I wrote about the four epics here, but while Russian lit is often associated with large sweeping novels there are some gems in the world of Russian short stories. Some of my favorites;
Diary of a Madman by Nikolai Gogol. Gogol was a Ukrainian born Russian writer from the mid 19th century. He has a lot of work behind his name, The Overcoat is pretty popular, but my favorite is Diary of a Madman. This is the story of civil servant whose life is meaningless. He is surrounded by bureaucracy and monotony as he pushes papers into oblivion. With little to look forward to or be happy about in his world he falls in love with his boss’s daughter, but this is hardly a love story, in fact there are little traces of that to be found in the story. This is a descent into complete and absolute madness. It is one of the most brilliant examples of mental insanity pouring out onto the pages. From thinking he is Spanish royalty to taking a mental trip to China, this man is mad. I love using this one in my classrooms.
Poor Liza Karamzin. The Russians are a brooding, dark, cynical bunch. This story is so bleak. Liza is a farm girl from nowhere. She leads a simple life of caring for her mother and their property. She collects flowers from the valley and occasionally goes to Moscow to sell them. Enter rich businessman from the city who falls in love with her innocence. She falls hard as well, they have an affair, he goes off to war, returns later, forgets about Liza, gets married, Liza has not forgotten about him, she sees him in the city one day while selling flowers, he hands her some money and basically tells her to move on, and she does what any sane person would do….she drowns herself in a river. It’s depressing from the first word to the last.
Queen of Spades by Pushkin Yet another Russian gone mad. They seem to end up in mental hospitals often.Guy watches his peers gambling on a regular basis but won’t partake until he hears the story of an old countess who has the secret to winning every time. He finds her, courts her servant chick in an attempt to get the secret from the countess, he ends up accidentally killing the countess, the ghost of the countess appears in his dreams and tells him the three winning cards to be played the next few nights, he plays the wrong cards and goes mad. Absolutely mad. Like all the Russians, all the time.
Notes from the Underground Dostoevsky This is a novella, it’s not only one of my favorite Russian shorter stories, it’s one of my favorite in general not just of the Russian variety. A retired civil servant also gone kinda mad, once again; like all the Russians, all the time. This has some of my favorite monologues in literature. It is also supposedly known as one of the earliest existential works… I can’t comment on that because that is not my area of expertise, but I’ll go with it. There is some political commentary, societal commentary, and some lovely ramblings from a brooding soul.
A Sportsman’s Sketches Turgenev I don’t like Turgenev, but Russian literature cannot be discussed without discussing Turgenev. Also he was one of Hemingway’s favorites, and Hemingway is one of my favorites so I’ll include him in my extremely important list here. A Sportsman’s Sketches is about his time hunting at his mothers where he observes the abused life of the peasants in the area. It’s Russian realism…I usually love realism, just not his I guess. Fun facts that do make me swoon over him just a little despite his inability to write an interesting story. He was fluent in Spanish and of course Russian and was considered for the position of translating Don Quixote into Russian, and is also thought to have played a part in the novel becoming popular in Russia.Someone fluent enough in a foreign language to translate full novels….hmmm…. Also his commentary on serfdom in A Sportsman’s Sketches led him to house arrest and I do love literary rebels. I just wish he was more interesting in his approach to story telling.