Thursday, August 25, 2011

reading russian literature


occasionally i get an email, asking me what russian literature i would recommend. i love those moments because not only does my almost-Ph.D. come in handy, they sort of wake up a sleeping, dormant part of my soul. and it always makes me wonder why i stopped feeding my soul with that particular kind of marvelous writing. but mostly, it takes me back in a very good way - back to the time when i was so consumed by devouring the russian masters - especially dostoevsky - that i once read 120 pages of the brothers karamazov (from the very book on top) while driving on I-80 west of Des Moines. and yes, i was the driver.


and tho' i want to immediately tell everyone that their life will not be complete until they've read the brothers karamazov, i do realize that that thick tome of religion, rationalism, nihilism, madness and patricide may not be for everyone. i tend to recommend starting with dostoevsky's notes from underground to see if his manic style appeals to you, before embarking on the biggies like brothers k or crime & punishment.

the one book i recommend every time is bulgakov's master & margarita - its brand of russian magical realism is well, magical. it's a book i return to again and again and always find something new - colorful characters, a good story, simply an energy that carries you along. i also tend to recommend nabokov - humbert humbert may be a real creep, but the writing is virtuoso and everyone should experience that.


i'm not a big fan of tolstoy, as he's a bit righteous and preachy for me, but i do love his short work - the sebastopol sketches. i also like gogol's short works - the nose and the overcoat. i tend to recommend that people read some of those first, before tackling a baggy monster like war & peace or anna karenina (and do read anna k if you're only going to read one tolstoy) or dead souls.

it always makes me a bit sad that i don't find myself recommending any women writers. the only one that really springs to mind is anna akhmatova and she was a poet. there are more contemporary women writers - tatiana tolstaya and ludmilla petrushevskaya, but honestly, their works are nowhere near the top of my list.

i feel that literature, like nothing else, has the capacity to illuminate a culture and its history. russian literature especially opens some window, not only into the russian soul, but the very soul of humanity. so if you haven't read any, do get started. and start with master & margarita.

10 comments:

Miss Flying V said...

I'm an avid reader, and I've read Crime an Punishment and Ana Karenina, but that Master and Margarita sounds good too, I think I'll go look it up in the library... Thanks for the tips!

xx Viola

True story said...

Thanks for this post, from a Russian. :)

It seems I'm one of those few people who don't like Master and Margarita. I first read it at school and didn't like it, several years ago I gave it another try and still it just fell felt for me.

My favorite Russian poet (and writer) has to be Alexander Pushkin. He seems to always be overlooked by foreign readers. In Russia they call him "the sun of Russian poetry/literature" and if one has to compare him, it's with either Byron or Shakespeare. I don't like using such big words (somehow I always think of dictators when I read them), but nevertheless you fall in love with his words, when you read his works. Eugene Onegin is a masterpiece, such perfect rhyme and rhythm and it just strikes me every time. I haven't read any translations, so I'm not sure if it's as good when it's non-original, but if someone asks me about a Russian classic, it's always him I read recommend.

The famous trio, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Gogol, I don't know how I feel about them. The first two are dogmatic, I feel. I feel these 3 get too much exposure as compared to some other talented writers and their works.

Slightly less famous authors are Chekhov and Nabokov, I prefer their works. Less well known is Turgenev, he is very good.

julochka said...

true story, i'm so glad you wrote that!! i actually meant to say that i generally don't recommend chekhov because it's the one russian author people have generally read, but i got lost in M&M and forgot to write that. :-)

i probably should also have mentioned that i don't generally recommend pushkin because i'm not that keen on him myself...which i totally realize has more to do with me than with him. i'm just not much of a poetry person and i just find it all too FORMAL.

turgenev is ok, but second tier in my opinion...he gets a bit overshadowed by tolstoy (who needed an editor, frankly) and dostoevsky (i love his mania and that he wrote it all under extreme pressure).

i would have written my dissertation on andrei bitov, had i written one. but i think pushkin house is so linked to having read all of russian literature that i don't tend to recommend it....

hmm, it looks like i have another post to do about this one...

Jennifer said...

I am so happy to see your post! I ordered Master & Margarita yesterday and can't wait to start reading. Thank you again for your wonderful suggestions!!

McVal said...

LOL! That stretch of road IS pretty straight and boring...

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...

Hello Julie

Love this post! I love reading different literature--do you know any good British writers?

Have a good day(evening.

Best
Tracy :)

Kelly said...

Your blog is amazing.. and I thank yo... I check in with you like with an old friend... Wonderfully enlightening and affirming! Just had to say so you keep doing what you're doing...

Sammi said...

Thank you for this. It is something I was meaning to ask you about, and your recommendations shall go onto my goodreads list :)

d smith kaich jones said...

the brothers karamazov was required reading in a literature class i once took, and, as classes & required reading sometimes do, it sucked out any pleasure i may have found in the story. (i cannot read anything by dickens to this day for the same reason.) hearing it from you makes me rethink it - i still own the book; it's way way up on the tip top shelf in the hallway. i will mull it over.

:)

Pia K said...

i've always considered "crime and punishment" to be one of my favourite books, it's been quite a while since i last read it so perhaps i should put it to the test again... btw it was actually that book i left in copenhagen which then travelled with its finder to gdansk, london and brisbane:)

i studied russian in high school and then at university, sadly the teachers at uni were kind of crap (to be kind about it) and then i went with law instead. i remember it was pretty fantastic to read russian books in russian, it's such a beautiful, magical language! if you don't keep it up it slips away from you though, probably more than other languages within the latin alphabet.

myself i never got into "the master and margarita", i simply found it boring. it still resides in my book shelf though...