Russian Spring reading challenge: wrap-up and retrospective

Time limit: I started on 17 March and gave myself until the end of May to read the five books on my list. I also had two alternates in reserve, in case any of the main books were difficult to find or too boring to bear.

How did I do?: I managed to read all of the books on my main list (Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, Nabokov’s Pale Fire, Tatyana Tolstaya’s The Slynx, Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, and Tolstoy’s Resurrection). I also read both of the alternates (Gogol’s Dead Souls and Dostoevsky’s Memoirs From the House of the Dead). Then, to top it off, I liked Turgenev so much that I read his Sketches from a Hunter’s Album separately, and I fit in Belkin’s Stories by Alexander Pushkin after Kaggsy mentioned the Alma Classics edition! This is, by any measure, pretty successful. It leads me to wonder, hopefully, if I can make my next challenge list longer. But I think the key here is always going to be a low bar. Five books in two months is almost inevitably doable, and then anything over and above that feels like a bonus.

Any favourites?: A toss-up between Turgenev and Gogol, I think. Fathers and Sons was a fantastic book to start with; lyrical language, down-to-earth dialogue and compellingly idiosyncratic characters made a great combination. It also showcases issues that recur in nineteenth-century Russian literature: the generation gap, the rise of radical progressive politics and the social aftershocks of emancipating the serfs. Turgenev is in love with the land, maybe in a slightly romanticizing way, but certainly in a very beautifully written way, which made Sketches From a Hunter’s Album a real pleasure to read. He’s so visual, so full of colour and light. Gogol, on the other hand, has little colour and less light, but Dead Souls is grotesquely compelling. The social climbing of Chichikov, which he plans to accomplish with a loan secured by his legal ownership of people who are, as Monty Python’s parrot sketch would have it, “ex-serfs”, is just too good not to find funny. The episodic nature of the novel, with its focus on the various hypocrisies and shortcomings of the landowners he swindles, lends itself to page-turning. It’s so hard to look away from appalling behaviour when it’s entertaining; Gogol knows that. Both of these were great successes for me.

Any disappointments?: Not really, not as such. Tolstoy’s Resurrection was his last novel and I didn’t expect it to be on the level of War and Peace or Anna Karenina, so I wasn’t disappointed when it wasn’t. Dostoevsky’s Memoirs from the House of the Dead had a slower, more contemplative pace, and less overt anguish, than I’d expected, but I wasn’t disappointed by it.

Any surprises?: Pale Fire really surprised me by being not only gnarly and brilliant (I’d expected that) but suspenseful, funny in places and terribly sad in others. It was the book that felt most like an explosion in the head to read. The Slynx is very weird, which again wasn’t a surprise as such, although I think Tolstaya’s other writing is quite different, so it might surprise someone who knows her other work better. I suppose the ending of The Slynx is a bit of a surprise; we’re used to the humanist triumph of the individual underdog in Western sci-fi/postapocalyptic fiction, and Tolstaya isn’t having any of that. Lermontov’s novel, A Hero of Our Time, was a bit of a surprise: structurally, it’s sort of a continual zoom shot, and the narrating voice switches around, and the vignettes come at the central character of Pechorin with an obliqueness that interested me. Perhaps most pleasingly, it was possible to retroactively spot Pushkin’s influence on Lermontov—character, voice, structure—when I read Belkin’s Stories.

Resolutions and discoveries: I really, really like Turgenev. I will be seeking out the rest of his oeuvre (in particular, Virgin Soil; Smoke; Rudin; Home of the Gentry; and First Love and Other Stories). I think I should expand more into Tolstoy’s short stories and novellas: perhaps The Kreutzer Sonata or The Death of Ivan Ilyich next. I’d like to tackle another Dostoevsky novel in the next year or so. Russian short stories in general deserved more attention in this round: Gogol and Chekhov both beckon.

Next?: I enjoyed the experience of deeper themed reading so much, I’m going to do it again. Keep your eyes peeled for the theme announcement post for my Summer Reading Challenge, coming soon!

2 thoughts on “Russian Spring reading challenge: wrap-up and retrospective

    1. I picked some good ones! I also think spring is an oddly appropriate time for Russian reading, but fully accept that that might just be my own experience.

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