Monday, June 29, 2009

Reading Russian Books at the Beach

Ah, the inevitable seasonal spate of summer book lists has arrived! This year they got me thinking about summer reading, beach reading, and, of course, fitting Russian novels into outdoor plans.

A brief aside before I get to the books. “Summer” is a fleeting concept here in Maine. Some people like to say “we have fall, we have winter, and we have fourth of July.” Our state slogan is “The way life should be,” but many people from away (i.e. anyone, including me, not born in Maine) say the thought of cold winters prevents them from contemplating a move here. We’ve had over seven inches of rain this June, another sure way to scare people off.

I’ve found that the trick to Maine summers is to maximize any warm, dry weather that falls my way. This is where Russian books come in. I love to go for short, mid-afternoon reading sessions at the beach, before the sun gets too low and the wind picks up. The beach is very close, but the windows of weather opportunity are often achingly short and unpredictable. Saturday, for example, was warmish and partly sunny with ground-level mist upon arrival but cold, windy, and completely fogged in at departure about an hour later.

As for the books themselves, not everything reads well at the beach for me, but I don’t believe beach fiction needs to be mindless. “Escapist,” though, isn’t always a bad descriptor: if a book absorbs all my attention, I certainly forget my surroundings even when the seagulls around me tussle for cold, sandy French fries. Paradoxically, I think the best part of reading at the beach is that the waves and weather, be it good or bad, make a perfect setting for truly relaxing and contemplating what I read.

One of my most memorable stretches of beach reading was a cool fall afternoon with the lunch scene in Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Один день Ивана Денисовича (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich). Lately I’ve been reading Vladimir Orlov’s Альтист Данилов (Danilov the Violist), which has a nice combination of humor, allegory, and demonology; and Il’ia Boiashov’s Танкист, или «Белый тигр» (The Tank Driver or “White Tiger”) worked well, too. Last summer’s reading included Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (The Foundation Pit) and Fedor Dostoevsky’s Бесы (The Devils or The Possessed), both of which were alternately fun and difficult, both on sand and at home.

Lest you think I am alone in suggesting Russian classics for summer or beach reading, please consider this: Jack Murnighan’s Beowulf on the Beach: What to Love and What to Skip in Literature’s 50 Greatest Hits (link to a summer reading challenge) includes analysis of six books from Russian writers. They are Evgenii Onegin, Crime and Punishment, The Brothers Karamazov, War and Peace, Anna Karenina, and Lolita. I think War and Peace and Anna Karenina would make particularly good beach reading, though I have to say it felt strange reading portions of three novellas I think of as the abstinence trilogy when surrounded at the beach by half-naked people I didn’t know.

Here are a few other suggestions for Russian fiction that’s absorbing, fun, and meaningful, too. I could list lots more but would rather see readers’ suggestions – please add yours in a comment!

-Aleksandr Pushkin’s Повести Белкина (The Belkin Tales) ~ genre fiction from way back.

-Ivan Turgenev’s novels, perhaps Отцы и дети (Fathers and Sons) or Рудин (Rudin) ~ Turgenev’s books often feature some light humor and ensemble casts that won’t keep you wondering who’s who.

-Valentin Kataev’s Белеет парус одинокий (A White Sail Gleams) ~ blends coming-of-age with socialist realism with adventure. (Bonus: Black Sea setting.)

-Vera Panova’s Серёжа (Seryozha) ~ a favorite about childhood.

-Vladimir Voinovich’s Private Chonkin novels ~ very funny Soviet-era satire.

-Boris Akunin’s Erast Fandorin novels ~ suspenseful, best-selling postmodern detective novels that draw on themes from Russian literature.

P.S. Hmm, The Guardian ran a summer reading list in which Simon Schama recommends Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s The Leopard, writing, in part, “There must be some people who when parked on a beach feel they should be in the permafrost with Ivan Denisovich, but I’m not one of them.”

Photo of a beach in Western Australia from Loojsan, via


  1. Hello, I just found your blog, I am also a fan of Russian literature and I hope you don't mind but I have a question to ask you. I recently inherited my grandfather's book collection, and among them were several books in russian; but one in particular caught my attention. It is one of the most visually appealing books I've ever seen, with a beautiful cover and lots of amazing photographs, all in all the book seems lovely, but unfortunately I can't read it or even know what it is about since I am only just beggining to learn the language. I think it's a poetry book, because of the format, but as I said I have no way of finding out. I searched on specialized bookstores for information but I found nothing. The book is from 1985.

    If you could just tell me what the title means : лeгла дорода в консманминово (I hope I wrote it right), and then maybe I could start my search for a translated version. Any help would be much appreciated.

    Thanks in advance :]

  2. This is evidently a book about Russian poet Sergei Esenin, who was born in Konstantinovo. S. Koshechkin compiled it and wrote an introduction. A literal translation of the title would be something like The Road Laid Down to Konstantinovo, meaning that the road goes to Konstantinovo... that sounds terrible, but I can't think of a good, equivalent English idiom right now!

    Based on searches, I don't believe the book has been translated into English; few books of this type are anyway. A library catalog entry that I found lists key phrases for the book that include: Russian literature, Soviet literature, photo book, recollections/memories, documents, archives. I suspect the poetry is probably Esenin's.

    Good luck!

  3. Thanks so much for your help! Indeed the book is a compilation of S. Yesenin's poems along with other documents, letters and imagery from his hometown and life. I haven't found a translated version yet, but I was able to find most of Yesenin's poems translated to english.

    Thanks again :]

  4. Oh, if I'd only found your blog before my own beach trip! I still enjoyed the book that I dragged along, Bulgakov's "Master and Margarita", but it was the English version. My first time reading that excellent novel; I'm driven to find an affordable copy of the Russian version for the winter break, and truly live!

    Great blog! I look forward to following it faithfully.

  5. Thank you for your kind words, Mister Estes. I'm glad to hear you enjoyed Master and Margarita at the beach! The language is lots of fun in Russian, so I'm sure a Russian rereading will make for an interesting winter break. I'm not sure where you live, but I buy a lot of my Russian books through -- many of their classics are particularly affordable. Happy reading!