Friday, November 9, 2007

Reading Russian Classics Needn't Be Painful!

Who would have thought that the novel no high school student has ever finished reading would make such engrossing theater?
-"Dostoevsky's Homicidal Student, the 90-Minute Version," The New York Times, November 9, 2007

Maybe I should demand a correction from Times: I did finish Crime and Punishment in high school. Trust me, I do have a sense of humor, but sometimes it gets tedious to read hyperbolic references to Russian literature in the mainstream press... Nobody has ever finished Crime and Punishment before retirement!... War and Peace, that Everest of novels, has littered the path to enlightenment with oxygen-deprived bodies for over a century!

So what's the problem? Russian lit just needs some better P.R. Yes, many Russian novels are quite long, and many have portentous titles. For me, that's a big part of their appeal. If I like a book, I don't want it to end. And what good is a book if it doesn't consider something serious, whether through comedy or tragedy?

In truth, when you reduce most novels -- from Danielle Steele to Dennis Lehane to Dostoevsky -- down to bare motifs, most turn out to address life, love, and death, with a few subplots thrown in. One Russian theorist, Vladimir Propp, analyzed fairy tales and found only 31 basic plot turns and 8 characters. Take a look, and you'll find that many of Propp's functions apply to literature for adults, too.

Joking that Russian novels are all long and boring might score easy laughs for journalists and readers who haven't touched the books, but there are plenty of relatively simple ways to make even the longest novels more accessible:

Start Short. Sometimes a big masterpiece isn't the best introduction to a writer, particularly if you're not taking a college class. Read something smaller -- a short story or novella -- but well-regarded first to get a feel for the author's views and styles. Then work up to the doorstops. For example:

Pushkin: Try Повести Белкина (The Belkin Tales) before Евгений Онегин (Eugene Onegin). The Belkin stories may be prose to Onegin's poetry, but they're short, very enjoyable, and an important part of Russian literary history.

Dostoevsky: Try the shorter, romantic Белые ночи (White Nights) or spite-laden Записки из подполья (Notes from Undergound) before Crime and Punishment or The Brothers K. These novellas show different sides of Dostoevsky's psychological approach to fiction.

Tolstoy: Novellas like Хаджи Мурат (Khadzhi Murat) and Казаки (The Cossacks) show a lot about Tolstoy's philosophical views, including what happens when cultures come together.

Don't Panic about Russian Names. Some translations of novels include lists of characters, along with nicknames. Make your own if the book doesn't have one. If you want to learn a little more about Russian names, you might want to read this PDF handout that I wrote. You might also like this fairly lengthy list of diminutive forms (nicknames).

See the Mini-Series or Movie. I love to imagine scenes when I read, but sometimes seeing them illuminates meaning: my high school English teacher helped us through Crime and Punishment by showing a PBS mini-series. And even after reading Master and Margarita twice, it took watching the Russian mini-series adaptation for me to truly grasp the horror of what Bulgakov wrote about Satan's ball.

Read the Introduction. Yes, I often skip author bios and introductions, too. But even my small Signet Classic paperback edition of Crime and Punishment from high school includes concise information that illuminates what happens in the book. Background on Dostoevsky mentions his commuted death sentence and philosophy, and the translator's introduction notes the roots of many of the characters' names.

Find It in Translation. Literary translation requires endless decisions, so results vary a lot. Should the translator divide long sentences? Repeat the repetition of the original? Test read the first few pages of different translations to see what fits your taste. If you compare translations of Dostoevsky, you are likely to see that some translators feel compelled to simplify his writing. English and American editions may differ greatly, too.

In the end, any translation is a compromise -- most people would read originals, not translations, if they could -- so find whatever will keep you reading. Don't worry if the translation with the best reviews feels worse to you than an older or cheaper version with no blurbs. Take what you will enjoy: even if that version is a little further from the original than another, you're still much closer to the author's message than if you hadn't read the book at all.

Some recommended listings mentioned in this posting:
Crime and Punishment
The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin
The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky (Modern Library)
The Cossacks and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)


  1. Excellent post. Thought you might be interested in this list of classic Russian novels.

  2. So true. Tolstoy's shorter masterpieces somehow seem to get lost in the shadows of W&P and Anna Karenina, at least in the US.

  3. Thanks for your comments! You're right, Amateur Reader, about the emphasis on big books in the US. Novellas are often forgotten, but I love them, perhaps because Russian writers, including Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, have written so many to enjoy.

    Michael's classics list mentions Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Il'ich," a helpful companion to "War and Peace." Michael also lists Gogol's fantastically disturbing short story, "Diary of a Madman"... reading that together with Dostoevsky's novella "The Double," which echoes throughout Russian literature, could be a distinctly odd and unsettling experience.