Saturday, February 27, 2021

Favorite Russian Writers A to Я: Chekhov (Where “It” All Began), Chukhovskaya, Chizhov

It’s been nearly three years since I last wrote an alphabet post but I’ve been thinking about Chekhov so much lately that it’s time to finally move on from Х to Ч, fill in another letter, and mention a few Ч-named writers I’ve particularly enjoyed reading.

I always seem to reminisce a fair bit about Anton Pavlovich Chekhov because his “The Bet” (“Пари”) was the first piece of Russian literature (other than Baba Yaga stories) that I ever read. In sixth grade. (I went down Memory Lane on “The Bet” back in 2010, for Chekhov’s hundred and fiftieth birthday, here.) I went on to take a Chekhov course in college and, rather predictably, most enjoyed longer stories, with “Ward Number Six” (in Ronald Hingley’s translation) my big favorite. “Дама с собачкой” (“The Lady With the Dog” (oops, almost “God”!)) was the first Chekhov I read in Russian, in that same era. I’ve gone on to (re)read lots of other short Chekhov stories, particularly when a collection from Restless Books – Chekhov: Stories for Our Time, with an introduction by Boris Fishman – brought me back to A.P. back in 2018 (previous post) and got me thinking I needed to do better justice to the modest Russian-language collections of long and short stories I’d purchased a few years earlier.

One of the works in one of those collections is Моя жизнь (My Life), which I started reading last year, in preparation for a visit to Duke University in March 2020. Of course the visit didn’t happen. And, predictably, I didn’t finish My Life, which Carol Apollonio’s Chekhov class was going to be discussing during my visit. I had a hard time concentrating on my reading in the early pandemic months but am plotting a reattempt at My Life and some other Chekhov reading. I’m especially motivated because Carol sent me a copy of her book, Simply Chekhov, which examines A.P.’s life and work. I love talking with Carol about Russian literature, so who better to guide me? I have two other longer works – “Степь” (“The Steppe”) and “Дуэль” (“The Duel”) – that we didn’t get around to in college, so there’s plenty of new material to go along with old favorites like “Gooseberries.”

Now, a confession: I don’t have many other real, true favorite Ч writers. But there are some interesting books to mention. I read and enjoyed a shortened version of N.G. Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? (Benjamin R. Tucker’s translation, revised and abridged by Ludmilla B. Turkevich, in a Vintage edition with an Edward Gorey cover design) back in grad school and have happy memories of that experience simply because I was reading at the ocean. I remember very little (meaning: pretty much nothing at all) about the novel, but oh my, my marginalia tell me the book thoroughly engaged me at the time. I sometimes feel guilty for not remembering even a basic plot, though I’m not sure I feel guilty enough for an imminent reread.

Lidia Chukovskaya’s Sofia Petrovna, however, has long been a genuine favorite: I’ve read it several times, always appreciating the simplicity of the form and language, which leave so much room for Chukovskaya to offer a close-up of the devastating effects of totalitarianism (previous post). It was a lovely surprise to look at my Chukovskaya book today and find that the afterword I actually read and enjoyed (marginalia tell all!) back in 2011 was written by Olga Zilberbourg, a writer I met in 2016 at a translator conference. I wrote about her Like Water story collection last year (previous post). My book with Sofia Petrovna also includes Спуск под воду (Going Under), which I haven’t yet read, though I’ll put the book in my trolley and consider it to soon.

Contemporary fiction wouldn’t have given me a favorite Ч-named writer if Evgeny Chizhov hadn’t decided to use a pseudonym. His Translation from a Literal Translation (previous post), which I thought was very, very good, is plenty to put him on the list even if it’s his only novel that I’ve finished.

Charskaya, reading at the dacha  

My pandemic book buying binges b(r)ought me two other books (new acquisitions already in the trolley, unread, so not yet favorites) by Ч-named writers: a book containing Lidia Charskaya’s Записки институтки (something like: Notes of a [Female] College/Institute Student) and Княжна Джаваха (Princess Dzhavakha, a.k.a. Little Princess Nina, I believe, in Hana Mus̆ková’s translation?), which both look promising. And then there’s Anton Chizh’s Машина страха (maybe The Fear Machine?), a retro detective novel set in 1898 Petersburg. Of course I love detective novels. Who knows how this one will be, but, yes, I’m still rather stuck in the past – or in various alternate, often futuristic, realities – and having difficulty reading fiction about this century since characters are rarely masked up, vaccinated against COVID-19, or staying far, far away from each other. Fortunately, Russian fiction offers plenty of fantasy, mysticism, and other twists on what we conventionally consider reality.

Up Next: Ksenia Buksha’s Advent and Eugene Vodolazkin’s History of Island.

Disclaimers and Disclosures: The usual. Carol Apollonio is a friend and colleague. As is Olga Zilberbourg, though we’ve only met once in person; she has reviewed a couple of my translations.


Photo by M.G. Nikitin, public domain, obtained through Wikipedia.


  1. Yay, a new alphabet post! To celebrate, I read “Пари,” which I must have read sometime around high school but which I barely remembered (and of course read in English). This time I got down Vol. 6 of my Полное собрание сочинений and gobbled it up in Russian: what fun! I prefer his longer, more intricate stories, but he could do the Maupassant thing brilliantly when he wanted to. Моя жизнь, “Степь,” and “Дуэль” are all wonderful, and I love the maxim from the first-named: “aphids eat grass, rust iron, and lies the soul.” Like you, I loved Sofia Petrovna, but I can't imagine making my way through all of What Is to Be Done? -- I read a few chapters and called it quits.

    I actually own a Charskaya book (Газават), but I haven't gotten around to it yet. I haven't read either Chizhov or Elena Chizhova, but they both sound interesting. Other Ch- writers I have enjoyed are Kornei Chukovsky and Mikhail Chulkov (his 1770 Пригожая повариха [The Comely Cook] is a real delight), and I'm very much looking forward to Aleksandr Chudakov's 2000 Ложится мгла на старые ступени [A gloom is cast upon the ancient steps (a quote from a Blok poem)], which won the Booker of the Decade and which I snagged a copy of a while back.

    I love the photo of Charskaya reading at the dacha!

    1. Yes, I also tend to prefer Chekhov's longer stories, though we read far too few of them in that Chekhov course because of the plays!

      I've read bits of Chukovsky along the way but not really enough to list him as a favorite and, alas, neither the Chudakov book nor any of Chizhova's novels that I've read/tried really hit me.

      To finish off on a happier note, though, I'm looking forward to more Chukovskaya as well as giving Charskaya a try... I feel like maybe I should read Charskaya when it's warmer, so I can sit on the veranda and pretend I'm at the dacha!

  2. More tomorrow, at the computer, Languagehat, but I can't believe I forgot to mention "The Comely Cook"!

  3. hoorah! you're down to Ch!
    Чаадаев Should we count Chaadayev as a writer?
    Саша Черный There is also of course Sasha Chorny.
    Борис Чичибабин One of the bright stars of the 60s was the poet Boris Chichibabin.
    Черникова And I’d like to mention Yelena Chernikova, the author of several novels and linguistic studies. She hosts literary readings at her club in the basement of Biblio-Globus just off Lubyanka and has an active page on Facebook.
    Pity you didn’t finish My Life, the more you read it the more fascinating it becomes. To me, it perfectly complements The House with the Mezzanine. And at the end there is what I take as a wonderful poke at Tolstoy, perhaps a reference to The Kreuzer Sonata: Прокофий во время холеры лечил лавочников перцовкой и дегтем и брал за это деньги, и, как я узнал из нашей газеты, его наказывали розгами за то, что он, сидя в своей мясной лавке, дурно отзывался о докторах.
    Did you know there is an alphabetical list of Russian writers on Wikipedia?

    1. What would you recommend by Chernikova?

    2. Hello, Alexander, and thank you for your notes! Yes, we're down to Ch now! (And there are letters to fill in all through the alphabet, too, who knows what I might have read in recent years that might compel me to post if, that is, I find there are books/writers I truly consider favorites for some reason or other...)

      Yes, I think Chaadaev can count, though I've read too little of him (excerpts in college) to have any sort of opinion. The same goes for Sasha Cherny; I'm not sure I've read Chichibabin, though I know his name.

      I was enjoying My Life very much but the start of the pandemic/lockdown wasn't a good time to read it. I truly do intend to restart, particularly given all the recommendations!

      Yes, I know the Wikipedia list, though of course I haven't read everybody on it))

      I hope all's well!

  4. "Золотая ослица" by Chernikova, the title is of course a pun on Apuleius

  5. Just coming here from Twitter. What a fun post! I haven't seen the Restless Books Chekhov, and it looks delightful -- thanks for pointing that one out. And so many other wonderful book recommendations! Перевод с подстрочинка looks particularly interesting.

    I think my own Ch list would have to start and end with the Chukovsky family :) The earliest book I've read was Nikolai's novel Балтийское небо. It's a WWII love story, very коньюнктурная as such, and yet there was something very alive about it. I'd have to re-read to know what I loved about it. Then, there was Lydia's work, and later Kornei's Chukokalla, and the letters. It's been my lens through which to read the 20th C.

    1. Thank you for checking in, Olga! Yes, I love the Restless Books Chekhov, both for the illustrations and Fishman's essay.

      And thank you for your summary of your reading of the Chukovskys -- I can see that they'd be an interesting lens for reading the twentieth century, that's an interesting perspective. I didn't know about Nikolai, I'll have to look into this!