Swarthmore Alumni, New York Book Group

Readings, 2002-2003:

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.


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.

The Books:

  • Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaia (1824-1889), The Boarding School Girl, translated by Karen Rosneck
  • Lidiia Zinov'eva-Annibal (1866-1907), The Tragic Menagerie, translated by Jane Costlow
  • 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

    Sibelan Forrester
    Modern Languages and Literatures
    Swarthmore College
    500 College Ave.
    Swarthmore, PA 19081-1390
    phone 610-328-8162
    fax 610-328-7769

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