Sunday, February 19, 2017

Here I Am to Brighten Your Day! Darkest Russian Literature

I felt a little jolt last week when I read this tweet from The New York Times Book Review:

I knew—just knew—that “darkest novel” in George Saunders’s reading life had to be Russian. And I was right: the book is Russian. But I was wrong about the title: the book he mentions is Lev Tolstoy’s Resurrection, about which he says, “Tolstoy’s “Resurrection” might be the darkest novel I’ve ever read — basically, a slow descent down from privilege and power into the terror and cruelty that comes of poverty and ritual oppression. (I know, it sounds bleak but. . . .)”

I’d say that sums up Resurrection pretty well; I, too, remember it as dark for those same reasons. I read Resurrection in my years before the blog and recommended it in a “forgotten classics” workshop, noting some stylistic differences and common themes with both War and Peace and Anna Karenina, though now, years later, I’d be hard-pressed to say exactly what those were…

Saunders hits [sic? is this how it works?] a trifecta for Russian literature in this week’s “By the Book” for the Book Review: he also mentions the narrator of Isaac Babel’s story “In the Basement” as a favorite character and notes that he’s planning to read Svetlana Alexievich’s Zinky Boys; the book’s 1992 translation, by Julia and Robin Whitby, was recently reissued by Norton.

On a related note, Babel receives more attention in this interview for Forward, in which Aviya Kushner asks Peter Orner about, as she puts it in her introduction, “how to read in the age of Donald Trump, why Isaac Babel matters so much, and other questions about the connection between literature and survival.” This is about my hundredth reminder that I need to (re)read more Babel, something I’ve been remiss about for, well, decades. Orner, by the way, specifically cites Walter Morrison’s translations of Babel.

But back to the darkest Russian novels ever written… Which novel did I think would be Saunders’s darkest? My second choice was good old F.M. Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, which gave me unthinkable nightmares after I read the murder scene at bedtime not so long ago. (Do not read that scene just before bed. Please.) Claustrophobia alone would be enough to qualify C&P as dark but that murder scene is brutal. My first guess, though, was Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovyov Family (here’s the New York Review Books page on Natalie Duddington’s translation, complete with blurbs), which I also recommended in that forgotten classics workshop. I didn’t mention claustrophobia in this summary for handouts, but I felt it, intensely, in this book, too. Here’s what I wrote:
Ouch! This is the ultimate book about dysfunctional families. I have to admit that I found it difficult to read at times, both because of obsolete language and the absolute horridness of the characters. But I’m glad that I stuck with this book that Dmitrii Mirskii, an historian of Russian literature, called “the gloomiest in all Russian literature,” particularly because S-Shch has such a knack for showing the way things really were. The rottenness of the gentry is stunning, and I found the ending almost unbearably depressing. Still, I recommend it.
Those books are pretty dark but I think my very darkest book ever would have to be Roman Senchin’s The Yeltyshevs (previous post), which is chernukha—a Russian word for what I’ll just call pitch-black realism—to end all chernukha. It’s unbearably sad and I used “ouch” in that blog post, too. But I loved that book because it’s so suspenseful and so well-composed as it describes a failing family; I’m not surprised at how much praise I’ve heard for The Yeltyshevs from other Russian writers.

Another big contemporary favorite that’s very dark: Mikhail Gigolashvili’s The Devil’s Wheel (Чертово колесо in Russian), which examines heroin addiction and corrupt cops in Tbilisi. Gigolashvili includes lots of dark (of course) humor, plus action, making nearly 800 pages fly by as if they were 80. This book has stuck with me very well since I wrote about it in 2010.

I could add lots more gloomy books to the list but will stop there. Other dark suggestions will, of course, brighten the coming days!

Disclaimers: The usual. I’ve translated a bit of Senchin, including excerpts of The Yeltyshevs. Aviya Kushner is a beloved friend and colleague.

Up Next: A combo post about Paul Goldberg’s The Yid, which will include thoughts about the book and Goldberg’s upcoming appearance at a local bookstore. Sergei Kuznetsov’s Kaleidoscope, which I finally finished the other night after slowing down to a glacial reading pace: I think my subconscious just didn’t want me to finish. I suspect part of what I love so much about Kaleidoscope is its combination of dark and light. Eventually: Sukhbat Aflatuni’s Adoration of the Magi¸ which friends brought back from Moscow for me: they both read and enjoyed it before passing it along. This is another brick of a book (700-plus pages) so there may be more potpourri posts in Lizok’s future…


  1. Saltykov-Shchedrin’s novel seemed utterly nihilistic to me. Dark, dark, dark.

    But Lamed Shapiro is actually the darkest "Russian" I have ever read, if he counts. Violent nightmare fiction.

    1. Thank you for your comment, Amateur Reader. Saltykov-Shchedrin's book is, indeed, triple dark. But Shapiro's books, which I've never read, sound far darker.

  2. I love Babel's stories, they were the first ones I read on my own in Russian when I was spending a summer there, but a Russian coworker thought it was odd I was reading them and asked if Babel was popular in America, bc he wasn't so much in Russia. Then when I got back to the states, one of my professors said she didn't like Babel's stories at all (in response to my bringing it up form my independent reading project).

    What I mean is, you're in good company having trouble with Babel. There are a lot of reasons to dislike him, but I personally love his stuff.

    Also I'm baffled that books keep repeating some of Babel's lies about his past uncritically (he didn't live illegally in St Petersburg, he didn't work for the Cheka, etc).

  3. What I mean is, you're in good company having trouble with Babel

    I didn't get the impression that she had trouble with Babel, just that she hasn't read him in a long time. The same is true for me, and I love Babel! So many books, so little time...

    There are a lot of reasons to dislike him

    There are? What are they (aside from insufficient партийность)?

  4. Thank you, mayareadsbooks and Languagehat, for the comments. I was just about to respond to mayareadsbooks when Languagehat's comment popped up: Languagehat is absolutely right that I don't have trouble with Babel as Babel. And I certainly don't dislike Babel--in fact I've always rather admired some of his stories--I just feel I've never read enough Babel to form a real opinion about his writing. And I never seem to get around to him, primarily because "so many books, so little time" always seems to work out in favor of reading contemporary novels. (Reading C&P, at non-bedtime hours, is my current work on classics...)

    That said, I thoroughly enjoyed reading some Babel on my way to Moscow last September: Boris Dralyuk sent me an electronic version of his lively Odessa Stories translation for Pushkin Press and reading a nice chunk of the book was a welcome antidote to some especially awful airline food.

  5. I had got the impression from a previous blog post that you didn't like the violence, and that's an example of a good reason to dislike Babel. I wasn't trying to knock him or you.

    1. Thank you for your followup, mayareadsbooks. Yes, I wrote that about Red Cavalry, which did scare me off, as I put it in that post, though I read the whole book and have read more of Babel since... For one thing, Red Cavalry certainly isn't everything Babel wrote and (this may be difficult to explain satisfactorily in this format) the violence I mentioned isn't a reason for me to dislike all of Babel and/or not want to read more of him. Even in that post, I mentioned wanting to read more of him! I have analagous feelings about violence in the work of many other authors... Dostoevsky and Gigolashvili among them. Certain scenes or chapters might feel unbearable and horribly uncomfortable but that doesn't necessarily mean I dislike those authors or never read them again.

    2. Ah, that makes sense. Not like me and Gogol--Dead Souls put me off him as an author, sadly.

      I should check out Dralyuk's translation, I've read very few of the Odessa Tales as compared to the Red Cavalry stories (which I love).

  6. Imho, Mamleev's Shatuny blows any other dark novel out of the water. Not many people dared to read it. It's been recently translated to English

    1. Grisha, I'm so glad you mentioned Shatuny (The Sublimes)! It was on my list but then the post got long so I stuck with dark favorites, figuring the topic would generate comments.

      For anyone who's interested, here's my previous post on the book, which includes links to Grisha's blog post about the novel and a link to a free and legal download of a bilingual edition of the book... for those who dare...

    2. Marian Schwartz translated The Sublimes into English!