Russian Literature Challenge 2017

Keely at We Went Outside and Saw The Stars is hosting a Russian Literature Challenge for 2017 about which I’m very excited!  In the past couple of years, I’ve continued reading Tolstoy, have begun to delve into Dostoyevsky, have explored some of Chekhov’s works, and have aspirations to read more Pushkin. What better way to accomplish my plans than the Russian Literature Challenge?

Here are the levels to aim for:

  • Level One (Tolstoy): 1-3 books 
  • Level Two (Chekov): 4-6 books 
  • Level Three (Dostoevsky): 7-11 books
  • Level Four (Turgenev): 12+ books

You can count short stories, poetry, novels, novellas and plays in your book count.

As for my planned reads?  Ugh, I don’t really like plans because for me they always change, but I’ll list a few possibilities I might chose:

  1. Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky and a short story or two (my annoyance with D is turning into fascination)
  2. The Kreutzer Sonata by Leo Tolstoy & a short story or two
  3. Anna Akhmatova (poetry)
  4. The Diary of A Superfluous Man by Ivan Turgenev
  5. The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin and others
  6. A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov
  7. Dead Souls by Nikolia Gogol
  8. Oblomov by Ivan Goncharov
  9. Chekhov’s works
  10. Dr. Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
  11. Heart of A Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
  12. something by Vladimir Nabokov
  13. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn
  14. The Gulag Archipelago by Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn
  15. We by Yevgeny Zamyatin

Before I start, I’d also love to read Lectures on Russian Literature by Vladimir Nabokov.

I’m having many wishful thoughts, I know.  For someone who was complaining about not having enough challenges for 2017, my slate seems to be filling up rapidly.  I just hope I can keep up!

What is to Be Done? by Nikolai Chernyshevsky

“On the morning of July 11, 1856, the staff of one of the large hotels near the Moscow Railway Station in Petersburg was in a quandary, almost in a state of distress.”

What do Chernyshevsky, Nietzsche and Star Trek all have in common? They all believe in socialist Utopias, in that if we all just could see the higher purpose of man and allow our characters to be developed beyond the animalistic tendencies of greed and selfishness and jealousy, we would all be able to lead this idealistic life with money, freedom, happiness and, in Nietzsche’s case, right-thinking for all. Everyone would get exactly what they wanted in all things, and gratification and joy would abound everywhere.  And this would all come in an erupting revolution that would change the world as we know it. Sounds good, doesn’t it?  Except that there’s one catch.  In all of history, men have never been able to shed all strife and avarice and enmity towards each other.  We have never been able to only do good, love mercy and walk humbly.  So how these people can expect this to happen in the rumblings of revolution, yet also in an easily perceived development of social change, is quite beyond me.  “Delusional”is the word that springs first to mind.

The Young Seamstress
Jean-Francois Millet
source Wikiart

In Chernyshevsky’s, What Is To Be Done?, Véra Pálovna is a sheltered young woman with a strident, lower class, controlling mother.  Her mother tries to manipulate her with her machinations, but Véra, with stern self command unusual for her age and sex, manages to best her mother and ends up marrying a medical student and tutor, Dmítry Sergéich Lopukhóv, to escape her mother’s nagging domination.  While married to Lopukhóv, she starts her own sewing business, employing unusual business acumen to make it a success.  Likewise, her marriage is run in an unusual business-like way, to the apparent delight of both. Yet when their close friend, another medical student, Alexánder Matvéich Kirsánov, begins to form an attraction to Véra, an impending tragedy culminates, and finalizes in a most unexpected way.

Although What Is To Be Done? is almost unknown in classic fiction, among Russians it was considered one of the most influential books of nineteenth-century Russia for the ramification it had on human thought, and the effect it had on the history of the country.

Nikolai Gavrilovich Chernyshevsky was a staunch proponent of materialist philosophy, socialist political economy, and women’s liberation.  In his novel, he attempted to provide a remedy for all the social ills and the dilemmas that faced Russian society, believing that the controlling patriarchal hierarchy of the family, social inequality, and political and social problems were the main causes of the tyrannical, unbalanced, economic backwardness of the society. He disliked modern reform, advocating more radical steps.  Offering a blend of Russian traditional values, and ideas from Western Europe, he called for a social education that would bring sexual freedom, self-awareness, and prosperity.  However, his self-righteousness and intolerance of criticism eventually caused him to be barred from academia, and Chernyshevsky was forced to turn to journalism for an outlet.  His views eventually occasioned his arrest and he spent eighteen months in prison, which no doubt helped to advance him to the status of a martyr and enhanced the popularity of this book.  He became a symbol of the ultimate revolutionary Utopian socialist.

Moscow, Smolensky Boulevard, Study (1916)
Wassily Kadinsky
source Wikiart

This book served not only as a platform for Chernyshevsky’s ideas, but it was also a response to Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.  In Turgenev’s novel, Turgenev explores the relationship between reason and emotion, or perhaps how emotion can undermine one’s ideology.  In Fathers and Sons, both the nihilist Bazarov’s ideology and his underdeveloped grasp of emotion appear to cancel each other out, leaving him in a morass of ineffectuality in either.  In contrast, the nobleman Kirsanov reaches a level of contentment using a combination of idealism and reason, mirrored in his recognition of family values, the importance of nature and the land on which he lives. Chernyshevsky despised the novel and Turgenev’s portrayal of “new men”; with his novel, he strove to counter the portrayal, borrowing character names from Turgenev and metamorphosing Bazarov’s nihilism into rational egoism for what he thought allowed for more efficient action.  The ongoing debate continued with Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s response to What is To Be Done?, in his Notes from the Underground.

Perhaps I was suffering with extreme impatience with naive “genius” philosophers and writers, but the impatience only increased with Chernyshevsky.  Not only were his ideas born of some unrealistic fantasy, but the structure of his book was tedious.  The book wasn’t really a story, it was merely Chernyshevsky’s ideas.  Everyone is subordinate to his ideas, from his plot, to his characters, even his reader cannot escape.  While I know that authors control their stories, I like to feel their stories control them to some degree; that the story is born inside of them with not only the passionate ideas that they breed, but perhaps with an insight that is not quite explored or realized.  Then, voilà!  A “conversation” is begun between reader and writer. Yet, with Chernyshevsky, this certainly wasn’t the case.  Instead of speaking with you, he speaks at you.  In fact, he goes so far as to address his readers with an intentional condescension, not only confessing what he is doing to you with his prose, but leading you down garden paths of supposition, professing your own ideas and putting words in your mouth, then calling you an idiot because you followed what he was offering you.  I don’t understand it.  Often these people profess to know all the ills of society and all the solutions, but they have absolutely no social skills or even an appearance of love for humanity at all; or at least it doesn’t come out in their work.

I’m going to read Notes from the Underground next to finish this conversation. Dostoyevsky confuses me, but he has to be better than Chernyshevsky.  Doesn’t he ………???

 

2014 Russian Literature Challenge Wrap Up

This was one of my favourite challenges this year.  It pushed me to focus on all things Russian and helped me finish that epic Russian novel, War and Peace. It also introduced me to my first Dostoyevsky and my first Turgenev. Dostoyevsky is going to take more getting to know, but Turgenev was a delight ……. very different from what I expected of a usual Russian novel.
I had aimed at finishing 1 – 3 books but I ended up reading 5, so I’m pleased with myself. Here are the books I read:
War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

The Idiot by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev
Thanks to O at Behold the Stars for hosting this challenge!  I am now firmly entrench in a love of Russian Literature!

Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev

“Well, Piotr, not insight yet?” was the question asked on May the 20th, 1859, by a gentleman of a little over forty, in a dusty coat and checked trousers, who came out without his hat on to the low steps of the posting station at S—–.”

What sort of relationship do you have with your father?  Is it one of respect, deference, and honour, or do you think his ways too traditional, his thought process too archaic, and to keep a tentative understanding between you, do you have to employ a somewhat forced amiability, while underneath feeling an impatient scorn?

In Fathers and Sons, Turgenev examines the ideas of the new and old, progress and stagnation, and generational differences.  Yet while Turgenev portrays these conflicts within families and people, the themes echos the struggles that were occurring in Russia itself, between the common liberals and a nihilism movement that was growing and expanding at an alarming rate. Immediately the reader is tossed into the battle and while you expect to be buffeted to-and-fro between the two forces, one is surprised to find a more gently tossing, a disturbing reminder of how subtly, yet how pervasively this new philosophy could spread into the ideas and actions of the people.

Arkady Nikolaitch returns home from university with his good friend, Bazarov, a self-confessed nihilist, who issues a dripping contempt for most people around him.  Arkady maintains a good relationship with his father Nikolai Petrovitch and his uncle Pavel Petrovitch, yet through Bazarov’s influence he begins to question what he values about their antiquated thought and primitive ways.

With Bazarov’s nihilistic charm and new trendy ideas, his challenging of the status quo makes him a hero of the younger generation, while the older regard him either as dangerous, or rather like an unusual specimen that they can’t quite figure out.  Yet, in spite of renouncing life and its perceived useless order, we find that Bazarov is unable to escape it.  While visiting the house of a widowed woman, Anna Sergyevna Odintsov, he becomes enamoured of her, his emotion overriding his philosophy and eroding some of its immutable strength.

Ivan Turgenev hunting (1879)
Nikolai Dmitriev-Orenburgsky
source Wikipedia

Turgenev does a masterful job of having nature interplay with the characters, their ideas and emotional struggles.  For example, Bazarov is blind to the beauty around him  He merely uses nature, as he engages in his hobby of dissecting frogs,  pulling Nature itself apart to examine its inner workings.  He can only appreciate the slaughtered bits, but is unable to interact with the whole, Nature as life and beauty.

I don’t believe that Bazarov’s nihilism was a true nihilism.  He obviously wanted to reject the status quo and, in fact, had a quarrel with it, which is apparent in his simmering anger when he speaks about it.  He doesn’t just want to contradict it, he longs to disparage it.  His philosophy is a quasi-nihilism that supports his self-importance and that he uses more as a crutch. He is passionate about it but appears to use it merely as a play for power.  He has developed a philosophy, which is truly an anti-philosophy that prevents him from interacting with life itself.

While with Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky you often feel buffeted by the high emotion or deep philosophy, Turgenev’s approach is more gentle, lulling his ideas into the reader’s head with his pastoral description, and lyric pace.  Yet for being gentle, it is no less powerful.  Turgenev has conducted a true masterpiece!

Translated by Constance Garnett

 

“In these days the most useful thing we can do is to repudiate – and so we repudiate …”

(Note:  Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote a response to Fathers and Sons with his What is To Be Done? and Dostoyevsky wrote a response to What Is To Be Done?in his Notes From the Underground.  Further explanation of this triple conversation is contained in the reviews below.)



Trilogy:

 

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

“Well, Prince, so Genoa and Lucca are now just family estates of the Buonapartes …..”

I am very hesitant to even attempt to review this book.  How can one do even the slightest bit of justice to an epic like this? How can one even touch on the depth of the myriad of characters, not to mention communicate the complexities of a war that even the participants had difficulty distinguishing?  And how do you review such an epic tale without producing an epic review?

War and Peace follows the lives of five families of Tsarist Russia:  the Rostovs, the Bolkonskis, the Bezukhovs, the Kuragins and the Drubetskoys, their interactions and struggles, and the afflictions suffered by each set among the events leading up to and during Napoleon’s invasive campaign in the year of 1812.  Pierre Bezukhov is the illegitimate son of a nobleman and, through a series of circumstances, inherits a great  fortune.  His new position in society chafes against his natural character of simplicity, naiveté, and introspection. The Rostov family is a well-respected family, yet are in financial difficulties. The son, Nikolai, joins the Russian army, his brother, Petya, will soon follow, and their daughter, Natasha, a joyful free-spirit, becomes attached to a number of men throughout the story.  Sophia, an orphaned niece, is raised by the Rostovs, and shows a steady and loyal character as she pledges her love to Nikolai early in the novel.  Bolkonsky senior is a crochety old count who attempts to control his son, Andrei, and terrorizes his daughter, Maria.

Natasha Rostova (c. 1914)
Elisabeth Bohm
source Wikipedia

And so begins the dance between the cast of characters, sometimes a smooth waltz, and at others a frenzied tango.  There is contrast between generations, between old and new ideas, between life and its purpose, yet Tolstoy is adept as showing the gray tones overshadowing the blacks and whites; that situations are not always as they appear.

Tolstoy’s highest attribute is his ability to peel off the layers of each person and look into his soul.  His characters are crafted with such depth and such human motivations that the reader can only marvel at his skill.  And not only can he give birth to such characters, he understands them.  The scenes involving the Russian peasantry, who act completely contrary to reason, yet with such humanness, are evidence of Tolstoys profound comprehension of human nature and the human condition.

Count Leo Tolstoy, 1908
from Wikipedia

I love how Tolstoy lets humanity and compassion show through the animosity and the bloodletting of war.  One of my favourite characters of the novel was Ramballe, the French officer whom Pierre met in Bazdeev’s house and who showed brotherhood and goodwill despite that fact that, given the circumstances, they should have been pitted against each other as sworn enemies. Originally, Pierre is portrayed somewhat as a bumbling oaf, a man of a lower class who, by luck and circumstances has managed to rise to a position of prestige yet has never been able to cast aside his peasant-like origins. However by his actions in the novel, he becomes admirable, echoing a segment of humanity that shows kindness, goodness, bravery and integrity that shines out from the avariciousness and shallowness of high society.

Tolstoy himself was very ambiguous about his masterpiece stating that it was, “not a novel, even less is it a poem, and still less an historical chronicle.” He believed that if the work was masterful, it could not conform to accepted standards and therefore could not be labelled.

The Battle of Borodino by Louise-Françoise, Baron Lejeune, 1822
from Wikipedia 

“It is natural for us who were not living in those days to imagine that when half Russia had been conquered and the inhabitants were fleeing to distant provinces, and one levy after another was being raised for the desense of the fatherland, all Russians from the greatest to the least were solely engaged in sacrificing themselves, saving their fatherland, or weeping over its downfall.  The tales and descriptions speak only of the self-sacrifice, patriotic devotion, despair, grief, and the heroism of the Russians.  But it was not really so.  It appears so to us because we see only the general historic interest of that time and do not see all the personal human interests that people had.  Yet in reality those personal interest of the moment so much transcend the general interests that they always prevent the public interest from being felt or even noticed.  Most of the people at that time paid not attention to the general progress of events but were guided by their own private interests, and they were the very people whose activities at that period were most useful. Those who tried to understand the general course of events and to take part in it by self-sacrifice and heroism were the most useless members of society, they saw everything upside-down, and all they did for the common good turned out to be useless and foolish …….. Even those, fond of intellectual talk and of expressing their feelings, who discussed Russia’s position at the time involuntarily introduced into their conversation either a shade of pre tense and falsehood or useless condemnation and anger directed against people accused of actions no one could possibly be guilty of.  ………  Only unconscious action bears fruit, and he who plays a part in an historic event never understands its significance.  If he tries to realize it his efforts are fruitless. The more closely a man was engaged in the events then taking place in Russia the less did he realize their significance ……….”

Napoleon’s Retreat from Moscow
Adolf Northern
source Wikipedia

Perhaps Tolstoy is showing us that people are imperfect, with human vice and human foibles and that, in spite of trying to find heroics in war, the actions are only the actions of people trying to survive.  It is history looking backwards that make the heroes, but in reality, the characters in these trials of life are all people acting out their parts in a very human way.  There is no glory in war, only people trying to deal with the circumstances as best they can, and to get by with a little human dignity.  Success can be more a matter of chance than planning, and it is often luck or misfortune that places people in either the bright spotlight of fame, or the dark dungeons of villainy.

I know that many people shy away from War and Peace because of its length, and I did too for a long time.  Another criticism is that Tolstoy’s “war” parts are monotonous.  It certainly is a lengthy novel but by doing some cursive research on this period of Russian history, the reader can gain enough of a base to allow him to relax and be pulled into the story.  And by viewing the wars scenes, not only as history, but as a chance to learn from people’s reactions in situations of stress and conflict, I think they can give us more of an insight into human motivations.  So pick it up and let yourself be swept away into the Russia Empire of the early 1800s.  You won’t be disappointed!

(translated by Aylmer & Louise Maude)



Russian Lit Challenge 2014 – Check-In

Another challenge check-in and another challenge going along well.  My, it’s nice to get these check-ins on near completed challenges instead of the ones I’m struggling through.  My challenge goal was to read three Russian novels and so far I have read three, so my challenge, theoretically is complete.

Both Eugene Onegin and Doctor Zhivago were re-reads.  I think I’m becoming a re-read advocate because each book that I’ve re-read has given me such a deeper understanding of the work, which, of course, increases my appreciation of it.  This quote pretty much sums up my experience:

“In truly good writing no matter how many times you read it you do not know how it is done. That is beacause there is a mystery in all great writing and that mystery does not dis-sect out. It continues and it is always valid. Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.”                ~ Ernest Hemingway

Palace Square in winter
source Wikipedia

But, of course, I’m not done; I’m going to continue with the challenge.  At least before the end of the year I have Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev planned and in the summer I want to read Russian Thinkers by Isaiah Berlin.  The latter would count as a book for this challenge too ……. wouldn’t it ……????

Does anyone have any other suggestions of Russian books that I simply must read?  Any suggestions are welcome!

Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin

“My uncle, man of firm convictions …
By falling gravely ill, he’s won
A due respect for his afflictions —
The only clever thing he’s done.

I was so happy to get the chance to participate in Marian at Tanglewood’s Read-Along for my second read of Eugene Onegin in six months.  My first time I read the translation by Charles Johnston and this time chose to read James A. Falen’s translation.  But more comparisons on the two later.

It was such a joy to read such a lively and often tongue-in-cheek poem, yet Pushkin weaves his jaunty remarks throughout a tale of serious love, serious death and serious coming-of-age, crafting a remarkable masterpiece.

Since I already reviewed Eugene Onegin the first time I read it,  I will simply cover a couple of areas that stood out for me from a second read, that were not initially apparent.

First Edition of the novel
(source Wikipedia)

Comparing the two translations, I must say I enjoyed Falen more than Johnston.  Johnston’s words have a loftier tone and are perhaps more beautiful, but I think Falen captures the spirit of the poem more accurately.  A couple of times, his choice of words appeared awkward, yet he communicated the grave situations in balance with the bouncy, cheekiness of the narrator, with flair and apparent ease.  I would recommend him for a first-time reader.

This second read I noticed numerous instances of juxtaposition ………. Tatyana reading books that lead her to form a romantic infatuation with a man she’s barely spoken to vs. Tatyana reading books that lead her to a more mature and formed view of Onegin’s character; Tatyana’s love of the country and woods vs. her marital residence being in the city; Tatyana’s letter vs. Onegin’s letter; Onegin’s rejection of Tatyana, and then Tatyana’s rejection of Onegin; Onegin’s volatile response to a friend’s challenge that leads to that friend’s death vs. Onegin’s wish to seduce a friend’s wife which could have led to a similar circumstance.  It really became apparent to me this time that Onegin hadn’t learned anything.  It was clear to Tatyana, too.  She asks him pointedly, why he is suddenly pursuing her, and her harsh words demonstrate her mistrust of his motives:

” Why mark me out for your attention?
Is it perhaps my new ascension
To circles that you find more swank;
Or that I now have wealth and rank;
Or that my husband, maimed in battle,
Is held in high esteem at Court?
Or would my fall perhaps be sport,
A cause for all the monde to tattle —
Which might in turn bring you some claim
To social scandal’s kind of fame?”

Until he saw Tatyana the second time, he was the same foppish young man, sinking in ennui.  She revived him briefly, yet even in the ardent fog of love, his actions are not the actions of a man who has gone through a self-examination from the tragedy that had come from his initial conduct (the duel).  If he had managed to convince Tatyana to begin a relationship with him, it would have ended in another duel and another possible death of a friend.  I think Tatyana was wise enough to ascertain the baseness of his behaviour and foresaw the consequences.  She loved him as a man, yet rejected his ignoble character.

Statue of Alexander Pushkin
photo courtesy of Cliff (Flickr)
Creative Commons License

This quote by Onegin sums up his character throughout the poem:

“Yet I in futile dullness squander
These days allotted me by fate …..”

There is a pathos in his words and actions with which the reader can sympathize, hoping for a reversal in his chosen path, but at the end he is still walking the road of self-gratification and boredom, and we can only watch him disappear into the thickening mist …..

Russian Literature Challenge 2014

O at Behold the Stars came up with the wonderful idea of a Russian Literature challenge for 2014!

Everyone is probably wondering why on earth would I join another challenge?  I was wondering the same thing, but his one is too good to pass up.  I have been making my way through the Russian literary greats but much too slowly, and this challenge will help me focus and give me connection with friends who are doing the same thing as I.  What better reason to join?

The requirements are as follows:

Because this is a classics blog, I would limit it to classic literature. It can be a novel by a Russian author or a novel set in Russia, and how you choose to define “classic” is up to you. And, of course, you can use books from any other challenge you’ve set yourself. Finally, you can list list your books before you start, or, like me, you can just explore and read whatever comes your way.

There are four levels:

  • Level one: 1 – 3 books
  • Level two: 4 – 6 books
  • Level three: 7 – 12 books
  • Level four: 12 + books
If there’s enough interest, I’ll put a post up each quarter for people to link any posts may have written.
So, if you want to join in, write a post on your own blog writing your intentions, then leave me a comment so I know to read it.

I am going to go completely against my nature and be conservative, aiming for Level One.

1.  Eugene Onegin – Alexander Pushkin

2.  The Idiot – Fyodor Dostoyevsky

3.  Doctor Zhivago – Boris Pasternak

4.  War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy

5.  Fathers and Sons – Ivan Turgenev

The Eugene Onegin Read-Along will soon give me my first Russian book for the year.

Best of luck with the challenge, everyone!  And thanks to O for creating it!