Getting to Know Russian Literature: Part 1

Remember the Lord of War movie? I really liked the joke about suicide novelists being a Russian export on par with caviar and vodka, and only slightly losing to the ever popular Kalashnikovs. Suicide part aside, we are very proud of our literature, and you don’t get  to really experience Russia unless you’ve read some. Still, there’s one thing that can discourage you from trying, and it’s the “notorious wordiness” of Russian authors – in fact, many school students get terrified by the mere prospect of having to read War and Peace as the book itself is something that you can kill with. For that reason, we’ve decided to come up with a quick overview – and give you some advice on the shorter titles to start with.

Giving advice on literature is always hard; giving advice to people you don’t know personally is even harder, and in our case, it’s also the language barrier that I have to consider. So, let me get this straight: I never deemed myself a literature expert (and I don’t really trust people who do), and all of the below is a mixture of my personal opinions and some general knowledge. Having that covered, let’s get to the point!

Basically, the first “serious” authors that Russian schoolchildren get to read are Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov and Nikolai Gogol. The former two are most famous as poets, but their fiction has greatly contributed to the development of Russian literature. The latter, a truly diverse novelist, has both fathered a whole tradition in Russian realist fiction and was author to some of Russia’s most unique surrealist short stories. This triad opens the “Golden Age” of Russian literature and is especially good for starters, as finding their books in English is quite easy. Note that you have to be really careful with Gogol here: finding a good translation might be a problem, especially if it’s his short stories (like the Arabesques collection) that we’re talking about.

Still, if its international fame that we’re talking about, Russia’s most recognized writers would be Fyodor Dostoevsky, Leo Tolstoy and Anton Chekhov. Despite my love for Tolstoy, I wouldn’t really recommend him as your first Russian literature experience: his best works may seem tiringly long, and his style is something that takes time to get used to. For the “getting to know” purposes, Dostoevsky (deemed one of the world’s first existentialist writers and jokingly called the “father of Russian soap opera”) and Chekhov (an unrivaled master of short fiction) are much better suited. If I were to name some particular shorter titles, that would be Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and The Double, and any (and every) of Chekhov’s short stories.

The turn of the 20th century marks the Silver Age of Russian literature. Though this time is mostly associated with poets and poetry, it also featured some great novelists, as well. Among the notable writers of this period are Ivan Bunin, the first Russian author to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, Leonid Andreyev (Russian visionary of expressionism, stories like The Seven Who Were Hanged and Red Laugh are quite characteristic of his work), and Aleksandr Kuprin (personally, I’d recommend reading his The River of Life).

Well, this somewhat covers what’s generally considered the Russian literature classics. Look forward to our next article where we’ll be taking a peek at what the Russian literature of the 20th century is about!


 

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