Apr 3rd 2018

A wry, sly look at the Russian classics

by Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson is a music critic with particular interest in piano. 

Johnson worked as a reporter and editor in New York, Moscow, Paris and London over his journalism career. He covered European technology for Business Week for five years, and served nine years as chief editor of International Management magazine and was chief editor of the French technology weekly 01 Informatique. He also spent four years as Moscow correspondent of The Associated Press. He is the author of five books.

Michael Johnson is based in Bordeaux. Besides English and French he is also fluent in Russian.

You can order Michael Johnson's most recent book, a bilingual book, French and English, with drawings by Johnson:

“Portraitures and caricatures:  Conductors, Pianist, Composers”


Serious readers like to see a review or two about big, complicated novels before deciding whether to devote their life to them.  The thousand-page Russian classics all seem to carry this warning flag. 

Now I have found the ultimate collection of raves of eleven of “The Russians”, as they are called, and the rest of my reading life is more or less set. 

British author Viv Groskop has just published a witty, wacky, chatty and very personal look at The Russians, “The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature” (Penguin Books, Fig Tree imprint, 2017). I found it irresistible.

In one concise volume she surveys the main works of Tolstoy, Pasternak, Akhmatova, Turgenev, Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Solzhenitsyn, Bulgakov and Gogol. She calls her book a “love letter” to Russian writers, and it certainly is that. By turns, she analyzes the books and, without warning, drops in a hilarious personal  and self-deprecating anecdote – sometimes unrelated to the book in question.

Part of my literary journey has been about guilt, for I had aIready devoured these books as a student and then as a young correspondent in Moscow, but I allowed them to fade completely from memory as life took over. Recently, however, I went back to Boris Pasternak’s “Doctor Zhivago” and found it a totally new experience -- and a book well worth the Nobel Prize in 1958 , which Pasternak was pressured into declining. Zhivago didn’t fit the concept of Socialist realism, the deadly official literary form imposed on writers by the Soviets (e.g., “Boy loves girl; girl loves tractor.”) 

She calls Pasternak’s prose style “relaxed, fluid and easygoing” and credits him with changing the way Russians write. But the critic in Groskop is hard to hold back. She finds the many coincidences in the book “almost comical”. As in these examples: “Your mother’s died? Here’s a lovely new family for you. Lonely and in need of a wife? Why not marry the adopted daughter of  and best friend (Tonya) you’ve been brought up with your whole life?” Et cetera. 

She titled her book for the Tolstoy 1076-page   “Anna Karenina” and devotes one of her longer essays to explaining it. “It is not surprising that Anna Karenina is frequently described as the greatest novel of all time … William Faulkner held this view, as did Dostoevsky. (Vladimir) Nabokov – who was an incredibly grumpy person and did not suffer fools gladly …. said the style was ‘flawless magic’”. She found it reads beautifully and “is full of light and warmth. And yet when you sit back and think about its ultimate meaning, it is like the breath of Satan.” She concludes that the novel’s message is that one should not want anything too selfishly “because you will end up killing yourself”.

Ms. Groskop is qualified in Russian language and literature but relied on translations for this work, about 20 years maturing in her mind before she started to write. But her book is no dusty tome for the academic sewing circle. It is a wry, sly and irreverent look at the rich Russian treasure of love, betrayal, violence, melancholy, comedy and tragedy that has excited a small niche of readers East and West for the past hundred years. It’s the niche element that gets under her skin. “For too long, it (Russian literature) has belonged to very clever people who want to keep it for themselves. All literature should be for everyone,” she writes.

One of the charms of her narrative is Ms. Groskop’s open modesty. Although she has two university degrees in Russian, she denies that she is an expert.  “I am a shambling amateur who wants to encourage other shambling amateurs.” She only got where she is today “by using iron discipline and and bison grass vodka.”

These eleven books explore what answers the writers have found to life’s questions, big and small. The books are also about times in life “when you behave like an idiot which, for some reason, for me, have been remarkably frequent and don’t seem to be getting any less so as I get older.”

The underlying theme of her essays is her own compulsion to prove to herself that her name is of Russian origin, leading her to try to twist herself from a provincial English girl into a bona fide Russian. This was her underlying idiot-like behavior, and she gradually comes to admit that she had been on the wrong track for many years before giving up the quest.

She finds hard lessons in Turgenev when her love affair with a Ukrainian man started to turn sour. “The drunker I got, the more Russian I felt …and the deeper I fell in love with someone who was very much not the right person and who didn’t love me back.” It is in literature such as Turgenev, she believes, that “we really see who we are – and perhaps more importantly, who we don’t want to be.”

I was taken by her analysis of Alexander Pushkin’s “Eugene Onegin” in part because she came across in her research “Feud”, a recent book by the American Alex Beam.  She calls Beam’s recounting of the Onegin translation feud between Nabokov and Edmund Wilson  (“two pompous twits”) “so entertaining”. “Very few books have given me as much pleasure and as many laughs.”

Her treatment of Tolstoy’s  “War and Peace” is a tour de force. A book that is rarely read to the finish, she compressed the 1000-plus pages into two and one-half pages. After detailing the loves and losses of a large cast of characters, she tackles the epilogue. “Tolstoy concludes that free will is an illusion. He goes on a bit about Copernicus and Newton and Voltaire. That’s it.”

Near the end of the book she explains that she is a contented mother of three, married to an Englishman, and actually of Polish-Jewish origin. She looked back somewhat bemused on her pursuit of Russianness. “I had been stupid for wanting to be different, for wanting to prove something about my roots. I had become addicted to chasing a dream. Giving up on it was sobering.”



This article is brought to you by the author who owns the copyright to the text.

Should you want to support the author’s creative work you can use the PayPal “Donate” button below.

Your donation is a transaction between you and the author. The proceeds go directly to the author’s PayPal account in full less PayPal’s commission.

Facts & Arts neither receives information about you, nor of your donation, nor does Facts & Arts receive a commission.

Facts & Arts does not pay the author, nor takes paid by the author, for the posting of the author's material on Facts & Arts. Facts & Arts finances its operations by selling advertising space.



Browse articles by author

More Literary Essays

Sep 3rd 2023
EXTRACTS: "Harvard historian Calder Walton confronts this challenge head on in a new book, Spies: The Epic Intelligence War Between East and West, which recounts the rise and role of modern intelligence capabilities through the history of the West’s competition with the Russian security services. It is an ambitious and entertaining story, but one that is also firmly grounded in academic research." ---- "But Walton does more than add previously secret details to old accounts. In an example of “applied history,” he uses his examination of the past to weigh in on current events,..." ---- "Thanks to President Vladimir Putin – a former KGB man himself – KGB alumni dominate the Russian elite, including its corrupt economic oligarchy, and lead the powerful coercive institutions that are transforming Russia into an authoritarian security state. Whatever their labels, Russia’s security services have formed the backbone of its ruling regimes in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries."
Aug 19th 2023
EXTRACTS: "A short novel of rare beauty, Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book (1972) tells the story of Sophia, a six-year-old girl spending the summer with her grandmother on a remote island in the Gulf of Finland." ---- "Life on the island is a reminder of a simpler life that wasn’t simple at all. It is not described as an idyllic retreat from urban life – there is no electricity, the weather is temperamental, the sea can be deadly – and yet The Summer Book will leave you yearning for the chance to live a slower-paced, more deliberate, self-reliant life. The coexistence of humanity and nature is one of the recurring themes in Jansson’s art, and on her island the two are in harmony."
May 4th 2023
EXTYRACTS: "Alain Badiou is undoubtedly among the greatest of living philosophers; one that may fairly be credited with rescuing philosophy from academic irrelevance,..." --- "Images of the Present Time (Columbia University Press, 2023) contains a series of three seminars delivered between 2001 and 2004. "
Jun 10th 2021
Fiction - but based in history.
May 23rd 2021
Fiction - Introduction by the Author: "The mind of a fly, such as it is, is a primitive thing – archaic and amoral, devoid of pity, remorse, forgiveness… and love. And yet. And yet we know within every species there is a great deal of variation: every species is, after all, an ingenious structure formed by Nature. Goethe – who we sometimes forget was as great a scientist as he was a poet – yes, the divine Goethe grasped two simple but essential truths. First, that species are real in themselves; not some mere classificatory device created by us. (I might add – inasmuch as it relates to the story that I am shortly to tell – that confidence in the reality of species as such was for the better part of the last century based entirely on the incontrovertible fact of reproductive isolation). Every species may indeed be viewed as a manifestation of planfulness. Yet we also know, and this is the second principle, by no means are species totally homogenous. There is always intraspecific variety, as they say – a flexibility in behavior and phenomena. The crucial point is that this diversity if you will – functional or otherwise – is the very raison d’être of the species. Is it any wonder then that Nature loves her eccentrics: every species has its individuals that wander along new roads – the honeybee, say, who returns carrying news within in his unique dance of hitherto unknown gardens and flowers, or a new tree in which to rear the hive. Insect behavior can be quite plastic."
Mar 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "In my essay Elie Wiesel’s Early Work I promised a return to the novels by Albert Camus (1913-1960), 1957 Nobel Laureate in Literature. Then the world as we know it changed with the onset of COVID-19 and the relevance of Camus’ novel The Plague, published in 1947, struck hard."
Jan 18th 2020
EXTRACT: "The harmful impact of air pollution caused by diesel exhaust fumes on our health is well known. It’s responsible for causing everything from respiratory problems to dementia and even certain types of cancers. But what most people don’t realise is that exhaust fumes aren’t the only cause of air pollution. In fact, up to 55% of roadside traffic pollution is made of non-exhaust particles, with around 20% of that pollution coming from brake dust. And as our latest research reveals, these particles may be just as damaging to our lungs as exhaust fumes."
Oct 26th 2019
EXTRACT: "We didn’t have emails or social media back then, so I’d usually call once a year and check in. Though I was careful not to ask, my ex-wife would graciously give me updates on “The Baby.” She told him about me early on and he just shrugged and said, “Okay.” The title of ‘father’ belongs to the man who raised him. She did once tell me there are times when she’s washing dishes or preoccupied, and he’ll come up behind her saying something, and she’ll turn around expecting to see me. "
Sep 10th 2019
Extract: "Khodasevich’s prose is as crystalline as his poetry, and this rendition by veteran translator and academic Sarah Vitali reads with such punch and verve that some of the personality sketches might have been written today for a mainstream magazine. Her endnotes add background and fascinating detail that put the forgotten era in context. "
Jul 17th 2019
Blurring the line between fiction and real life is one of the intrigues of good writing. Much of Saul Bellow’s wild antics in “Humboldt’s Gift” actually happened to him, but how much? Did Philip Roth’s “Portnoy’s Complaint” originate in his personal life?  Intriguing, perhaps, but none of this really matters if the story is credible and the writing holds up. Any reader with an analytical bent will wonder, however, where the truth is located in a good story. I certainly did, reading Mary L. Tabor’s new collection of twelve short stories, "The Woman Who Never Cooked."
May 31st 2018
Postcolonial scholarship has overwhelmingly focused on the legacy of Western empires – but despite a long history of foreign expansionism and domination, Russia, in its various incarnations, has never received the same amount of critical scrutiny. The Tsarist empire’s position outside the West proper, the Soviet Union’s stated opposition to imperialism, and the fact that Russia’s empire was a contiguous land empire rather than an overseas one all helped shield it from postcolonial critique. The result is a strange oversight – especially considering the fact that the heir to the largest continental empire in modern history clearly remains uncomfortable with the independence of many of its former subordinates.
May 24th 2018

At the age of 50, Henry James created a detailed portrait of an experimental novelist in old age, in his story “The Middle Years.” Terminally ill, the novelist Dencombe receives in the mail the published version of what he realizes will be his final work, a novel titled The Middle Years.

Apr 25th 2018
Ever since I first began listening to popular music on a transistor radio, I have been fascinated by one-hit wonders. Today, oldies stations can devote entire weekends to singers and groups who had one hit and were never heard from again, including such classics as the Penguins’ “Earth Angel,” the Teddy Bears’ “To Know Him Is to Love Him,” and the Murmaids’ “Popsicles and Icicles.” When I began studying creativity, I discovered that one-hit wonders were not unique to pop. Grant Wood’s American Gothic and Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial are celebrated instances in which the name of an artist instantly calls to mind a single work, and vice versa....
Apr 3rd 2018

Serious readers like to see a review or two about big, complicated novels before deciding whether to devote their life to them.  The thousand-page Russian classics all seem to carry this warning flag. 

Sep 23rd 2017

PRINCETON – This summer, at literary festivals and bookstores around the world, readers celebrated the 20-year anniversary of the debut of the first book in J.K.

Feb 1st 2017

Rarely does a musician with a Juilliard background and a Ph.D. in piano performance find the energy, much less the time, to conceive, plot, write and publish a series of well-constructed novels.

Jan 24th 2017

The Wall Street Journal has made an egregious error. I'm not talking about their coverage of Donald Trump, Russian hacking, or any other such ephemera. This concerns something much more serious: classic literature.

Jan 7th 2017

A Talmudic question has much intrigued me: Two men are stranded in the desert. Only one has water. If he shares it, they both die; if he keeps it, he lives and his companion dies. What should he do? Rabbi Akiva taught that the man has the right to drink it.

Oct 14th 2016

To the surprise of many, Bob Dylan has become the first singer-songwriter to win the Nobel prize in literature.