Leonid Andreev, The Abyss (1902)
Svetlana Alliluyeva, Twenty Letters to a Friend (1967)
Anna Akhmatova, Requiem (1963)
Vasily Aksenov, Generations of Winter (1994)
Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (written between 1928 and 1940; published in 1967)
Andrei Bitov, Pushkin House (1978)
Boris Bugayev, Andrey Bely (1880), The Silver Dove (1910)
Ivan Bunin, The Village (1909)
Anton Chekhov, Ward No 6 (1892)
Anton Chekhov, The Darling (1899)
Anton Chekhov, Duel (1892)
Anton Chekhov, My Life (1896)
Anton Chekhov, Peasants (1897)
Anton Chekhov, In the Ravine (1900)
Anton Chekhov, The Lady with the Dog(1899)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment(1866)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Brothers Karamazov (1880)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Double (1846)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Idiot (1869)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Notes From Underground (1864)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, Possessed (1872)
Fyodor Dostoevsky, White Nights (1848)
Sergei Dovlatov, Affiliate (1990)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Compromise(1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Craft: A Story in Two Parts (1985)
Sergei Dovlatov, Demarche of Enthusiasts (1985)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Foreign Branch (1989)
Sergei Dovlatov, A Foreign Woman(1986)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Invisible Book (1977)
Sergei Dovlatov, March of the Single People (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Notebooks (1990)
Sergei Dovlatov, Ours: A Russian Family Album(1989)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Performance (1987)
Sergei Dovlatov, Pushkin Hills(2014)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Reserve (1983)
Sergei Dovlatov, Solo on Underwood: Notebooks (1980)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Suitcase(1986)
Sergei Dovlatov, The Zone:A Prison Camp Guard’s Story(1982)
Vsevolod Garsin, Red Flower (1883)
Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls (1842)
Nikolai Gogol, The Night Before Christmas(1832)
Nikolai Gogol, The Nose (1836)
Nikolai Gogol, The Overcoat (1842)
Nikolai Gogol, Taras Bulba (1842)
Ivan Goncharov, Oblomov (1859)
Ivan Goncharov, Same Old Story (1847)
Aleksander Herzen, Whose Fault (1846)
Vladislav Khodasevich, Heavy Lyre (1922)
Vladislav Khodasevich, European Night (1927)
Vladimir Korolenko, Makar’s Dream (1885)
Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Quadraturin (1926)
Andrei Kurkov, Death and the Penguin(1996)
Ivan Lazhechnikov, The Ice Palace (1835)
Leonid Leonov, Russian Forest (1953)
Leonid Leonov, The Thief (1927)
Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time(1841)
Nikolai Leskov, The Enchanted Wanderer (1873)
Nikolai Leskov, The Cathedral Folk (1872)
Nikolai Leskov, The Sealed Angel
Kotik Letayev, The Memoirs of a Crank (1923)
Vladimir Nabokov, Glory(1832)
Vladimir Nabokov, Lolita (1955)
Vladimir Odoevskij, Russian Nights (1844)
Yuri Olesha, Envy (1927)
Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago (1957)
Liudmila Petrushevskaia, The Time: Night (1994)
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor’s Baby (2009)
Aleksei Pisemsky, One Thousand Souls (1858)
Andrei Platonov, Foundation Pit (1951)
Andrei Platonov, Chevengur (1951)
Alexander Pushkin, Eugene Onegin(1825)
Aleksander Pushkin, The Queen of Spades (1834)
Valentin Rasputin, Final Term (1971)
Aleksei Remizov, Pond (1903)
Aleksei Remizov, Olja (1927)
Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, Gospoda Golovlevy/ The Golovlyov Family (1876)
Mikhail Sholokhov, Quiet Flows the Don (1934)
Vasily Sleptsov, Hard Times (1865)
Sasha Sokolov, School for Fools (1977)
Sasha Sokolov, Palisandriia/ Astrophobia (1985)
Sasha Sokolov, Between Dog and Wolf (1980)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward (1968)
Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962)
Vladimir Sorokin, The Queue (1985)
Arkady and Boris Strugatsky, Roadside Picnic (1971)
Aleksei Tolstoj, Peter the First (1945)
Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina(1877)
Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych(1886)
Leo Tolstoy, Kreitserova Sonata (1890)
Leo Tolstoy, Resurrection (1899)
Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace (1869)
By Sergei Dovlatov, translated by Katherine Dovlatov, Counterpoint Berkeley, @1983, translation@2013, 163 pages.
So it’s like this. I started reading this book a few months ago and it didn’t reach me. I wasn’t feeling it. I was about 50 pages in and not tremendously impressed. I wasn’t hearing Sergei’s voice in my head like the books that were translated by Anne Friedman, and I started to think maybe it was the new translator’s fault, Katherine, Sergei’s daughter. Maybe, well maybe, she just wasn’t capturing his voice. This depressed me. So I was already a little depressed, and this didn’t help—and my Russian, while it is good enough to get me food, shelter and a bus ticket, is not good enough to allow me to read Dovlatov in the original, though this is sort of an emerging goal.
Well, I was kind of giving myself a hard time about, well, was it Katherine’s translation, or maybe was it that I didn’t like Dovlatov as much as I thought? Was I possibly influenced by whomever it was who first gave me his name? Maybe my love of Dovlatov was a passing thing, you know, not real.
So I was just sitting around today, waiting for my rice to get done and not doing anything in particular but being stuck in the kitchen, and I picked up Pushkin Hills again. And there he was, Sergei, his voice, everything—and then he made me laugh—again and again and again. And I decided that I do really like him after all, and that Katherine did a fine job in translating him into English, and that it was just me. Just me being depressed and unreachable—before.
Lines like: “…I am simply horrified. You called Pushkin a crazed ape…”
and the story about Mitrofanov, p. 46, and what a complete genius he was and how he was completely lazy too. I hate to say it, but it reminded me of someone very close to me. “His tours were twice longer than the average. At times, tourists fainted from the strain.”
I also liked the story about Stasik Pototsky, the man who decided to become a writer of literary best sellers after reading 12. “A reliable armour of literary conventionality protected them from censorship.” And I started to think, hmmm, how far away is capitalism from communism?
Things changed when Pototsky left the provinces and went to Leningrad: “A complete absence of talent did not pay, while its presence made people nervous….What was forgiven in a provencial novice affronted in a cosmopolitan writer.” Well, anyway, Stasik came to a bad end. And knowing Dovlatov’s difficulties getting published in the USSR, you get why.
But best of all was this: “The more I got to know Pushkin, the less I felt like talking about him.” This is said by a Dovlatov’s character, as a tour guide at Pushkin Hills. And you get the significance of this if you understand how revered Pushkin is. And that’s when I knew. Yes, I do really like Sergei, and I’ve missed him.
By Ivan Turgenev, Modern Library New York, @ 1961 for the English translation by Bernard Guilbert Guerney; first published in 1862, 281 pages.
I don’t know what it is, but if someone tells me to read a book or an author, I automatically resist. The more they rave, the more I resist. So way back when, I asked someone to make a list of must-read Russian authors, and Turgenev was on this list. So, some 20 years later, I am picking up Fathers and Sons.
Or Fathers and “Children”—but maybe this is just me overly concerned with the correct translation—and accuracy. The topic is nihilism (am I a nihilist?) and this is what I should be concerned about. As explained in the novel, a nihilist is “a man who does not accede to authority, who does not accept a single principle on faith, no matter how great the aura of respect which surrounds that principle”), but my mind is struck more with the situation the father is in. Nicholai Petrovich Kirsanov (aged 40 ish) has taken up with his servant girl (Theodosia or Feodosya or Phenechka aged 20 ish) and fathered a child. This sends my mind into a tailspin and derails me from any sophisticated discussion of nihilism to come.
The story begins on May 20, 1959 as Nicholai Petrovich awaits his son’s (Arcadii’s) return from Saint Petersburg as a university graduate. Arcadii has brought home a friend, Evgenii Vaselivich Bazarov, a medical student and a nihilist.
Since Bazarov isn’t too taken with Arcadii’s uncle Pavel, Arcadii explains his uncle’s early life and heartache. It’s a sad tale and told well by Turgenev—sad, because love hasn’t changed over time. Pavel is brokenhearted—I won’t rob you of the story, but Bazarov, our nihilist, remains unmoved:
“…I would say that a fellow who has staked his entire life on the card of woman’s love and who, when that card is trumped, goes all to pieces and sinks to such an extent that he’s not fit for anything—a fellow like that is no man, no male.”
I saw this in my mother (for my father), and it makes me sad to read it here. She would say it’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. But is it love to have loved a phantom? One’s own illusion, someone with no more basis in reality than a character in a book?
I found Turgenev’s insight on aging interesting:
“Pavel…was…on the threshold of that troubled, twilight time, a time of regrets that resemble hopes and of hopes that resemble regrets, when youth has gone by while old age has not yet arrived.”
It’s a hot night as I write this. The television has been off. All the windows are open. A light cool breeze blows gently through. It’s summer here, like in the story. The crickets are chirping and once in a while a car goes by. It’s quiet as I read about Bazarov’s family. I feel I have met this family before. I have met his mother before. I wax nostalgic about this for a while. Tonight, after walking around town, appreciating the rolling hills and the setting sun, feeling the cooling of the night, I’m not so very sad. I wish for this lifestyle every night. This routine of coming home, eating dinner, studying Spanish, walking around town, and sitting down to read.
Authors love to torture their characters, so of course, Bazarov has to fall in love. He is quite wretched, probably more so because he thought he was immune to such things. It’s interesting for the reader to watch him squirm. We know that having love in his life would be good for him and we want to see him get it, but he’s in his own way. Oddly, he declares his love to the woman he cares for because he gets so worked up about it. She doesn’t respond, yeah or neah. And this given all of his pride and self conceit is difficult for him to take.
Turgenev captures youthful restlessness well. When Bazarov cuts his visit to his parents short, his father and mother are very sad. Children can’t help but mistreat their parents, without meaning to. And a long married couple who weathers the various storms of life ends up rather like this:
“It was then that Arina Vlassievna drew near to him [her husband] and, placing her gray head against his gray head, told him: ‘What can a body do, Vassya! A son is a slice cut off the loaf. He’s the same as a falcon: he felt like it, and he winged back to the nest; he felt like it, and he winged away. But you and I are like brown autumn mushrooms that grow on a hollow tree: stuck there side by side and never budging from our places. I alone will remain unchanged for you through all time, just as you will for me.”
This is a beautiful and apt way of putting marriage, I think.
But who is this guy Bazarov? Is Turgenev trying to tell us that he’s bizarre? And his first name, Evgenii (Eugene), a reference to Eugene Onegin, the bad boy of Russian literature? (Although for bad boys, I like Pucharin.)
But that’s just it. Bazarov isn’t bad. He’s just lost. And when he finally is lost, we feel sad. It was a waste, ridiculous, preventable, but a good thing for frogs, no doubt.
By Leo Tolstoy, originally published in 1869, Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, 1408 pages.
I can’t seem to move on without finishing up my thoughts on War and Peace. There is so much in this book, so many quotes that provoke thought that I wanted to record some of them here. But first, a few general comments.
The members of my book club complained that there were too many character and plot loose ends. I think that is because throughout the work, Tolstoy was trying to imitate life, real life. And in real life people form new relationships and move on. There isn’t always closure and there is often disappointment.
Because of this, War and Peace can be read in several ways. It can be read merely for its story. It can be read for Tolstoy’s philosophy regarding historical science. Or, it can be read for the many details of human nature and interaction that Tolstoy provides. Clearly Tolstoy understood the Russian aristocracy and the politics of the drawing room. I think it’s interesting to ponder how the drawing room of the 1800s and the social norms observed there can still be found to some extent, though somewhat altered, in places of social interaction today—such as the office. If you think about it, for many of the aristocrats of the 1800s who did not have to work and therefore did not have the cubical madness we embrace today, the drawing room very well may have been their equivalent of our office.
Another thing that makes this book so interesting is that it was written approximately 150 years ago about events that happened approximately 200 years ago. The details that we get transport us back in time. I have to say that I am so sorry for the poor horses. Taken into battle, wounded, killed, starved, eaten. War itself is a suffering, blind mess, and Tolstoy provides vivid details:
“Prince Andrey turned his scornful gaze on the endless, chaotic mass of detachments, wagons, supply vehicles, artillery and more wagons, wagons, wagons of every size and shape, overtaking one another and blocking the muddy road three and four abreast. On all sides, right up front and way behind, as far as the ear could strain in every direction, you could hear wheels rumbling, carts rattling, wagons creaking, gun-carriages groaning, horses trampling, whips cracking, drivers shouting and everybody swearing, soldiers, orderlies, and officers. The roadsides were littered everywhere with fallen horses, flayed and unflayed, broken-down wagons with solitary soldiers sitting by them just waiting, other soldiers separated from their units, heading in little groups for the next village or carrying loot from the last one—chickens, sheep, hay, or sackfuls of something or other. When the road went uphill or downhill, the crowds squashed together even closer, and there was an endless hubbub of shouts and groans. Soldiers floundering knee-deep in mud heaved guns and wagons along with their bare hands while the whips cracked, hoofs slithered, traces snapped and the air rang with the most heart-rending cries.”
Do I like Tolstoy? Well, yes and no. I don’t like that Tolstoy is trying to push his agenda on me. Every writer does this, of course, but Tolstoy has a heavier hand than I like. One book club member said that after Tolstoy, she didn’t think she would read any more Russian authors. I was stunned. What a statement and from a world traveler no less. Are all Russians the same? Everyone of them? Now, yesterday, and forever? What?????
Sorry, I’m going to have to digress here. These are the kinds of statements I’m having to make lately: Not all Russians are the same. The USSR is no longer in existence. The USSR consisted of 15 republics that dissolved in 1991, not in 1989 when the Wall fell. The Wall was in Germany. Russia was one of those republics. Russians are not all atheists! There are many deeply religious Russians. Notice the incredible eastern Orthodox churches. Russians do smile, and they do smile in public. Yes, yes, I know. We were all victims of Cold War propaganda, but we don’t have to continue to be victims. We can open our eyes! There are good and bad people everywhere. We are all a mix.
Ok, well that said. I like (love) Tolstoy—in parts. I love the way he captures little bits of human nature that ring so true to us that they remain relevant after more than 100 years and across thousands of miles. The following are some examples of what I’m talking about.
A severe criticism of society:
“Just as a skilful head waiter can pass off as a supreme delicacy a cut of beef that would be inedible if you’d seen it in the filthy kitchen, Anna Pavlovna served up to her guests that evening first the viscount and then the abbé as if they were supreme delicacies.”
On the way some men talk to women:
“His face changed instantly and assumed the sickly sweet, patronizing air which he obviously reserved for conversations with women.”
On women who forget themselves:
“She had obviously forgotten her age, and habit had told her to let go with all her ancient womanly wiles.”
The sometimes painful sincerity of Pierre:
“His smile was not like theirs—theirs were no real smiles.”
First thoughts of Napoleon:
“If I were fighting for freedom I’d understand it. I’d be the first to enlist, but helping England and Austria against the greatest man in the world—that’s not right.”—Pierre
Makes you say, hmmm:
“‘If everybody fought for nothing but his own convictions, there wouldn’t be any wars,’ he said.”
“‘Never, never get married, my dear fellow…But tie yourself to a woman and you’ll lose all your freedom, like convict in fetters. And all the hope and strength there is in you just drags you down and tortures you with regret…If you only knew what these fine women are, or let’s say women in general…Selfish, vain, stupid, totally vacuous—that’s what women are when they show themselves in their true colors.”—Prince Andrey
“Even in the very warmest, friendlist and simplest of relationships you need either flattery or praise in the way that you need grease to keep the wheels turning.”
Before Pierre received his inheritance he was received “like a corpse or a plague victim.”
On Prince Andrey’s father:
“…the prince was brusque and always demanding so that without actually being cruel he inspired the kind of fear and respect that the cruelest of men would have found it difficult to achieve.”
The Way a Man Can Shame a Woman:
“On the way to his sister’s room, in the gallery connecting the two parts of the house, Prince Andrey came across Mademoiselle Bourienne who smiled sweetly at him. It was the third time that day that she had happened on him in out-of-the-way passages, always with a nice beaming smile on her face.
“‘Oh, I thought you were in your room,’ she said, blushing for some reason and looking down. Prince Andrey glanced at her sharply, and a look of bitter displeasure came over his face. He glared at her in silence, not at her eyes but at her forehead and hair, with such contempt that she turned bright red and walked off without another word.”
On Crossing Lines:
“The enemy held their fire, increasing the sense of that dark menacing, mysterious, and intangible dividing line that exists between two warring armies. One step across that dividing line, so like the one between the living and the dead, and you enter an unknown world of suffering and death.”
Later when Pierre is trying to ask Helene to marry him, he mentions a line that he must cross and his inability to cross it.
On Fear in War:
“He grabbed his pistol, and instead of firing he hurled it at the Frenchman and dashed towards the bushes as fast as his legs would carry him.”
Well anyway, I could go on and on, and maybe I will at some point later. The book is a hefty tome, no doubt about that. I can’t believe it would ever be assigned to a high school student. That seems preposterous and a way to kill a love of literature in anyone. But if read without a deadline and for pure interest in the subject, War and Peace has a lot to offer.
By Leo Tolstoy; first published in 1869; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; 1408 pages (Notes begin on page 1359).
Around page 1350, I began to wonder, just what is Tolstoy trying to do here? Obviously an intelligent guy, definitely no radical, what is going on with the structure of this book????
It seems odd to put a spoiler alert on a book that was published more than 100 years ago, but still, I realize many people haven’t read it and I don’t want to interfere with Tolstoy’s intent by saying: hey watch out for this, especially for those puritans out there who want to experience the work as it was meant to be experienced.
If, however, you are one of those “walk on the wild side” kind of people, here’s what I think is going on.
The whole work is a demonstration of two types of historical thought:
Stories of individuals, descriptions of the lives of people (the drama experienced by specific characters, Pierre, et. al.)
Historical movements of peoples and humanity (the French invading Russia and the Russians chasing them back into Europe)
Tolstoy’s point is that you can look at history in these two ways and these two ways lead to conclusions that are at odds with each other. In the first way, when examining history as though it depends on individual leaders and the multitude of causes performed by individuals, the concept of free will comes under examination. Individuals have free will, they choose their actions, and history results. In the second way, when you look at humanity in more general terms as a unit and think that we are all affected by the natural environment in which we live. We are all affected by space and by time, by our environments, etc. And all of these situational constraints keep us from ever truly being free. For example, we have to eat; therefore, we may be compelled to do things to satisfy this need. The more needs we have to fulfill, the less free we are.
So let’s look at the two points again:
Stories of individuals (the plot) is used to illustrate the concept of free will
Mass migration of armies east and then west (the historical backdrop of Napoleon invading Russia) is used to illustrate the concept of historical laws (in this case the law of necessity)
Tolstoy seems to be saying that historians of his time hesitate to examine this phenomenon of historical laws, in this case the struggle between the law of necessity and that of free will.
“And now…a hard struggle is being conducted between old and new attitudes to history, and in just the same way theology, guardian of the old, calls the new attitude an offense against revelation.”
“…it now seems that once we accept the law of necessity we destroy all concepts of the soul, or good and evil, and all the towering political and ecclesiastical institutions founded on them….the law of necessity in history, far from destroying the foundations on which political and ecclesiastical institutions are constructed, actually strengthens them.”
If you read Part II of the Epilogue, you’ll find this discussion. Reading this before reading the whole book from the beginning is what I suggest to get the most out of Tolstoy’s argument. It won’t ruin the plot for you at all. But it may rob you of that “ah ha” moment—which if you think about it, I am robbing you of right now.
It is very interesting. Perhaps more interesting than any of the preceding pages. I think Tolstoy was trying to prove his point throughout his novel. By the time we get to the Epilogue, we see him pulling these strands together.
In the final analysis, I believe that Tolstoy was saying that we are never completely free. We believe we are free, but by virtue of being alive and all the necessities that state of being brings about, we do not have the free will we think we do.
I got the feeling he was saying freedom and necessity are in constant flux. And some people have their lives set up so that they have fewer needs and greater freedom, whereas others don’t.
I’m still in the process of reading War and Peace, but since I had such a hard time breaking into this novel and because my friends have had the same experience, I thought I would share some dos and don’ts that I have discovered.
Be lazy like me and buy an Audible book version of this masterpiece. I tried that thinking that I could multitask while listening to the book. This was a big mistake. The tone and inflection of the reader put me off to such an extent that I started to hate the book and all of its characters.
Give up…until you’ve reached page 250. If you don’t like the book by page 250, you probably won’t, so it’s safe to stop at this point. As for myself, I was very interested in the book by page 100. I enjoy Tolstoy’s observations and interpretations of his character’s innermost thoughts and feelings.
Go online and find a summary of the five families of this book, their members, and their relationships to each other. This is not cheating. Figuring out who’s who is the central challenge of this novel. It takes about 100 pages to nail it down.
Make notes in the margins of your book. This could be hard with an eReader. Since my debacle with the Audiobook, I went back to the old style paper version. Whenever something interesting happens, I make a mark in the margin or underline the text. When I notice that one part of the book relates to another, I write the associated page numbers in the margins. This has helped immensely.
Pay attention to when and what characters are speaking French versus Russian. I found it very interesting that while Russia is under attack by the French, its upper class snobbishly prefers to speak French—at home. Why wasn’t Russian good enough for them? Tolstoy even goes so far as to give one of his main Russian characters a French name: Pierre.
Read this in the wintertime when it’s cold outside but there’s no snow and no snow sports.
Accept that this is a really long work and pace yourself. I set myself a goal of reading 100 pages per week. Sometimes I read more, but I don’t allow myself to read fewer than 100 pages. That comes to 10 pages a day (on workdays) and 50 pages over the weekend.
Read Part II of the Epilogue before reading anything else. This will set you up nicely for what is to come.
By Leo Tolstoy; Translated by Anthony Briggs; Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition; @ 2005; originally published in 1869; first appeared in 1865–66; 1408 pages.
War and Peace is known for its massiveness. At 1,408 pages, reading War and Peace is like reading five novels. I don’t think Americans are typically required to read it. I wasn’t, not even at The University of Texas where I majored in Russian and East European Studies. So why read War and Peace now—since I’ve already escaped it once?
It’s a common question. The members of my book club are asking themselves this too. What have we gotten ourselves into? Is this book still relevant? Is it worth it? Might this a book be better put off until old age when we have absolutely nothing better to do?
Well, we say, it’s got to be a classic for a reason. It’s got to be good. Otherwise, it wouldn’t still be around. Right?
Were it not for my persistent feelings of inadequacy which spring largely from possessing a Russian Studies degree and never having read this book, I might have been able to worm myself away. But, there it is. My personal and psychological makeup require that I drag my eyes over these 500,000 words.
There is some solace. The introduction promises me that:
“Above all, War and Peace will move readers by virtue of its beauty as a work of art. It is a triumphant affirmation of human life in all its richness and complexity. That is why one can return to it and always find new meanings and new truths in it.”
In 1865 War and Peace was released serially in the magazine The Russian Messenger and was titled The Year 1805. It wasn’t until 1869 that it was first published as a single unit. So the first readers weren’t handed a tome that resembles an attractive door stop. Instead, they were spoon fed bits of story. War and Peace must have been like a soap opera or a telenovella.
Lots of pressing issues had to be on the Russian mind at this time. Twenty three million serfs had just been liberated (1861). This was a big change for Russian aristocracy. The price for labor had just gone up—way, way up! In effect 23 million people now had the full rights of free citizens, could finally marry without having to gain consent, could own property, and could create and own a business. And, they could buy land. Shocking. Simply shocking!
So perhaps, part of the contemporaneous appeal of War and Peace was a nostalgia for the past. The time when the power and significance of Russian society was unshakable. There were ways one had to act. A foreign language one needed to know (French). People one needed to know. Connections one had to establish or face the consequences of a harsh life, or worse.
And at the time of the book’s publication, we are 52 years from the 1917 revolution, which would change everything. Revolution seems to weak a term for what happened in 1917. But its the word we’ve got.
So picture yourself on a cold night in 1865. Downton Abbey has yet to be written. Television has yet to be invented. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’re not living with electricity, and there’s no Facebook. The latest issue of The Russian Messenger has just arrived. Thank goodness for this Leo Tolstoy chap, you think to yourself in French. Wonder what ol’ Pierre has gotten up to now. How is Prince Andrey?
Settle back into your easy chair and prepare to be transported back to an earlier time. You’re in the drawing room of the wealthy 40-year-old Anna Scherer in 1805. She goes by Annette. The year 1812 is still a ways off. There’s a prince who is having trouble with one of his sons, Anatole. The solution is simple. Marry the boy off. Annette will see that it’s done.
There’s nothing like being required to read a particular book that makes you want to read something else. I am supposed to be reading War and Peace, but I am compelled to read A Hero of Our Time. So finally, I gave in. Besides, I had to read the book after I found out that Lermontov’s early poetry was too explicit for young ladies to read.
A Hero of Our Time is written as a travel journal and takes place in the Caucasus. It concerns the anti-hero, Grigori Alexsandrovich Pechorin. My translation was done by J. H. Wisdom and Marr Murray in 1854 and was verified and corrected by Alexander Vassiliev in 2010.
A Hero of Our Time is a very interesting read. I felt transported to the Caucasus. I could almost see the landscape. I marveled at the strange cultural traditions. And the character Pechorin is a man at his worst—a character I have encountered in various forms in my life. I can’t believe this guy is still around:
Mine is an unfortunate disposition; whether it is the result of my upbringing or whether God created me so—I know not. I only know this, that if I am the cause of unhappiness in others I myself am no less unhappy. Of course, that is a poor consolation to them—only the fact remains that such is the case. In my early youth, from the moment I ceased to be under the guardianship of my relations, I began madly to enjoy all the pleasures which money could buy—and, of course, such pleasures became irksome to me. then I launched out into the high society—and that, too, soon palled upon me. I fell in love with fashionable beauties and was loved by them, but my imagination and egoism alone were aroused by their love; my heart remained empty….Then I grew bored…Soon afterwards I was transferred to the Caucasus; and that was the happiest time of my life. I hoped that under the bullets of the Chechens boredom could not exist—a vain hope…”
We learn about Pechorin through his friend Maksim Maksimych, who is treated heartlessly by Pechorin upon an unexpected reunion. Maxim is quite hurt by Pechorin’s lack of enthusiasm upon seeing him again:
“Of course we were friends—well, but what are friends nowadays?…What could I be to him? I’m not rich; I’ve no rank; and, moreover, I’m not at all his match in years!…See what a dandy he has become since he has been staying in Petersburg again!”
“I’ve always said that there is no good to be got out of a man who forgets his old friends!…”
It is sad when one’s memories of old friends are not supported by reality.
This novel employs two different devices. The first device is a travelogue in which we hear about Pechorin from someone who has known him. Then our narrator is able to get hold of Pechorin’s diary. From that point on, we hear about Pechorin’s innermost thoughts and feelings as well as his exploits from his point of view.
Pechorin seems at times almost like a sociopath and yet I felt sorry for him. I also recognized his sad ideas and was surprised that so little has changed with the stereotypical bad boy, even across cultures and more than a hundred years.
Here is Pechorin’s view on friendship:
“Of two friends, one is always the slave of the other, although frequently neither acknowledges the fact to himself. Now, the slave I could not be; and to be the master would be a wearisome trouble, because, at the same time deception would be required.”
Throughout the novel, Lermontov pays attention to and appreciates nature:
“Whatever grief oppresses my heart, whatever disquietude tortures my thoughts—everything is dispersed in a moment; my soul becomes at ease; the fatigue of the body vanquishes the disturbance of the mind. There is not a woman’s glance which I would not forget at the sight of the tufted mountains, illumined by the southern sun; at the sight of the blue sky, or in hearkening to the roar of the torrent as it falls from cliff to cliff.”
“On making a woman’s acquaintance I have always unerringly guessed whether she would fall in love with me or not…”
And all games:
“To arouse a feeling of love, devotion and fear towards oneself—is not that the main sign, and the greatest triumph, of power? To be the cause of suffering and joy to another—without in the least possessing any definite right to be so—is not that the sweetest food for our pride? And what is happiness? Satisfied pride.”
He goes on to say that passion never lasts forever.
Some people are just better talkers than others:
“You are a dangerous man!” she said to me. “I would rather find myself in the woods under a knife of an assassin than under your tongue…In all earnestness I beg of you: when it comes into your mind to speak evil of me, take a knife instead and cut my throat. I think you would not find that very difficult.”
Harsh words from a princess. And even though she was on the right track, Pechorin later observes her weakening:
“Compassion—a feeling to which all women yield so easily, had dug its talons into her inexperienced heart.”
Before I dare to wonder too much about Lermontov and this book, here is what he has to say about his intent in writing it:
“The Hero of Our Time, gentlemen, is indeed a portrait, but not of one man only; it is a portrait composed of the vices of our whole generation in their full-grown development. You will tell me again that no man can be as bad as this; and I shall tell you that since you have believed that all the villains of tragedy and romance could exist, why can you not believe in the reality of Pechorin?…This must not, however, be taken to mean that the author of this book has ever proudly dreamed of becoming a reformer of human vices….He has simply found it entertaining to depict a man, such as he considers to be typical of the present day and such as he has met—too often, unfortunately for the author himself and for you. Suffice it that the disease has been pointed out: how it is to be cured—God alone knows!”
I really enjoyed this book and definitely recommend it—and I especially recommend it to young women.
Nikolai Gogol was born in Ukraine in 1809. He died of starvation (and possibly depression) when he was nearly 43 years old. Gogol is best known for his book Dead Souls and for his short stories, “The Overcoat,” “The Nose,” and “Diary of a Madman.” He also wrote Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka, which I would now like very much to read.
I have long heard of Gogol but until recently had never read anything written by him. I am excited to discover him because he is so very very different and refreshing.
The Night Before Christmas was a fun read. It begins as a witch flies into the sky and fills her sleeves with stars. The devil has a plan to get back at a blacksmith/painter for an unflattering painting the blacksmith has done of him. The blacksmith is in love with the most beautiful (and spoiled) girl in the village and travels all the way to Petersburg to ask Catherine the Great for her slippers.
Here is a quote from early in the story:
“Meanwhile the devil stole silently up to the moon and stretched his hand out to seize it, but drew it back quickly as though he were scorched, sucked his fingers and danced about, then ran up from the other side and again skipped away and drew back his hand. But in spite of all his failures, the sly devil did not give up his tricks. Running up, he suddenly seized the moon with both hands; grimacing and blowing, he kept flinging it from one hand to the other, like a peasant who has picked up an ember for his pipe with bare fingers; at last, he hurriedly put it in his pocket and ran on as though nothing had happened.”
The book also has some very funny parts regarding the witch’s suitors hiding in coal sacks. All in all, The Night Before Christmas is a fun entertaining read with some insights on what it was like to live in Ukraine in the early 1800s.
Silly me. Nikolai Gogol is not to be confused with Maxim Gorky. I have a collection of stories by Gorky, so when I decided to read Gogol, I went to that collection, only to find a Soviet writer! Bah. No Gogol wrote many years before the revolution; he lived from 1809 to 1852 and was of Ukrainian/Polish decent. Wikipedia says he was a surrealist and I agree. I’m thinking I like this guy Gogol! [slight spoiler alert below]
Gogol’s Overcoat, to my great amusement and surprise, was a zombie story? Wow!
Ok, yes, I am being a little extreme. It wasn’t a zombie story the way you and I think of zombie stories, but still. Are the roots of zombie stories here? I don’t know. Hmm.
I thought “The Overcoat” was a great read, and Gogol is definitely on my list of authors to read more of. I don’t want to be an extreme spoiler, so I won’t comment on which parts nearly tore my heart apart, but I was especially gratified and surprised by the ending.
I learned several things too. I learned what a marten was. I was thinking of martins, the birds I grew up with, which are not the same at all. Martens are cute little mammals with beautiful fur, which trappers collect and sell to be contribute to the fur on coats. In the story, an adequate marten substitute is a cat. Gasp.
Our protagonist is Akaky Akakievich. The note says that this is a play on the on the word “kaka,” which means defecator. I thought this was interesting given the translation of the Spanish word, caca. Is this a sign (pardon the pun) of a Latin influence on Russian? Or, the other way around?
Another thing I found interesting was the smell of the stairs that led up to the tailor’s apartment. They were ammonia soaked.Why would they be ammonia soaked? I am almost afraid to ask—or ponder this.
And, I learned that serfs were called only by their first names. Only when they were freed, were they called by first name and patronymic. I had always wondered about that.
Lastly, I found an insight into the “name day.” But I’m still not sure how this works. It seems that the name day is the day on which the mother (or family) decides on the name of their newborn child and the child is Christened. In this story, a calendar was taken out and several dates were examined to see what names were associated with them. When Akaky’s mother didn’t like any of the proposed names (from the calendar), she decided to simply name Akaky after his father, and hence he was Akaky Akakievich.
This was an interesting story. I enjoyed it. And I especially liked the weirdness at the end.
The story begins as Ivan Ilych’s friends/associates learn of his death. They remember that he was a friendly guy liked by all, but really their immediate reaction was what effect Ivan’s death would have on them. What kind of promotion would they get now that Ivan Ilych’s position had been vacated? Then we are transported into a review of Ivan Ilych’s life, his major decisions, profession, and character.
One thing I think is so interesting about reading Tolstoy is how observant he is of human nature and social interactions. Although Tolstoy lived more than 100 years ago, it makes no difference; his observations and insights into human relationships remain fresh and contemporary.
Tolstoy himself was an interesting man. He fathered 13 children, became something of a religious fanatic, and according to my short story anthology, had a most annoying habit of running away from home. On one such adventure, he died in a railway station.
Ah, great artists.
One of my big complaints about my own culture is the seeming denial of the reality of death. When my family members started dropping off, I was woefully unprepared for the logistics. When my grandmother was on her death bed and I left work to be at her side for her final days, I was overwhelmed by the whole experience. We had been very close. She had spent more time with me growing up than perhaps anyone else, and I was beside myself with grief.
I witnessed the deathbed experience again with my mother, this time for several months leading up to the event. It was a grueling ordeal, and I came away from both experiences with the idea that death happens when the body becomes so uninhabitable that the soul is forced out. Perhaps those who can let go of life easily have the easiest time with death, and perhaps those who are determined to live have the most pain. These are my impressions from direct experience.
There are lots of religious ideas around death too, many of which I find very difficult to deal with during the event. My husband’s family views grief as a kind of heresy, a viewpoint I find incredibly inhumane.
The short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, leads us through these experiences and related happenings in great detail, physical, psychological, and social. Ivan Ilych did not marry the love of his life, we are not sure if he ever had one; instead, he married a woman who later became a shrew and failed to understand him, pity him, or even face his imminent death directly.
I think I must seem preoccupied with death. And perhaps. A friend of mine passed away a couple of years ago. She had contracted a rare virus that attacks the heart and actually had a heart transplant. Her body rejected the transplant and a terrible skin irritation developed. Medicines then destroyed her liver and eventually she died. It was all quite gruesome.
“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be, when I did everything properly?”
I can’t claim that I have done everything properly by any means. I reflect now and find so many errors and only hope to not make more. It seems to me as I reflect on my life at this point that things are of little value. My family put such a high value on collecting things, and I feel not a small amount of guilt for wanting to be rid of them and considering what experiences and travels their “worth” could bring. I’ve been obsessed for nearly two years with unburdening myself of things, and it seems that I am never happier than when I am traveling. These desires to see the world are in constant conflict with my desire to build a home, so that I have populated my backyard with lavender, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, spinach, mint, and arugula. I am fascinated with gardening even though gardening and traveling are forever at odds with each other.
Tolstoy raises an interesting idea of correctness in living one’s life. Who decides what is correct? You? Someone else?
At some point, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to live correctly—by my own definition. And this meant tearing down everything I had built up. What had been my dreams back when I dared to dream? And could I still accomplish them? Could I detach myself from all my self-created prisons and live? And what does living now mean to me? And is living worth anything without love?
“What if my whole life has really been wrong?”
A horrible question and then:
“He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into a black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it.”
Finally Ivan Ilych has a realization that helps him die. It seems that Tolstoy touches all the bases surrounding death that I myself have experienced as a witness, all except one. Both my mother and grandmother hallucinated about people who were dead being in the room with them. I have read that others have had the same sorts of hallucinations.
As for my poor dog who recently died, I could not bear to have her suffer in these ways. Maybe I did the wrong thing. There are some who believe the process of death is valuable and not to be denied. Her euthanasia was my selfishness. And what would I want for myself?
I want not to lie on my deathbed and realize I got it all wrong. I would like to look back and think I that when I saw two paths that converged in the woods that I took the one less traveled. Finding that path and getting onto it is the trick. It’s around here somewhere. I know it is. I can almost see it.
I have mentioned before that I reach for Dovlatov as I would for an aspirin. And since he is such an easy, interesting read, each time I buy one of his books, I finish it quickly. So, I started wondering today: what else is there? What’s left.
I got the following list from reading Wikipedia and Goodreads. The following quote is from Wikipedia:
Sergei Dovlatov published twelve books in the USA and Europe during his twelve years as an immigrant. In the Soviet Union, the writer was known from Samizdat and Radio Liberty. After his death and the fall of the Soviet Union, numerous collections of his short stories were finally published in Russia.
Affiliate (Филиал) — New York: Слово — Word, 1990.*
Армейские Письма к Отцу
The Compromise (Компромисс) — New York: Серебряный век, 1981.*
Craft: A Story in Two Parts (Ремесло: Повесть в двух частях) — Ann Arbor: Ардис, 1985.*
Demarche of Enthusiasts (Демарш энтузиастов) (cowritten with Vagrich Bakhchanyan and N. Sagalovskij) — Paris: Синтаксис, 1985.*
Эпистолярный роман с Игорем Ефимовым, 2001.
A Foreign Woman (Иностранка) — New York: Russica Publishers, 1986.*
The Invisible Book (Невидимая книга) — Аnn Arbor: Ardis, 1977.
Компромисът. Куфарът, 2011.
The March of the Single People (Марш одиноких) — Holyoke: New England Publishing Co, 1983.*
Ours (Наши) — Ann Arbor: Ардис, 1983.*
Малоизвестный Довлатов, 1996.
Notebooks (Записные книжки) — New York: Слово — Word, 1990.*
Not only Brodsky: Russian Culture in Portraits and Jokes (He только Бродский: Русская культура в портретах и в анекдотах) (cowritten with M. Volkova) — New York: Слово — Word, 1990.*
The Performance (Представление) — New York: Russica Publishers, 1987.*
Pushkin Hills, 2014.
The Reserve (Заповедник) — Аnn Arbor: Эрмитаж, 1983.*
Речь без повода… или Колонки редактора, 2006.
Резерватът. Чужденката, 2005.
Собрание сочинений в 4-х томах, 2004.
Solo on Underwood: Notebooks (Соло на ундервуде: Записные книжки)— Paris: Третья волна, 1980.*
Suitcase (Чемодан) — Tenafly: Эрмитаж, 1986.*
Третий поворот налево (Белая серия), 2006.
Жизнь коротка: Рассказы, 2006.
The Zone: A Prison Camp Guard’s Story (Зона: Записки надзирателя) — Ann Arbor: Эрмитаж, 1982.*
*Published during his lifetime
For anyone looking to find more “aspirin” but having a hard time, I found a cool Russian bookstore based out of New York called Russian Bookstore No. 21 and available online at: www.russianbookstore21.com
And, for a book I have not read but would like to, check out Dovlatov—My Dear Friend (2005) by L. Shtern.
By Sergei Dovlatov; translated by Anne Frydman; Weidenfeld & Nicolson, New York; @1983; 135 pages.
I went online searching for videos of Dovlatov. There don’t seem to be any from when he was young. The ones I found show him as a hulking man, not really the writer type, more the heavy weight boxer type. Very masculine. And as I ponder that for a while, I realized the striking difference that I found between Russian and American culture. In Russian culture, men were very masculine and women were very feminine. I’m sure there were exceptions. But there, the difference between the sexes seemed to be celebrated and rigidly defined. In America, there seems to me to be some blurring. So that for me a man who seems to really own his manhood, who makes a point that there is a very clear distinction between the sexes, like Dovlatov, almost seems scary. I’m not sure I would be wrong in saying it was a very sexist culture and much of what Dovlatov says in his books seems sexist.
For some reason, like so many things Russian, I find that forgivable—there, although I would never stand for it here. Confused? Me too.
But, to the book. So I found one more thing to like D for. In the end, when his whole family left the USSR for the United States, he also took his dog, Glasha. In fact, Glasha has her own chapter in the book. He says that she was a very Russian dog and never quite adapted to America. This was the funniest chapter in the book for me.
With each passing year she looked more like a human being. (I can’t say as much for most of my friends.) I felt embarrassed changing my clothes in front of her. My friend Sevostyanov used to say, ‘She’s the only normal member of your family.’”
Glasha was such a cool dog that one of Dovlatov’s friends tried to steal her. He had to go get her back. Glasha even saved a family’s life and for this was awarded 400 grams of tenderloin—“the first time in the history of the Party that exclusive privileges were awarded to someone worthy of them.”
Dovlatov tried to arrange some “marriages” for Glasha, but none of them worked out. He explains in hilarious detail why each of them failed.
“Alas, Glasha did not become an American. What is the main quality of Americans? I immediately decided it was their optimism….My dog had a different psychological makeup….She didn’t even wag her tail very often. If a stranger moved to pet her, she snarled….In brief, Glasha had little talent for democracy. She was short on kindheartedness and loaded with neuroses. The sexual revolution never touched her. A typical middle-aged woman émigré from Russia.”
That wasn’t my personal experience, but I accept that much was lost in translation.
Anna Karenina is an 817-page study of the consequences of adultery. But it isn’t just about adultery; it’s also social commentary on everything from marriage, maternal love, having children, the education of the workers, farming practices, faith, and the moral implications of not actually working for a living. It’s about human relationships, love, birth, and death. Tolstoy forces us to look at Anna, the adulteress, as a person. He keeps us from judging her out of hand. He shows us the terrible consequences of choosing security over love and then again of choosing love over security. And he shows us all the jealousy, insecurity, and fickleness involved in human relationships.
Anna Karenina is set against the backdrop of the Russian aristocracy in the 1800s. Tolstoy provides great insights into human nature that ring true even today, more than 100 years later. He explains that some adulterous liaisons were excused by society while others were not.
The story is wonderfully crafted (for the most part—I felt like the ending was tacked on) and easy to read. None of the explicit details are given that modern readers are accustomed to. It’s all very classy. Tolstoy very subtly gets the point across on page 149, saying simply “…this desire had been satisfied.” With the romance out of the way early on, let the tortuous tale begin.
Count Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 on the family estate of Yasnaya Polyana in the Tula province of Russia. He studied oriental languages and law but did not complete a degree. He faught in the Crimean War and afterwards wrote Sevastopol Sketches in 1855. He married at the age of 34 to Sofya Andreyevna Behrs, and together they had thirteen children. For much of his life, Tolstoy was active in efforts to educate and emancipate the serfs. His most well known novels are War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karinina (1877).
Anna Karenina is a novel written in eight parts and told through the omniscient narrator. With this format, Tolstoy is able to explore the thoughts and motivations of all his characters. The story begins in Moscow, Russia. Prince Stepan Arkadyich Oblonsky’s affair with a former French governess has been found out by his wife, Dolly. Stepan’s married sister, Anna Karenina, who lives in St. Petersburg has been summoned to his house to console his wife and put their marriage back together. Meanwhile, Stepan has two friends, Konstantin Dmitrych Levin and Count Alexei Krillovich Vronsky, who are rival suitors for the same young lady, Kitty Tcherbatsky. Kitty is Dolly’s sister.
(Confused? You won’t be once you get going.) To get it all started, Tolstoy puts Vronsky’s mother and Anna Karenina in the same train car to Moscow from Petersburg.
The biggest problem for the western reader not used to Russian naming conventions is keeping track of the names and nicknames. If you can get that straight, this novel is smooth sailing. The translators, Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, have done a fantastic job.
The first thing that struck me about the story was how unfair Stepan Arkadyich’s (Prince Oblonsky’s) view of his wife, Dolly, was.
He could not be repentant that he, a thirty-four-year-old, handsome, amorous man, did not feel amorous with his wife, the mother of five living and two dead children, who was only a year younger than he.
So this guy is older than his wife, and yet she is too old for him, now that she has “done her womanly duty” and given him seven children!
It even seemed to him that she, a worn-out, aged, no longer beautiful woman, not remarkable for anything, simple, merely a kind mother of a family, ought in all fairness to be indulgent.
Oblonsky’s friend Konstantin Levin, seems the opposite of the other men in this story. Tolstoy described Levin’s love for eighteen-year-old Kitty in a very charming way:
He [Levin] knew she was there by the joy and fear that overwhelmed his heart. She stood at the other end of the rink, talking to a lady. There seemed to be nothing very special in her dress, nor in her pose; but for Levin she was as easy to recognize in a crowd as a rose among nettles.
I love this too for being such an accurate description of love, or I suppose, of infatuation:
He stepped down, trying not to look long at her, as if she were the sun, yet he saw her, like the sun, even without looking.
Tolstoy writes about the younger generation rebelling against the norms of the older generation. The previous generation had consented to having their marriages arranged by their parents. This generation was moving away from that practice. More and more young people were arranging their own marriages. To that end, I love this description of Kitty’s mother’s feelings on the topic:
And however much the princess [Kitty’s mother] was assured that in our time young people themselves must settle their fate, she was unable to believe it, as she would have been unable to believe that in anyone’s time the best toys for five-year-old children would be loaded pistols.
And yet, Kitty’s mother’s interference caused much grief.
This novel turns around the love affair that develops between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky. It must have been shocking reading indeed, for not only is Anna married to man with whom she has a son, it also seems that she might be older than Count Vronsky. Tolstoy illustrated for us from the beginning how Russian society viewed wives who were even slightly younger than their husbands—as unattractive throwaways who should be understanding of their diminishing status. I love how he pushes this social value when he sets up Anna with Vronsky.
Early on, we suspect that Anna may be getting in over her head as Vronsky’s views of love are a bit liberal even by today’s standards:
In his Petersburg world, all people were divided into two completely opposite sorts. One was the inferior sort: the banal, stupid, and above all, ridiculous people who believed that one husband should live with one wife, whom he has married in church, that a girl should be innocent, a woman modest, a man manly, temperate and firm, that one should raise children, earn one’s bread, pay one’s debts, and other such stupidities. This was an old-fashioned and ridiculous sort of people. But there was another sort of people, the real ones, to which they all belonged, and for whom one had, above all, to be elegant, handsome, magnanimous, bold, gay, to give oneself to every passion without blushing and laugh at everything else.
And this is Vronsky’s friend’s opinion of why people get married:
For this there exists one means of loving conveniently, without hindrance—that is marriage…it’s as if you’re carrying a fardeau (burden) and doing something with your hands is only possible if the fardeau is tied to your back—and that is marriage. And I felt it once I got married. I suddenly had my hands free. But dragging this fardeau around without marriage—that will make your hands so full that you won’t be able to do anything.
Anna’s husband is onto her straying feelings immediately. Tolstoy is wonderfully wise about this:
She [Anna] looked at him [her husband], so gaily, that no one who did not know her as her husband did could have noticed anything unnatural either in the sound or in the meaning of her words. But for him who knew her, who knew that when he went to bed five minutes late, she noticed it and asked the reason, who knew that she told him at once her every joy, happiness, or grief—for him it meant a great deal to see now that she did not want to notice his state or say a word about herself. He saw that the depth of her soul, formerly always open to him, was now closed to him.
Anna’s husband, Alexei Alexandrovich, is twenty years older than she. He doesn’t seem capable of passionate love, but we see that he does love her. He would rather ignore the whole thing, save his reputation, and keep Anna as his wife. One can see that they are fundamentally a bad match. Alexei, with all his flaws, eventually becomes a sympathetic character, at least to me.
He felt that he could not divert people’s hatred from himself, because the reason for that hatred was not that he was bad (then he could have tried to be better), but that he was shamefully and repulsively unhappy. For that, for the very fact that his heart was wounded, they would be merciless towards him; people would destroy him, as dogs kill a wounded dog howling with pain.
As much as this story is about Anna Karenina and her love affair with Count Vronsky, it is also the story of Konstatin Dmitryich Levin and his love for Kitty Tcherbatsky. Levin seems to symbolize all that is good in men. He lives in the country, mows the grass with a scythe along with the muzhiks, and wants nothing more than to have a loving family. He is also a good tool for Tolstoy’s exploration of the pros and cons of the education of the muzhiks and the rise of a working class.
One really big hole in the story, for me, was the absence of Levin’s reaction to Anna’s death. He has only met her once, but his awareness of Count Vronsky has been high throughout the story. He was charmed by Anna when he met her. It seems really odd that we don’t get Levin’s take on either Anna or Vronsky at the end of the story. Levin becomes consumed with the idea of death and the meaning of life. One can infer that this is one of the consequences from Anna’s death, but with the omniscient narrator, it seems that Tolstoy missed a big opportunity to draw the whole thing together.
At the end, we also get insights into faith. Levin is not a believer at the beginning of the story. His view of the universe and how it operates could be summed up as follows:
In infinite time, in the infinity of matter, in infinite space, a bubble-organism separates itself, and that bubble holds out for a while and then bursts, and that bubble is—me.
But later, he has an epiphany. People must live for goodness, live for the soul, and that goodness is revealed by God.
If the good has a cause, it is no longer the good; if it has a consequence—a reward—it is also not the good. Therefore the good is outside the chain of cause and effect.
He also makes the argument that faith and love are outside the bounds of reason.
Yes, what I know, I do not know by reason, it is given to me, it is revealed to me, and I know it by my heart, by faith in that main thing that the Church confesses.
…faith in God, in the good, as the sole purpose of man.
At over 800 pages, I was prepared to trudge through this novel. It was quite a relief to find it so engaging. I came away from this book wanting to throw out all my Russian novels and re-buy them as translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. They did a brilliant job.
By Sergei Dovlatov; Translated by Anne Frydman; Russian edition @1982; English edition @1984; My edition @2011; Counterpoint Press; 182 pages.
Perhaps Dovlatov is the Soviet version of George Carlin, sans the vulgar tirades and the four letter words.
Here is the introductory statement by the author:
The names, events, and dates given here are all real. I invented only those details that were not essential.
Therefore, any resemblance between the characters in this book and living people is intentional and malicious. And all the fictionalizing was unexpected and accidental.
Dovlatov always had an excellent structure for his books. In The Compromise, it was a series of increasingly absurd compromises. In The Suitcase, the chapters were organized by what he found in his suitcase and the relevance of each item to his life.
In this book, Dovlatov has come to America. He has written the book, The Zone, while still in the USSR, but couldn’t risk taking it with him when he left. As a result, several of his friends have smuggled small parts of the book out while traveling to various places in the free world. Dovlatov is now trying to reassemble his book. The serious content of The Zone is tempered by Dovlatov’s letters to his editor talking about his current life in the U.S. and commenting on the manuscript he is now submitting in parts.
As one might imagine, being a prison guard was pretty horrible not to mention shocking at times.
Awful things happened around me. People reverted to an animal state. We lost our human aspect—being hungry, humiliated, tortured by fear.
This is the darkest of Dovlatov’s books. But while dark, it still contains his philosophical bent which I enjoy so much. I thought his strategy for dealing with his job was very interesting:
I felt better than could have been expected. I began to have a divided personality. Life was transformed into literary material…I began to think of myself in the third person.
Dovlatov says he doesn’t agree with the ancients—that a sound body means a sound mind. Instead, he says that people who are physically healthy are most often spiritually blind and morally apathetic.
He says he was very healthy.
Since the time of Aristotle, the human brain has not changed. What is more, human consciousness has not changed.
Dovlatov rails against not being able to get his work published in the Soviet Union, but really, what did he expect when he said things like this:
… a prison camp is a pretty accurate representation of a country in miniature, the Soviet state in particular. Within a camp, you have a dictatorship of the proletariat (which is to say, the camp administration), the people (the prisoners), and the police (guards).
Dovlatov says that literature has historically portrayed the prisoner/guard relationship in one of two ways. Either the prisoners are to be pitied or the guards are. To him, both views are wrong:
Almost any prisoner would have been suited to the role of a guard. Almost any guard deserved a prison term.
For anyone wanting to read Dovlatov, I wouldn’t start with this book. Even though I really liked the book and appreciated what Dovlatov had to say and his characteristic humor, I’m not sure I would have been so compelled to keep reading him if I had started here. (The order I suggest? The Compromise, The Suitcase, A Foreign Woman, The Zone.)
So has the spell been broken? (Will I be rushing out to buy more D?)
Well, as I finish this book, I think about how jaded and disillusioned a person might become after having similar experiences. Here is a man who didn’t graduate from university. He trained as a heavyweight boxer. He saw horrific things and experienced ongoing fear.
Yet, through it all, (not having had everything given to him, not having had a pampered existence and the best education, freedom for travel throughout his life, money, etc.) through it all, he retained his humanity. He retained his capacity for mercy and compassion. How did he do this? Do these kinds of circumstances breed empathy and emotional maturity?
It makes you think, especially on days like today with all the crazy news stories—the Boston Marathon bombing, an NPR story about a company you can hire to get the kidnapping experience, and other more horrific things I don’t want to get into.
By Sergei Dovlatov; Counterpoint Press; @ 1986; 129 pages.
The premise of The Suitcase is simple. Sergei Dovlatov finds the suitcase that he carried from the Soviet Union to the United States in the back of his closet in New York. Each chapter of the book tells the story behind each item he rediscovers inside.
I really like this structure. I’m trying to figure out how to “repurpose” it for my own needs. And, I really like Dovlatov. I’ll be reading along, interested enough to keep going, and then all of a sudden I’m laughing. It’s nice. It reminds me of Russia and the friends I met there, and makes me sorry I left and glad that I did at the same time.
I like how Dovlatov describes his relationship with his wife, Lena. He says the main things a wife should do for her husband are 1) feed him, 2) believe he is a genius, and 3) leave him alone. And she can’t just do one of these. She has to do all three. So I’m ticking off these things in my head. Am I doing my part? It was touching—for all his tough-guy rhetoric, you can tell he really loved his wife. The kind of love that is too real and painful to talk about.
Dovlatov died relatively young (Not suicide—but what was it? I don’t know.), and it makes me really sad. But he left behind several books that I haven’t read.
The New York Times said this about The Suitcase: “Readers will soar through the first two-thirds of this novel, then…stave off finishing it. The final chapters will be hoarded and cherished, doled out one at a time as a reward after a bad day.”
That’s exactly how I felt. I have a bad day, I reach for Dovlatov. That’s why I need to have enough on hand. Fed up with life? Lost your sense of humor? Take two Dovlatov’s and call me in the morning.
By Svetlana Alliluyeva; @1967; Harper & Row Publishers; New York and Evanston
Svetlana Alliluyeva was the daughter of Joseph Stalin. In her memoir, Twenty Letters to a Friend, she struggles to come to grips with her childhood and in particular her relationship with her father, who he was a man, father, husband, and leader. According to Wikipedia, Svetlana caused an international stir when she defected from the Soviet Union in 1967. Interesting that this is the same date her memoir was published. Svetlana was born in 1926 and passed away in 2011. (Stalin died in 1953.) Wikipedia says as of 2010, she was living in Wisconsin.
This book came to me from my grandmother. She didn’t give it to me, but rather, I inherited it when she died. My grandmother was a member of the Book of the Month Club, and this was one of the books she received. My grandmother was very well read, but I don’t think she ever had the same kind of fascination with Russia that I developed.
As I read this book, I felt a wave of compassion for Svetlana. After all, it’s hard to top having Stalin for a father. For one, there is the mysterious death of Svetlana’s mother. Was it really a suicide? Did Beria do it? Could Stalin have? How culpable was Stalin in the terror? She seems to want to shift the blame, painting Stalin as a man whose passions could be manipulated, a man with tremendous paranoia that worsened over time. What is touching is that she loved him, and I suppose the monster that I have read about in my history classes must have loved her too.
There are a couple of things that could have improved her memoir. She didn’t say much about the Soviet gulags that her father worked so hard to populate. She also didn’t write much in scenes. Most of her letters were strictly telling, not much showing. The letters she wrote about her mother and her first husband were the most gripping, where I actually forgot I was reading and lost myself in her story.
Svetlana is extremely self-conscious throughout her memoir, always watching what she says, always crafting an impression. And this is certainly understandable given the very public nature of her life. Unfortunately, in this writing, she hasn’t unraveled her own denial, even though I have the feeling that she sincerely tried.
By Sergei Dovlatov; Academy Chicago Publishers; @1990, first copyright Alfred A Knopf, Inc @1981; 148 pages.
While reading about Kurt Vonnegut, I noticed this guy, Sergei Dovlatov. Apparently, Vonnegut said some nice things about Dovlatov, so that peaked my interest.
The story unfolds as Dovlatov, a Russian living in Estonia, takes a job writing satire for the newspaper, On Watch for the Motherland. Turns out he isn’t a party member—which I found odd; I thought you would have to be a party member to write for a Soviet newspaper and that basically everyone was a party member anyway, but apparently not. Also, his articles weren’t satirical. Hmm, or were they?
Each chapter opens with a short newspaper article that Sergei has written—and that must be written in a certain way or changed to satisfy his bosses—a compromise. Basically, the typical writer’s life. But in this case, it is a writer’s life under Soviet rule. And it seems, every aspect of Dovlatov’s life.
One amusing anecdote is about an article that is needed for Tallinn‘s liberation anniversary. Dovlatov is given the assignment to tell the story of the 400 thousandth inhabitant born to the city. This number isn’t accurate, or even close, but no matter; it makes for a good story. Dovlatov goes to the maternity ward of the hospital in Tallinn and waits for a male child to be born. The 400 thousandth child needs to be a boy because a boy is more symbolic for the occasion.
Dovlatov waits. The first child born that day is a boy, but he doesn’t meet all of the publicizable requirements; he is half Ethiopian. Then another boy is born—also unacceptable; he is Jewish. Dovlatov has to explain to the father that the paper is looking for a boy from a “worker-peasant family.” No intellectuals. Too bad, because the father has already written a poem for the occasion.
“How could it appear in our country? Here, in a country where it seems—”
I interrupted him. “In a country where the ‘founding corpse’ has still not been buried…”
(I can see why Vonnegut liked Dovlatov.)
A suitable boy is finally born, but now the newspaper, still seeking to tell a good story, wants Dovlatov to convince the father to name the child Lembit, a name out of Estonian folklore. They are willing to pay him. So for 25 rubles, a would-be Volodya becomes a Lembit.
Sergei Dovlatov is immediately engaging. He captures my attention by talking directly to me; I find out who he is as he’s telling the story and I feel sympathetic to him (I have to think more about why). I like his tongue-in-cheek style. He’s absurd, honest, and subtlely humorous.
I liked several of his lines, but especially this one: “Lying without hope of gain is not lying, it’s poetry.” Seems right, considering how much poetry pays.
So probably, there are some things I missed, references, etc. that I didn’t understand because I haven’t ever lived in the Soviet Union. But, overall, The Compromise, was a good read and makes the interesting distinction between the facts and the truth.
I found myself giggling through the last two compromises, high praise indeed.
By Fyodor Dostoevsky; Bantam Classic; First published in 1866; this edition published in 1981; 472 pages.
At the risk of sounding like Alistair Cooke, it seems this is the best way to start my entry:
The stakes are high for Dostoevsky as he contemplates writing this novel. It’s been five years since his return from exile in Siberia (1850–1860). He had been sent there as punishment for alleged subversion against Tsar Nicholas I. He spent four of these years doing hard labor. At one point, he was even led before a firing squad, but was pardoned at the last second. After his return from Siberia, Dostoevsky worked with his brother to produce two literary-political journals (you’d think he wouldn’t have wanted to touch politics after his stint in Siberia). In April 1864, his wife died of tuberculosis. His brother died a few months later. The journals failed, and Dostoevsky’s debts increased by the day.
Hounded by creditors, in 1865 he wanted to leave Russia to find some peace in Europe where his ex-mistress, Apollinaria Suslova, was currently living and whom he wanted to see very badly. To raise the money, he obtained a loan from the Literary Fund. He also approached several periodicals with an idea for a new novel.
He was rejected. Finally, he made a deal with a publisher named F.T. Stellovsky. Dostoevsky promised to give Stellovsky a novella-sized work by November 1866. (Looks like he made his deadline?) If he failed, he would have to give Stellovsky the right to publish all of his future work without compensation for the next nine years! (I have the feeling that Dostoevsky really wanted to go to Europe.)
So Dostoevsky took an advance from Stellovsky, paid his debts, and traveled to Wiesbaden, Germany. His plan was to replenish his funds by gambling what he had left. He lost everything. He could not even afford to eat.
During this time as tension and desperation continued to build, Dostoevsky developed the idea for Crime and Punishment. He swallowed his pride and wrote to an old enemy, Mikhail Katkov, a powerful editor. He pitched the story, and Katkov liked it.
Now Dostoevsky was indebted to two publishers. The introduction to my edition tells me all this and the whole plot of the novel (which I turned a blind eye to because I would rather experience it myself), but did not explain how Dostoevsky resolved these two debts. Leave it to me to fixate on something no one else finds interesting. And what happened with Apollinaria?
Only three years before his imprisonment in Siberia, Doestoevsky published his first novel, Poor Folk. (Dostoevsky was born in Moscow in 1821.) His prison memoir is Notes From the House of the Dead.
Crime and Punishment begins with a scene of a hot July evening in St Petersburg. Our protagonist, Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov (Родиóн Ромáнович Раскóльников), is leaving his tiny apartment and trying to avoid his landlady because he is hopelessly in her debt. He is off to see his pawnbroker to pawn something else. He isn’t from St. Petersburg but is living there to attend the university. He has dropped out due to lack of money. Crushed by poverty and in need of nice clothes, he has also given up on the only way he can earn a small living, by working as a tutor. It doesn’t pay enough to seem worthwhile. He is incredibly handsome. (Well, of course. Protagonists have to be handsome don’t they?)
The name Raskolnikov is derived from the Russian word “raskolnik,” which means schismatic, and according to Wikipedia this alludes to the Old Believer Movement (Old Believers aka старове́ры or старообрядцы), which I don’t get because it seems like Rasknolikov was intended to be the poster boy for the new Socialist movement of the day.
In 1652, Nikon, the then Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, noticed discrepancies between Russian and Greek rites and texts and introduced ritual and textual revisions to create uniformity between Russian and Greek Orthodox practices. He did this without gaining consensus among the clergy. Those who did not accept Nikon’s changes were persecuted from the end of the 17th to the beginning of the 20th century as schismatics or Old Believers (Old Ritualists) (старообрядцы). Old Believers rejected all innovations and the most radical of them believed that the Church had fallen into the hands of the Antichrist.
In 1666, the Church officially suppressed (anathematized) the old rites and books and those who wished to stay loyal to them, and stripped the Old Believers of their civil rights. Persecution, arrests, torture, and executions followed.
(This is pretty cool to me because when I was in Russia, people would sometimes whisper to me: he’s an Old Believer. I had no idea of the significance of that.)
I really don’t think that Raskonikov is supposed to represent the schism of the Church. At one point with Sonia (the 18-year-old girl who has been forced into prostitution as a way to keep her family from starvation, or worse), he questions the existence of God. I think, rather, that Raskonikov, was named for the schism between his motivations and his actions. He is driven by this idealistic view of what good is or should be and, because of this, views himself as above the recognized moral code of what is always good and always evil, allowing himself to believe that he is entitled, justified, even duty-bound to commit a crime if his crime would end evil actions of the one murdered. Or, maybe more accurately, it is the schism that happens when one believes with all one’s heart and soul that to do a particular thing is wrong, but does it anyway.
Raskolnikov’s mother (Pulcheria Alexandrovna) and sister (Avdotya Romanovna) want desperately to help him escape his poverty, misery, and depression. (His father has already passed away.) In this society, it seems the only help from women can come from an advantageous marriage (one for money [in this case of Raskonikov’s sister to the “supercillious” Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin]) or through prostitution, a way to thoroughly and forever destroy a girl’s reputation. So basically, it’s condoned prostitution (holders of a yellow passport) or uncondoned prostitution (holders of a marriage certificate). Raskolnikov’s mother, at 43, is too old to be of any use.
Dostoevsky indicates Raskolnikov’s feelings of helplessness with his gruesome and upsetting dream about a mare. Clearly, Dostoevsky has observed how stupid and cruel humans can be once they get an advantage over something that can’t fight back.
Part I, Chapter VII is riveting. Every sentence was a tense extension of the one before it. I was on the edge of my seat. I haven’t read writing so thoroughly engrossing in years. Dostoevsky’s skill is phenomenal. The proofreader of my edition, however, should have been shot. I’ve never seen so many misspellings!
And I suppose it’s the penny-pincher in me, but every time Raskolnikov gave away his rubles (typically to help someone else), I cringed.
Writing this in his 40s, Dostoevsky demonstrates superb skill. He conveys time and space with ease. I am right there with Raskolnikov in his tiny room or walking in the street or along the Neva. I don’t see his face, but I’m in his head. I sympathize with him and yet I’m repelled. Dostoevsky pulls me back and forth as he examines Raskolnikov’s complex character from all directions.
Raskolnikov has a good friend, Razumihin, who sees after him during his “illness.” Just as you might suspect, there is an opportunity to discuss the nature of crime in this novel. According to Socialist doctrine, “crime is a protest against the abnormality of the social organization.”
…if society were properly organized, all crime would cease at once.
This strikes me particularly now as I have been reading about a different Russian, a billionaire Dmitry Itskov, and his idealistic (and rather terrifying) 2045 project aspirations. As humans use technology to achieve immortality, Itskov expects all of humanities’ problems will miraculously disappear.
Are Itskov’s views a reincarnation of the socialist ideas present in Russia in the 1860s?
…there will be nothing to protest against and all men will become righteous in one instant. Human nature is not taken into account, it is excluded, it’s not supposed to exist! … They believe that a social system that has come out of some mathematical brain is going to organize all humanity at once and make it just sinless in an instant…
…they don’t want a living soul! The living soul demands life, the soul won’t obey the rules of mechanics…
These words seem hauntingly relevant today.
Raskolnikov discovers that an article he wrote while a student has been published. In it, he discusses the psychology of a criminal before and after a crime. He suggests that some people have a right [even a duty] to commit crime.
He explains that all men are either ordinary or extraordinary. Ordinary men live in submission and have no right to break the law. Extraordinary men have an right to decide their own conscience and to “step over obstacles … for the benefit of humanity.” [pre-emptive strikes?]
For example, posits Raskolnikov, if the discoveries of Newton and Kepler could not have been made known without sacrificing the lives of a hundred or more people, they would have been duty-bound to eliminate those men.”
And there you have it. There is the reasoning behind the atrocities committed in the name of scientific advancement (chimps in space, gorilla head transplants, introducing animal genes in to plant DNA, etc.) And of course, behind the atrocities committed between nations in the name of “security.”
Raskolnikov goes on: “…all great men … must … be criminals…”
Ordinary people live their lives in a rut and stay there. They are inferior. They preserve the world and the people in it.
Extraordinary people do not. They move the world and lead it to its goal. They have the gift or talent to utter a new word.
Funny how one collects memories and impressions throughout one’s life. So much is discarded and yet some experiences, however irrelevant, linger and come to the surface as the result of some reminder. Maybe some experiences are so extraordinary that one is compelled to pay attention to every detail. The following passage struck me in such a way:
For a minute they were looking at one another in silence. Razumihin remembered that minute all his life. Raskolnikov’s burning and intent eyes grew more penetrating every moment, piercing into his soul, into his consciousness. Suddenly Razumihin started. Something strange, as it were, slipped, something awful, hideous, and suddenly understood on both sides.
One thing that always interests me when I read these types of stories, stories in which the reader is set up to judge the protagonist, is order. My impressions of Raskolnikov would have been different if I had learned more about his character before I was exposed to his crime. I would have felt more sympathetic towards him. As it is, I find myself struggling, which I think is exactly what Doestoevsky intended. It’s easier to forgive someone you know and love, but not so easy to forgive a stranger, even if you do know his thoughts.
Then at last, there is the idea of redemption in suffering.
I finished this novel on the same day that the leading story in the news was about the murder of Chris Kyle, the 38-year-old former Navy SEAL who wrote a memoir about his 150 confirmed sniper killings in Iraq. His wife explained on TV that he did what he loved. Both Kyle and Raskolnikov made the same decision about human life, though Kyle apparently was less bothered by it, but then I haven’t read his book, American Sniper. Sanctioned killing versus unsanctioned killing. It’s important, it seems, to get the rubber stamp.
Was Raskolnikov’s deepest regret the self awareness that he was not, in fact, and extraordinary man?
Several times in my life, I’ve been accused of thinking too much. I’ve always thought that was odd. I think now I finally get what that means. For the truth of things isn’t really so complicated.
At the end, like at the end of Anna Karenina, we are left with the hint that our protagonist will make the conversion from atheism to Christianity.
When the Kiev zoo gave its smaller animals away because it could no longer afford to feed them, Victor, a struggling writer, adopted a depressed penguin named Misha. The story unfolds with Victor and Misha living together in an apartment in Kiev. For both of them, it’s a rather unnatural environment.
This book did a great job of grabbing my attention early on. Page one and I was into the story.
Kurkov subtly examines the nature of choice. There is a tension that develops and a contrast that is set up when the main characters have different kinds of situations to deal with: ones they have freely chosen for themselves and ones they have happened into. I enjoyed the way Misha’s predicament mirrored Victor’s internal struggle. I also appreciated that Misha wasn’t turned into a cheesy kid’s character. Misha was always his own penguin. Enigmatic at times, but after all, he was a penguin.
One question remained for Andrey Kurkov. On the last page, the last line is the date range: December 1995–February 1996. What is this? The time it took to write the book? Bragging?
[Thanks to the Internet, I was able to find out. Mr. Kurkov was very kind to answer my question and said that this was the time it took him to write the book, although he said that it took him two years to nail down the plot.]
There was something that happened to me while reading this book. Misha the Penguin had a health problem. The resolution to this health problem, when I read it, was like flipping a switch for me. I can’t explain it. I don’t really understand it, but it’s as though a weight was lifted. The shock. The laughter. The immediate understanding. It was all very personal. I’m not promising a cathartic experience for anyone who reads it, but for me, it helped. Sometimes the stars align with literature and this was the case for me.
Glory is the first book I’ve read by Vladimir Nabokov. (I couldn’t bring myself to read Lolita.) Nabokov displayed a great ability to write into and out of reality. The main character, Martin, drifted in and out of reveries. Most of the time I could understand what was what, but sometimes I had to reread.
Martin is part Russian, part Swiss. We follow him from his youth through his college days during the time of the Bolshevik revolution.
I didn’t really enjoy this book. It was fun to read about things Russian, but I didn’t care about any of the characters. Nabokov writes in the omniscient narrator, so that might account for my lack of caring. Not sure. The end was startling and got me thinking, so that’s always nice.