Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Fiction for Revolution Day

Today's date felt suspiciously important when I wrote it, but it took a news report on to realize why: today is Revolution Day. Yes, indeed, that photo shows the old Soviet flag in front of the Russian Duma, as a prop for a "meeting" of 7,000 communists.

Revolution is one of the first things that foreigners think about when Russia is mentioned. But when I started to think about favorite books related to revolution, I struggled. Of course there's Boris Pasternak's Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago), one of my all-time favorites. It's easy to recommend on any day of the year.

I can also recommend Aleksandr Blok's atmospheric poem Двенадцать (The Twelve), which, like Zhivago, includes religious themes along with its political and ideological observations. The poem was written in January 1918, when the streets probably were as snowy and windy as the city the poem describes. Although Blok was generally considered sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, the violence of the poem -- and its ending -- makes one wonder. Part of my enjoyment of The Twelve is that I hear voices and rhythm when I read it: a theater from Arkhangel'sk performed this and several other poems in Portland during the early '90s.

My biggest difficulty with many novels (poetry is another matter) about revolution and revolutionaries is that their authors often focus most on making political points. The majority now read more as period pieces with historical importance or samples of ideology, than as art. That can make the books interesting to analyze, though they may not feel satisfying if you're looking for recreational reading. Keep that in mind as you read these descriptions!

Что делать? (What Is to Be Done?), by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. A dubious classic with the subtitle "Tales about New People". This book has taken a lot of abuse over the years because it's ideological, not literary: Chernyshevsky himself evidently admitted it wasn't very good. The book was on my graduate reading list, and I was saved by an abridged edition that I read through quickly -- sometimes the obviousness of political books makes them easy to read! This one also has a catchy title. Best of all, with modern technology, you can now download the Russian original onto your cell phone!

Мать (Mother), by Maksim Gorky. One of the quintessential Russian novels about revolutionaries. That doesn't mean it's good: I read the first half of this book, about a group of young revolutionaries who get help from a member's mother, and then couldn't go on. Here's what I wrote about it for a workshop last year:

Maxim Gorky’s “Mother” was so awful that I couldn’t even finish it as an example of Soviet-era kitsch. It holds moderate interest for its mixture of pre-revolutionary socialist propaganda and religious motifs, but it is inadequate to simply say that the characters are clichéd and the plot is predictable. The book itself is a work of determinism; my Russian friends have always complained about being forced to read it. I do recommend reading a portion of it to get a feel for what passed as “literature” during the Soviet period and to understand why many see Gor’kii as untalented. (I also did not enjoy his Childhood very much.)

Аэлита (Aelita)
by Aleksei Tolstoy. If revolution on the Red Planet -- yes, I do mean Mars -- is your thing, this is the book for you! It's a quirky classic that's not very well known outside Russia. Here's what I wrote about Aelita for my workshop:

What can be said about Aleksei Tolstoy’s “Aelita,” a book that describes a 1920s trip to Mars? This is a very strange piece of work that combines, among other things, science fiction (and the inevitable existentialist musings), an odd bit of socialist realism, giant spiders, and a love story. Although Tolstoy was a decent writer and the account of early space flight is entertaining – a matter of days from Earth to Mars? -- I found the book rather sloppy. Adapted into a silent film, Aelita, Queen of Mars, available on NetFlix. For his efforts, Tolstoi has a crater on Mars named after him.

Воскресение (Resurrection), by Lev Tolstoy. This last of Tolstoy’s major novels is a medium-length (400+ pages) book that looks at how a man reacts when a woman he seduced years ago has trouble with the law. Revolutionaries come into the last third of the book, though I won't say how... Although much here is fairly obvious, the book should be particularly interesting to people who have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina – you’ll see some stylistic differences and notice some common themes. Tolstoy sold the book earlier than he might have wanted to because he wanted to give money to a religious sect that he supported. The book evidently caused quite a ruckus in Russia because of its scathing portrayals of the legal system and clergy.

Конармия (Red Cavalry),
by Isaac Babel. I definitely can't say I enjoyed these short stories by Babel: I read them because I had to, and I found their violence quite difficult to take. That said, many hold them in high regard, and it's tough not to have a certain respect for a Jewish writer who rode with Cossacks during the revolution. Lionel Trilling's introduction to my old edition (New American Library, 1955, pg. 11) of Babel stories includes this line: "It was impossible not to be overcome with admiration for Red Cavalry, but it was not at all the sort of book that I had wanted the culture of the Revolution to give me."

Two other books: Тихий Дон (And Quiet Flows the Don), by Mikhail Sholokhov, also looks at Cossacks; it helped win Sholokhov a Nobel Prize. Not a favorite from my grad school reading list, perhaps in part because my edition was blurbed by Maksim Gorky, who compared it to War and Peace. (No comment there.) There is also Бесы (The Possessed), by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which might be described as a psychological sketch of revolutionaries. This is one that I've been meaning to reread for years. It has gotten a lot of attention in recent years because of its parallels to 21st-century terrorism.

Edit: I neglected to mention a favorite title: Valentin Kataev's Белеет парус одинокий (A White Sail Gleams). This is a quirky book because it mixes ideology with coming of age as it looks at the 1905 revolution and two boys in Odessa. A friend who read it in childhood lent it to me, and I enjoyed it, too. And another: Nikolai Ostrovskii's Как закалялась сталь (How the Steel Was Tempered) is a classic socialist realist novel that fictionalizes Ostrovskii's own experiences fighting in the Civil War and later becoming blind and paralyzed. I don't know how I could forget that one, either!

For more ideas on books about revolution, be sure to visit SovLit -- they specialize in this stuff and have lots of background material to help you get the most out of your reading!


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