I never thought of a category for something like this, but I think it’s a natural for a literature blog. It occurred to me that everyone loves reading lists. Why is that? Is it because we put books in queue to be read? Or is it because we tend to place books into categories, either by era or by nationality or by genre or even something as individualistic as taste? Is it because many people like to (I don’t) place books in a hierarchy of prominence? Perhaps it’s all of those reasons. Nonetheless we love book lists.
In honor of the recent Nobel Prize winner in literature, Svetlana Alexievich, Andrew D. Kaufman at The Daily Beast put together a list of “ten Russian novels to read before you die.”
Before I get to the list, let me say something about Svetlana Alexievich. I’ve never heard of her. She writes in Russian, which is akin to Belarusian, and she was born in Ukraine from a Belrussian father and a Ukrainian mother. They moved to Belarus when she was a child. What’s interesting is that she is a journalist by profession and her books are a sort of non-fiction chronicling of people in their actual voices. Some people have been calling this a new style, and perhaps it is. I can’t make that judgement since I haven’t read anything from her. Maybe she does something different but it sounds a lot like the work of Studs Terkel who wrote quite a few books in a oral history format. And I’m sure there are other writers who have put together books from oral history. Perhaps the way Svetlana weaves together the story is original. Either way, congratulations to her.
Here is Kaufman’s Russian novels list to read. I’m just going to provide the list. Go over to his site to read why this author and a little something on each work.
1. Eugene Onegin (1833) by Alexander Pushkin
2. A Hero of Our Time (1840) by Mikhail Lermontov
3. Fathers and Sons (1862) by Ivan Turgenev
4. War and Peace (1869) by Leo Tolstoy
5. The Brothers Karamazov (1880) by Fyodor Dostoevsky
6. Doctor Zhivago (1959) by Boris Pasternak
7. And Quiet Flows the Don (1959) by Mikhail Sholokhov
8. Life and Fate (1960) by Vasily Grossman
9. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962) by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
10. The Funeral Party (2002) by Lyudmila Ulitskaya
Let me say that I consider the Russian novel to be the greatest of all the nationally categorized novels. The Russian author seems to capture both humanity and the intensity of life, and fit it into a transcendent world view. I love Russian novels.
Kaufman’s list is interesting. He seems to limit himself to a single work for each writer, and he lists them chronologically so that he stretches from the beginning of the Russian novel down to the contemporary.
I’ve only read four on that list: Fathers and Sons, War and Peace, The Brothers Karamazov, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Interesting he doesn’t include Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, which I have not read but was supposed to be one of the great Russian works of the 20th century. I’ve been wanting to read that for some time now but haven’t been able to fit it in.
I highly endorse Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. It’s one of the great novels of the 19th century, and really captures a time and place and a generational struggle. I've been trying to find something else to read by Turgenev. I think I have a few of his short stories somewhere.
I also endorse War and Peace, and while I don’t consider it the greatest novel of all time as some do, it is a great work. Actually I don’t consider it to be Tolstoy’s greatest work. I would replace it with Anna Karenina. Not only do I find that to be a greater work, but more manageable in length.
The Brothers Karamazov truly is a great work, perhaps in the top five of all time great novels ever written, but as I’ve mentioned I’m currently reading Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment, and amazingly that is as great a work as well. Dostoyevsky might have two novels in the top five novels ever written. And it might be a little easier to read than The Brothers Karamazov.
Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich is an interesting work and an important work as far as documenting the miserable life in the Soviet Union. But I found it to be a bit boring. It didn’t seem to rise to a high tension. I think the point was the soul crushing routine of life in a Soviet prison camp. Curiously Kaufman does not pick Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. I have never read it, but it’s the book which won him the Nobel Prize.
I haven’t hyperlinked all these writers and their books here. You can find them all on Wikipedia. If you’ve read any of these or have some other suggestions on Russian novels, please comment.