sitting on the edge of the sandbox, biting my tongue

September 19, 2015

A Fall Reading List: Russian Lit 101

Filed under: parenting, politics, Russia, Ukraine — Tags: , , , , , — edge of the sandbox @ 1:19 pm

If you are like me, you can’t find a free minute during summers.  But in fall, as soon as the kids head off to school, it’s time to relax, read up… blog.  So, fellow fall readers, I have a few suggestions with a Russo-Ukrainian twist, but please note, having read it in the original Russian I don’t vouch for the quality of translation:

  1. Mikhail Bulgakov Heart of A Dog.  This is possibly the best reactionary novella of all times.  Its setting is post-revolutionary Russia and its hero, Dr. Preobrajensky, is a stubborn carrier of tradition of the old order, a scientific genius and a brilliant conversationalist who fills the book with zingers, among them:

[i]f I, instead of performing surgeries every evening, will take up singing with a choir in my apartment, I will have devastation.  If I, walking into a washroom, start, pardon me, peeing beyond the toilet and Zina and Daria Petrovna will follow the suit, there will be devastation in the washroom.  Therefore, devastation is not in the closets, it’s in the heads.

#Ferguson.

Dr. Preobrajensky performs a revolutionary surgery turning a lovely stray dog named Sharik into a man, but as a man Sharik turns out to be a brute who got chummy with the commissars.  Not surprisingly, the commissars banned the book.  Written in 1925, it was officially released in the Soviet Union only in 1987.

Bulgakov remains controversial.  Last year Ukraine banned the film based on his novel The White Guard because of the Kiev-born author’s politically incorrect opinions on the civil war that followed the Bolshevik revolution.  Heart of A Dog gets nailed, deservingly, for eugenics, but we love it anyway for its biting satire of the communist regime.

2. Nikolai Gogol Taras Bulba.  This is what all Russians and Ukrainians know about Ukraine, but Americans, as a rule, don’t begin to suspect.  Nikolai Gogol, a great, if seriously mad, 19th century Russian writer, was a descendant of the Cossacks born in what is now Poltava region of Ukraine.  That being early 19th century, the name most commonly applied to the area was Malorossia or Little Russia, a reference to Ukraine’s status as a cradle of Russian civilization.

Gogol’s early work was fused with what we would now call Ukrainian themes, and Bulba is the last and most developed in this line.  Taras Bulba is set at the birth of  the Ukrainian nation, a Cossack revolt against Poles, in which Orthodox Christianity, as Gogol illustrates, was a rallying cry of the future Ukrainians.  Poles are Catholic, and to this day the border of Western civilization cuts through Ukraine, separating its Catholic and Orthodox regions.

Bulba is Romanticism for men — we women cringe at the carnage and prefer Gogol’s later, very different works.  This arguably the single most important literary work to understand Ukraine has in it a satirical description of a pogrom.  For our 8th grade matriculation exam in Russian literature we were made to memorize a page-long passage about Taras being burnt at the stake by the Poles.  Before meeting his violent death, Taras kills his son Andriy for falling in love with a Polish girl and betraying the Cossack cause.  It is Taras’s pronouncement “I gave you life, I will take it”, not the pogrom, that had our Jewish mothers railing against the book.

XVII century Bohdan Khmelnitsky’s uprising against the Poles ended with the Cossack asking Moscow for protection.  The death of Andriy did not put an end to Polish-Ukrainian, and more generally western-Ukrainian alliances, and yet Ukraine always ends up back with Russia — as it will this time around.

3. Yuri Trifonov House on The Embankment. This is an appropriately subtle book about Earth-shattering historic events. One student who was in the seminar I took ten years ago thought that Americans may read the book and enjoy it, but miss the subject matter completely.  I decided to test out this theory on my then boyfriend and now husband who got the message after the first appearance of the relevant euphemism.

4. Natalia Baranskaya A Week Like Any Other.  This is an affirmative action pick, selected primarily to illustrate a political point.  A Week Like Any Other is a story about a Soviet woman having it all.  Not.

Protagonist Olga works second shift at home, and, we are told, likes her work very much.  She harbors resentment against her husband rather than her government.  Her husband, to be sure, is of little help, but at least he’s around, and he’s sober.

For the little ones (they need to entertain themselves while parents are reading, no?):

  1. Ivan Turgenev Mumu. One of the most moving anti-slavery narratives ever written.  The toughest hooligans cry when this short story is read aloud in class.  Older kids may ask questions like “What does it mean that Gerasim was deaf and dumb?” and “You mean there was slavery outside of the US?”
  2. Alexander Afanasiev Russian Fairy Tales.  In this case I suggest the edition lavishly illustrated by the hugely influential early 20th century Russian Art Nouveau artist Ivan Bilibin.  If this edition is not available any other will do, I suppose, as long as the tales are really by Afanasiev and not rewritten by some shmuck with a political agenda.

Afanasiev was Russia’s Grimm, except that he worked several decades later and with better material.  Russian folk tales contain specific Russian motifs, but the synopsis is the same as in German or French or any other Indo-European folk narrative.  However, it is presumed that the tales first emerged in Asia and then traveled west across the Eurasian continent, and as the narratives travel, they lost some of their detail.  Russian tales, being more Asian are more complete.

As is often the case with folklore, Afanasiev gets really dark really quick, I recall being scared silly of the tales read in my pre-school

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