Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Twenty Most Important Russian Reads (a list)

In principle I am against all sorts of rankings and 'top' lists. There is always a degree of subjectivity in them. And anyway, a well-educated reader can always tell good literature from bad, but still have personal preferences based on taste, interests, mood and, not least of all, age and experience.

Still, lists are useful as guides or for comparison or argument. 

The web-site Accredited Online Colleges sent me their recently published list The Twenty Most Important Russian Reads. It has the usual set of Tolstoys and Dostoyevskys. Anna Karenina is number one. For Pushkin they recommend Eugene Onegin, his most renowned work, though probably it is better to start with the great writer's prose, The Captain's Daughter for example (Amazon link, also available for downloading here in a 1914 translation as Marie: A Story of Russian Love).

But I was thrilled to see a few entries there that not always make it onto English language reading lists in Russian literature. In particular I'd endorse the choice of Lermontov's The Hero of Our Time (available for downloading in several digital formats, including Kindle, from Gutenberg, here).

I am not sure whether Nabokov needs several entries (Lolita and Pnin). Lolita, for example, was originally written in English and its Russian version reads a bit rushed and is full of anglicisms. However, in the current climate of 'pervs under beds', the Colleges endorsement is really commendable. 'Unfairly thrown around today as a pervert’s indulgence,' they write, 'Lolita is an absorbing book that truly encompasses the honesty, ego and controversy that can define 20th century literature. Plus, it reads pretty fast compared to other Russian books on this list.'

I loved to see the great innovator Vladimir Mayakovsky's A Cloud in Trousers (English text, Part 1 here) in poetry recommendations. The blurb is slightly confusing, though. It speaks of 'suffering under revolution', while the poem was written in 1915, well before the Russian revolution of 1917, and it is primarily a love poem where Mayakovsky seeks to find balance between the intimate and the social.

I think that translations of English poetry into Russian are worth recommending for students of Russian literature and language, for example, Shakespeare's sonnets (several sonnets in Pasternak's translation are here).

Some of the Russian books well-known in the West did not make it onto Accredited Colleges list:

- Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita and Heart of a Dog (Amazon link). The Master and Margarita, the novel with parallel stories of Jesus and Pontius and a visit by Satan to the Moscow of 1920s, is full of hilarious satire and moving romance. According to the American literary blog Languagehat it is 'one of the most widely loved novels of the last century'. It circulates in about a dozen different translations.

- Mikhail Sholokhov's And Quiet Flows the Don (Amazon link) is the Nobel prize-winning epic of cossack life before the revolution and during the first world war and the Russian civil war. Pete Seeger's Where Have All the Flowers Gone is based on an old cossack song quoted in the novel.

- Yevgeny Zamyatin's We (Amazon link) is the first modern antiutopia (or distopia), predating and partly inspiring Orwell and Huxley. 

There are other important works of literature that were created during the Soviet period, but are not as widely known as they deserve in my opinion. Here are a few I'd add:

- Yuri Trifonov's The House on the Embankment (Amazon  link), The Exchange, short stories. Trifonov is the deepest observer of the moral dilemmas of Soviet life;

- Vassily Grossman's Life and Fate (Amazon link). The war epic, described as the Soviet War and Peace.

- Valentin Katayev's The Diamond Crown of Mine is a fictionalised 1977 memoir of Russian literary life, mostly of the 1920s period, with practically all important writers appearing under nicknames. The book has not been translated into English in full as far as I know. It was severely criticised by some, mostly for what it isn't rather than for what it is. Read an analysis in English here and the full Russian text is here.

For lovers of poetry I'd recommend 1960s poets Andrei Voznessensky, Bella Akhmadulina and Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Look for brilliant children's authors Kornei Chukovsky and Samuil Marshak, who translated many English nursery rhymes into Russian. I used them in teaching Russian to English speakers.

The Tale of Igor's Campaign is the 12th century poetic epic. Originally written in Old East Slavonic, it has several renditions in modern Russian and a few English translations, notably by Vladimir Nabokov (text here). It contains among other jewels Yaroslavna's Lament, included in Borodin's opera Prince Igor.

The recommendations include, somewhat surprisingly in what is supposed to be a list of Russian books, the American journalist David Remnick's Lenin's Tomb, the account of the dying years of the Soviet Union. I've read it, it's a good book, but for a better grasp of Russian national character I'd recommend The Russians and The New Russians by Hedrick Smith (Amazon links).

Thanks to Emma Taylor for sending the link.

 Yaroslavna's Lament scene from the film version of the opera (1969):


Language said...

Heh. They sent me the list too, but I gave up on it when I saw Lolita and Pnin: you're providing that short a list for all of Russian literature and including two books that aren't part of Russian literature?? And various ignorant comments annoyed me as well. But I'm glad it inspired you to make a better one!

Alexander Anichkin said...

but that's what attracted me - the mixture of standard fare with what may not be considered to be a part of Russia's own literary heritage. Isn't it exciting to think of Lolita and Pnin as both, Russian and American?

Ignorant comments some of them may be, but they show an original approach.

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