A Philistine’s Tour of Russian Literature

I guess this has something to do with Russia. Lev Lagario, In the mountains of the Caucasus, 1879, Oil on Canvas.

Dear Copybara,
Yo can you send me a reading list of books by russian authors (and you’re [sic] recommended translations). Keep in mind I haven’t read a novel in a year.

Dear James,
You want the Pevear/Volokhonsky translations of all these books if you can get them. I have read more than a few of the other translations— and the Barnes and Noble type shit in the public domain written by bored 19th century Princetonians between clay court tennis and the first scotch of the night just aren’t good enough/ worth mentioning in the same breath as these new guys, who have written the authoritative Russian canon for our time. Ok they may have copied a lot from Constance Garnett, who is also probably worth buying, but for me they are usually better than her. It is impossible to overestimate their impact, a husband and wife team who share a Wikipedia page, awkward, cute. According to many Russians they depart significantly from the originals. I think that’s kind of cool if it allows me to read these indisputably great works of art, whoever wrote them. Kevin Mahnken wrote intelligently about the Pevear/Volokhonsy team just recently.

War and Peace changed my life and reminded me that subjectivity is an incredibly diverse experience but also that no human is ever alone out there. It seems to me that it might be the best remedy for melancholia of all types that humanity has yet devised. Tolstoy’s world is populated by both knaves and heroines, sure, he says, some people are better than others. Some are a lot better. Would we expect otherwise? I think a lot of the fiction today stupidly fights against that—the domestic kind of thing (Tom Perotta? Franzen? I have no idea but I’m pretty sure this exists) where everyone is simultaneously a minor league villain and an equally bumbling hero. Anyway bad or good, all of the characters in War and Peace have similarly rich interior lives: hopes, secret doubts, swagger, etc. Though it is less democratic in many ways, I like it better than Moby Dick, which should end the conversation, but I will also add it is better/ a higher achievement than Anna Karenina.

Try Death of Ivan Ilyich if you want less of a time waster. That deserves to be read in a day. However to be honest dude I recommend you sit down and read War and Peace and you will find it to be totally unlike the stereotypically boring long book everyone says it is. Take a pen with you when you go in and you will find yourself nodding and highlighting sentiments you have felt a thousand times but never dared share with any other human being.

I am not a Dostoyevsky fan as I might have complained to you before. Dude is abstract as fuck and obsessed with things that aren’t particularly worthwhile (God) in a way that I think Tolstoy probably looked down upon—and it feels freeing to admit I don’t understand that famous conversation between the dudes in the cell in The Brothers Karamazov except as a meaningless intellectual exercise—I don’t have any fun doing those either.

We proceed past Gogol’s Dead Souls which I have not read but have heard uniformly excellent things about, and Pasternak who by all accounts is pretty bad, don’t quite understand why I brought him up actually; to the great Soviet novel The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov—how about a talking, upright, giant Satanic cat wearing an expensive suit wreaking havoc across an officially godless Moscow. Need I say more?

I’m missing a few probably worthwhile but from there we follow Russian literature into the new world, from pogroms and Berlin to the tight sweaters of Wellesley that seem to have obsessed the man, to Cambridge and finally to picturesque Ithaca, Montreux lite, where we meet Nabokov on a hillside somewhere, who in his tweed-suited bumblings and misanthropy I think will in time be seen as Tolstoy’s equal, and maybe during that gulf we will have forgotten about many of the intervening others and see them as fakers. His respect for the written word is so totally complete that talking to him after reading him must have seemed insultingly grimy and opaque. Damn I might go right from War and Peace to him, anything he wrote really.



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