Looking Up… to the Russians

Welcome! Again?

Yeah, you thought I was gone, disappeared back into the black hole that is the American university system. But, inasmuch as I’m soon to escape it permanently, I need to find something else to do with myself, right? And so, here we go again, only this time, you get to hear (or, read?) my ramblings, thoughts, tips, and whatever else I dream up, so long as it pertains to one of my three favorite topics: food, literature, or travel. Ideally, it will pertain to all three, and it’s surprising how often those three coincide. I imagine they will do so even more come next year (2009), when I take off to travel around the world, and this will be your best way of keeping up with me.

If you want more of an explanation as to what’s going on here, check out the sidebar.

And now, without further ado, let’s jump right in.


Yesterday, I found myself at the bookstore – as do all good English majors when faced with no money and a street full of shopping – and without intending to buy anything, ended up walking out with War and Peace, one of the heaviest books known to humanity. I think I can safely say it weighs more than the Bible, and possibly contains more relevant cultural references, though I’ll get back to you on that one after I read it. And I didn’t even get the new edition, just translated, which is apparently the “original” version. Don’t be fooled, however, into thinking that this means it’s the “authentic” version; rather, it’s more like the first draft. This is not to say it’s any lesser a version, but it’s probably more useful for professors and Tolstoy fanatics (not me), than for those of us who equate beautiful hardcover with better copy (me). Yes, I had to read the introduction to ascertain this.

I confess that I haven’t read much of The Russian Writers. And by not much, I mean that I read as much of Notes from Underground as I could slog through in one afternoon, and an excerpt from The Brothers Karamazov, both for a class on Existentialism last semester. If Dostoevsky had come later in my professor’s chronology of Existentialism, I probably wouldn’t have even attempted him at all, as happened to poor Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. I visited their tomb last year at the Cimitière Montparnasse, so I feel it’s all okay, but Dostoevsky wouldn’t have had such a luxury.

As an English major, though, and general bibliophile, I’ve felt bad for some time about this gaping hole in my knowledge. I’ve read some Chekhov stories, which I generally didn’t mind, and I think I even enjoyed a few of them, though I can’t exactly remember. I did go through a Romanov phase when I was about 12, which I’m sure can be traced to the release of the animated film Anastasia (still an excellent film, if I may say so, the best part of which is a tie between John Cusack as an attractive cartoon character, and Hank Azaria’s brilliant voicing of Bartok the sardonic bat). But beyond that, my association with Russian fiction consisted of an idea of The Russian Novelists as a dark, ominous cloud of drudgery, philosophizing, and incoherent words made up by a tortured translator. That image slowly started to fade sometime around the start of college, but I’ve never gotten around to taking a class on The Russian Novel, and the remnants of that cloud were still too near to incite me to pick up any Pushkin or Dostoevsky during my precious free time, which could be used for my beloved British novelists, or perhaps some Dumas.

I don’t think I’m the only one to have this bizarre semi-misconception of The Russian Novelists. When I walked up to the register yesterday, the guy at the counter promptly asked, “Have you read Anna Karenina?” No “hello,” even. Apparently the Russians will do that to you.

“No,” I replied, “but I should.”

“I haven’t read War and Peace, but I liked Anna Karenina.” Ha. We’re not all so well-read, then. I always knew I could work at a bookstore.

The guy at the next register chimed in. “Yeah, I’ve been meaning to read them both, but they’re both a little daunting.”

I have no qualms in expressing my true feelings, then. “I’ve wanted to read this all year and just have been a little overwhelmed by the size. I have a friend who started reading it this spring–“

And here I was cut off when my clerk discovered dried blood on the dollar bill he was about to give me in change, ending my inquest into how many people have actually read Tolstoy. I am convinced it is actually far fewer than actually pretend that they have. I myself am occasionally guilty of such false pretenses, regarding both books and films, but clearly not about Tolstoy.

The bit about my friend reading War and Peace back in the spring was true, actually, but she’s a French and Russian double major, so it certainly wasn’t her first foray into The Russian Novelists. And she wasn’t actually the key factor in my change of heart towards the imposing men themselves. I am no longer able to recall the name of the movie, but I read a review at some point while in Paris about a movie I was interested in seeing, only to discover the plot compared to that of War and Peace. Immediately – and here, it becomes clear that I am easily influenced by the media – I decided that years of fear of The Russian Novel were worthless, and I must now read this masterpiece. When Selene started reading it, I tried to talk her into bringing the whole book with us to Greece for spring break, so I could read it in the unlikely event that she would finish it. In the end, I think she cut it in half so she could carry it without breaking her back.

One Reply to “Looking Up… to the Russians”

  1. So, did you read War and Peace? Did you like it? What about Anna Karenina? Both so absolutely worth reading. You can talk to your cousin Ben about Dostoevsky. I could never manage him, but Ben took a class last year just about the Brothers Karamazov and thought it was amazing.

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