Russian Reading Recs?
October 17, 2007 2:24 PM   Subscribe

I want to read Russian literature - what do I read?

I saw Gary Kasparov speak last night, and I became really interested in reading more Russian literature. What should I read? What's most accessible to start? [I have a trauma over a high school reading of Crime & Punishment, but perhaps it's time to try again]

I think I'm starting this project to learn more about Russian culture, get a feel for the way the language works, and somehow sneak a peek into the Russian mindset.

If someone has an *accessible* history to rec, that would be great to. I confess my attention span is not what it could be these days - gimme more story, less analysis.
posted by beezy to Writing & Language (40 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
Please do try to read Crime and Punishment again. The Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky translation is outstanding. Avoid the Constance Garnett translation at all costs.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 2:33 PM on October 17, 2007

Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
posted by icarus at 2:54 PM on October 17, 2007

I really enjoyed "The Death Of Ivan Ilyich," a novella by Leo Tolstoy. It led me to read a lot of his work, all of which I enjoyed.
posted by InsanePenguin at 2:55 PM on October 17, 2007

Try reading Notes from Underground, and then returning to Crime and Punishment. No exploration of Russian literature/culture can be complete without Dostoyevsky!

Gogol's short stories (esp. "The Overcoat") are great, and if you like them, try Dead Souls.

Of course, Pushkin is wonderful and an absolute must. Lots of short stories, if you don't want to start with poetry.

The Master and Margarita is one of my favorite novels, period.

I remember reading Riasanovsky's History of Russia in college and liking it.
posted by lovecrafty at 2:57 PM on October 17, 2007

Seconding Master and Margarita. I found it an easy (and very good) read yet very different in style than the English 'literature' I was reading around the same time.

I also liked Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) although it's a bit more soap opera-ish.
posted by shelleycat at 3:00 PM on October 17, 2007

I found Fathers and Sons by Ivan Turgenev to be very enjoyable.
posted by iconomy at 3:04 PM on October 17, 2007

It's not solely or even accurately classified as Russian literature, but you simply must read Pnin by Nabokov, for an important (but certainly not exclusive) representation of what is Russian. Also for the sheer enjoyment.
posted by rudster at 3:09 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

The Brothers Karamazov
posted by asuprenant at 3:11 PM on October 17, 2007

What? No Chekhov? If long novels traumatize you, start with an anthology of his short stories!
posted by limon at 3:21 PM on October 17, 2007

master and margarita is my favorite book. it is soooo much better in the original, though that i feel like everyone else is missing something truly glorious. dostoevsky doesn't suffer so much in translation - please try crime and punishment again.

chekhov's plays! the three sisters is my favorite, but his comedies are good absolutely delightful as well.

gogol's short stories are a treat. read the nose.
posted by timory at 3:27 PM on October 17, 2007

I enjoyed Dostoyevsky's "The Idiot". I also liked some of the short stories in some ancient anthology of Russian short stories I found in a book sale (The Best Russian Short Stories (c) 1925 by The Modern Library). You can probably get something similar from your library. Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekov: all good. Flipping through this now I see a story "God Sees The Truth, But Waits" by Tolstoy. An intriguing enough title that I'll have to read it tonight.
posted by DarkForest at 3:28 PM on October 17, 2007

I would start with A Sportsman's Notebook, by Ivan Turgenev, which has been said to have been more influential in the liberation of the serfs in Russia than Uncle Tom's Cabin was in ending slavery in the US.

There is an intense, melancholy, autumnally elegiac sweetness to those tales which I have searched for in other books over decades without ever finding anything that comes close.

Please pardon me while I go off for a good afternoon cry.
posted by jamjam at 3:30 PM on October 17, 2007

Pushkin's Tales of Belkin had a massive effect on Russian literature, and are worth reading in their own right.
posted by bonaldi at 3:36 PM on October 17, 2007

I was going to say Sketches from a Hunter's Album by Turgenev
posted by chndrcks at 3:44 PM on October 17, 2007

A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch is a good let's-get-comfortable-with-everyone-having-several-confusing names introduction, as it's short and has few characters and is also very good.
posted by shakespeherian at 3:44 PM on October 17, 2007

I PREFER the Constance Garnet translations but that's just me.
Also I would suggest Oblomov by Goncharov.
posted by canoehead at 3:47 PM on October 17, 2007

Once you've exhausted the above suggestions you might try: Andrei Bely, Venedikt Erofeev, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Victor Pelevin (I'd recommend anything before Babylon), Andrei Platanov, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Abram Tertz (Andrei Sinyavsky), Vladimir Voinovich, Yevgeny Zamyatin (We). I hope I have the spellings correct.

There are many other - in fact I've enjoy almost all the Russian novels I've picked up, with the exception of those by Vladmir Sorokin and Yuri Buida.
posted by richardm at 3:52 PM on October 17, 2007

Many good suggestions already -- just wanted to second Goncharov's Oblomov. It's excellent and it seems like it's often overlooked.
posted by trip and a half at 4:03 PM on October 17, 2007

Hard-core and quite gruelling contemporary - Vladimir Sorokin. Surreal humour - Daniel Kharms.
posted by londongeezer at 4:10 PM on October 17, 2007

If you're looking for more accessible inroads, I would echo Gogol's short stories, and also We by Zamyatin (it's a dystopian science-fiction story, predating 1984 but very similar to it). But really, you can't go wrong with any of the classics. Even War and Peace, despite its length, is broken up into very digestible short chapters.

When I took a survey course in college we got a lot of historical and cultural information, which I found very helpful, especially with some of Gogol's stranger work, and with understanding the literary situation in Russia at the time a lot of the 19th century works were written. Unfortunately I don't have a recommendation for a good history. (I did like Goerge Steiner's literary analysis Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but it would probably have too many spoilers for someone just starting out.) Enjoy, you have some of the finest literature ever written before you.
posted by whir at 4:13 PM on October 17, 2007

I never understood the constant adoration Master and Margarita gets. Meh. With that said, you can't go wrong with:

The Gift by Nabokov
Dead Souls (book I) by Gogol
St. Petersburg by Bely
We by Zamyatin
The Death Of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.
posted by milarepa at 4:14 PM on October 17, 2007

I second (third? fourth?) Master and Margarita by Bulgakov. And Pnin by Nabokov. Those book is brilliant. Brothers Karamazov is kind of intimidating but this chapter of it is a must.
posted by mustcatchmooseandsquirrel at 4:15 PM on October 17, 2007

*are brilliant.
posted by mustcatchmooseandsquirrel at 4:15 PM on October 17, 2007

Lermontov, Gogol, Turgenev, Akhmatova, Bulgakov, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Babel, Solzhenitsyn, (A. Anatoli) Kuznetsov, Sholokhov, Goncharov, Nabokov, Zamyatin. I'd also recommend Ken Kalfus, a contemporary American author who lives in Russia and (IMHO) writes in the Russian idiom.

Then come back and by then I'll remember more.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 4:17 PM on October 17, 2007

Isaac Babel's short stories are just incredible. He's not as canonical as Chekov, but man is he good.

Turgenev's novels are quite good, but some people find them less "Russian" than other 19th century Russian novelists.
posted by OmieWise at 4:21 PM on October 17, 2007

Just aim for the bulls-eye: Anna Karenina and The Brothers Karamazov.

Also, there's a new translation of War and Peace by Pevear and Volokhonsky that should be excellent.
posted by josh at 4:32 PM on October 17, 2007

Just to clarify, do you intend to read it in Russian? Well, Anna Karenina either way.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 4:57 PM on October 17, 2007

The Penguin Book of New Russian Writing is a good compilation of works from the 1970s-90s.
posted by Mrs. Buck Turgidson at 5:09 PM on October 17, 2007

You have got to read Envy by Yuri Olesha. It's an odd and delightful little book written towards the beginning of the Stalinist era, that may or may not be a wicked satire of the Soviet mindset. I can't really explain what's so great about it, but it's only about 120 pages long. There's quite a good translation of the whole thing in Penguin's Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, which also has some stories by Babel and extracts from other writers mentioned here.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 5:12 PM on October 17, 2007

My top suggestions, without regard to length:
1. Crime and Punishment
2. The Gambler
3. The Eternal Husband
4. War and Peace
5. The Brothers Karamazov

I'm gonna have to dissent slightly w/regards to The Master and Margarita; I liked it, but not nearly as much as these others. Also, I don't see what's so hot about Pevear/Volokhonsky, nor what's so bad about Garnett. I can understand how some people might prefer Pevear/Volokhonsky, but a lot of people act like the difference is night and day, and it's really not. (Here's another thread about this.)
posted by equalpants at 5:13 PM on October 17, 2007

Great recommendations here; I especially second Oblomov and Nabokov (but I'd recommend the early novels, the ones he wrote in Russian, particularly The Gift [Dar], which to my mind is not only the best thing Nabokov ever wrote but one of the great novels of the past century). And try the historical detective novels of Boris Akunin for contemporary hijinks; they're tremendous fun (and will teach you a good bit of Russian history).

Also, I don't see what's so hot about Pevear/Volokhonsky, nor what's so bad about Garnett.

You are a discerning person. Poor old Constance takes a lot of grief because she wrote in a fairly musty Victorian style, but she was a perfectly good translator who generally got things right—if you find her style readable, go ahead and read her. And the much-lauded P&V basically suck. She knows Russian, he knows English, they sort of bat the text back and forth between them and then release it into the wild. I have no idea why they get such great press; I used to half-believe it myself, but this LH thread cured me of it. Read in particular the comments by MAB, who knows both Russian and English extremely well and is able to compare texts and translations in a way very few (and essentially no reviewers) can; I draw your attention in particular to "The P/V translations of Gogol and Master and Margarita are the worst of their batch. Definitely do not recommend."

My e-mail's languagehat at gmail; I love discussing this stuff if you ever want to!
posted by languagehat at 6:08 PM on October 17, 2007 [1 favorite]

Oh, I forgot about Tatyana Tolstaya—wonderful short stories that have been ably translated by Jamie Gambrell (if I remember correctly). Also, this looks like a very useful page of links.
posted by languagehat at 6:12 PM on October 17, 2007

A timely episode of On Point on the topic, you can listen to it online.
posted by knave at 7:02 PM on October 17, 2007

I would start with some of the short stories, namely Gogol (The Cloak) and Pushkin (The Queen of Spades). These are stories that are always in any compendium of Russian short stories. And, there's a reason for that: they're fantastic! In fact, here is an online collection called Best Russian Short Stories that contains both. You could either read it online or download it (though it downloads as a .txt, which isn't all that aesthetically pleasing). Of course, you can't go wrong with a Dostoevsky or Tolstoy short story. I would try out a couple short stories first, though, before moving on to one of the tomes.
posted by Mael Oui at 10:46 PM on October 17, 2007

Quick-start Tolstoy: How Much Land Does a Man Need? Seconding Daniil Kharms for surrealism, Solzhenitsyn for twentieth-century lived experiences (I read Gulag, which may be a but much, but I'd sight unseen second the recommendation for Ivan Denisovitch). On the poetry side of the line, I can recommend the works of Evgeny Evtushenko and Anna Akhmatova.

If you're willing to sample Ukrainian (formerly—gag—'Little Russian') literature, as well—and bear in mind, Gogol owes a lot to his Ukrainian roots—Here are some recommendations: Taras Shevchenko is a brilliant poet, and the father of Ukrainian literature. Maybe start with his 'Kateryna'. Ivan Franko and Lesya Ukrainka are the other persons of the Ukrainian literary trinity. My favorite of Franko's is 'Kameniari' (The Stonecutters) (here in Ukrainian with English translations).
posted by eritain at 10:54 PM on October 17, 2007

Isaac Babel's been mentioned several times but I had to urge you to read him nonetheless. He's one of the best writers of short fiction, period. I will never understand why Chekov made the canon grade and he did not. Maybe because his best subject is war, and his essential outlook is bleaker than bleak.
posted by melissa may at 12:10 AM on October 18, 2007

my top 3.

A hero of our times
Crime and punishment
the master and the margarita
posted by jannw at 1:02 AM on October 18, 2007

"Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida" is a great collection of Russian short stories from the classics to more modern ones.
posted by patricio at 2:01 AM on October 18, 2007

A Sportsman's Notebook by Turgenev and Cancer Ward by Solzhenitsyn
posted by doppleradar at 6:31 AM on October 18, 2007

I absolutely loved Chekhov's short stories; they're brilliant little slices of honest life, presented with empathy but not shying away from the darkness in many characters, and were highly influential in shaping the modern short story. The human angles and settings varied widely enough to keep me reading dozens and dozens of them. I started with the Garnett translations and moved onto a book of Pevear/Volokhovsky and while I found the latter more to my liking, as I said in the previous Russian translation thread they were both relatively interesting and accessible. (Can't speak to the issues that matter to translators in that fascinating thread at languagehat's site, though I'm prepared to accept that P/V are far more praised than they should be.)

The Master and Margarita has the advantage of being really, really funny. Might be just the thing to start with; it's a satire of 1920s Soviet life in which Satan and his pals, including a large talking cat, set up shop in bureaucratic Moscow. Hilarity ensues. The edition I enjoyed was translated by Mirra Ginsburg and included an interesting introduction to Bulgakov's life.

I also was captivated/horrified by some of Varlam Shalamov's Kolyma Tales, a collection of short stories about life in a Stalinist prison camp in the 1930s and 40s, which isn't as well known as some other gulag literature but is just stunningly honest, brutal and heart-wrenching.
posted by mediareport at 7:48 AM on October 18, 2007

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