Anna A Berman is a scholar of Russian literature and Assistant Professor at McGill University. As a Senior Visiting Fellow Commoner at Trinity this year, she tells us how about her research and her experience of College life.
I am a scholar of Russian literature, but my current project is actually comparative, looking at depictions of the family in the nineteenth-century Russian and English novel. The Russians were avid readers of English literature in this period and they credited the English as being the masters of writing about family (while they credited the French, for example, with writing about love and adultery). Yet starting from English models, the Russians wrote such different plotlines for their families!
So my project takes a historical approach, exploring the different conceptions of the family the two nations had and how this shaped the way they constructed family plots. In both countries, the laws governing the family were changing in the nineteenth century and there were big debates about what the family was and should be. Having read roughly 50 English and 50 Russian novels from the period, my basic thesis is that the English had a very vertical focus – emphasizing lineage and genealogy – while the Russians thought about family in more lateral terms, emphasizing all members of the family in the here and now, rather than worrying about a singular line of descent. And this, in turn, shaped the way they constructed novels in some rather surprising and interesting ways.
How are you spending your time at Trinity?
Trinity is like Paradise. So far I’ve been spending my days reading and writing in a beautiful office I’ve been given in Burrell’s Field that’s surrounded by gardens. I’ve also been drinking a lot of tea with the Fellows in the Parlour and learning about a vast array of subjects others are working on, attending an Evensong every week, attempting to master the intricacies of High Table dining, and galivanting on the roofs of various college buildings to enjoy the views.
How does Trinity and/or Cambridge differ from your own institution?
I love the sense of community that Trinity fosters among the Fellowship. Being here has made me appreciate just how important it is to have communal dining and a place to gather informally for tea. It’s in the chance conversations with someone who happens to be seated next to you at a lunch or dinner that so much learning takes place. On finding out my research interests, people have been incredibly generous about putting me in touch with scholars in other fields whose work touches on similar concerns. I find it such a stimulating intellectual environment, but also a deeply collegial and friendly one. To my mind, this is a rare and perfect balance.
What is special about a sabbatical at Trinity/Cambridge?
A sabbatical is a beautiful thing because after years of teaching and admin there’s suddenly this incredible calm…all the quotidian tasks are gone and the mind can focus on the big research questions you’ve been wanting to devote yourself to for years. And I honestly cannot imagine a more idyllic place to do that than at Trinity. The College takes care of absolutely everything: a flat, an office, meals… There are world-class libraries and some of the most brilliant minds in every field gathered here. And my daily ‘commute’ is through Great Court, across Nevile’s and past the Wren, over the Cam, and through the Fellows’ Garden. It’s pure beauty.
What do you hope to achieve during your sabbatical?
It would probably be too ambitious to say I hope to complete a draft of my book manuscript, but I am trying to get as far as I can. And at the same time, I want to balance that with taking the time to really appreciate being here. There are so many fascinating seminars to attend, walks to Grantchester to be taken, cream teas to be eaten, Evensongs to be heard, and gardens to be read in…a year feels far too short for all this goodness.