings is Wheeler’s lyrical prose: young Tolstoy’s hair was “the colour of dark sherry”; Dostoyevsky “spawned good intentions like a herring.”

We come away from Mud and Stars wiser, happier and with pangs of wanderlust. Travel may well broaden the mind, but Wheeler’s travel book stimulates it.