On Monday, scholar, translator and author Mikhail Gasparov died in Moscow at 70
Consider this: If you want to read a brief introduction to an edition of, say, Virgil, Catullus or Marina Tsvetayeva, you'll be flooded with kindergarten-style stories, postmodern or feminist theories, or fictionalized biographies swarming with errors. Gasparov, however, wrote dozens of such texts, and these are the best samples of modern Russian prose, with the bonus of immeasurable knowledge and crystalline clarity of thought. There was nothing astonishingly original in them; Gasparov reiterated this often. He was just a very clear thinker. That's why he ran circles around anyone else writing about literature -- and not just in Russia.
Recent years saw Gasparov's first forays into nonscholarly writing. "Amazing Greece" (Zanimatelnaya Gretsiya) was a broad introduction to classical culture that combined academic precision with narrative brio and humor; to my knowledge, no other book of this kind in any language comes remotely close. "Notes and Fragments" (Zapisi i Vypiski) was a collection of thoughts, memories, interviews and letters that was duly noticed and even won a prestigious literary award, but by no means got the attention it deserved. This book established Gasparov not just as the best thinker in Russia today -- that much had been evident for some time -- but as the best writer too.