Sunday, April 22, 2012

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Pushkin, Pasternak, Platonov, Panova

Well, I’ve done the unthinkable twice today: first I posted a piece to the wrong blog, for which I apologize, now I’ve skipped the letters N (Н) and O in my “Favorite Russian Writers” series. I don’t mean to disappoint fans of Nabokov, Nekrasov, Odoevsky, or Okudzhava but I don’t have any real, true favorites among those letters… despite enjoying Nabokov’s Gogol and some of Ostrovsky’s plays. Beyond a dearth of N and O favorites, the letter P (П) is so much more fun that I’m happy to jump N and O…

The letter P, of course, has to start with Alexander Pushkin, who would be a favorite just for his Повести Белкина (Belkin Tales) (previous post) and the short story “Пиковая дама” (“Queen of Spades”). They get better for me with each rereading. And then there’s all the poetry…

Moving into the Soviet era, I can’t not mention Boris Pasternak, whose Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago) I read multiple times in grad school. Even if I didn’t enjoy Zhivago as much when I read it four years ago (previous post), I still have a deep sentimental attachment to my experiences (re)reading and talking about the book in school, trying to figure out the meaning of the rowan tree and gathering references to sources of light so I could write a paper. Plus there’s the Pasternak dacha, which I visited regularly when I lived in Moscow.

File:Andrei Platonov's grave, Moscow Armenian cemetery.jpg
Platonov's grave, Moscow. 
Then we have Andrei Platonov, whose “Возвращение” (“The Return”) is one of the most perfect short stories I’ve ever read. I think “Родина электричества” (“The Motherland of Electricity”) was my introduction to Platonov, though, followed by his difficult Котлован (The Foundation Pit) (previous post) and his wonderfully disorienting Ювенильное море (Juvenile Sea or Sea of Youth) (previous post). I think disorientation is what I love so much about Platonov: his word choices, word order, and word inventions create texts that jar me linguistically and emotionally. Platonov may be my favorite of these favorites. 

Another favorite is Vera Panova, whose novella Серёжа (translated as Seryozha and Time Walked and A Summer to Remember) is a beautiful account of a child’s life with his mother and new stepfather. My previous post generated lots of very enthusiastic comments from people who first read Seryozha in Tamil, Bengali, and other languages. I thought Panova’s Спутники, (The Train), about people who work on a hospital train during World War 2, was also very good.

Among contemporary writers, Zakhar Prilepin is probably my closest to a favorite, thanks to his Грех (Sin) and a few short stories that I also thought were very good; I enjoyed his political novel Санькя (San’kya) far less.

Bonus! Daniel Kalder, who writes a weekly column for RIA Novosti, sent the link to his interview with Russian critic Lev Danilkin; it’s in English. Danilkin mentions Prilepin and another P writer—Victor Pelevin—as popular, even naming Pelevin when asked “Who are the great authors of today?” I was particularly happy to see Danilkin mention books that discuss the October events of 1993… Enjoy!

Up next: Andrei Rubanov’s Жизнь удалась (All That Glitters, on his literary agency’s page). And more soon about Read Russia and BookExpo America… 

Photo: SreeBot, via Wikipedia


  1. Just curious: what have you read by Nabokov in Russian?

    1. That's a very fair question, languagehat... Let's just say I haven't made any progress since the last time this topic came up! Which means Король, дама, валет is still staring at me. (I did read some poetry long ago.)

  2. I would suggest you start with Защита Лужина, unless of course chess gives you hives.

    1. Thanks, Languagehat! Chess doesn't give me hives, though I haven't played since I was a child and don't remember much about the game. I see, though, that Nabokov said the book "contains and diffuses the greatest 'warmth'"... definitely a point in the book's favor!