Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Dostoevsky (+Dovlatov and Dal’)

Fyodor Mikhailovich, it had to be you! Dostoevsky didn’t became my letter D favorite by default, but the pool of Russian D-writers is so small and Dostoevsky is so worth reading (and rereading) that deliberations were quick and easy.

Dostoevsky and I have been acquainted since my senior year of high school, when my English class read Преступление и наказание (Crime and Punishment). (mentioned in this previous post) Though I haven’t reread C&P since, I feel like it’s always with me because its characters and themes are so ingrained in Russian culture that they seem to pop up in every soapy TV series I watch to keep from falling off the treadmill.

I’ve long recommended two all-time Dostoevsky favorites to anyone interested in Russia or Russian literature: Записки из подполья (Notes from the Underground) and “Легенда великого инквизитора” (“Legend of the Grand Inquisitor”), a self-contained story within the gigantic novel Братья Карамазовы (The Brothers Karamazov). Записки из мёртвого дома (Notes from the House of the Dead), an account of prison camp, is another favorite: the scenes at Christmas are beautiful.

Sergei Dovlatov endeared himself to me so much with Компромисс (The Compromise) (previous post) and certain parts of Заповедник (The Reserve) that I can’t leave him out. Though some of his writing about emigration is good, for my taste, Dovlatov is at his best when he writes about Soviet absurdity.

Off-topic honorable mention goes to Vladimir Dal’ for his nineteenth-century Russian dictionaries. I have a mismatched four-volume set that I bought in the early ‘90s that seems to suck lots of time out of my schedule whenever I look up a word or expression.

The D-List for Future Reading: I have a few Dostoevsky rereads in mind, particularly Notes from the Underground and Crime and Punishment, plus some novellas/long stories that I’ve never read: “Вечный муж” (“The Eternal Husband”) and “Скверный анекдот (often translated as “A Nasty Story”). Dovlatov’s Зона (The Zone) is on my shelf, too, and I have high hopes for Iurii Dombrovskii’s Факультет ненужных вещей (The Faculty of Useless Knowledge). Dal’, of course, never leaves my office!

Dostoevsky on Amazon

Dovlatov on Amazon

Dombrovsky on Amazon


  1. You're right, there aren't many D authors, and I enthusiastically endorse your choices! I have a copy of Записки из подполья, and your recommendation has moved it up on the reading list.

    I'll put in a plug for the poetry of Pushkin's friend Anton Delvig (Дельвиг) -- it's not world-shaking, but it's very enjoyable. D.S. Mirsky writes: "As a poet Délvig developed early, but he published little and late, owing chiefly to his famous laziness... His Russian songs were in his time his most popular work, but his most exquisite poems are those in the classical measures. No one, before or after, ever wrote such perfect epigrams (in the Greek sense) as Délvig did. Still better are his idyls, highly valued by Púshkin: The Bathing Woman is unquestionably the highest achievement in Russian poetry in the more purely sensuous vision of classical antiquity."

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  3. Thanks for the endorsement, Languagehat! Now I'm curious... Is Записки из подполья (Notes from the Underground) your favorite Dostoevsky work? (I am very partial to his shorter works.)

    Poor Del'vig, to be characterized by Mirsky that way! I remember Del'vig's name most in conjunction with the Северные цветы (Northern Flowers) literary journal that he edited.

  4. I haven't read it -- that's why I say it's moved up the list. My favorite so far is the Brothers K.

  5. dostoevsky's one of my favorites too. i've been reading his notes from the house of the dead on and off. well, i don't think i've read any other russian writer with d for her/his name's first letter. for that matter, i haven't read much russian literature in the first place apart from the usual names! :)

  6. karlo, I'll be interested to read about your impressions of House of the Dead when you finish. I seem to recall that you've written about a fair bit of Russian fiction, including Trifonov, who is definitely not one of the usual suspects!

  7. Hi Lisa :) I discovered your post through Stu's post (Winstondad's blog) and I was really thrilled! I haven't seen Dovlatov mentioned in any book blog post on Russian literature before :) I read Dovlatov stories (in Russian) when I studied Russian and liked them very much and I was surprised on why he hasn't been translated more widely. So I was really thrilled to find a mention of him in your post! I will keep an eye on your blog from now on. Thanks for having a wonderful blog!

  8. Thank you for your kind words and enthusiastic comment, Vishy -- I'm glad to read that you enjoy Dovlatov so much!

  9. I have a copy of Записки из подполья, and your recommendation has moved it up on the reading list.

    I just revisited this post, and I realized I somehow wrote Записки из подполья when I meant Записки из мёртвого дома (which I subsequently wrote about)! Thank goodness I can correct the error, seven years later.

    1. Thank you for your years-later update, Languagehat! Both books are good and I'm always moving Записки из подполья around on my reading list. Though there is something especially special about Записки из мёртвого дома. Of course it's been so long since I've read Underground that I should move that one up on the list! Hmm.