InRussia Reads

Literary tips on Russian culture, courtesy of
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    If you are unacquainted with acclaimed contemporary author Mikhail Shishkin, “Calligraphy Lesson: The Collected Stories” provides a comprehensive introduction. Drawing from the author’s oeuvre thus far, “Calligraphy Lesson” is the first English-language collection of short stories by the only author to have won all three of Russia’s most prestigious literary awards: Russian Booker, Big Book Award, and National Bestseller Award.

    Moscow-born Mikhail Shishkin is known for his linguistic virtuosity and use of universal human themes such as love, death, dignity, violence and humiliation. His first published work, the short story “Calligraphy Lesson,” appeared in Znamya magazine in 1993, and he has been compared to literary greats from Pushkin to Joyce. Of his literary influences, Shishkin says: “Bunin taught me not to compromise, and to go on believing in myself. Chekhov passed on his sense of humanity – that there can’t be any wholly negative characters in your text. And from Tolstoy I learned not to be afraid of being naïve.” An open opponent of the Russian government, he has lived predominantly in Zurich, Switzerland, since 1995.
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    Venedikt Erofeev’s pseudo-autobiographical “poem in prose” charts an electric train journey from Moscow to Petushki, a town in the Vladimir Oblast. Published in English as “Moscow-Petushki,” “Moscow to the End of the Line,” and “Moscow Stations” the work was written between 1969 and 1970, first published in 1973 in Israel, but wasn’t published in the Soviet Union until 1989. Previously, the alcoholic odyssey had been circulated in samizdat – the reproduction of censored publications to be passed from reader to reader.

    In this postmodern tale, our hero endeavors, yet again, to visit his young son: each previous attempt had failed on account of his excessive boozing. Alcohol provides the novel’s framework as the narrator muses philosophically (and drunkenly) on his past adventures, war, love and drinking, which could be an act of subversion or a postmodern escape from the mundane reality of the USSR.
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    How did Russia get from 1991 to 2015? In the grand tradition of Russian literary classics, Arkady Ostrovsky begins “The Invention of Russia” with a cast of characters, a hint to readers that the relationships will be tangled, the scope of the tale vast, and the drama plentiful.

    Instead of politicians or economists, his central characters are journalists, editors, television executives: those in charge of producing and broadcasting the country’s new identity and storyline. Whoever controls the media controls the country; therefore, the fight over Russia’s future played out on television, radio and in newsprint. “The Soviet Union expired not because it ran out of money […] but because it ran out of words,” he writes.

    Chock full of anecdotes, the book is an engaging rendition of Russia’s journey from Gorbachev’s illusions of democracy to Putin’s state of “aggression, hatred and chauvinism.” No incident or individual receives sole blame, but that does not mean no one is responsible. Ostrovsky insists that everyone bears responsibility: the media, intelligentsia, oligarchs, politicians, and, above all, the nation as a whole.
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    It was the prolific Constance Garnett – translator of 70 works of Russian literature – who first introduced Natasha, Andrei and Pierre to English audiences with her 1903 translation of “War and Peace.” Despite her habit of skipping over difficult passages, Garnett’s prose encouraged other translators to try their hand at “War and Peace.” As the husband-and-wife team of Pevear and Volokhonsky says: “We keep reading [Tolstoy], because in his artistic work he deals with universal conditions and almost never with topical issues, and because he has such an extraordinary gift for concrete realization.”
  • Leo Tolstoy
    War and Peace
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    What would you include in a concise autobiography of your life thus far? Professional accomplishments? Sexual conquests? Noteworthy meals? Moreover, would you adhere to the truth or poke fun at your reader?

    From his teenage years to his death in 1904, Chekhov wrote thousands of letters to a wide range of correspondents. In a letter to V.A. Tihonov dated February 23, 1892, Chekhov includes an autobiography of 200-odd words. The teasing missive opens with assurances that Tihonov was not at all drunk at Shtcheglov’s name-day party, but that his “jigitivka on the cabman’s box excited nothing but general delight.” Chekhov’s reader had requested an autobiography from the author, and he obliges – continuing in this mischievous tone.

    The 32-year-old writer and doctor dances around facts and fancies, relating such academic honors as the Pushkin Prize in almost the same breath as he names Tihonov as a fellow orgy participant at a name-day party. He begins with facts, but swiftly transitions to the nonsensical. “I have sinned in the dramatic line too, though with moderation. I have been translated into all the languages with the exception of the foreign ones,” he writes.

    While he dutifully relates his birthplace, academic path and subsequent professional activities, Chekhov sprinkles in juicy details such as oysters sampled in Europe and the claim that he had fathomed love’s mysteries by the age of 13. His sign off is a perfect summation: “All that is nonsense though. Write what you like. If you haven’t facts make up with lyricism.”
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    Ilya, the protagonist in “Between Dog and Wolf,” wanders through fictional lands based on the Volga region. Sokolov’s novel is a linguistic whirlwind that destabilizes time, characters, and even death. The one constant is the Russian landscape on the upper Volga River.

    Vladimir Nabokov had welcomed Sokolov’s unconventional debut novel “A School for Fools” (1976), calling it “an enchanting, tragic, and touching book.” His second novel, written in 1980, takes the linguistic gymnastics further – it’s a sublime parody of numerous literary styles and traditions in which language trumps plot. The author himself coined the term “proeziia” for his work – in between prose and poetry.

    Alexander Pushkin and “Eugene Onegin,” his novel-in-verse, were particularly influential in the creation of “Between Dog and Wolf.” The Latin phrase “inter canem et lupum” (between dog and wolf) is an idiomatic expression meaning twilight – the time of day when a shepherd cannot tell a wolf from a dog guarding his flock. Having arrived in Russia via France (“entre chien et loup”), the idiom first appeared in Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin,” and pops up in the first epigraph of Sokolov’s novel.

    Although considered by many to be Sokolov’s best work, the novel’s puns, rhymes, and neologisms had previously prevented “Between Dog and Wolf” from reaching an English audience.
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    Platonov was beloved by Sholokhov, Gorky, Pasternak, and Bulgakov; despised by Stalin. The Soviet writer, poet and playwright may be best known for the novel “The Foundation Pit” and the surrealist nature of his prose, but the majority of his work was banned during his lifetime for its anti-collectivism and experimental form.

    Published in January by Columbia University Press, “Fourteen Little Red Huts and Other Plays” is a collection of three works by the anti-Stalinist author: “The Hurdy-Gurdy” (translated by Susan Larsen), “Fourteen Little Red Huts (translated by Robert Chandler), and “Grandmother’s Little Hut” (translated by Jesse Irwin). Chandler also provides the introduction.

    Translator Robert Chandler loves Andrey Platonov’s novel “The Foundation Pit” so much that he translated it twice. While best known for his Platonov translations, Robert Chandler’s body of work also includes Vasily Grossman’s “Life and Fate and Everything Flows”; Pushkin’s “The Captain’s Daughter”; and Nikolai Leskov’s “Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk.”
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