Showing posts with label Russian Reading Challenge. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Russian Reading Challenge. Show all posts

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Russian Reading Challenge 4: Gogol Potpourri

I began and ended the Russian Reading Challenge with Nikolai Gogol, taking the year to work my way through short stories in Beчера на хуторе близ Диканьки (Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka) and Миргород (Mirgorod). I finished with the play Ревизор (The Government Inspector/The Inspector General).

The stories in Dikanka and Mirgorod, which focus on Ukrainian country life, are of very mixed quality and genre. The Dikanka stories were particularly painful reading for me, though I did finish them. My composite recollections from early 2008 include numerous bops over the head, deceptions, people hiding in hay, and, of course, devils and unclean forces.

I didn’t especially enjoy the stories, though there were some occasional nice passages. A description of the Dnepr in the gothic “Страшная месть” (“The Terrible Vengeance”) for example, is rather poetic, and bits of Майская ночь, или Утопленница (“A May Night or the Drowned Maiden”), which included witches, reminded me a bit of Master and Margarita. Many of the stories in these two collections showed двоеверие, dual belief, a combination of religious and pagan traditions. “Вий” (“The Viy”), a story in Mirgorod, is a sort of ghost story involving a seminary student and a shapeshifting, flying witch.

I wondered why I didn’t find much amusement in Dikanka, which D.S. Mirsky describes in A History of Russian Literature as simple and unadulterated fun. Feeling lost and humorless, I appealed to Vladimir Nabokov, via his book Nikolai Gogol. I was relieved to find I had company. Nabokov is scathing: 

“There is nothing more dull and sickening to my taste than romantic folklore or rollicking yarns about lumberjacks or Yorkshiremen or French villagers or Ukrainian good companions. It is for this reason that the two volumes of the Evenings as well as the two volumes of stories entitled Mirgorod… which followed in 1835, leave me completely indifferent. It was however this kind of stuff, the juvenilia of the false humorist Gogol, that teachers in Russian schools crammed down a fellow’s throat.” (page 31)

I was able to find laughs in “Повесть о том, как поссорился Иван Иванович с Иваном Никифоровичем” (“How Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich Quarrelled”). I thought this story was the best of the two collections, with its humorous picture of how small-town neighbors feud for years after an argument that involves a silly insult and wishful thinking about gun ownership. You lawyers out there will be happy to know the Ivans decide to sue.

Gogol balances his humor, though, with a devastating final paragraph that includes mud, dampness, and one of the most quoted lines (in my experience, anyway) in Russian literature: “Скучно на этом свете, господа!” The line is not easy to translate because the word скучно combines boring and dreary. But here’s a go: “It’s tedious on this world, gentlemen!” And really, what could be more tedious/boring/dreary than two neighbors hating each other for years because of trivialities and name-calling?

As for the rest of Mirgorod, I admit I couldn’t make my way through “Старосветские помещики” (“Old World Landowners”) despite multiple attempts. I read the novella Тарас Бульба (Taras Bulba), about warring Cossacks, several years ago, so didn’t include it in this RRC selection.

I’m very happy I finished my Gogol reading with The Government Inspector, which includes a wonderful combination of slapstickish humor and observations about human nature and identity. The basic plot: rumor has it that a guest at the local inn is an inspector so townspeople look for ways to impress him.

Nabokov makes much of ghost-like characters in The Inspector General who create a rich social backdrop despite never appearing onstage other than as topics of conversation for the townspeople. Of course the play’s characters, many of whom have very funny names that reflect their personalities and frailties, are terribly unreliable and imaginative narrators, particularly when they talk about themselves. Khlestakov, the alleged inspector, for example, reinvents himself completely in conversation, and most of the other characters also show tremendous vanity in creating new narratives for themselves.

The play contains some strong elements of carnival, with plenty of chaos, masks, and changes in the power structure for characters of varied social strata. It seems to me that the final scene, in which the actors freeze for a minute and a half, is Gogol’s way of forcing spectators to, literally, look at his characters and recognize bits of themselves.

Even if I didn’t much enjoy the Dikanka stories, I’m glad I read them: I got a better feel for the variations in Gogol’s writing and the influence he exerts on Russian literature. I’ve been familiar with The Inspector General for years, having read pieces of it and seeing it performed, so was glad to finally fill in a big hole in my Russian reading.

Thank you, Sharon, for creating the Russian Reading Challenge


Saturday, August 30, 2008

World War 2, Life, Fate, and Spiritual Entropy

I’m sure my experience reading Vasilii (Vasily) Grossman’s Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) differs significantly from the experiences of other readers: Life and Fate is so long and complex that I suspect most people, particularly first-time readers, come away with messages that reflect the portions of the book they relate to most.

This 900-page epic about the World War 2 era in the USSR was unpublishable when Grossman attempted to submit it in the early 1960s. It did not reach Soviet readers until perestroika. Life and Fate includes dozens of characters, military and civilian, free and imprisoned, Soviet and German, and Grossman draws dangerous parallels between two oppressive systems. Many characters fight for the city of Stalingrad. Others are physicists. Others are held in the Lubyanka prison or German concentration camps.

Sometimes Life and Fate felt so sprawling or crowded that I thought Grossman should have written several novels instead of trying to force all his people and ideas into one book. But there is a nucleus: the Jewish physicist Viktor Shtrum, who struggles with “spiritual entropy” as Soviet science and society become increasingly politicized. Viktor and his wife Liudmila connect, with various degrees of separation, to most of the novel’s other characters through family ties.

Although I wish my Russian edition of the novel had contained a list of characters and settings, as the English translation evidently provides, I found that relaxing and accepting my commitment to read – and enjoy! – Life and Fate through the Russian Reading Challenge worked at least as well. Rather than obsessing over all the character names and traits, I focused on the people and subplots that interested me most.

There is plenty to choose from. Most passages in Life and Fate describe events in the lives of characters, but Grossman also includes an essay on war. A few chapters lack characters and feel more like journalistic pieces, reflecting Grossman’s background as a war reporter. Grossman’s writing style is generally straightforward and simple, though he occasionally hits what felt to me like off notes with gratuitous references to, for example, Avogadro’s number and certain works of Russian literature.

Life and Fate is often compared with War and Peace, and these long, loose books have obvious formal similarities. But what struck me more was the authors’ common emphasis on individuals: Grossman, for example, focuses on humanity by looking at the individuals who make up the Soviet and German military... and those who become victims of the Soviet GULag and German concentration camps.

This theme leads to the book’s best scenes, some of the most moving I’ve read in years: a letter from a doomed woman to her son (Part 1, chapter 18), an account of being led to death in a gas chamber (Part 2, chapters 45-50), and a scene of encircled German troops at Christmas (Part 3, chapter 36-37). I recommend these scenes highly to all readers, whether or not they read the entire book.

Shtrum’s spiritual entropy and intense loneliness as he struggles with his own moral decisions and fate as a theoretical scientist left an overwhelming impression, too. Observing the effects of fear, acceptance, and relief on his actions was not easy – these sections centering around the egocentric Shtrum were both emotional and a little drawn-out – but I added more depth to my readings of the psychology of professional and personal survival during the Stalin era.

My overall feelings about Life and Fate are mixed: in spite of some beautifully composed scenes and interesting characters, the hundreds of chapters don’t always quite hold together, and some characters inevitably felt a little stereotypical or unnuanced.

Despite its minor imperfections – which are hardly surprising for a novel of the bulk and scope of Life and Fate – Grossman’s descriptions felt so immediate that I often had trouble putting the book down to cook dinner or go to sleep. And I enjoyed considering the many painful ideas the book presented, particularly the politicization of the Soviet military and society, and the accompanying moral dilemmas for people who wanted to be good citizens but think for themselves, even during wartime.

Life and Fate deserves respect, attention, and readers. It addresses questions of freedom, morals, and politics that – as recent news shows – still burn today. If you decide to read Life and Fate, I suggest finding an edition with a list of characters… and then choosing a few people or plot lines to specialize in if the book threatens to overwhelm you. It’s worth the time and the effort, and you may, as I do, feel that you’ll want to read it again some day so you can learn more.

Summary: I highly recommend Life and Fate to readers interested in totalitarianism, the World War 2 era in the Soviet Union, and moral decisions. Although the novel sometimes feels overloaded with places and characters, some of whom flit in and out of the narrative, I appreciate the care with which Grossman describes people and their situations.

For further reading:

Robert Chandlers’s introduction to his translation of Life and Fate

Review of Life and Fate in London Review of Books

“Under Siege,” by Keith Gessen, from The New Yorker

Life and Fate on Wikipedia (includes summaries)

Short stories translated by Andrew Glikin-Guskinsky, winner of the 2007 Pushkin Poetry Prize for Translation, are available on Sovlit.com: “The Resident” “In the Country” “A Tale About Happiness” “In the War”

“In the Main Line of Attack” is anonymously translated nonfiction, by Grossman, about Stalingrad.

Life and Fate on Amazon.com

(Cross-posted on
Russian Reading Challenge.)

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Dostoevsky's "The Possessed"

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Бесы (translated either as The Possessed or The Devils) is my first completed book for the Russian Reading Challenge. The Possessed is, at various times, fast-paced, laugh-out-loud funny, suspenseful, very loud, heavily psychological, and a little slow. I tested it out as beach reading – it’s the season here in Maine – and found it’s best on a cold, windy day when you have a thick towel to wrap around yourself.

Here’s a short summary of The Possessed: a circle of would-be revolutionaries wreaks havoc in the Russian provinces. Dostoevsky being Dostoevsky, and the book being 600 pages long, things are far more complicated. There are numerous subplots concerning love, murder, atheism, and provincial society.

My feelings about the book are mixed. I loved the narrator’s slightly sardonic voice and how he filtered the distinct voices of many other characters. Both Verkhovenskiis are well-drawn, and it is interesting to watch certain characters hold power over others. The book feels very prophetic because the activists place themselves higher than laws. They also bumble in some of Dostoevsky’s more satirical passages: their disorganized meeting is hilarious, and they can be quite vain. One cell member loves to mooch food.

The Possessed, for me, had as many low points as high points. The book first appeared in serial form, which may account for certain technical inconsistencies. Introductions to characters took dozens of pages, and many of their supposed intrigues were, for me, boring, too hysterical, and lengthy. (FWIW, I was glad to learn that Nabokov didn’t like that material much, either.) By contrast, several (but not all!) deaths occur so quickly that you could almost miss – or mistake – them by blinking. I’m also not partial to religious epiphanies at novel’s end.

Despite all that, I’m glad I finally got around to reading and finishing The Possessed after having been required to read only excerpts in a college course about Russian history in literature. Although I wondered back then what I was missing – but had little time to wonder much since War and Peace and Fathers and Sons, among others, was also on the syllabus – I now understand my professors’ wisdom. The most famous Possessed passages about people, God, morals, and ideology can be read and understood apart from the hundreds of pages about society parties and love.

Still, most everything in The Possessed does link together – the revolutionaries think they can effect change by destabilizing high society – and it’s interesting to watch Dostoevsky juggle a huge cast of people, ideas, and literary techniques. Even if the result is a bit messy or murky, there should be something of interest to most readers.

Cross-posted at Russian Reading Challenge.

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Russian Reading Challenge 2008

Are there four Russian novels, plays, story collections, or other books that you've always meant to read but never found time for? I'm sure there are! 2008 is your year.

The Russian Reading Challenge 2008 blog encourages visitors to read four Russian-related books between January 1 and December 31, 2008. The best part about the challenge format is that nobody will be alone -- dozens of participants should mean lots of discussion.

I'm going to use the Challenge as a way to assuage my guilt about missing these classics for too long:

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Бесы (The Possessed)

Nikolai Gogol’s Ревизор (Inspector General) plus stories I haven’t read in Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки (Village Evenings near Dikanka -- not the video game!) and Миргород (Mirgorod)

Vasilii Grossman’s Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate)

Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (Foundation Pit) or, as a backup, Ювенильное море (Juvenile Sea)

For now I'm reading and enjoying Sergei Dovlatov's Компромисс (The Compromise), a very funny-but-sad autobiographical novel about working as a journalist in Soviet Estonia. A friend lent me four volumes of Dovlatov -- t0 be sure I'd find something I liked! -- and I may be reading it all cover-to-cover if everything is this good.