Thursday, May 14, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Gogol’ and Gippius

The Russian letter Г – G in the Roman alphabet – is a gigantic, gleaming gem for Russian writer names. (Sorry!) I have nearly a full shelf of G-authored books, so it’s not easy to choose two favorite writers:

Nikolai Gogol’ would have made it to my favorites list for just two stories: “Шинель (“The Overcoat”) (previous post) and “Дневник сумашедшего” (“Diary of a Madman”). But I also love “Нос” (“The Nose”), an absurd story about a huge nose walking the streets of Saint Petersburg. And then there is the wonderful humor of Ревизор (The Government Inspector) and the devastatingly sad last paragraph of “Повесть о том, как поссорился Иван Иванович с Иваном Никифоровичем” (“How Ivan Ivanovich and Ivan Nikiforovich Quarrelled”), which I mentioned in my “Gogol' Potpourri” post in December.

Zinaida Gippius is a sentimental favorite: I owe my first true enjoyment of Russian poetry to Gippius, a Russian symbolist who wrote poetry and prose. (Her name is sometimes rendered “Hippius” in Roman letters.) The simplicity of Gippius’s language made it easy to grasp both the words and the meanings of what she wrote, and her combination of metaphysics, eroticism, and a Silver Age guest list fascinated me. I haven’t read her in years but have some nice collections of her poems, stories, novellas, and reminiscences of writers to work on. 

The G-List for Future Reading: I’m especially looking forward to reading Irina Grekova’s Свежо предание (roughly, The Legend Is Fresh) after a friend told me how much she enjoyed Grekova. The name of the book comes from a line Свежо предание, а верится с трудом” (“The legend/lore is fresh but difficult to believe”) – written by another G writer, Aleksandr Griboedov. The line is from his classic play Горе от ума (Woe from Wit), which I read years ago in school though, honestly, I don’t remember much other than a favorable impression. It’s short, funny, and on the reread shelf. It’s filled with classic lines like “злые языки страшнее пистолетов” (“sharp tongues are scarier than pistols”), which I heard just the other day on a Russian soap opera.

Nikolai Gumilev is a poet and playwright whom I’ve always admired but have ignored for too long, and Gogol’s Dead Souls has been up for a Russian reread for at least three or four seasons. I liked it fine when I read it (in translation) in school but I was in so much of a rush to read a huge list of books and poems that I didn’t have a chance to truly enjoy or grasp it. I’m not sure why I’m afraid to start it, particularly since it’s only about 200 pages long!

After enjoying Arkadii Gaidar’s creepy “Судьба барабанщика” (“The Fate of the Drummer”) I’d also like to read more of Gaidar, who seems to have countless Russian schools named after him (previous post mentioning “Drummer”). As for Gippius, I’m particularly interested in Чертова кукла (The Devil’s Doll), a novella that allegedly shares themes with Dostoevsky’s Бесы (The Devils or The Possessed, pick your Satanist poison).

(1914 Gippius photo by Karl Bulla)

Gogol on Amazon

Gippius on Amazon or Hippius on Amazon

Griboedov on Amazon

Grekova on Amazon

Arkady Gaidar on Amazon or Arkadii Gaidar on Amazon


  1. I wrote about Gaidar and his pseudonym here (there's a link to his story "Р.В.С.," which I recommend if you like good war stories). Definitely read Dead Souls in Russian (which I did a few years ago; see this post) -- the original language makes a huge difference (and really half the appeal of the novel is G's use of Russian).

    Other G's: Всеволод Гаршин (his «Четыре дня» is probably the single most famous war story in Russian, and well worth reading), Gertsen/Herzen of course (I've only dipped into Былое и Думы, but everything I've read has been wonderful), Goncharov (haven't read Обломов in Russian yet, but I loved it in English), Gorky (haven't read him), and Apollon Grigoryev, a remarkable critic who wrote some fine poetry and an autobiography that I've only read in English as My Literary and Moral Wanderings.

  2. Oh, and then there's Александр Грин, author of the famous story «Алые паруса», and the memoirist Евгения Гинзбург (mother of Василий Аксёнов). A rich letter indeed!

  3. Thanks, Languagehat,

    Yes, there are far too many Г writers to mention!

    Thanks for linking to your Gaidar and Dead Souls posts. I knew Gaidar was a pseudonym but had never paid much attention to why. I think part of my avoidance of Dead Souls is that it's the longest work in my very thick Gogol collection so I have the (mistaken) impression that it's about the length of Anna Karenina!

    Обломов (Oblomov) is one I sometimes think about rereading, in Russian this time. I always find those superfluous men rather inspirational.

    Now that you mention Garshin... I remember reading his "Красный цветок" ("The Red Flower") years ago; it's often anthologized. Gorky is definitely not a favorite! I struggled through Детство (Childhood) for my comps list and later couldn't finish Мать ("Mother"). A Russian friend gave me an oldish edition from childhood as a Soviet-era relic... As you can tell, I'm not too enthusiastic about Gorky.

  4. I thought of another one last night as I was lying in bed unable to sleep: Леонид Гиршович, a musician and writer whose Суббота навсегда I have but haven't read yet (I wrote about it here).

    Thanks for giving me a reason to put off reading Gorky!

  5. A belated G-thought, Languagehat: Fedor Gladkov's Цемент, which I also read for my exams years ago. I found it much more readable than Gorky!

  6. Don't give up on Gorky until you've read "The Lower Depths" ("На дне").

    Gorky isn't read much any longer and personally, I find Dmitriy Bykov's valiant attempts to restore his critical reputation rather pointless, but "The Lower Depths" still remains required reading in schools and it's much more meaningful & readable than most of his later work, which, in my opinion, boils down to Socialist propaganda.

  7. Alex,

    That's very interesting about Bykov and Gorky... I'll have to look it up.

    I've never read The Lower Depths (a bit of a hole!) but I would particularly like to see it on stage.

  8. Alex: What do you think about Gorky's autobiography?