2021: My Russian Classic Literature Reading Highlights

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2021 is another successful year for an extra-introverted bookworm who enjoys social distancing, and an efficient minimalist who can survive on a negligible budget. In 2021 I managed to finish nearly 28 books (excluding the academic reads, of course – I’m very serious about not mixing work’s reads with purposeful reads). Different from the “transcendent” year of 2020 when my most favorite centered around enlightening philosophy (Autobiography of a Yogi, Autobiography of Mohandas Gandhi – see my previous post), in 2021 I focused primarily on classic fiction, specifically European literature, among which, the 19th century and early 20th century Russian classics are the highlights. I fortunately got to read Pushkin, Gogol, (more of) Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev and Bulgakov, and I was completely awed by the philosophical and psychological ideology in many of the works. For those who wish to start on Russian classics but do not know where to begin, I suggest following this list which I also find very helpful.

Below are some of my most notable Russian classic reads of the year, listed in the chronological order. I read them all in Vietnamese as I believe that the Vietnamese translation of Russian classic (mostly done by reputable Vietnamese writers and researchers who lived through our socialist bonding decades) is better than a random English version that comes to my hand.

1. Eugene Onegin (1833) by Pushkin (4.10 Goodreads as of Dec 2021): The novel in verse is considered an influential Russian classic, one of the most notable works by the great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin. The work is vastly admired for its poetic artfulness; however, for readers of other languages we unfortunately may never get to fully appreciate its verse narrative because translation of poetry is always off somehow. The story follows bored Petersburg’s dandy Eugene Onegin to the Russian countryside where he met his idealistic poet friend Lensky, Lensky’s sociable but thoughtless fiancée Olga, and her quiet contemplative sister Tatyana. Revolving around their relationships, the story continues to explore human nature and human behaviours bound by social convention.

I finished the book in mere one day and loved it very much. A melancholy atmosphere covered the pages and still lingered after the final lines. It is a beautiful realist’s romance because it is no more romantic than realistic. It is no more about love than about vanity, cruelty, loneliness and ignorance. It feels like Eugene Onegin was somehow Pushkin’s prediction of his own fate. The great poet of Russia died in a tragic duel at the age of 37.

2. Dead Souls (1842) by Gogol (3.96 Goodreads as of Dec 2021): The unfinished novel is a master work of satirical narrative from the beginning to the end, and Nikolai Gogol was cited as an influence and inspiration by many renowned authors such as Dostoevsky, Bulgakov and Kafka. The novel follows the hero (or anti-hero more like) Chichikov’s business travels buying farmers’ dead souls across the countryside of Russia. Through Chichikov’s travel chronicles, readers get to meet face to face with the (mostly) spoiled Russian middle class families in the 19th century.

The novel ends in mid-sentence because its second part was destroyed by Gogol himself not long before his death and was never fully restored. Even though readers of the 21st century probably can hardly relate to the historical and social background of Dead Souls any longer, we may as well pay homage to a great satirical writer whose influence is reflected greatly in Bulgakov’s writing style that I will introduce in later part of this post. Gogol’s life was full of tragedy and contradiction. He died in agony at the age of 42 and was buried in Moscow. Perhaps it is true that great talents often come with great calamity.

3. Notes from Underground (1864) by Dostoevsky (4.15 Goodreads as of Dec 2021): This novella is said to be one of the first existentialist novels, and Dostoevsky is, accordingly, considered a major representative of existentialism. Notes from Underground, as suggested from its name, is a series of personal notes written by the fictional character from his self-claimed “underground” withdrawn life, which is full of self-pity, egoism, anger and hatred towards the whole society and his own self mostly. This is a very comical yet also disturbing and uncomfortable read because the more you dig in the more you find yourself and other people you know so well in this character. Even up to date, this type of “underground man” nature is still incredibly relevant. The only difference is that in nowadays hi-tech world these underground men can emerge from their caves and spill their hatred all over the internet & social media. Does it sound like yourself somehow? I personally really love this novella and have found an inspiration to develop my own writing style after reading the book. Dostoevsky is a true genius when it comes to explore and expose human nature and our darkest desires.

4. War and Peace (1867) by Leo Tolstoy (4.13 Goodreads as of Dec 2021): This epic war fiction turns out not a dictionary slash antique relic for display only as people often think of it, but quite a page turner in fact. Except for the final epilogue of about 40 pages where Tolstoy gave a critical monologue on the accounts of history documentation, military power, individual free will, the law of God and other philosophical and political aspects, the rest of the 1,200 pages are actually very readable, even exciting narratives to be exact. This work of intensive historical fiction is based on the backdrop of Napoleonic wars from 1805 to 1812 (including the French invasion of Russia and the burn-down of Moscow) and expresses Tolstoy’s extreme aversion towards war and all the business it concerns. Written roughly 50 years after the 1812 war, the book went against the majority of war hero narratives at that time, and it is still going against the current now, with Tolstoy’s particular depiction of Napoleon as a barbaric executor and an egocentric pathetic incompetent buffoon. Furthermore, War and Peace is amazingly detailed in portraying the life of the common soldiers, which shows how much research and how much empathy for the ordinary people that Tolstoy had put into the writing of this epic war fiction.

Even though War and Peace starts slowly and somewhat uninterestingly with a bourgeois soirée scene where the main characters are introduced, the later pages soon absorb readers in the enlightening journeys where each character gradually develops their personalities and views of war, peace, love, life and death. There is no perfect spiritual figure like Father Zosima in Brothers Karamazov or Bishop Myriel in Les Misérables to guide the way, instead the characters in War and Peace fight their own way to redemption – some via Freemason beliefs and imprisonment hardship, some via their own mistake and distress, and some only on their near-death moments. No character in War and Peace is perfect, they are all ordinary humans with their selfishness, lustiness, naivety, egotism, idealism and stupidity; and they continue to show fault and mediocrity till the very end, but well, that’s what humans really are – we are all faulty and imperfect until we can realize how meaningless and uninteresting our life is.  

5. The Idiot (1869) by Dostoevsky (4.18 Goodreads as of Dec 2021): The book is considered one of Dostoevsky’s most notable full-length novels together with Crime and Punishment (1866), Demons (1872) and The Brothers Karamazov (1880). The protagonist – “the Idiot”, Prince Myshskin, is depicted as a young man with a child’s kind-hearted soul and a philosopher’s mind. People dubbed him “an idiot” at first, but later all came to acknowledge his unusual kindness and intellect and turned to love him instead. The paradox, nevertheless, is: no matter how much they loved him, they couldn’t accept him into their society. Myshkin’s blind idealism & unreasonable kindness was popularly considered idiocy and a disease; and thus, he could never fit into an elite Russian society which was ruled by hypocrisy, lies and selfishness.

I like the book, but not so much, probably I should not have read The Brothers Karamazov too early. I have seen criticism of people who dislikes Dostoevsky’s works that says Dostoevsky is too manipulative of human minds, which I find very relevant in The Idiot. Nevertheless, this is still a beautiful read about the honouring yet also condemnation of the purest form of human nature – sincerity, honesty and unconditional kindness and forgiveness.

6. The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886) by Leo Tolstoy (4.10 Goodreads as of Dec 2021): This small novella is my favourite by Leo Tolstoy so far, a truly excellent read indeed that I would recommend to everyone, especially in today’s world where fatal diseases can come knocking on our doors anytime unannounced. The Death of Ivan Ilych narrates the thoughts and concerns of an ordinary man from the first moment of illness until the last moment of passing. Like most, this person was afraid of death and tried to delay it. He endured great physical pain but his mental pain was far greater. He found himself lonely, no one understood and loved him; he bitterly felt that his family considered him a burden and wanted him to die quickly. Nevertheless, he clung hard to his last bits of breath, even though he also saw through the mediocrity, monotone and meaninglessness he had been leading across his living years.

The Death of Ivan Ilych is about Ivan Ilych, but anyone, everyone will eventually be Ivan Ilych. I really love this book, and with this book only, Tolstoy shows the world why he is one of the leading spiritual and philosophical figures of the 19th and 20th and the inspiration for many, including Mahatma Gandhi.

7. Heart of a Dog (1925) by Bulgakov (4.10 Goodreads as of Dec 2021): This excellent novella is a great example of how satires and dark humors should be written. Greatly influenced and inspired by Gogol, Bulgakov adopted a complete satirical tone in Heart of a Dog which directly criticized current Soviet Bolshevik system while also posing a relentless question on the ethical issues in scientific research and experiments. The creation of “comrade Sharikov” is truly a ringing bell for scientists who want to be God. The book was first rejected for publication in the Soviet Union and only officially accepted in 1987, over 60 years after its debut, and has been widely celebrated ever since.

I am quite fond of this light book. It is a great fun short piece to read. The themes are clearly and straightforwardly conveyed, and the dark humors are carried without too much uncomfortable vulgarity. To be honest, I personally prefer Russian satires a lot more to American and British ones; I think the Russian seem to carry less vulgar and deliver more meaning, but of course it is just one person’s opinion. Nevertheless, Bulgakov was by all means a true master of dark humours, which probably shows best in his final work The Master and Margarita.

8. The Master and Margarita (1966-67) by Bulgakov (4.29 Goodreads as of Dec 2021): The novel hailed by critics as the foremost of Soviet satires was finished on the author’s deathbed whose heavily censored version was only published over 20 years after Bulgakov’s passing. The plot is full of wild imagination and fantasy: one day, Satan (disguised as a “foreign professor”) and his entourage (the ridiculously-looking ex-choirmaster clown Korovyev, the giant talkative black cat who walked on two legs Behemoth, the menacing fanged assassin Azazello and the beautiful naked witch/zombie/vampire Hella) suddenly appeared in atheist Moscow and brought about an immense chaos to the capital citizens who still refused to believe in God and devils till the very end.

The book is indeed a very comical page turner even though it contains a lot of religious and literary references which may cause certain difficulty for people who are not familiar with The Bible – New Testament, Goethe’s Faust or the classic Russian satirical tone often found in Gogol’s and Dostoevsky’s. To be honest, The Master and Margarita is not exactly to my liking as I find its fantasy a little too wild and vulgar: witchcraft, women nudity, Satan’s night ball, etc. Nonetheless, I quite enjoyed the book (though not as much as Heart of a Dog) and would recommend it to whomever looking for a bit of intellectual dark humours and satires to fill in their reading.

* All photos are from Goodreads.

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