I’ll get into the other gems of Russian lit in another post, but right now it’s time for the 4 epics. Two from Tolstoy and two from Dostoevsky.  A goal of mine is to read either Anna Karenina or The Brothers Karamazov in Russian one day. Not all goals in life will be met. I have accepted this.

I date a philosophy major for a while. He had a funny way of talking down to everyone he met. At first I thought maybe he didn’t realize he was doing it, but then I thought that it didn’t even matter if he realized it or not, it was a disgusting trait. Eventually our relationship ran its course and we broke up and went our separate ways, but we couldn’t part ways without him telling me he was really just looking for a ‘deep thinker’ and he wanted to be with someone who shared his interests in topics such as philosophy. Philosophy bores me greatly, but I do weird things to spite people. I had taken a Russian lit class prior to that relationship, but it was a condensed summer class so we mostly talked about the history of Russian lit, literary theory around it, we discussed some of the major works in context, and read a lot of short stories. There are some great short stories there as well. Anyways, back to my spite, after he said that I read my way through the 4 Russian epics. These are said to be extremely philosophical. I’ll admit to liking Anna Karenina the best which is probably the least philosophical, but I still accomplished this exhaustive goal. Sometimes spite is a good thing.

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Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
aklt“Described by William Faulkner as the best novel ever written and by Fyodor Dostoevsky as “flawless,” Anna Karenina tells of the doomed love affair between the sensuous and rebellious Anna and the dashing officer, Count Vronsky. Tragedy unfolds as Anna rejects her passionless marriage and must endure the hypocrisies of society.

Set against a vast and richly textured canvas of nineteenth-century Russia, the novel’s seven major characters create a dynamic imbalance, playing out the contrasts of city and country life and all the variations on love and family happiness.

While previous versions have softened the robust, and sometimes shocking, quality of Tolstoy’s writing, Pevear and Volokhonsky  have produced a translation true to his powerful voice. Beautiful, vigorous, and eminently readable, this Anna Karenina will be the definitive text for fans of the film and generations to come.”

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Anna Karenina was originally published over a 4 year period between 1873-1877 in a periodical called The Russian Messenger and first appeared in complete book form in 1878The book takes place during the emancipation and liberal reforms enacted in 1861 by Emperor Alexander II of Russia. These reforms granted 23 million people freedom and liberty as part of the reforms did away with serfdom. While such reforms seemed like a good thing, the aftermath wasn’t pleasant. Serfs were not given much land and the taxes were so high they quickly went in debt. Industry was also developing quickly; banks, railroads, businesses. The Balkan War was lingering in the background. With a freer press than the country was used to public opinion was beginning to take hold and civil unrest was setting in. Tolstoy uses the characters in Anna Karenina to make commentary on such events. It’s also a tragic love story; a tale of desire, depression, and hope. The opening line “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” is often cited as one of the most memorable opening lines in literature. This one started slow for me, and it remained slow. I didn’t realize how much I was enjoying it until I was done. It’s a favorite now.

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War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

russianlit“Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece intertwines the lives of private and public individuals during the time of the Napoleonic wars and the French invasion of Russia. The fortunes of the Rostovs and the Bolkonskys, of Pierre, Natasha, and Andrei, are intimately connected with the national history that is played out in parallel with their lives. Balls and soirees alternate with councils of war and the machinations of statesmen and generals, scenes of violent battles with everyday human passions in a work whose extraordinary imaginative power has never been surpassed.The prodigious cast of characters, seem to act and move as if connected by threads of destiny as the novel relentlessly questions ideas of free will, fate, and providence. Yet Tolstoy’s portrayal of marital relations and scenes of domesticity is as truthful and poignant as the grand themes that underlie them.”

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War and Peace was first published in 1869. It follows the Napoleonic era and the French invasion of Russia. It is always counted among the most important pieces of literature one should read. It is set in the early 1800s after Catherine the Great had started imposing the French language and culture on the Russians. It is hard to exactly nail down what this book is about. I had a harder time with this one than any of the others on the list. That’s not to say I didn’t like it, but it was a struggle for me at times. It often gets labeled as philosophical lit, which might be why it was hard for me. In a word though; it’s about everything. It’s about life and history and love and family and death. It’s a book you might need to make a character tree for because there are a lot of them in there. It was hard for me, I can’t say I sailed right through, and I doubt I’ll ever pick it back up to reread straight through, but there is some good prose in there.

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Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

russianlit3“Through the story of the brilliant but conflicted young Raskolnikov and the murder he commits, Fyodor Dostoevsky explores the theme of redemption through suffering. Crime and Punishment put Dostoevsky at the forefront of Russian writers when it appeared in 1866 and is now one of the most famous and influential novels in world literature.

The poverty-stricken Raskolnikov, a talented student, devises a theory about extraordinary men being above the law, since in their brilliance they think “new thoughts” and so contribute to society. He then sets out to prove his theory by murdering a vile, cynical old pawnbroker and her sister. The act brings Raskolnikov into contact with his own buried conscience and with two characters — the deeply religious Sonia, who has endured great suffering, and Porfiry, the intelligent and discerning official who is charged with investigating the murder — both of whom compel Raskolnikov to feel the split in his nature. Dostoevsky provides readers with a suspenseful, penetrating psychological analysis that goes beyond the crime — which in the course of the novel demands drastic punishment — to reveal something about the human condition: The more we intellectualize, the more imprisoned we become.”

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Crime and Punishment was published in installments also in The Russian Messenger in 1866, and published in full in 1867. It is categorized as a philosophical and psychological novel.Raskolnikov is one of the most enduring characters in all literature. You go through all sorts of ups and downs with him and it’s just kind of like sitting back and watching a tortured man try to make sense of a tortured world. The dream sequences give it a foggy feel at times, obviously they are dream sequences so there is tons of symbolism there. Twice two is four. This one was my favorite of the epics until I read Anna Karenina. I’ve only read this one once, but I have a strong desire to revisit it. But one does not simply read Crime and Punishment, there is a lot more that goes into it. I do flip around the book for some passages I’ve come to love. Sometimes I don’t know what to do with everything I took from this book. It’s kinda like;…well….that’s life I guess? Now what? Should I continue living or are we done here?’

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The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

russianlit4“If there was still any doubt, let me confirm that this actually is the greatest book ever written. But be warned that you need to set aside a solid month to get through it. And it’s not light reading–this is a dense work of philosophy disguised as a simple murder mystery. But it’s well worth the effort. It tackles the fundamental question of human existence–how best to live one’s life–in a truly engaging way. Dostoevsky created 3 brothers (Ivan, Alexei, and Dmitri) with opposite answers to this fundamental question, and set them loose in the world to see what would happen. A testament to Dostoevsky’s genius is he didn’t know how the book would evolve when he started writing. As a consequence, the book really isn’t about the plot at all, but about how these brothers evolve and deal with their struggles based on their differing world views.

Dostoevsky articulates, better than anyone, how human beings really are what I would call “walking contradictions”. Perhaps all of our struggles in life boil down to the reality that we desire contradictory things, simultaneously. If you like your novels with good character development, this is the masterwork. Dostoevsky’s characters are more real, more human, than any other. At different points along the way, you will identify with them, sympathize with them, curse them, agonize over them, celebrate them. You will be moved.”

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The Brothers Karamazov was also first published serially in The Russian Messenger from 1879-1880, and published completely in 1880. This is also categorized as a philosophical novel. It’s hard to say exactly what the philosophical novels are about. They are about everything. This reminded me a little of East of Eden. The brothers are connected, but not always alike. You’ve got monks, debt, free will, love triangles, all are discussed in deeply thoughtful monologues concerning everything from religion, to family, to morality and ethics, to history. It’s hard for me with some of these because I usually find a character in a story and latch on, but I didn’t find one in particular in the case of this book. It’s not that I hated any of them either, it’s more that they weren’t central to me.

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I’m proud to say I’ve accomplished the four epics of Russian lit. However there is a world of Russian short stories that are amazing, and I shall get to those in a future post, but Turgenev (who inspired some of Hemingway’s writing), Gogol, Pushkin…there are so many other worthy Russian authors to discuss.

I did these four back to back over a couple month period. During the time I began listening to the Russian language so I could hear what it sounds like, I started looking into Russian history and culture and politics. I could feel my brain changing the same way you can feel your brain changing when you really start to become fluent in another language. The Russians should be, and probably are, proud of their literary accomplishments.

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