Russian Fiction Is Much Better Than Trump’s Diction

With the corrupt Trump administration’s ties to Russia all over the news, I’d like to offer a different Russia-related topic this week: Russian literature.

Which includes an amazing array of dark/compelling/unforgettable fiction, particularly in the 19th century. Even Trump would be impressed reading Crime and Punishment — as long as Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novel was shortened to a one-paragraph memo.

Crime and Punishment is my favorite Russian novel, and one of my favorites from any country. Riveting, feverish, psychological (it was said to have influenced Sigmund Freud). The high points of The Brothers Karamazov may be even better, but there are some slog-through pages and chapters that the never-a-dull-moment Crime and Punishment doesn’t suffer from. Dostoyevsky reportedly planned to make The Brothers Karamazov the first of a trilogy, but death intervened.

There are several other Dostoyevsky works well worth discussing, so please have at it in the comments section! But now I’ll turn to Leo Tolstoy, whose War and Peace and Anna Karenina are as famous as novels can be. I was impressed with those two classics (though I’m more a fan of Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov) as well as with several of Tolstoy’s magnificent short stories, some almost novella length. “The Kreutzer Sonata,” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” “Master and Man” — wow!

Speaking of short stories, you can’t go wrong with Tolstoy’s pal Anton Chekhov. A pioneering writer of tales that are more character-oriented and human-emotion-focused than plot-oriented, plus Chekhov of course was also a master playwright.

Earlier-in-the-19th-century Russian authors can also knock your socks off (though I wouldn’t advise that during a Moscow or St. Petersburg winter). Alexander Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter novel is a great read, as is Nikolai Gogol’s Dead Souls novel and his “The Overcoat” short story. Dostoyevsky contemporary Ivan Turgenev wrote a really good novel, too, with Fathers and Sons.

Moving near/into the 20th century (experienced by the 1910-deceased Tolstoy for a decade), we have socialist-realist writers such as Maxim Gorky and Nikolai Ostrovsky. The latter’s How the Steel Was Tempered (a novel I purchased during a 1980s trip to Russia) is quite gripping for a while before getting a bit tedious.

Then there was Boris Pasternak, whose Doctor Zhivago novel drew the ire of Soviet officials despite it being somewhat nuanced about socialism; and the dissident writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was adept at both fiction and nonfiction (and the subject of this “Mother Russia” song by Renaissance). I’m not fond of the way Solzhenitsyn’s politics turned very right-wing, but he did go through imprisonment hell.

Renaissance has a lead female singer and a female lyricist, but Russian literature (unlike fiction from a number of other nations) has been dominated by men. Unfortunately, lots of patriarchy, machismo, and sexism in that country — which might be one reason why Trump is so attracted to Putin and Russia’s oligarchs.

Russia’s history of authoritarianism and oppression certainly has had an effect on its writers, as has that country’s politics, poverty, income inequality, geographic size, high rate of alcoholism, aforementioned machismo, and huge war casualties — including the carnage resulting from Napoleon’s and Hitler’s invasions. But the most famous Russian writers would most likely be literary geniuses no matter where they had lived.

Obviously I’ve left some writers out, so please fill in some of those blanks in your comments. Who are your favorite Russian authors, either ones I mentioned or didn’t mention?

Here’s a review of, and a video interview about, my new literary-trivia book Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com, which covers Montclair, N.J., and nearby towns. The latest weekly column — set in the year 4034 AD! — is here.

88 thoughts on “Russian Fiction Is Much Better Than Trump’s Diction

  1. Anna Karenina is my personal favourite Russian novel. In part due to me fan-girling over anything Tolstoy has written, but also because the story is so hauntingly beautiful and relevant. It’s one of those immortal novels that will continually defy the tests of time. It was good to mention in this article.Plus again more books here to add to my summer reading list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Alexia! Terrific/eloquent description of why you love “Anna Karenina” — which is indeed a VERY memorable novel.

      As I mentioned in the post, I’m a bit more a Dostoyevsky fan than Tolstoy fan, but that doesn’t mean I don’t also find Tolstoy to be an awe-inspiring author. 🙂 They’re both amazing writers.

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  2. I’m with you in ranking Crime & Punishment at the top of my all-time list of novels. It is certainly one that requires a great deal of concentration. I particularly had trouble with the names, as each person seemed to have 2-3 names.

    But, it was well worth the effort. It is the best example in all of literature of a redemptive ending.

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    • Thank you, Tony!

      Yes, the names in “Crime and Punishment” can be a challenge (also the case with “One Hundred Years of Solitude” in a different way). But, as you say, well worth it.

      And I agree that the redemptive “C&P” ending is absolutely incredible — as is the whole novel.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I will, moments before departing for Nashville, put in a word for Ivan Bunin’s short story ‘The Gentleman from San Francisco’ and Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s collection of fiction,‘Autobiography of a Corpse’, in hopes that readers here might seek them out.

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    • Thank you, jhNY! Now on my bulging to-read list.

      Two intriguing titles, and the name of the second writer is something — 23 letters! (If I didn’t miscount.)

      Hope you have a great Nashville visit!

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      • The first item on my list of two is a fine invocation of traveling well-off by steamer at the turn of the last century, centering on a particular family group, but broad enough to capture the times the mores and the places. Bunin has been called the last of the great fiction writers of pre-Soviet Russia, and won the Nobel prize in the 1930’s.

        The second item is a collection of experimental fiction fashioned out of the desperate fantastic estrangement of an impoverished intellectual, whose writings lay unknown in a blanket chest from the 1940’s till the 1970’s, when the Soviet Union enjoyed one of its thaws, and the manuscript’s faithful keeper, the author long dead, made it available to the world.

        Dodged a big batch of storms coming down to Nashville, which caused a slight delay. That was the bad part. The good part? Found a new Reacher in the airport, and now I’m on page 275.

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        • Glad you made it into Nashville okay, jhNY! And great that you found a new Reacher to continue your reading-Lee Child-in-an-airport-and-plane tradition.

          Also, thanks for the interesting info and descriptions relating to the two Russian works you had mentioned in your previous comment!

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  4. “Fathers and Sons” by Ivan Turgenev, written in 1862 (shortly before Crime and Punishment and War and Peace), is a Russian novel that deserves to be mention. It involves two young idealistic men and their fathers. The fathers and sons are very devoted to each other, but do not share the same philosophy. However, both generations (the fathers = liberals, the sons = nihilists) agree that the autocratic Russia of that period needs reformation (incidentally, serfs, Russian term for slaves, were only emancipated a year earlier – before the American Civil War). This novel is definitely worthwhile, and slightly pre-dates the “great” novelists: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy.

    With regard to Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy – I love them both! Recently, you polled you readers to identify their top ten novels. I think I recall listing “War and Peace” as number 1, and “The Brothers Karamazov” as number 2 (actually, BK may have been lower because I didn’t want to list two Russian novels as 1-2).

    The point is, these are very readable (but long) novels, but both were fantastic. Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” was sociological, while “Brother Karamazov” is psychological (although these were written before these terms were understood in the modern sense). For me, both novels were some of the most captivating works I have read.

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    • Great comment, drb! Including your excellent point that novels like “War and Peace” and “The Brothers Karamazov” — which seem daunting and challenging (length being a big reason) — are actually VERY readable.

      And, yes, “Fathers and Sons” is a fascinating book that packs a lot into a relatively modest number of pages. Impressive summary/analysis by you in just one paragraph!

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  5. Off-topic, but:

    Fat-shamed by the Pope! Ordinarily, that would be wrong, but for the moment, I’m going to believe the Pope is God’s messenger on Earth.

    “Greeting the First Couple, the Pope asked Ms Trump if she fed her husband a nut-filled Slovenian cake. “What are you feeding him, potica?” he asked.”

    Reminds me of a story I read by Martin Buber, in his “Tales of the Hasidim”. From memory: Seems a rich man was speaking to a rabbi, and asked if he might better show his devotion to God by giving up cake and eating bread instead.

    “No, eat cake”, said the rabbi. “If you eat bread instead of cake, you might come to believe the poor could eat stones.”

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  6. Good Morning Dave, you have mentioned Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak, I saw the movie first but did not know the manuscript was smuggled to Milan and Pasternak won the Nobel Prize in literature 1957.
    Some beautiful literature from Russia as you and the readers have mentioned Leo Tolstoy War and Peace, Anna Karenina .
    Look at Russia now and it`d thug of a dictator and then there is Trump almost illiterate , limited only to a few words . Even then he does now know how to spell correctly.
    Here is Lola’s Lullaby to soothe your soul by Anuska Shankar from Anna Karenina directed by her Husband.

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    • That’s a gorgeous piece of music, bebe, beautifully played.

      Yes, a couple of thugs leading Russia and the U.S. — with one of them (Putin) smart and the other (Trump) a good candidate for dumbest person on the planet. Wish the latter had stayed in Saudi Arabia, where he must love the dictatorship and the horrible way women are treated.

      Liked by 1 person

    • bebe, that was lovely and thanks for sharing with us. The moment I heard her name and playing the sitar, I remembered her as the daughter of Ravi Shankar from “A Concert for George,” that I have on DVD. This was a benefit performance put together by Eric Clapton and Jeff Lynne after George Harrison’s death. Although the last section of the concert that was of “George’s Band,” including Clapton, Lynne, Tom Petty, Ringo and Paul, as well as others was wonderful, but I found Anoushka playing the sitar was so captivating — what a wonderful musician!

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      • Oh Kat Lib you knew that !
        Yes both the daughters are so talented and so beautiful, Norah Jones looks more like her father who was a very handsome man. Anoushka is young and has so many years ahead of her, both of them actually.

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  7. I studied a ton of Russian lit in college, but somehow I’d never learned about Russian futurist poetry until recently. It’s one of the more obscure Russian literary movements, but fascinating nonetheless. In the early 20th century, poets like Vladimir Mayakovsky, Viktor Khlebnikov and Vasilisk Gnedov made an effort to reject nearly all the beloved 19th century writers you mention. Their poems were highly avant-garde, full of neologisms and nearly impossible to translate. Gnedov’s “Poem of the End” was literally just a blank page. Khlebnikov’s “Invocation of Laughter” contains lines like “Uplaugh, enlaugh, laughlings, laughlings, laughlets, laughlets.” As with many other Russian literary movements, it was decidedly male-dominated (less so in the visual arts). Ultimately they were on the wrong side of history when betting against the likes of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, but they are worth a read for the sheer weirdness.

    https://www.amherst.edu/system/files/media/0507/Mayakovsky%2520Cloud%2520in%2520Trousers.pdf

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Adam! I wasn’t familiar with the Russian futurist poetry movement until seeing your comment. Wow — the Vladimir Mayakovsky verse you linked to is something. Raw, direct, vivid, etc., with historical allusions, too.

      Great comment, and much appreciated!

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  8. HOPE!

    Hope my comment, which has absolutely nothing to do with Russia or Trump, but much to do with race and human decency, on the occasion of the removal of the Confederate monuments in New Orleans, will not annoy readers intent to stick to the subject of this week’s blog.

    . Mayor Landrieu made one of the best speeches on the topic I have ever read or witnessed.

    Hope you will take the time to read or see it!

    http://pulsegulfcoast.com/2017/05/transcript-of-new-orleans-mayor-landrieus-address-on-confederate-monuments

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Hi Dave,

    The three authors that I immediately thought of were:

    Tolstoy – I just don’t get it. I could have read “War and Peace” out loud and recorded it for a CD, but I don’t remember a word of it. It just didn’t register anywhere in my brain. There were maybe a half dozen pages that were interesting enough to grab my attention, but of course that’s a VERY small percentage of such a large novel. “Anna Karenina” was slightly more readable, but again, mostly pointless. Luckily I really enjoyed “Master and Man” so I don’t have to write off Leo completely.

    Dostoyevsky – Fyodor is the reason that I’ve decided Christmas is a great time for an indulgent re-read, or a massive deviation from my TBR. This year it will be “The Brothers Karamazov”. If it’s even half as good as “Crime and Punishment” then I know I won’t be disappointed.

    Nabokov – I’m surprised that he hasn’t already been mentioned. I read “Lolita” two or three years ago, and I still haven’t decided whether I liked it. I can’t deny that it was well written, but it was just so icky. I am however really looking forward to “Pale Fire” which is on my list.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Sue!

      I remember you saying you didn’t enjoy “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina” a whole lot. But I enjoyed the way you just described “W&P” not working for you. 🙂

      To me, “The Brothers Karamazov” was about 80-90% as good as “Crime and Punishment” — which is pretty darn good. Hope you end up feeling the same way, or more.

      I thought of Nabokov, but figured his most significant novels were written in English after he left Russia as a young man. Still, he’s a Russian author in a way! “Lolita” indeed has the “ick” factor. The weird “Pale Fire” has little warmth but a ton of brilliance.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’ve got a couple of Nabokov’s earlier novels, written first in Russian, but later made into proper English by the old butterfly collector himself. There on one of my tottering piles of good intentions.

        I expect these might be a case of the best possible translation from Nabokovian Russian into Nabokovian English. I suspect there’s a good novel, though not a famous one, among his early works (his wiki bibliography lists ten).

        I am curious to read him before America, but it appears none of us can read him before he knew English. According to his wikipedia biography, he learned English, in his aristocratic multi-lingual household, before he learned Russian.

        BTW, he seems to have written more fiction in Russian than in English over his lifetime, though his success came here, in the form of Lolita.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Hi Dave,

          As soon as I hit post on my comment, I thought it’s really not normal for me to think of something that you’ve missed. So I did a quick Google, and yes, Nabokov was more American than Russian when “Lolita” was published.

          Thanks to jhNY for the additional info 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

          • Thank you, Sue! But I often miss things, and appreciate it when people mention things I didn’t mention. 🙂

            It’s amazing how adept Nabokov was at the English language given that he wasn’t born in an English-speaking country!

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            • As i wrote in my reply above, “According to his wikipedia biography, he learned English, in his aristocratic multi-lingual household, before he learned Russian.” Perhaps even more amazing, in a way, given the place and time. I would have thought French and/or German would have come before English.

              My own father, son of a woman born to Austrian parents, learned German before he learned English (and Spanish– his father was Mexican). My father was born in our very own Babel, New York City, where people even now speak every language under the sun, sometimes several, sometimes seemingly at the same time.

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  10. I adored “Anna Karenina” and wonder reading this post why I’ve deprived myself of the other Russian titles you’ve written about. If they are better than this novel I’m really missing out on a treat. Have always had War and Peace on my reading list. Is it time to dive in? I can’t believe it is shorter than AK. I always thought it was the longest book ever written.

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    • Thank you for the comment, Shallow Reflections!

      “Crime and Punishment” is the novel mentioned that’s shorter than “Anna Karenina”; “War and Peace” is LONG. Not the longest novel every written, but definitely up there. I guess Proust’s “In Search of Lost Time” has hundreds more pages when all its volumes are put together.

      “Anna Karenina” is a terrific novel, but I’m among the people who have a slight preference for Dostoyevsky over Tolstoy. Others are quite the opposite!

      Liked by 1 person

    • ‘War and Peace’ is much longer than ‘Anna Karenina’. It’s not necessarily the longest book ever written as there are a few contenders among novels. Other extremely long ones are ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’, ‘Les Miserables’, ‘The Tale of Genji’ and probably a few of James Michener’s novels.

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  11. You mentioned my two favorites, Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and I read their major works as a high school student. I recently read “The Kreutzer Sonata” while I was researching my book “Jamie’s Children” and here’s a factlet for you: Beethoven intended to dedicate it to a violinist named George Bridgetower, who actually performed the premiere of the work. But the composer and that violinist had a falling-out and instead, Beethoven dedicated it to the premier violinist of his day, Rodolphe Kreutzer. It’s a dramatic and impressive piece of music and I think the name “Kreutzer Sonata” fits it much better than “Bridgetower Sonata” would have.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Susan!

      “The Kreutzer Sonata” is riveting, isn’t it? And, given your music experience and expertise, that novella (or long short story) must have especially resonated with you.

      Also, that’s an absolutely fascinating Beethoven anecdote! Glad you mentioned/described it here!

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  12. Hi Dave, I know I’ve mentioned multiple times that I took a course in college on Tolstoy, reading “War and Peace,” “Anna Karenina,” “Resurrection,” “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” “What is Art?,” a play which I think was “The Light in the Darkness,” and a few other things I may have forgot, although that’s a pretty impressive reading achievement, if I do say so myself. 🙂 I’ve been searching around my bookshelves for another small book that included his thoughts on religion and a philosophy of life, entitled “What I Believe,” “A Confession,” and one other work that I can’t remember, hence my search for the actual book. I was during those years very interested in the meaning of life and I found these essays very profound, just as I did with Albert Camus’ “The Myth of Sisyphus.” After I graduated from college, I started reading a biography of Tolstoy that was just as long as one of his major novels, but I gave it up, because perhaps he wasn’t as interesting as were his books.

    I also have now sitting on my desk, “Crime and Punishment,” that I just received in the mail. It’s a fairly new translation by Oliver Ready that was given rave reviews. Has anyone here read this particular one, as I know there are quite a few “Crime and Punishment” fans on the website? I’m also not sure if I can take a dive into such a book as this one at this stage of my life and all that is happening personally and politically.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kat Lib!

      You definitely have an EXTENSIVE background in reading Tolstoy! Sorry the biography of him wasn’t that interesting — he did live an interesting life, but probably 300 or so pages would have sufficed. 🙂 (I think the longest biography of an author I ever read was one of Sir Walter Scott, back when I was on a binge of reading about 10 of his novels. The dang two-volume biography was more than 1,000 pages, but actually kept my interest.)

      I reread “Crime and Punishment” two or three years ago, but am not remembering who did the seemingly excellent translation. I should be better about that, because translators have a difficult task, and should be literary rock stars if they do a good job.

      And I hear you that it can be hard to read a dark book during these dark times. It does help that “Crime and Punishment” ultimately has its inspiring moments.

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      • Dave, I just brought up on You Tube “Mother Russia” by Renaissance, and I I’ve listened to it many times, but I didn’t know that “Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who was adept at both fiction and nonfiction (and the subject of this song.” I do remember reading “Cancer Ward,” and I definitely remember being affected by it. What’s amazing to me is this book was written in 1955, and here we are today with still no cure for this awful disease. I’ve known so many people, mostly women who’ve been affected by it, especially breast, cervical or ovarian cancer, who continue to suffer. Bill and both of my living brothers had prostate cancer in varying degrees of severity. My dear friend, Linda, died in November 2015 from bone cancer that was the result of her breast cancer that she thought she was in remission from.

        This reminded me of thinking about TB, or as I prefer to refer to it as “consumption,” which was how it was described in many books and movies from years ago. Although there aren’t nearly as many cases in the US, people with HIV are very susceptible to it, and it seems rampant in the sub-Saharan countries with so many people living in poverty. I’ve had a chronic cough for almost 30 years, and I can’t tell you how many people, even strangers, offer to get me a glass of water whenever I have a coughing fit, which is really sweet of them, but I decline because it just doesn’t help.

        Well, this was a cheery comment, wasn’t it? I suppose I think of all Russian lit as being somehow darker than that of any other country, and I find all of the revelations coming out day after day having to do with Trump and all of his and associates’ Russian ties as being dark to the point of being deeply scary!.

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        • Thank you, Kat Lib! I guess that Renaissance song is general enough to be about any Russian prisoner, but Annie Haslam has said during some concert intros to the song that it’s about Solzhenitsyn, and I’ve read that as well. I wonder what he thought about being the subject of a song — flattered, or did he feel it was too “frivolous” to get that thrilled about?

          It IS depressing that after all these years and all the billions spent there’s still no cure for cancer — though of course mammograms, colonoscopies, and such can potentially catch the disease early. I’ve also known people who’ve died from cancer or survived it.

          And, yes, some diseases nearly eradicated in some places are still big problems in other places.

          A lot of Russian literature (like the Trump administration) IS dark. But there’s some humor here and there. The idea of Gogol’s novel “Dead Souls” is actually kind of comedic/satiric, and the devil scene in “The Brothers Karamazov” is laugh-out-loud funny (along with being rather disturbing).

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          • One of the funniest things I’ve seen in a political debate was the one in 2010/2011 when Michael Steele was trying to win reelection as head of the Republican National Committee. I’ve often seen him on MSNBC as a political analyst, and he’s one of the saner members of the RNC. But during this debate, all of the candidates were asked what their favorite book was, and Steele immediately replied “War and Peace,” and then made the mistake of embellishing that by quoting, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” I was giggling about that for days after. 🙂 And although I doubt that had anything to do with his loss, Reince Priebus ended up winning that election (ugh!).

            Liked by 1 person

            • LOL, Kat Lib! Wow — some Republicans are a real intellectual bunch, aren’t they? 🙂 Given that many GOPers don’t like cities, maybe Steele was thinking of the Dickens classic “A Tale of Two Suburbs.”

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              • Ha, Dave, that was very funny! It’s odd though that it’s probably the only line I remember from any debate, except the famous Bentsen reply to Quayle, “Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy!”

                Liked by 1 person

                • Thanks, Kat Lib!

                  I remember watching that Bentsen-Quayle debate. Definitely a memorable line. Nowadays, the not-that-smart Quayle looks like a genius compared to Trump.

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    • Another retry: Hey Kat Lib; first of all, regarding Tolstoy’s spiritual writings, could you be thinking of one called ‘The Kingdom of God is Within You’? I have it but have not read it yet. I think his post ‘Anna Karenina’, post-reconversion books were a point where he really did think he was a modern prophet. ‘Resurrection’ is a novel with much to recommend it. However, it is even more ‘preachy’ than ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’, although I guess with Tolstoy that’s just part of the package. While much of his spiritual outlook resonates with me I feel that his arrogance prevented him from ever projecting any humility. Even his renunciation of worldly possessions reeked of sanctimoniousness. I think he could renounce because he could afford to renounce and he would never lose any meals regardless, whereas Dostoevsky had to scramble for money all of his life up until those last few years in which he could write ‘The Brothers Karamazov’ relatively free of financial pressure (although much of his difficulty with money was self-inflicted; he was a compulsive gambler). Nevertheless, in spite of Tolstoy’s ego he was immensely perceptive and had almost an extrasensory ability to place himself in the minds of disparate characters and render their own perspectives with pinpoint accuracy.

      I have never heard of that translation of ‘Crime and Punishment’ although I suppose translations do continue to be made. I’m partial to Pevear and Volokhonsky and their translation of ‘C&P’ is outstanding. It would be hard to beat it.

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      • bobess, it sounds like you’ve been having the same problems I was with posting comments that would just go “poof,” as though they never happened, except in our own minds. My problems have somehow been fixed, but who knows? I still try copying them into a Word document, just in case. I just went on my second reconnaissance of all my bookshelves, and success! What’s so odd is that it stands out as being the smallest hardcover of any of my books, being only 3-3/4″ x 6″, and has a bright green and yellow cover. So the third work in this small volume is “The Gospel in Brief.” All off of them were translated by Aylmer Maude, and he and/or Louise Maude most likely translated all of the fiction that we studied in class. I think that the only one I remember of this trilogy being on our syllabus was “A Confession,” though we may have had to read “What I Believe.” As I recall, it was something of a breather having only one small work of only 90 pages, after having gone through all of his fiction. I’ll let you know if I can make myself read Crime & Punishment and whether it seems like it is the great translation it is purported to be.

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  13. I have not read Russian literature, truth be told. I have seen The Bolshoi at the Metropolitan Opera, does this count? What little I remember is that the dancers like the adoration from the audience. Like Putin. May he be the downfall of Rump. We can bet a few rubles, Dave!

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    • Greatly enjoyed your comment, Michele! Seeing the Bolshoi works for me. 🙂 And, yes, Putin and Trump love adoration — too bad neither deserves any of it. “We can bet a few rubles”…LOL!

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  14. Hey Dave … Well, this will definitely be a topic where I learn from others, since I have only read one piece of Russian literature in my life (unless I’m forgetting something). And what I read wasn’t fiction; it was the Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. Oh, I just remembered: I also read Anton Chekhov’s play “The Cherry Orchard”. As always, I look forward to this week’s comments 🙂

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    • Thank you for the comment, Pat! I’ve also read “The Gulag Archipelago,” which was intense and memorable but definitely a painful, un-page-turning experience. I’ve unfortunately yet to see or read a Chekhov play, but have read two collections of his short stories (a few dozen stories in all) and they’re quite subtle — more is happening than immediately meets the eye.

      I guess if I were easing into Russian literature for the first time, I’d start with Tolstoy’s short stories or “Crime and Punishment.” Both VERY readable while being GREAT literature.

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  15. Okay, I’m running into comment posting difficulty again so here’s my second attempt at this one:

    There are some titanic Russian authors listed here. I think I will probably always unfairly judge any Russian author of the 20th/21st century as inferior to those titans of the 19th century.

    When I first read Dostoevsky something resonated very intimately with my soul, almost as if I were him in a previous life? I know that sounds insane but that’s the only way to describe the kinship I feel with him as a writer, probably more intensely than any other I’ve encountered. ‘Crime and Punishment’ was, of course, life-altering for me and when I read ‘Brothers Karamazov’ I felt like I was reading something on a comparable level of profundity as Shakespeare. I could go on about Dostoevsky ad nauseum but will stop there as you’ve heard me ramble on sufficiently about him.

    I was always a bit prejudiced against Tolstoy because I thought, for one thing, how could he be on a level with Dostoevsky and also because of his inflated self-regard. Was he really as great as he thought he was? I mean, he wasn’t even that impressed by Shakespeare. Where did this guy get off with that kind of audacity? The first thing I read was the somewhat dry and dull Sevastopol sketches. It was the one selection of his chosen for the Russian masterpieces in English translation class I took in college. What about some of those great stories/novellas? Go figure. I read ‘Anna Karenina’ in an early English translation and liked it initially but wasn’t sufficiently impressed by it until I read the Richard Pevear/Larissa Volokhonsky translation many years later (I recommend their translations for as many of these authors as you can find). When I finally read ‘War and Peace’ I was pleasantly surprised. Sure, it had dozens of characters, major and minor, and it was extremely long, but it was quite readable, in the Constance Garnett translation as well as the Pevear/Volokohonsky translation I finally read about eight years ago.

    I had the earliest encounter with Gogol, mainly through film and Classics Illustrated versions of ‘Taras Bulba’. Yes, ‘The Overcoat’ and ‘Dead Souls’ are justifiably regarded as great but there’s another noteworthy story that I read of his in that Russian Masterpieces class–the novella ‘Viy’. It’s one of his Ukrainian tales and it’s done as a fake folk tale. It’s also somewhat chilling, like a Ukrainian Edgar Allan Poe, Gogol’s contemporary. I would recommend it to anyone curious about more from this author, specifically the Pevear translation included in ‘The Collected Tales of Nicolai Gogol’. I won’t say anything else about it except that it was my instructor’s favorite tale by him. He had written a full-length book of criticism of Gogol and said it was one of the most ambiguous tales ever written. Thinking I would either please him or enrage him, I chose it as the subject of my term paper for that class. Fortunately, he was pleased. In fact, he suggested I should try to get it published in a scholarly journal. I wouldn’t go quite that far although I suppose it was a forerunner of the kinds of book reviews I write these days, about 40 years earlier. Anyway, I highly recommend that entire collection but specifically ‘Viy’.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I wonder if the blog sometimes has trouble posting longer comments? But glad your second attempt worked, bobess48! Terrific, eloquent comment!

      I’m also more a fan of Dostoyevsky than Tolstoy (though I also like the latter’s work). I can see Fyodor had an enormous impact on you; there are few authors that can do that to a person.

      And, yes, Tolstoy had a little too much self-regard — and faced fewer difficulties in life than the haunted Dostoyevsky, who was almost executed by firing squad, experienced a long imprisonment, had mental and physical health issues, financial troubles, etc.

      Finally, you’ve greatly intrigued me with your discussion of “Viy.” I’ll look for that Gogol work.

      Thank you!

      Liked by 1 person

  16. I’ve read Anna Karenina and Crime and Punishment. I didn’t find them to be easy reading but I did like them. The Brothers Karamazov and The Idiot are on my to read list. I’m not attempting War and Peace.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, Kira!

      I found “Crime and Punishment” to be a somewhat easier read than “Anna Karenina,” perhaps partly because it’s somewhat shorter. 🙂

      “The Brothers Karamazov” is well worth the time. Unfortunately, I haven’t gotten to “The Idiot” yet.

      “War and Peace” is so darn long. I read it many years ago when I didn’t have as many things to do as I do now. Don’t think it will be one of the novels I reread!

      Liked by 2 people

  17. My reading of Russian (and, well, all) novels is limited, but I really enjoyed “Anna Karenina” when I finally got to it a year or so ago, and thought the movie wasn’t half bad, either. I wish Russians today would put as much effort into novel writing as they seem to into computer hacking and social media bots to influence elections.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Thank you, Bill! Well said!

      Maybe all the Russian attempts to influence elections (in the U.S., France, etc.) are a sort of performance-art novel? 🙂

      (I’d like to see that “Anna Karenina” movie sometime.)

      Liked by 1 person

  18. Great choices there! And while it is certainly true that there is a dearth of female Russian writers, there are a few to choose from, if you want to check them out: Karolina Pavlova from the 19th century, with her half-prose, half-verse feminist novel “A Double Life,” Lidiya Chukovskaya and Evgeniya Ginsburg from amongst the Soviet dissidents, and Svetlana Alexievich and Anna Politkovskaya (journalists and non-fiction writers) from the post-Soviet era. And of course, the incomparable poets Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva! I believe it was Tsvetaeva who wrote, “To your crazy world I have only one answer: no!” which seems appropriate now 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • Thank you, elenapedigo! This is a VERY helpful list, and a great comment with a great ending.

      While I’ve read tons of novels by female writers from countries such as the U.S., Canada, England, and France, I’ve somehow never read a novel by a female Russian writer. And then there’s the poetry and nonfiction you cite…

      Thanks again!

      Like

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