What Country Produces the Best Literature?
All the blog posts in this series are based on Czeslaw Milosz’s book Milosz’s ABC’s. There, in the form of a brief and alphabetically-ordered personal encyclopedia, was the story of the life of a Nobel Prize winning poet, of the people, places, and things that meant the most to him.
My own ABCs consist of places I have loved (Iceland, Patagonia, Quebec), things I feared (Earthquakes), writers I have admired (Chesterton, Balzac, Proust, and Borges); locales associated with my past life (Cleveland and Dartmouth College), people who have influenced me (John F. Kennedy), foods I love (Olives), and things I love to do (Automobiles and Books). This blog entry is my own humble attempt to imitate a writer whom I have read on and off for thirty years without having sated my curiosity. Consequently, over the weeks to come, you will see a number of postings under the heading “Tarnmoor’s ABCs” that will attempt to do for my life what Milosz accomplished for his. To see my other entries under this category, hit the tag below marked “ABCs”. I don’t guarantee that I will use up all 26 letters of the alphabet, but I’ll do my best. Today the letter is “R” for Russian Novels.
I’ll come right out and say that, over the last two hundred years, Russia has produced the world’s best prose fiction. (They might well also have produced the greatest poetry, but I cannot judge as I do not know the language.) In addition to the 19th century titans—Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy—there are other greats whose work continues to amaze me. I am thinking of Ivan Turgenev, Nikolai Gogol, Ivan Goncharov, Nikolai Leskov, Alexander Pushkin, Anton Chekhov, and Mikhail Lermontov,
Despite the travails of the Communist Century, Russian novels continued to be the best in the world, what with authors like Maxim Gorky, Anatoly Rybakov, Victor Serge (even though he wrote in French), Vladimir Nabokov, Vassily Grossman, Victor Zamyatin, Boris and Arkady Strugatsky, Aleksander Solzhenitsyn, Andrey Gelasimov, Mikhail Bulgakov, Boris Pasternak, Andrey Platonov, Ivan Bunin, Varlam Shalamov, and Sergei Lukyanenko.
And these are just the ones I’ve read! KI suspect I could find another dozen if only I lived long enough.
The most difficult thing most people find about Russian novels is the names of the characters. Let’s take for example the name of one of the major characters in Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Alexei Fyodorovich Karamazov is he youngest son of Fyodor Karamazov and bears his father’s first name in his patronymic (Fyodorovich). In addition to being called Alexei Fyodorovich, you are likely to see him called by one of his nicknames, which include Alyosha, Alyoshka, Alyoshenka, Alyoshechka, Alexeichik, Lyosha, and Lyoshenka—all depending on who is speaking. After a few decades, you get used to the nicknames. No longer do I ask myself, “Is Dostoyevsky introducing another character here?”
Also, Russian novels are likely to be l-o-n-g. That’s all right with me, because I usually get so wrapped up in the stories that I almost don’t notice it.
If you want to get started, I suggest you pick something more nearly contemporary, such as Sergeyyi Lukyanenko’s eerie Night Watch, with its vampires and witches. (The Russian movie based on it is also worth seeing.)
So, enjoy yourselves, and give my regards to Nevsky Prospekt!