Posts Tagged ‘Russian literature’

A Westerner tries to understand Russian literature

September 19, 2015

As I’ve grown older, I’ve developed the impression that Russia is so very different from anywhere I know and am familiar with. I’ve read its history and followed the ins and outs of communist politics for many years, and I’ve read a good deal of Russian literature, and explored a lot of the country as an armchair traveller, through many and varied travel writers. And the place seems vast and unknowable, the more I read and try to understand.

Partly this must be through the sheer size of the country, which defies the imagination. Many years ago, I was given a Soviet road atlas of the USSR. It’s a very slim volume, with very small-scale maps, and vast areas simply do not feature, not because the Russians had anything to hide, just because there are no roads. And the places where a single road goes on for five or six hundred kilometres, through a handful of small towns and then just stops…well. And then there’s the Russian idea of government: autocracy is as far as it seems to get – one all-powerful ruler, whether a tsar or a First Secretary of the CPSU or V Putin. It seems that only such a ruler can hold such a country together. Democracy they don’t do. When you get to religion, that is also alien to us in the West. Yes, it’s Christianity, but they think that theirs is the one and only true and original version, rather like the Church of Rome does. Which came first? Their services are obscure, in a mediaeval language, last for hours…

And yet I have been more than curiously fascinated by all this for many years; I am drawn to the unusual, the strange and inexplicable. Dostoevsky is hard work: The Idiot – what is it all about? and The Brothers Karamazov? at least Crime and Punishment is approachable, and frightening in its convincing psychology and paranoia. But I still find the ending, redemption through love and forced labour, hard to take, sentimental. It is a brilliant novel, though. Tolstoy is actually likeable, perhaps the closest a Russian gets to ‘the Western novel’ for me, even though they are vast tomes that make even Dickens look manageable… War and Peace I really like (I’ve read it three times so far) and am in awe of its vast scope, the sweep of its action, and the author’s direction of and dialogue with his readers. I like the ideas of Anna Kerenina and find the character of Levin fascinating, sometimes comprehensible and sometimes alien. Just as in France, the nineteenth century novel reached great heights in Russia.

Those writers had to grapple with the censorship and controls of Tsarist times; writers in the twentieth century didn’t have it anywhere near as easy, as the Soviets wanted to control everything, and literature was meant to serve the party and the revolution. I gather it produced a great deal of grim hack-work known as Socialist Realism, which I am sure was (badly) translated into English but probably never reached many bookshops here.

And those times also produced great writers and great literature. Stalin’s purges and the Great Patriotic War provide the background for Vassily Grossman‘s epic Life and Fate, and Anatoly Rybakov‘s astonishing Arbat trilogy. Grossman’s work has finally begun to achieve some of the recognition it merits – it really is a twentieth-century War and Peace – but Rybakov attracted a brief, post-Soviet flurry of interest with his first volume and then no further notice, which is a great pity. One can read historical accounts of the madness and paranoia that was the 1930s in the Soviet Union, but you can only begin to feel what it could have been like through a cast of convincing characters living through those times.

I still fail to understand how Mikhail Bulgakov survived, having written The Master and Margarita, but I have read that he was perhaps protected by Stalin. The devil appears in Moscow and creates scenes of utter mayhem; Pontius Pilate and his wife attempt to make sense of Jesus and his message; magic and anarchy reign. It’s a marvellous novel, a tour-de-force, but Socialist Realism it ain’t…

I’ve waxed lyrical about the Czech writer Jaroslav Hasek‘s hero Svejk, an anarchic anti-hero who creates chaos in the Austro-Hungarian war effort wherever he goes; he has his Soviet era equal in Ivan Chonkin, in a couple of novels by Vladimir Voinovich, where Soviet bureaucracy and managerial ineptitude are satirised quite mercilessly.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn‘s earlier works made a great impression on me at school. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a powerful read (the film is utterly unmemorable) as a political prisoner in the gulag shares his work, thoughts, hopes and fears, knowing that it’s back to the start every night for twenty years; Cancer Ward explores (as I recall) the vulnerabilities of the powerful and the weak, reduced to the same equality by the dread disease, its treatment and consequences, and The First Circle, which I think is probably the best, explores Stalin’s paranoid world, urge to spy on and control people through the eyes of prisoners and ‘free’ men involved in a research project that will allow the regime to identify people from recorded voices alone. Solzhenitsyn, like other Soviet era writers, tries hard to create Stalin as a fictional character, and thereby come to some understanding of his psychology and power.

I have yet to read anything written since the fall of the Soviet Union that is worth the eyeball time.

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Leo Tolstoy: Hadji Murat

December 4, 2014

41AtezQcGSL._AA160_To most people, the name Tolstoy suggests door-stoppers; if War & Peace or Anna Kerenina are all you’ve come across, then it’s true. But there are novellas, that look almost like afterthoughts in the face of the greats – The Death of Ivan Illich, that I wrote about a couple of months ago, Hadji Murat, which I’ve just finished reading for the next meeting of our Russian literature group, and Resurrection, which is next on my list, and which apparently brought about Tolstoy’s excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church.

I don’t think Tolstoy’s methods of writing are any different, just the scale. In Hadji Murat, apart from the eponymous hero who is present or backgrounded throughout the book, the story is populated by strongly but quite briefly delineated characters, sketched in as they move through Hadji Murat’s story in various ways. So, at various times, we get Russian military men, the Tsar himself, various Chechen companions, and his deadly enemy Shamil.

The novella is very strong on what would have been called ‘couleur locale‘ in its day, and which surely would have been extremely exotic to Tolstoy’s readers. There are the local landscapes of Chechnya, the Muslim tribes of the region with their customs, feuds, villages and religious practices, all deftly sketched in, along with the mutual incomprehension between the Russians and the local people.

Feuding and warfare are at the heart of the tragedy in this story; Hadji Murat is caught between a rock and a hard place, between the Russians to whom he surrenders in an attempt to save his family and honour from Shamil, and the tribal feuding which has given Shamil the upper hand in the region; Murat is the better soldier and campaigner and would be the ideal ally against the Russian invaders, but honour is at stake. The ending is brutal.

It is clear that nothing has changed in a century and a half: the Russians are still pursuing their attempts to overpower and control the fierce and independent Chechens; there is still senseless carnage on both sides, and Tolstoy is surely suggesting that warfare is utterly senseless, through this microcosm of the conflict. And I could make exactly the same observation about what the British have been up to in Afghanistan. Hadji Murat is a small masterpiece from a great writer.

Anton Chekhov: Three Sisters

November 12, 2014

41y5IgRroHL._AA160_It’s that time again: reading for the Russian literature group. I taught this play to drama students a number of times, and it was a challenge, because it’s so boring. Today I had a (small) revelation: it’s a nineteenth century version of Waiting for Godot. Once I had it in that viewfinder, it began to be rather more approachable.

There is something about a lot of mid to late nineteenth century Russian literature: it’s full of people with money and nothing to do, no skills or purpose or meaning in life. They literally don’t know what to do with themselves and they are bored to death. And there’s a sense that things cannot go on like this, something has to change. Sometimes there’s even a scent or a foreshadowing of revolution in the air…

The sisters in this play are stuck in the middle of nowhere – there’s a hell of a lot of middle of nowhere or back of beyond in Russia – if they work, their jobs are drudgery, and they have set their hopes of a new and more fulfilling life on getting back to Moscow, which they left thirteen years previously. In the same way, Vladimir and Estragon expect the arrival of Godot to change their lives, to bring some kind of meaning. The male characters in Three Sisters are utter wasters: a drunken doctor, a military man who resigns, threatens to go and do meaningful work eventually, and then is killed in a pointless duel the day before he is due to marry one of the sisters and start work. Another soldier ‘philosophises’ all the time (rambles pointlessly about inconsequential ideas) whilst conducting an affair with the married sister. Eventually the troops leave… and nobody goes to Moscow.

It seems an allegorical play – if there is any fathomable meaning to it – Russia is stuck in a time-warp, its people lack purpose, meaning to their lives; those with brains and ideas are idle and unproductive. That’s not to say that Chekhov was a revolutionary or that he was prophesying events twenty or so years in the future. But I do get the sense of a world that has lost its way here. (No change there, then, said he cynically.) Nobody is happy, even when they say they are.

I think Beckett does it better: I think the absurdity comes over more clearly and powerfully. But the end result is the same. And I suppose both plays can be looked from the perspective of tragedy: we were challenged a number of times at university to discuss and imagine whether tragedy was possible in the twentieth century. I always felt that Beckett achieved that sense of tragic waste in Waiting for Godot, and now I think that perhaps Chekhov does, too. There’s certainly some of the ‘there but for the grace of God go I’ in the plot, but I cannot really warm to any of the characters. To this outsider, there’s a powerful insight into the Russian soul.

Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

October 12, 2014

9780099541066A change from what I usually think of when I think of Tolstoy: not the door-stopper tomes of Anna Kerenina or War & Peace, but a novella: sixty scant pages, but a very powerful story. I wonder what the Russian literature group will make of this…

In a modernist way, Tolstoy begins at the end, with the awkward, elusive and rather bored reactions of Ivan Ilyich’s work colleagues to news of his demise. From this point, I think we know we are in for a challenging read: a nineteenth century writer not presenting the standard, respectful clichés and responses to death. Furthermore, Tolstoy takes us in close, inside the unspoken thoughts of his characters, revealing the more unpleasant sides to their souls.

Having established death, Tolstoy backtracks to Ivan Ilyich’s rather dull, routine and unsatisfactory life, his lack of continued success in his profession and his empty marriage. It takes a while before we realise just how cleverly Tolstoy is manipulating his readers: he has deliberately chosen to have his hero nondescript, ultimately a sad failure in our , and eventually his own, eyes: the movement towards death of a more contented, well-balanced and likeable person would have perhaps had an altogether different effect. I also realised that calling his hero Ivan Ilyich has an immediate significance for Russian readers which might escape us: the name is the equivalent of John Smith in England, and thus Tolstoy invests him with the potential to be almost an Everyman figure: this is what it will be like for all of us, this suffering and emptiness is a much more widespread lot that we may care to think.

Medically, the premise behind the ‘accident’ which causes Ivan Ilyich’s fatal illness is nonsensical, but that’s hardly the point: his death is a consequence of his striving for material success and conspicuous consumption; the illness is drawn out over enough time for the effects on the hero and his family to be clear.

Again we are manipulated by the nature of the narrative, which focuses solely on the death through the hero’s point of view, thoughts and consciousness: we are given hardly any response from the perspective of his wife, daughter and son, which underlines his isolation and suggests their total lack of love for him.

So he must come to terms with his unsatisfactory life, and his inevitable death, all on his own; yes, the family are there, on the periphery of things, but he seems to feel they resent him, and he has the picture of them getting on with living whilst he must get on with dying: this is true, and what else can one do? But Tolstoy makes us realise the pain and torment this can add to the physical process of death. And Ivan Ilyich comes to hate his family for it…

‘Tout le monde est le premier à mourir’ says the king in Ionesco’s Le Roi Se Meurt. ‘Jeder stirbt für sich allein’ as Hans Fallada called his powerful novel. And this is something that we all must come to realise one day. Sorry if I’ve depressed you; it is a very good read.

Dostoevsky: The Idiot

April 4, 2014

Another novel for our Russian literature group, and I’m really not sure what to make of it! Dostoevsky was clearly a man of ideas, a thinker, and had lots to say, but is he too complex or confusing for the modern reader?

Prince Mishkin, a Christ-like figure or a simpleton, depending on your take, certainly an epileptic, and someone often openly referred to as an idiot, returns to Russia after several years treatment in a Swiss sanatorium. Wherever he goes, he tells the honest truth about everything and anything, to anyone and everyone. People are struck, shocked, impressed even, and mayhem ensues because society doesn’t work on this basis, and though Mishkin may be honest and truthful, nobody else is. Many try to take advantage, financial and emotional.

There is a very complicated plot involving the Prince and two women, each of whom he may be said to love (?) and two other men, one a rich rogue and the other dying of consumption. Woven all through the novel is Dostoevsky’s social criticism, based on his own life experiences, criticism of lberalism, Catholicism, the Russian nobility, and nihilism, not to mention hypocrisy, deceit and decadence. Yet it seems increasingly clear that Prince Mishkin’s approach is not the answer. So is Christ also not the answer?

By the end of the novel, there has been much chaos, much unhappiness, murder, judgement and imprisonment, along with a complete relapse for the Prince.

And yet, once I got about half-way through it, the novel was strangely captivating, even compulsive at times. But it was also shapeless, wandering, constantly off at a tangent – indisciplined is probably the best word to describe it. Also, rather worrying, even unnerving, for this reader. It has got me thinking about whether time makes it much harder to approach and appreciate certain books. Certainly, the notes and family tree appended to the very good translation I read were very helpful. I may return to this broader question later on.

Catriona Kelly: Russian Literature

December 18, 2013

You may have noted from earlier posts that I belong to a Russian literature reading group. So far, I’ve had a very scattergun approach to what I’ve read, but I’ve now been motivated to try and develop my knowledge and understanding a bit more systematically, and to do some background reading on the subject. Our group leader recommended Catriona Kelly‘s book, in the ‘Brief Insight’ series, among some others.

I had never really realised how relatively recently literature as we know it had developed in Russia – from about the eighteenth century onwards – or how much Pushkin, who wrote in the early nineteenth, is their equivalent of our Shakespeare, in terms of veneration, at least. It had occurred to me that there was very little writing by women, at least that I’d come across in my personal reading. Then I thought about the fact that American literature is also very ‘new’ compared to ours, where we can go back to the fourteenth century in terms of what is recognisable to the lay reader as English, and much earlier in the realms of Anglo-Saxon literature.

It had certainly become clear to me over the years that Russians wrote and thought quite  differently from the English; this is surely explained, among other things, by the vastness of the land, the extremes of the climate and the fact that they have no democratic experience compared with many Western nations. And that’s without the mental gymnastics intellectuals had to engage in during the Soviet era. Russians’ experiences and society seemed to me to be much more communal/ collective compared with our greater development of individualism. Their writers were inclined to explore and wrestle with big ideas, and spiritual (for want of a better word) themes. This contrast is particularly clear if you look at the kind of things Russian and English authors were writing in the nineteenth century. I haven’t come across the English equivalent of War & Peace or Crime & Punishment, for instance, or the Russian equivalent of Persuasion or Villette.

Kelly’s book is a curious kettle of fish, really: if you know a little about the subject already, then you will make some sense of it, but if you were new to Russian literature, then I’m not so sure. She adopts a thematic approach, which makes sense, but links everything to Pushkin and changing approaches to him over time, which I’m less convinced by. There are plenty of illustrations and examples, but I was frustrated by the lack of detail in the end; a book on Russian literature, even an introductory one, which doesn’t really say very much about War & Peace? Anna Kerenina? most of Dostoevsky’s novels? I ended up feeling a little wiser, but not much, really I could have saved the eyeball time and the money and stuck to the reference books I had already…

However, I am glad to be re-discovering Russian classics that I’d read years ago and almost forgotten, and some that I haven’t met before.

Turgenev: Fathers & Sons

November 17, 2013

I’ve been re-reading this ready for the next meeting of a Russian literature group to which I belong. I have read quite widely (I think) in Russian literature; it’s very different, often obscure and challenging, and always an insight into another society and culture far removed from our own. Sometimes I gain insights into my own past family history, too.

It’s remarkable how different nineteenth century Russian novels and novelists were from the English ones we read today: no Jane Austens, Brontes, Eliots, and the themes wide in scope, philosophical, with an awareness, it seems, on the part of many writers that things could not go on much longer as they were, that major societal upheaval was on the cards, and this a couple of generations before the 1917 revolutions.

We see the generations of Russian aristocrats and peasants trapped in their traditional roles and behaviours, or trying to be a little bit different and usually failing, and the nihilist Bazarov is a breath of fresh air against this background. However, he reminded me, in his behaviour and approach, of the twentieth century existentialists, who also did not seem to be offering a terribly attractive alternative way of living one’s life, and who have also faded into obscurity. I like Bazarov: he’s a fore-runner of a different way of being, and at least really struggling with the contradictions of his times and himself.

The subtle interplay of the generations (see the title of the novel) is well done; Turgenev draws the reader to see the similarities and differences between them, and perhaps reflect on this interplay in her/his own life, what things change and which remain the same, passed unconsciously down through time. Class differences, too, are revealed – Bazarov’s origins are very different from his friend’s…

And I’m left with the question (often the same one at the end of many Russian novels) ‘what is this writer saying, in the end?’ Are we prisoners of our pasts, doomed to repeat usque ad infinitum, or can there be another way?

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