Swarthmore Alumni, New York Book Group
The Great Russian Novel of Conscience
Mentored by Sibelan Forrester, Associate Professor of Russian
at Swarthmore College.
Dear New York Alums --
It was a treat for me to meet with you over the past year, and here as I promised at our last conversation are
some suggestions for readings you could dip into over the summer.
- For a stylistic challenge: Andrei Bitov (maybe start with The Pushkin House, which is available in
translation). He is very concerned with ecology, among other things.
Another very interesting stylist: Tatiana Tolstaya (not closely related to Leo, but she's the granddaughter of
Aleksei N. Tolstoy, "The Red Count"). Things in translation: On the Golden Porch, Sleepwalker in a
Fog, and her recent novel, Slynx (though the crit on Slynx is more mixed than for her collections
Or, if you like reading lit crit (hey, you're a Swat alum, right?), Helena Goscilo's lovely book The Explosive
World of Tatyana N. Tolstaya's Fiction -- an author never got so lucky
- For a mental stretch, someone I'm sure you've read before (hey, and until January 1996 a neighbor in NYC):
Joseph Brodsky -- start with the essays in Less than One
- If you liked the style of Doctor Zhivago but found the plot ("Plot?" you reply) draggy, check out
Pasternak's earlier, shapelier and more experimental prose -- Safe Conduct is a nice collection
- Since we were reading novels (and "novels"), not poetry: powerful and lovely
stuff by Pasternak, and also by the other Great Russian Modernists is widely
available in translation: Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966), Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938),
Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), or, if you would "epater le bourgeois," Vladimir
- A fun book NOT written in Russian: Dubravka Ugresic's Fording the Stream
of Consciousness, from Northwestern UP, of course. She's been compared
to David Lodge (quite justly), and the book makes great use of all sorts of
literary and national/cultural stereotypes
- Another Fun Young Writer (born in 1950) to watch: Peter Esterhazy (translations from the Hungarian include
The Book of Hrabal, She Loves Me, Helping Verbs of the Heart)
- And just for fun: Eliot Borenstein's "Is It Sexy or Just Soviet? The Post-Communist Expat Safari Novel Has Its
Day," in The Nation, February 3, 2003
In Russia, the peculiar fate of public discourse over several centuries of Europeanization created a literature
that served as far more than mere entertainment. Writers and readers alike expected prose fiction and even personal
memoirs to raise social issues, and the writer enjoyed (or, sometimes, suffered) the status of cultural hero,
with a large and responsive audience. Whenever centralized power, be it Tsarist autocracy or Soviet dictatorship,
considered literary authority a threat, authors had to struggle with both official censorship and the tempration
of protective self-censorship -- keeping quiet about topics that were too sensitive.
The need to express and address hard truths while at the same time concealing them or reducing their apparent
threat led to a flowering of so-called "Aesopic" speech, the art of packing multiple meanings into a word,
phrase, or turn of plot. Contemporary readers could interpret an ambiguous or seemingly innocuous phrase from
an oppositional standpoint -- while for later readers, in Russia or elsehwere, the density of meanings rewards
close attention and multiple passes. In the Tsarist period opposition most often had a radical or leftist
flavor, while at other times -- such as the "Silver Age" of the 1900's-1910's, or the high Stalinist period --
individualistic and/or aesthetic rejection of lockstep materialist thinking, or of oppressive Soviet literary
requirements such as those demanded by Socialist Realism, might privilege art for art's sake -- or art for the
same of the soul.
The books on this list are quite various, but they share a share a focus on an individual search for the
true meaning of life, and for the seeker's place and purpose. They reject conventional happy ends, offering
instead something more ambiguous, and something more demanding of the reader. We are obligated to reach our
own conclusions, to be or become passionately engaged in making sense of the world -- intellectually,
emotionally, spiritually and scientifically -- and to live according to our own convictions.
The authors and readings on the list are quite various, though I have tried to avoid many of the obvious
choices (all those great, and thick, thought-provoking works by Tolstoy and Dostoevsky!), knowing that many
Swarthmore alums have already read them.
Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaia (1824-1889), The Boarding School Girl,
translated by Karen Rosneck
Lidiia Zinov'eva-Annibal (1866-1907), The Tragic Menagerie, translated by
Evgenii (Yevgeny) Zamiatin (1884-1937), We, translated by Mirra Ginzburg
Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), Invitation to a Beheading, translated by
Dmitrii Nabokov (in collaboration with his father, the author)
Evgeniia (Yevgeniya) Ginzburg (1896-1980), Journey Into the Whirlwind,
translated by Paul Stevenson and Max Hayward
Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940), The Master and Margarita, four different
versions translated by Mirra Ginzburg, by Michael Glenny, by Diana Burgin and Catherine O'Connor, and by
Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Boris Pasternak (1890-1960), Doctor Zhivago,
translated by Max Hayward and Manya Harari
And a bonus author: Lidiia Chukovskaia (1907-1996),
Sofia Petrovna, translated by Aline Werth
Modern Languages and Literatures
500 College Ave.
Swarthmore, PA 19081-1390
Home page of Swarthmore College.