I've recently read The Possessed by Elif Batuman, a book in which she discusses her adventures with Russian literature. She writes (amongst other things) about her experiences on a summer abroad in Uzbekistan, the international Tolstoy conference in Yasnaya Polyana (Tolstoy's estate) and travelling to St Petersburg to see a house made of ice. I really enjoyed reading her book and would definitely recommend it. Her style of writing is never overly academic, but with a clear passion for Russian literature - exactly what I'm trying to aim for! The tagline for The Possessed (named after the original translation of Dostoyevsky's The Demons) is 'Adventures with Russian books and the People Who Read Them'. As a person who reads Russian books and likes to have Russian adventures, I have been inspired to write my own journey through Russian literature which I have wittily titled The Obsessed (inspired by my slight obsession of all things Russian).
My first experience with Russian literature was in my first year at university. Unlike others I hadn't chosen to study Russian because of any previous interest in the history or literature of the country - I just wanted to learn the language. I decided to do the literature module though because I love reading.
The first book we read was One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhnitsyn; a story about the gulag written by somebody who had actually been there. One of the key things I found with the story was how matter of fact and not over emotional it was just like Solzhnitsyn himself. When he was expelled from the Soviet Union he moved to the USA but hated it. He reportedly said that the problem with America was that people were too happy and laid back and this got in the way of life. After the collapse of the USSR he returned to Russia immediately and loved Putin and his strong leadership.
The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov was my favourite book from my first year of Russian literature and is the story of the devil playing havoc in Moscow. I liked the more imaginative tone of the book - different to the usual epic love stories or tragedies Russian literature is known for. I also liked the back story about the pretention of Soviet literary circles. I find that I learn the most about history through studying novels.
Dr Zhivago by Boris Pasternak was the only book I had heard of on the reading list. I had to do a presentation on the novel but at the time found the whole 'epic love story' tediously boring. So I just watched the film. Still got a good mark though - I did my presentation on the poetry at the end of the novel which I had actually bothered to read. I really should go back and actually read it now.
When I studied in Petrozavodsk in July 2008 I had my first experience of reading Russian literature in the original Russian. The reading classes mainly consisted of our teacher making us read out a paragraph of a Russian short story then asking понятно (ponyatno - do you understand)? to which we all quickly nodded despite not having a clue what the paragraph had been about. It was in this class that I first read some of Chekov's short stories... although because I spent most of the class trying desperately to look like I understood what was going on I can't remember which ones exactly. Oops.
In my second year of university I entered a competition to win the contents of Alexa Chung's bag - I didn't want the contents, just the Mulburry they came in. I noticed one of the items she claimed to carry around was Nabokov's collection of short stories. I bought the book and started to read through them, finding many to be inspired by his early years growing up in Russia but then living abroad for the majority of his life. The main feature of Vladimir Nabokov's short stories is that they ALL end in tragedy. For example in his story A Russian Beauty the main character is Olga, a girl who was beautiful in her youth but never managed to marry. Once grown up she has had a hard life and lost her youth. Her friends set her up with a man who she agrees to wed. Then a year later she dies in childbirth. The interesting thing about this story is that the announcement of their engagement and her death is all in the same sentence...
"When they came to breakfast, Vera, her husband, and his maiden cousin, in utter silence, were performing nonexistent dances, each in a different corner, and Olga drawled out in an affectionate voice "What boors!" and next summer she died in childbirth."
It became almost a joke to me that Nabokov's stories would all end in "...and then she died." The stories are all so depressing - why would anyone carry them around? I doubt Alexa's claim that she keeps them in her handbag. (I didn't win the Mulburry by the way - if anyone would like to buy/win/steal one for me that would be lovely.)
On my year abroad in Moscow I was taught literature by a lovely woman who was really passionate about it and got excited by poetry she'd heard a thousand times before. Our first assignment was to learn Pushkin's Я вас любил.../I loved you once... by heart. Reciting poetry is a Russian custom we don't really have in England - from a young age Russian children learn poetry off by heart and will recite it at family parties throughout their life. Not only did I fall in love with the poem but I fell in love with Pushkin. He died in a dual against his wife's alleged lover Georges d'Anthes to protect his wife's honour. A real life love tragedy. Poor Pushkin though - losing his life for his cheating wife. What a cow.
Our literature classes were brilliant because our teacher was just so animated about life, love and literature. She encouraged us to read more and to get the most out of our lives in Moscow, always advising us on which plays to see at the theatre and which exhibitions and museums to go to. She loved stories about true love and would always gush about the heroes and romance of the stories we read. One day however she asked us about our 'real life love stories'. My friend Sinead told the lovely story of how her and her boyfriend met. My teacher loved it, turned to me, her eyes shining expectantly... "I DON'T HAVE A BOYFRIEND," I sobbed.
The summer after my year abroad (probably inspired by my literature teacher) I decided to broaden my knowledge of Russian literature and decided to start with Nabokov's most notorious novel Lolita about the inappropriate relationship between a grown man and a young girl. Reading the novel I felt preeeeetty uncomfortable... but it's another one ticked off the list.
During my final year at university I studied Russian Intellectual and Political Thought, a module in which I learnt the political situations surrounding many Russian authors when they wrote their most noteworthy pieces of work. We discussed how Nikolai Gogol's novel Dead Souls was a political commentary on the emancipation of the serfs, how Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Nikolay Chernyshevksy argued politics through their novels Notes from Underground and What is to be Done? and how censorship meant many authors in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries ended up in prison or mental asylums; most notably Pyotr Chaadayev who was declared insane after the circulation of his Philosophical Letters leading him to denounce his previous work in his Apology of a Madman.
Now I've finished university I actually want to read these books as I've studied the themes surrounding them so in depth! I decided to start with Leo Tolstoy's Anna Karenina (mainly because I found a copy on my boyfriend’s bookshelf and wanted to impress him by reading it). Whilst reading it I felt hugely intelligent because I did actually understand the political issues surrounding Tolstoy whilst he wrote the novel (thank you, Russian degree). The character of Levin is arguably based on Tolstoy himself; not only do they have the same name (Leo in Russian is Lev) but the character’s views seem to reflect Tolstoy's own outspoken views - he hated class hierarchy and would go and work in the fields alongside the peasants, just like the character in the novel. One of the things the novel is famous for is the repetition of names - there are multiple Annas, Alexis and Sergeis (or Anna's, Alexi's and Sergei's - apostrophe or not? Help please grammar geeks). In The Possessed Batuman says that she found the repetition of names 'remarkable, surprising, and true to life.' I however wasn't surprised. I always notice repetition of names in Russia a lot more than in England; on facebook I have 5 Olgas, 4 Anas and 4 Svetas, so to find this in a Russian novel seemed completely normal to me.
Now that I've finished my degree I've suddenly found that I can CHOOSE what I read next. This discovery fills me with pleasure and I have compiled a long reading list of works by Pasternak, Gogol, Dostoyevsky, Pelevin, Tolstoy and many others to go through. Next on the list: Dr Zhivago - finally gonna read it 4 years after my (first class) presentation on it.