Russia’s in the news, the bogeyman (bogeycountry?) from my childhood, only then it was “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” from a president staunchly opposed to Russian policies and interference (not that he was a peach, either).
So here at the beginning of 2019, and after thoroughly enjoying Katherine Arden’s Russian-set The Bear and the Nightingale, I hereby resolve to humanize the bogeyman and read the Great Russian Classics I somehow missed in my almost 20 years of education. I consulted a professor’s list of 10 Russian novels to read before you die & picked up a stack of really, really thick books from the library.
Of course, I’m starting with The Girl in the Tower, the second book in Katherine Arden’s Winternight Trilogy. This one takes place several years after the events of the first book, and it revisits Vasya’s older sister and brother, who left their rural home for very different lives in Moscow. While not technically a Russian novel–Arden is American, but was a student of Russian literature and lived in Moscow–the landscape and historical detail are so rich, I am thoroughly engrossed.
Then I’ll move on to Eugene Onegin (1833) by Alexander Pushkin, as recommended by my adopted Russian lit professor. I’m excited because it’s written in verse, but a little nervous because there are 4 volumes. I requested only the first one, which I think has the entire text; the rest looked like notes on the text. We’ll see whether I can make heads or tails of the story. But seriously, 3 volumes of notes? Gulp.
I also checked out the biggie: War and Peace. The version I received is a 2015 paperback that was whipped up after a BBC miniseries; the cover looks like a YA historical romance, and the text inside may be too tiny for me to actually read, even with my fancy new reading glasses. I’ll give it a go–it’s a classic, so I’m determined–but might end up choosing a different version for readability (even if I need a wheelbarrow to cart it around).
That should set me for a little while, anyway. And when I become too bleary to read, maybe I’ll watch Doctor Zhivago again. When it comes to my choices for pleasure reading, romantic, historical Russia–as complicated as it was–seems a bit more comfortable to immerse myself within than the sinister Russia in the news. I hope reading fiction will aid my understanding & compassion for reality.
Update February 2019: So far, I have finished The Girl in the Tower and Eugene Onegin, one I loved and the other, not so much.
Loved it, possibly more than the first in the series. The juxtaposition of medieval political intrigue with fairy tale magic is so well balanced, even the oddest aspects feel real. I also adore these characters, from the flawed but powerful Vasya to her siblings, the upright Olga and the conflicted warrior-monk Sasha, to the Frost Demon.
The language, too, is exquisite, though this would be my only quibble: at times the pretty metaphors pull me from the story to admire them. Then again, I enjoy poetry and appreciate the well-structured sentence, so this did not hinder my enjoyment of the novel. Curl up beside the fire and enjoy this book!
Although this novel is considered a classic of Russian literature and has redeeming features, I struggled to plow through to the end. There are glittering moments of loveliness, and the author/narrator as a character both commenting on and acting in the drama added moments of interest. But the melodrama, cliches, and overworked Romantic language dragged this book down for me.
I read Nabokov’s translation into English, so it could be more interesting in the original Russian. For students of early 19th century Russian literature–there are lots of references and notes on the references–this might be worthwhile, but for the more casual reader, I would say this novel wasn’t compelling enough to recommend.