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.

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.”

 

 


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