A Taste of Imperial Russian Literature

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As I helped compile the listing of Imperial Russian Literature for the Classics Circuit a few months ago (found here), I found my TBR list growing exponentially: there are so many authors I want to read that I just don’t know when I’ll get to them all. Through my searches at the library and at Amazon.com, I discovered a volume by Penguin Viking: The Portable Nineteenth-Century Russian Reader. It was just what I was looking for: stories, novellas, and poems from twenty different Imperial Russian writers.

I intended to read the entire volume for the Circuit (about 600 pages), but I’m finding that summer living has made reading time scarce. Even reading half the volume, though, makes for quite a long post here, so I hope you don’t mind. I read the authors I had never read before and share my thoughts below: Aleksandr Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Lermontov, Sergey Akaskov, Karolina Pavlova, and Ivan Goncharov. Some of them are writers that I intend to revisit. Other writers were a good read, but I’ll probably not revisit them.

According to Merriam Webster, superfluous means “exceeding what is sufficient or necessary: extra; not needed: unnecessary.” As I read the collection of stories, poems, and novellas, I couldn’t help thinking of that word. Ivan Turgenev wrote the novella “The Diary of a Superfluous Man” in 1850, which focused on one of the gentry who lived a rather aimless life. I haven’t read the novella (it is not in my Reader), but I read Mel u’s post about it early in the Classics Circuit Tour. As I read my selections, I kept thinking about how each story or poem seemed to discuss one of these “unnecessary” people in Russian society. Reading Russian literature in that light is quite depressing, yet the stories are, for the most part, wonderfully drawn together.

Alexandr Pushkin’s Poetry

In Russia, apparently, Aleksandr Pushkin is considered the greatest Russian writer, not Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. Ever since I heard that, I have wanted to read his poetry. I love the little bits I tried, although there were only about 30 pages in the Reader. It was so beautiful, and want to read more. The longest poem given in the Reader is called “The Bronze Horseman: A Tale of Petersburg.” It begins as an “ode” to St. Petersburg, and it ends by describing a man (one of the “unnecessary” or “superfluous”) during a flood of the Neva. He takes refuge by holding on to a bronze statue, all the while hoping his loved ones are safe. It ends sadly, and to me it seemed to echo the “superfluous man” concept:

…Against the threshold carried,
Here lay asprawl my luckless knave.
And here in charity they buried
The chill corpse in a pauper’s grave. 1

In the end, he was expendable.

I also started reading Eugene Onegin, Pushkin’s novel in verse, but I have not had time to make much progress. (It is not in the Reader.)

“The Overcoat” by Nikolai Gogol

Gogol surprised me. I knew he was a satiric writer, and that is about all I knew. Gogol’s short story “The Overcoat” was immensely satisfying, and I think it may enter my “favorite short stories” mental list. My thought when I finished it: simple yet sublime.

“The Overcoat” tells the story of a superfluous man. He is a very poor man, working a menial job in a boring routine. One winter, he discovers his overcoat is no longer repairable and a new one must be made to order. This is his story of that new overcoat.

I am not sure how to express why I enjoyed this story. Akakii Akakiievich is a nobody, but I liked him immensely, possibly maybe because I could so easily relate to him (It’s not that I’m quite that much of a nobody, but he certainly seemed realistic and I pitied him). But also, I loved how Gogol moved the story so seamlessly from what was realistic to the supernatural. It seemed Gogol just wanted to see justice be done, and it made it quite satisfying as a story. Things came full circle, as we’d want them too. It was unrealistic in that sense, because life doesn’t end prettily for us. Although it was about a “superfluous” person, it was not as depressing as some other Russian stories I read. I look forward to reading more Gogol.

“Princess Mary” (from A Hero for Our Time) by Mikhail Lermontov

Mikhail Lermontov’s Pechorin is also one of the “superfluous.” He is middle class and idle, except for what he can do to entertain himself. He is utterly despicable, from my perspective, and that is the point. “Princess Mary” is told as Pechorin’s journal entries, an extended excerpt from A Hero for Our Time. In Pechorin’s journal, we see that his motives are all selfish, and in the story “Princess Mary,” he essentially uses a woman’s emotions for his own entertainment, even though he could not care less for her.

In the introduction to A Hero for Our Time, Lermontov wrote:

A Hero for Our Time, gentlemen, is indeed a portrait, but not of a single individual. It is the portrait composed of all the vices of our generation in their fullest development. You will tell me again that no man can be as bad as all this; and I shall tell you that since you have believe in the possibility of so many tragic and romantic villains having existed, why can you not believe in the reality of Pechorin? … You will say morality gains nothing from this. … However, do not think that the author of this book ever had the proud dream of becoming a reformer of mankind’s vices. … He merely found it amusing to draw modern man such as he understood him to be… 2

An excellent write-up from earlier in the Circuit by Exiled By Accident got me interested in finding the rest of the volume at some point. The “Princess Mary” section is, apparently, more than a third of the entire Lermontov collection.

“Mikhail Maximovich Kurolesov” (from The Family Chronicle) by Sergey Aksakov

Amateur Reader wrote about Sergey Aksakov a few weeks ago for the Circuit, so if you are interested, I defer to his posts. My Reader had just one small excerpt (called “Mikhail Maximovich Kurolesov” after the main person within it) from the more lengthy collection, and I found it horribly depressing. There was not much about the characters that I liked. Kurolesov turned out to be a rotten and abusive overlord and husband, and he eventually met his just reward. I failed to personally connect to any of the characters, and there was no engaging plot to draw me in. The biographical note indicates that Aksakov’s The Family Chronicle (also called A Russian Gentleman) is based on his own family history. In terms of history, I think the story of the different classes could be found interesting. As an engaging story or novella, it fell flat for me.

Chapter 6 from A Double Life by Karolina Pavlova

Karolina Pavlova’s contribution in the anthology was quite different in tone. It was a story of an eighteen-year-old girls’ dance with the man she loves. I liked the look at society, and it seemed, on the surface, less depressing than the other stories I read in the anthology.

Cecily lay down to sleep with that abounding happiness which sometimes fills and eighteen-0year-old heart for a moment, and which is so alive that in quiet and solitude one becaomse almost ill with it. … Happy, she sighed sorrowfully, not knowing why. 3

Yet we know why she was sorrowful, because earlier in the chapter, Pavlova wrote:

So much is forgotten in life, the years change and reshape us so strangely! So many young, inspired dreams in time become tax farmers and distillers. So many carefree young idlers become owners of Siberian gold mines. So many flightly scoundrels become merciless punishers of ever kind of passion. Time is a strange force! 4

Hence, even though the short excerpt from Pavlova’s novel had some “happiness” in it, I suspect in the end it will still reflect the “superfluous” theme as a whole. The title of Pavlova’s novel is A Double Life, which doesn’t suggest happiness to me!

“Oblomov’s Dream” (originally a short story, later included in the novel Oblomov) by Ivan Goncharov

One of the main things I wanted to read when I did that research for the Classics Circuit was Oblomov. I loved that cover (at left), and the thought of a novel revolving around man who could not get out of bed seemed ridiculously intriguing. However, my TBR has to be cut somehow, so I decided that the 400-page novel was not on the soon-to-read list, despite the fact that Oblomov was more popular in its day than Tolstoy. Reading the excerpts from the novel hasn’t removed it completely (I’m still very interested), but it is not a “must read.”

The excerpt I read was an extended dream that Oblomov had of his childhood. I loved how Goncharov described a scene (such as the surrounding countryside) and the little comments about society were so amusing. For example, here’s one exciting evening when the Oblomov family is sitting together in the drawing room:

Half an hour seemed to pass like that [dead silence], unless of course, someone yawned aloud and muttered, as he made the sign of the cross over his mouth, “Lord, have mercy upon us!” His neighbor yawned after him, then the next person, a though at a word of command, opened his mouth slowly, and so the infectious play of the air and lungs spread among them all, moving some of them to tears. 5

And then after a few more pages of such descriptions, it continues:

In his dream Oblovmov saw not one or two such evenings, but weeks, months, and years of days and evenings spent in this way. Nothing interfered with the monotony of their life … They would have been miserable if tomorrow were not like yesterday and if the day after tomorrow were not like tomorrow. 6

There was something so sadly sweet in Oblomov’s discover of the transitory state of childhood. I liked it, and I want to see how it all affected the grown Oblomov, as I know that is what the novel itself focuses on.

He looked sadly about him, and seeing only evil and misfortune everywhere in life, dreamed constantly of that magic country where there were no evils, troubles, or sorrows … 7

For thoughts on the entire novel, see what Stefanie at So Many Books said earlier in the tour.

I read this sampler as a part of the White Nights on the Neva: Imperial Russian Literature Classics Circuit. See more posts here.

I still want to read more from the Reader. If you’re looking for a general overview of many different voices from Imperial Russia, you may also find it satisfying. It’s a great collection and a broad overview of the era. There is even a timeline in the beginning listing both the political happenings in Russia and the publication dates. (I know nothing, so this is helpful to me!)

Still for me to read are 250 or 300 pages of the following: Tolstoy (The Death of Ivan Ilych), a Chekhov play (Uncle Vanya), some Turgenev stories (I didn’t enjoy the two ones I read a few years ago, but he deserves a revisit), and an excerpt from Dostoevsky (the excerpt in this volume is from The Brothers Karamozov, which I read years ago but don’t recall anything about).

Which of these (if any) have you read?

  1. page 21
  2. page 132-133
  3. page 289
  4. page 286
  5. page 320
  6. page 324
  7. page 313
Reviewed on July 16, 2010

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • I need to read some of Gogol’s short stories. I hope I like them better than Dead Souls, which I’m just so-so on.

    On the other hand, Eugene Onegin is one of Jason’s favorites. I think Nabokov re-translated it at some point, unsatisfied with the current translation of the time. Either that or he translated something else related to Pushkin.

    • Amanda, I still have to read your post on Dead Souls so am curious about it very much. I did enjoy Gogol’s story — it was certainly the most entertaining of all of these. And glad to hear that Jason likes Eugene Onegin so much. I’m looking forward to it when I get a chance.

  • I’m glad you found this Classics Circuit so rewarding and were finally able to make time for some authors you’d never encountered before.

    If I remember correctly, I think the Princess Mary portion of A Hero of Our Time was the part I found most interesting, but on the whole I really did not like that book. I found it really boring and pointless; it was, for me, kind of the stereotypical nightmare of Russian lit! I certainly won’t be reading any more Lermontov (not that he published much anyway!).

    • Steph, I do see the point of Lermontov but I’d have to agree with you on the boring. I found it interesting, but despised Pechorin so much. But I do think it’s the point: that superfluous man is just so annoying….

  • […] A Taste of Imperial Russian Literature | Rebecca Reads […]

  • Nicole’s posts (from Bibliographing) actually got me super-interested in A Hero of our Time – mostly for the intriguing structure and fable-like experiment with unsympathetic characters. Am also super-interested to read Oblomov after Stefanie’s thoughts on it earlier in the Circuit. Sounds like you were introduced to some great new-to-you writers, Rebecca!

  • The Aksakov excerpt ties into the Superfluous Man theme, too. The landowner is cruel and dissolute because he is innately cruel, perhaps, but also becasue he has nothing to do. His “work” managing the estate has no value that he can understand. Nice way to deal with these different works.

    I just put up a related post, arguing that Russian books are short.

    Do not read Nabokov’s Eugene Onegin! It is a translation made for scholarly purposes, not for plain ol’ readin’. Try Charles Johnston.

    The way Lermontov tells the stories in A Hero of Our Time, the structure, is central to what the novel is about, and perhaps even has a point. The unsympathetic lead character is essentially Russianized Byron.

    • Amateur Reader, see, I was sure The Asakov also tied into the Superfluous man theme, but I was kind of tired of thinking of it. As I read it, I’m sorry to say I was pretty bored….

      And I do have the Johnston translation of Eugene Onegin. Thanks for the note on the Nabokov.

      As I just mentioned in a reply, I missed the “structure” of the HERO FOR OUR TIME since I just read a segment. I haven’t read Byron, though, so I probably would have missed that connection.

  • Really informative write-up, Rebecca! I wasn’t aware that particular reader existed, but I look forward to taking a look at it sometime after I finish my current Dostoevsky door-stopper. In the meantime, thanks for sharing your reactions here.

  • I’m terrible about Russian literature. One of these months I’m going to buckle down and devote my month to gritting my teeth and reading some classics of Russian literature. I think if I read enough of it at once, I’d get into the swing of things and maybe like it better. Maybe??

  • This reader sounds great! I wish I had a better understanding of Russian literature, and history for that matter. Tolstoy’s the only author I’ve read, and I’ve loved his works. I read The Death of Ivan Ilych and enjoyed it. I’m still reading Anna Karenina and love it even though I’m reading it super slowly. It makes me want to read more, and I think the history is fascinating since we tend to only learn about post-revolution Russia, or at least that’s all I got. You know Napoleon invaded Moscow, but I always had very little explanation about all of that. My husband even took a class on Russian in college, but it was about 20th-century Russia as well. I guess that’s a learning gap I need to fill at some point.

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