I often go through phases with my reading. Recently I had a huge American phase (because I was in the States) and then a nineteenth century phase (when I got home) and then these phases joined up so that I had the combined power of a nineteenth century American phase! Anyhow, a couple of weeks ago, I got sucked into what I think is the literary equivalent of a supermassive black hole: Russia.
I think it has a lot to do with the fact that I’ve always been very dismissive of Russian literature. I don’t know why. Probably just to be contrary. But also because every novel is half a mile wide and I resent having to swim through a book unless it’s Moby-Dick. I think reading Anna Karenina (which everyone seems to love) when I had nothing else to do on a three day train ride in India did irreparable damage. I can’t stand Tolstoy: too long winded, too didactic, way too many Russian aristocratic parlor-room conversations contrasted with the vibrancy and authenticity of Russian peasants and their native wisdom. But recently I’ve developed a bit of a man-crush for Sir Isaiah Berlin and, when I stumbled across his books Russian Thinkers and The Soviet Mind in the National Library, they lit some sort of a fuse in me. The way he writes about Imperial Russia with its Tsarist regime and censorship boards and secret police and gulags and radical dissidents–like Vissarion Belinsky, Alexander Herzen, Mikhail Bakunin and the philosophical tea-merchant Vasily Botkin–all mixing wildly and bumping heads in the looming shadow of Bolshevik Revolution of 1917…I found it mesmerizing.
Since then I’ve been reading Turgenev’s short stories (translated by Berlin) which I really like, Gogol’s Dead Souls (translated by Robert Maguire)–I’ve discovered I really dig Gogol–and dipping in and out of The Brother’s Karamazov (translated by superstar pair Pevear & Volokhonsky) which I’ve read before. I broke the nineteenth century thing a little by reading Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and peeking at the first twenty pages or so of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago before getting scared and putting on the movie, with Omar Sharif, who I love. I’ve also been listening to some particularly awesome Chekhov stories read by Kenneth Brannagh. Despite loathing Brannagh’s movies, I am forced to admit that he is an amazing voice actor, and he really nails the balance between comedy and tragedy in Chekhov. His reading of ‘Oh! the Public’ is hilarious. If I just think about that poor train conductor I start giggling! I’ve also been reading Orlando Figes’ cultural history Natasha’s Dancer from which I now know that Peter the Great built St Petersburg on a swamp. In my limited experience, I have found that building cities on top of swamps is not the soundest of policies.
The only thing about all this Russianness is that it sends me into paroxysms of ‘which translation?’. It seems I am not the only person with this debilitating disease as I’ve spent hours on the internet reading various generally long-winded opinions on whether one rendering of Pushkin is better than another. I found a sympathetic post about this problem on Steam Boats are Ruining Everything. However, I sense this phase is starting to lose its grip on me, as I recently picked up a non-Russian book and did not immediately fling into the corner of my room in a maniacal rage.
David is a writer, director and dramaturg.