The Irresistible Lure of Russian Literature

Recently, a curious thing happened in the Library’s beloved Peak Picks collection (still very much available at a curbside location near you, by the way); we featured a not unscholarly explication 19th Century Russian literature. Admittedly, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, in which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading, and life is by the hugely popular, iconoclastic American author George Saunders. Still…

I couldn’t be more thrilled. My own love affair with Russian literature goes back over thirty years, when a bored teen somehow managed to draw inferences about his banal suburban angst from the inky depths of Dostoyevsky’s Underground Man. From that sub-basement up to the peaks of War and Peace and The Brothers Karamazov, summited alone or read aloud with my wife, the great Russian authors have remained for me a source of awe, inspiration and rewarding perplexity. Clearly I’m not alone, to judge from the wealth of excellent books inspired by the varied and enigmatic genius of these writers.

My own favorite book on this topic – and probably the funniest – is The Possessed: Adventures with Russian Books and the People Who Read Them, in which Elif Batuman depicts the colorful ranks of besotted Russophile readers with an antic drollery worthy of Gogol himself. A great follow up to this is Sarah Wheeler’s Mud and Stars: Travels in Russia With Pushkin, Tolstoy, and Other Geniuses of the Golden Age, a vivid, lighthearted travelogue in quest of the Russian soul in its natural habitat, amidst the worst depredations of Russian life.

Anyone who knows what happens to Anna Karenina might think twice before turning to her for self-help advice, and yet Viv Groskop’s irreverent The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature draws all manner of examples – mostly bad – from the great Russian heroes and heroines, as does Andrew Kaufman in Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Troubled TimesAnd there is much to learn: perhaps only the Irish can rival the Russians at finding humor in the midst of misery. Tolstoy and the Purple Chair: My Year of Magical Reading is the heartfelt personal account of how Nina Sankovitch, grieving the loss of her sister, turned to great literature – Russian and otherwise – for solace and understanding.

For a deeper look at Tolstoy’s genius at work, check out Creating Anna Karenina: Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine, by Robert Blaisdell. Of course not everybody thought he was a genius; in The Kreutzer Sonata Variations, you can read Tolstoy’s daring and controversial novella, and then several counter-narratives penned by Tolstoy’s own wife and son, seeking to disavow the banned and blasphemous work.

Finally, enter the Soviet era with Peter Finn’s The Zhivago Affair, the intriguing true story of an incendiary novel smuggled across the Iron Curtain, only to be injected back into the USSR by our own CIA. Lara Prescott’s fascinating novel The Secrets We Kept tells the thrilling tale of the women who were instrumental in publishing Boris Pasternak’s Dr. Zhivago, and at what cost.

To learn about the one Russian writer you totally have my permission to skip, check out Adam Weiner’s How Bad Writing Destroyed the World: Ayn Rand and the Literary Origins of the Financial Crisis. Alan Greenspan’s opinion of Rand as a literary genius notwithstanding, she really is a terrible writer.

     ~ Posted by David W.

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