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. Continue reading “The Irresistible Lure of Russian Literature”