Literature inside out

Daily prompt: When reading for fun, do you usually choose fiction or non-fiction? Do you have an idea why you prefer one over the other?
I doubt if in whole my life I read more than 5 non-fiction books. I am humanitarian in my nature, I love good literature and then it was just the way I was brought up – in Russian school you have an extensive literature program, I believe I had around 6-8 hours of it per week. Moreover, I had a truly amazing teacher, and when you are in school this factor is always among the most important to make one love or hate a subject.
It is very interesting though, how the same topic is viewed from inside and outside the country. For example, if I ask a foreigner, whom of the Russian writers does he know, the answer will be Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. Who on earth would read it in Russia? Of cause they are included in the school program, so you are supposed to spend days and days reading how Raskolnikov in the fever was going around the city thinking about killing the old lady. To be honest, I didn’t – I had a period of rebellion (better don’t ask me against what – now I can hardly understand what one can prove not reading Dostoyevsky, but teenagers are strange). The other curious think is that if I ask a foreigner, what was the main claim of Raskolnikov, his idea, his doubt, reflecting the whole idea of the book, nobody would answer. In Russia this phrase is one of the most popular aphorisms (whether I am a trembling creature or whether I have the right). Dostoyevsky is very hard to read, he was an outstanding thinker and philosopher but not a great writer. His style is heavy, hard to follow, oversaturated and moreover the language is outdated, so it is very hard to follow. Please forgive me my claim, but his books are simply untranslatable in English: in Russian with the help of prefixes and suffixes we can express tens of slightest variation in the meaning of a word. In English it is impossible. Example: my name is Anna. In Russian people may call me Anya, Anechka, Anyutochka, Anyuta, Anyutka, An’ka etc. Each of this has a slightly different meaning and will be used by different people to address me. In English the only possible expression to translate it all is little Anna, which is not true – I am adult and tall. Moreover, passive voice is quite untypical for Russian and very typical for English – this also makes something get lost in translation.
Ok, when it comes to Tolstoy wise people say you should read him after 30. So I listened to wise people and skipped him as well from my program. I am very decisive to come back to him at the proper age.
If you ask a Russian person, who is the most important figure in the literature, without any doubt the answer will be Pushkin. He is Shakespeare of our language, his Eugeny Onegin is known by heart by many Russian-learners, and trust me it is an amazing books. Though it is poetry, which takes us back to the same problem – hard to translate. Once I had a chance to read a peace in Swedish, and it was very good, I was quite surprised.
When it comes to the titles, the two most popular books in Russia I guess are 12 Chairs and Master and Margharita. The former, written by Il’f and Petrov, is a humoristic story of a very entrepreneurial young man, and it is quoted on every corner in Russia. I don’t know how much a person without a relevant cultural background and solid knowledge of Russian history can understand the humor, but this work is of exceptional importance. The second mentioned book is written by Mikhail Bulgakov, it is a mysterious novel, where Devil is coming to Soviet Moscow to check the state of the capital. The plot is developed simultaneously in several époques, and thus there are several main heroes (the charming Cat on the picture is one of them). On contrast with 12 chairs, it is not place and culture specific reading, so if you’d like to read someone Russian but lighter than Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky – you know what to grab.
Is there any underestimated or not that popular abroad book in your language? What would you recommend?
P.S. When my friends come to visit St Petersburg, I take them on the walk on Raskolnikov’s traces and show where each of the heroes lived. I forgot where the flat of the old lady was supposed to be, so each time I show a different window and they happily take a picture. So if online you find a lot of very different pictures of the flat, well, that’s my fault.
P.P.S. When I just moved to Italy, I was reading Dostoyevsky non-stop. It was my own way of missing Motherland.
P.P.P.S. I decided to list the most important of Russian writers, in case you’d like to go deeper in your research. These are the must of all school programs, the basics and the “pillars” (not in chronological order, just a brainstorm listing):
1. Pushkin: Stories of Belkin; Eugeni Onegin 2. Lermontov: Hero of our days 3. Gogol: Shinel, Dead Souls, The night before the Christmas 4. Chekhov: plays, Cherry Garden, Unkle Vanya, Three Sisters etc. 5 Bunin: A man from San-Francisco 6. Turgenev: Asya,  Garnet Armband 7. Leskov: Left-handed 8. Pasternak: Doctor Zhivago 9. A. Tolstoy: Killer Whale 10. Sholokhov: Quite Don 11. Solzhenitsyn: Gulag archipelago 12 Zamyatin: We 13. Dovlatov: the foreigner and so much more.. but it is a good list for a start 🙂
There are three eternal questions of Russian reality were formulated by Herzen, Chernyshevsky and Nekrasov and are, respectively: Who is Guilty? What to do? and Who has a good life in Russia? (The names of their epic novels).
P.P.P.P.S. If you go to the Russian Wikipedia and look for “Russian Literature” you will see Pushkin, “the greatest Russian poet, the creator of the Russian literature language” Guess who is on the English article main picture? Tolstoy and Chekhov 

25 thoughts on “Literature inside out

  1. This is an interesting take on Russian literature. I, for one, found it very difficult to read Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky because, like you say, I found it too dense. My husband, on the other hand, has read their books several times and swears by their writing. Since he loves Russian literature, I should find out if he knows who Pushkin is.

    • You know, Tolstoy is a talented and sophisticated writer, very different from rough and rustic Dostoyevsky style, but his philosophy and obsession with detail is what pushes me away from his books. I like his simple short stories though 🙂
      Does he knows? 🙂

      • Yeah, he enjoys Dostoyevsky’s writing more than Tolstoy. He has also read and liked Pushkin, Chekhov, Gogol, Gorky and Bulgakov. He likes the honesty of their writing. Its frighteningly honest and sad in a beautiful way, he says.
        PS — one more fact I have learnt about my husband

      • 😉 oh, he is very knowledgeable in Russian literature! Yes, he is totally right – many writers showed the life of poor, underprivileged, “small” people of very hard destiny – the rich and successful were very seen without books. For Dostoyevsky, Chechov and Gorky it was the basics of their oeuvre

  2. It is good to see someone here who appreciates Russian literature. Although I am not Russian, this is what I have been brought up with. I can recommend you some more Russian books if you want, both classical and modern literature. Have you read Gogol’s ‘Dead Souls’ maybe? Or have you heard of Yurii Dombrovskii and his ‘Faculty of Unnecessary Things’?

  3. Hi,
    nice information given out here and i have not known about others… but i definitely know about tolstoy… his children stories are world famous and very well composed… you brought back few memories…

    • Hi 🙂

      I guess they are the best. You know, among other very good short stories authors are Kuprin and Bunin. The latter got the Nobel Price in literature. Ahhh, and Chekhov! Of cause Chekhov. Well, actually we can add Dovlatov. I’d better stop 🙂

      • I am from india and i have not read much from russian authors. Lev tolstoy was a great guy, the moral from these stories were very good and the stories were very interesting. There was something to learn from those fantasies

      • 🙂 I guess they were not so much fantasies – he wrote a lot about his own childhood and then he wrote something as a reply to those days political situation… But I agree, there is a lot of moral in everything he wrote

      • No-no, maybe you are right: there are just so many stories he wrote, that it depends on the period you read from him 🙂
        Thank you very much, it is very pleasant to hear 🙂 No, I am not, just Russia (as India) has a very strong cooking traditions and so we tend to cook a lot


    Oh! I got a chance to read Eugeny and Pushkin courtesy: my friend majoring in Russian , they seriously are good with their work.

    And as you if I will find the literature worth recommending over some of the read ones…I will be happy doing so but it seems they are already following everything INDIAN very well out there 😀 . For me people in my own country need some good advise over it :/ sad but true.

  5. gahlearner

    I’m way over thirty, cough, maybe I should tackle Tolstoy eventually. While I was reading your suggestions, all of them very interesting, and certainly worth checking out, I was thinking about the sad fact how wars, and cold wars, and political separation also separates understanding of culture. Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy are names, of course. Pushkin I’ve heard of—and people more learned in the literatures surely will recognize many of the others, and have actually read them–but apart from the classics: I know nothing. Are there interesting Science Fiction authors, for instance? Translations are always a problem, but if I can read a translation from Spanish or Polish, I could read one from Russian as well. I just never really thought about it.
    Sorry, long reply again.

    • About science fiction the most famous is Beliaev, but I have to refresh my memories on the subject. I will come back to you with answer 🙂
      Yes, that’s true. In my course book I’ve read that in soviet union movies were primitive – I screamed in the class that one who never have seen a single Soviet movie couldn’t write so, because the Soviet heritage in this sphere is gigantic. And when it comes to American movies, so praised, only very few are good (behind the silliness, pitiness and shallowness of many many others). When you try to present other nation as a primitive, you always start with the culture, as the culture is what determines us.
      Thank you, I am always happy to got long replies, mean person thought about my words 🙂

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