In my decade-long project to read through Russian literature chronologically (with frequent divagations—I’m motivated but not monomaniacal), this year I reached 1976 and three famous novels generally considered the best their authors ever wrote. Spoiler: I loved them all. The first was Yuri Trifonov’s House on the Embankment; last year in this venue I wrote about three of his earlier “Moscow novels,” with their gripping stories of moral choices, and this is even better. Anyone who read Yuri Slezkine’s The House of Government will be familiar with the main location of the book and the kinds of people who lived there, and anyone who hasn’t read it should read my 2017 Year in Reading plug and remedy the omission posthaste. Trifonov binds the Stalinist past to the smugly self-seeking present remorselessly.
The second is Valentin Rasputin’s Farewell to Matyora. Matyora is the name of a fictional island in the Angara River in Siberia, as well as of the village that has flourished on it for 300 years; a downstream dam is about to flood the village, and the events are seen through the eyes of the aged Darya Pinigina, who has no conception of life beyond the village and no desire to evacuate it as the authorities demand. Her son, who lives on the mainland and understands the idea of progress, tries to tempt her with the better life available elsewhere, but she is stubbornly focused on the life she has been living and the other lives that have given the island its meaning; the novel opens with a crew of men demolishing the cemetery, and she and other aging villagers are horrified at the desecration. As the novel draws to its astonishing close there are more and more echoes of the Book of Revelations, and Rasputin makes you feel the apocalyptic nature of what to modern people represents simply a change of venue. To quote Darya: “The truth is in memory. Whoever has no memory has no life.”
After those novels, both deeply traditional in their different ways, it is a shock to turn to Sasha Sokolov’s A School for Fools. Sokolov didn’t come out of nowhere—he develops ideas and techniques from Gogol, Dostoevsky, and Joyce, to name a few predecessors—but he uses themes like doubling, madness, and sexual obsession in a way that is his own and feels completely new (Nabokov famously gave the book a rare blurb). It’s a pseudo-memoir by a young man who is in the titular school and is haunted by a beloved teacher who may or may not be dead; he himself may or may not have been transformed into a water lily. The hero of the book is language itself, and I’m happy to say that the previous inadequate translation has been superseded by Alexander Boguslawski’s superb one; it’s so good I not only bought it but read it through after finishing the Russian original, and I urge everyone to do the same. You won’t be disappointed. (And if you like it, you might want to give his follow-up a try, Between Dog and Wolf; it was long thought to be untranslatable, but Boguslawski did a remarkable job of turning it into English, and there are plenty of notes as well as a helpful introduction to orient you.)
If you were intrigued by my remark that Sokolov borrowed from Joyce, or if you’re simply interested in Russian literature and how it gets made, I urge you to run out and buy José Vergara’s All Future Plunges to the Past, which describes how Yuri Olesha, Vladimir Nabokov, Andrei Bitov, Sokolov, and Mikhail Shishkin have responded to Joyce and his shifting fortunes in the Soviet Union (initial excitement followed by suppression and secretive reading until the flood of translations in the 1980s). Vergara writes in a very readable way (unlike many academics I could name), and he brings all the books he discusses to vivid life. And at the end, he canvasses a bunch of living authors to get their takes on Joyce. I enjoyed it tremendously.
A couple of other fine works of scholarship about Russia: Anne Lounsbery’s Life Is Elsewhere is about the image of the provinces in Russian literature, which changed from an appreciation of diversity in the 18th century to a picture of dreary uniformity in the 19th (this had to do with the government’s push for standardization across the empire); and Jonathan Waterlow’s It’s Only a Joke, Comrade! looks at Stalin’s USSR from the perspective of the jokes people told (and sometimes got in trouble for). Waterlow knows people and how they adjust to the world around them, and does a good job of explaining how the jokes were (among other things) a way of sharing knowledge of how to act and what not to say under the norms of the new society. His brilliant description of Stalinist ideology as “a language of which there were no native speakers” has stayed with me.
My wife and I have a custom of bedtime reading, and lately I’ve been reading Ann Patchett to her; we both greatly enjoyed her novels The Magician’s Assistant, Commonwealth, and The Dutch House, and I recommend them to all and sundry—as I do the Chinese novel translated by Arthur Waley as Monkey. Waley has been criticized for leaving out most of the poetry, but we were happy just to follow the adventures of Monkey, Pigsy, and their fellow dubiously devout Buddhists as they travel to India to bring back holy scriptures. It’s a lot of fun.
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