Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Who is Sasha and how did he get into the room?

Have you ever tried to read Russian Literature? If you have, I applaud your courage, if you have not, I understand your fear. Russian authors can be quite daunting with their casts of thousands and the depression they radiate, but dismay is not the only answer.

If you really want to tackle the challenge that Dostoevsky or Tolstoy represent, there are a few basic tools that might come in handy:

1. A list of names, nicknames (with a brief description of the character's relationships to other characters). You will find a list like this on page xx of the introduction to version of Anna Karenina by Pevear and Volokhonsky (which is also the best literary translation on the market), so put the bookmark flap there and use a regular bookmark to keep your spot. If the book you want to read does not include a list like this, go to Wikipedia and compile something.

2. An idea of the purpose of the work or a perspective you find attractive. I can enjoy Tolstoy or Dostoevsky because I believe them to be a type of collective spiritual autobiography. They explore the depths to which the world has fallen and reveal it to us: if a person is good, we corrupt them, if we cannot corupt them, we kill them or drive them to suicide etc. In general, one can view Russian literature as a whole through this lens, but it is certainly not the only perspective, you may want to read for the development of Marxist thought, or the content of the social enviornment, or you may want to trace the tendancy of the authors to create paradoxical characters, or you may want to read in the psychologial insights of their times (or ours). The secret here is that you must have something other than escapism or easy entertainment in mind if you are to enjoy (or finish) a classic Russian work of literature.



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