Sunday, November 23, 2008

Post-1917 Top Fiction Hits of Russian Literature: A Very Biased Russian Lit Reading List

Choosing a list of top hits from post-1917 Russian fiction falls into the “herding cats” category. Genuine hits are elusive, thanks to official cultural ideology during the Soviet era. Then there’s the fact that the time period under consideration began less than a century ago, meaning it’s tough to know what will be considered classics in another hundred years.

So... This list includes prose popular among readers (Russian and otherwise) and books that reflect certain tendencies or trends in fiction after 1917. Like them or not, I’ve made sure to include books involving Soviet-era repression, socialist realism, satire, World War 2, and absurdity. Like the Top Ten list of pre-revolutionary books (here), these are the books I’d want to teach in a survey course.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. I wrote about Один день Ивана Денисовича (One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) and its popularity in this previous post. I respect One Day but have always had more affinity for two of Solzhenitsyn’s longer novels: В круге первом (The First Circle) and Раковый корпус (Cancer Ward), which Barack Obama also lists as a favorite. Another thought: Varlam Shalamov’s acclaimed short-short stories, such as Колымские рассказы (Kolyma Tales), are also about prison camps.

Mikhail Bulgakov. Мастер и Маргарита (Master and Margarita) is often referred to as a cult favorite, but I think its popularity is too broad to fit the term. I’ve enjoyed the novel twice, though I admit my indifference (or sleepiness?) in Sunday school means I enjoy the Soviet-era scenes much more than scenes with Pontius Pilate. Others: I am a bigger fan of Bulgakov’s novella Собачье сердце (Heart of a Dog). Bulgakov’s play Иван Васильевич (Ivan Vasilyevich) is a modern classic for its adaptation to film. (Previous post: Mikhail Bulgakov and Ivan Vasilyevich.)

Isaak Babel’. I struggled with Babel’s Конармия (Red Cavalry) when I read it in grad school because of the brutality of certain scenes, so I would probably choose some of Babel’s atmospheric stories about Odessa.

Il’f and Petrov. Двенадцать стульев (The Twelve Chairs) is a classic satirical novel of the early Soviet era that I am ashamed to have never finished, despite beginning and loving it twice… it’s laugh-out-loud funny, and I wonder if maybe I’m afraid to finish it.

Vladimir Voinovich. No list of Soviet-era fiction would be complete without Voinovich’s satirical Private Chonkin books. It seems they’re going out of fashion – they’re very popular among readers my age and older. When I lent them to several readers who are, uhm, considerably younger than I who had never heard of Chonkin, they also loved them.

Boris Pasternak. Doctor Zhivago, about a doctor in early Soviet Russia and the consequences of the revolution, is unavoidable for the list, thanks to David Lean’s movie adaptation and Pasternak’s Nobel Prize. It is, indeed, an interesting book for contemplation and analysis, though not an easy one to read. (Why? Previous post here)

Socialist Realism. Although you might not want to spend money on any of these books, I think it’s important to read a bit of socialist realism to get a feel for how propaganda was forced into a new genre of fiction during the Soviet period. Ubiquitous books included Nikolai Ostrovskii’s Как закалялась сталь (How the Steel Was Tempered) and Maksim Gorkii’s Мать (Mother), which is misfiled here because it was written before the revolution. My recommendations would be either Fedor Gladkov’s Цемент (Cement) or Valentin Kataev’s Время, вперёд! (Time, Forward!).

Daniil Kharms. Though Kharms may not have mass appeal, I can’t leave him and absurdity, a crucial part of Soviet culture, off the list. My personal favorite is “Старушка” (“The Old Lady”).

Anatolii Rybakov. I like Rybakov’s straightforward writing in Дети Арбата (Children of the Arbat), which looks at how the Stalinist terror affected regular people. Friends who’ve read it in Russian seem to like it much better than friends who’ve read it in English, leading me to suspect the stylistic simplicity doesn’t translate well. The first book of the trilogy is best.

Andrei Platonov. Platonov’s Котлаван (The Foundation Pit) is a tough bit of fiction to read, thanks to a blend of neologisms and cultural references, but it’s important as a counterpoint to socialist realism (see above) and as a linguistic experiment. (Previous post here) My favorite Platonov so far: “Возвращение” (“The Return”), about a World War 2 soldier coming home.

Vasilii Grossman. I get the impression that Grossman’s Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate) is a bigger hit in translation than in Russia. It’s a very good, sprawling novel about World War 2 in the Soviet Union. (Previous post here)

Post-Soviet. I think it’s important to include something post-Soviet on the list, too, despite a complete lack of historical perspective. I don’t especially like Vladimir Sorokin’s manipulative Лёд (Ice) or Tat’iana Tolstaia’s primer-like Кысь (The Slynx), but both are post-modern novels available in translation that have earned followings. I’m more partial to Vladimir Makanin’s quieter Лаз (Escape Hatch) (previous post here) because I admire the philosophical depth of his simple prose; his Стол, покрытый сукном и с графином в середине (Baize-Covered Table with Decanter) won the Russian Booker and is probably his best-known book in the U.S.

Finally, the biggest literary writing hit of the post-Soviet era thus far is probably Liudmila Ulitskaia, whose engrossing Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator), about religion, World War 2, and humane behavior, is one of the best books I’ve read in years (previous post here). I don’t know when (or if) it will be available in English.

The Nabokov Question.
There’s no Nabokov on this list because he is, for me, as they say in Russian, тёмный лес, a dark forest. I don’t know my way around. I’d love readers’ suggestions of favorite Nabokov books originally written in Russian... 

Edit: P.S. The more I think about it, the more I want to include Andrei Belyi’s Petersburg in one of these hit lists. It was originally published before the revolution, then revised after, so it could go on either one. I also forgot to include an old favorite, Evgenii Zamiatin’s Мы (We). These lists just keep getting bigger! 

Photo: nkzs on stock.xchng


  1. Ah, The Gift, I love The Gift. For the Chenyshevsky chapter alone. A wonderful book.

    Thanks again for the list; at some point I'm going to publicize it over at WE.

  2. Master and Margerita is one of my favourite book ever! I can compare it to One hundred years of solitude by Marquez. It's the same quality for me.

  3. Thanks to both of you for your comments!

    AR: You're very welcome for the list. I appreciate your mention of The Gift... may it serve as a catalyst! I have a copy of The Gift but have never been able to get into it. A Russian friend suggested King, Queen, Knave as a good first foray into Nabokov's Russian works, so maybe I'll aim for those two.

    Macieklew, I, too, enjoy Master and Margarita a lot. I love Bulgakov's ability to combine humor and horror.

  4. What a great list, Lisa. The more books by Russian writers I read, the more partial I am becoming to twentieth century writers instead of the traditional great ones, though I tend to enjoy them as well.

    Your list makes me want to reread quite a few books, I'll have to got through my library in Holland to bring back with me some to Yerevan. I have Makanin, Ulitskaya and Pasternak there for sure, I must read some more of Solzhenitsyn. But I do have Master and Margharita with me in Yerevan. Too bad my hardcover translation of the complete and annotated Kolyma Tales in Dutch is definitely too heavy to take with me.

  5. Thank you for the note, Myrthe,

    Writing the list made me want to do a good bit of rereading, too... I pulled a few books up onto the "To Read" shelf.

    It's funny that you mention your partiality to 20th-century writers. I think my overall preference is also probably for books written from, say, Chekhov on... but some of my all-time favorites (War and Peace or "The Overcoat") were written earlier. A lot depends on my mood... I'm lucky there is so much variety in Russian fiction!


  6. Thanks for the list :)

    I would add my personal favourite which is Bely's Petersburg.

    As for Nabokov in Russian...there's Kamera Obscura and Korol', Dama, Valet...

    If you read one of them, I hope you post about it - it would be interesting to hear what you think about it. I adore Nabokov, but I think I like his works in English more. I don't know why.

  7. Thank you for the comment, Cat! Your comments area also a great reminder to look at your blog and photos -- they're beautiful!

    Petersburg fell between the two lists because it was first published before the revolution and then revised in the '20s... looking back, I think I should have made the first list 11 books so I could include it. I just realized I forgot Zamiatin's We, so I'm going to add an edit to this list.

    Thank you very much for the Nabokov recommendation. I will definitely start my Russian Nabokov reading with Король, дама, валет (King, Queen, Knave... you are the second person to recommend it, so I think that's a sign...

    As for English-language Nabokov, I thoroughly enjoyed Pnin and Lolita, though I couldn't read the Russian version of Lolita. It just didn't feel right, and the diminutives made me cringe. I'll try it again someday... for me, sometimes a different mood is the difference between disliking a book and loving it.


  8. Lisa, what about Serguei Dovlatov (or shouldn't he be included within this category)? I really enjoyed "Suitcase". I wrote something about it in (unfortunately, in Spanish).

    I do agree about Nabokov's Pnin, such a hilarious and compassionate nouvelle.

  9. Thank you for your question, Pirata Jenny. If I were to compile this list now, I would definitely consider including Dovlatov, though I think I'd be more likely to put him on a list of personal favorites... and my favorite, so far, is definitely The Compromise!

  10. Not as well-versed with 20th Century Russian writers in contrast to the 19th Century Russian masters although Bulgakov's Master and Margarita is one my favorite novels. But I'm interested in reading the socialist realists soon, particularly Gorky's lengthier works.

    1. Thanks for checking in on this list, karlomongaya! I think it's harder to have a good feel for the twentieth-century writers, perhaps because of the inherent official/unofficial dichotomy. I've always been fascinated by socialist realism: both the history and the genre standards interest me. (I have a feeling that if I'd stayed in grad school I would have found a way to write my dissertation on sentimentalism, which I also loved, and socialist realism...)

  11. Thank you for this list and for your love to Russian Literature and sorry for my english :( I strongly recommend to include in this list russian fantastic writers for example The brothers Strugatsky (Братья Стругацкие)

    1. Thank you for your comment, Tolik Ekim! You're right that the Strugatskys should probably be on any twentieth-century list like this, particularly since many of their titles have been translated into English. I'm not quite sure what book might be best to include. Maybe Hard to Be God or Monday Begins on Saturday or Roadside Picnic, all of which seem to get mentioned a lot? I've never been very successful at getting into the Strugatskys, though I'm planning another attempt at them.)))