Sara Wheeler’s travel books are insightful accounts of intrepid journeys. In her last work, “O My America!,” she fused together biography and travelogue. Her portraits of six Victorian women who crossed the Atlantic to start anew in the land of the free proved illuminating, but what kept the reader entertained was Wheeler’s record of all that she experienced on her American travels while following in her heroines’ footsteps.
Wheeler’s latest book comes from a similar mold, only this time her subjects are male and the country she explores is Russia. “Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia with Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age” is a chronicle of various literary pilgrimages that Wheeler made throughout that country. Each chapter revolves around a different 19th-century writer — some premier-league masters, others second-division greats — and the places that shaped their work.
Wheeler starts by visiting Alexander Pushkin’s ancestral estate, where in 1824 he found himself exiled for writing anti-royalist verses. On her tour, she 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, in a spa town that has seen better days, Wheeler goes in search of “the poet of the slums,” Fyodor Dostoyevsky. In Moscow she enjoys quality time in the house where “barking genius” Nikolai Gogol saw out his final years. In the setting of Nikolai Leskov’s acclaimed story “The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk,” she undergoes a restorative thrashing in a banya. And after a reflective moment at Leo Tolstoy’s graveside, she makes a detour to the city of Tula, where 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.” In her chapter on Anton Chekhov she ventures even farther afield, riding the Trans-Siberian Railway to the shores of Lake Baikal — but unlike Chekhov, she makes the journey in the depths of winter.
As she moves around she shares her encounters with locals and her adventures traveling by plane, train, automobile and Volga cruise ship. She wrestles with 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 wry observations, astute close-readings, scathing 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 color of dark sherry”; Dostoyevsky “spawned good intentions like a herring.”
We come away from this enthralling book wiser and happier — and with a pang or two of wanderlust.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the New Republic. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
Mud and Stars
By: Sara Wheeler.
Publisher: Pantheon, 287 pages, $27.95.