Reading the Russians

I think a lot of people feel they should read the Russians. After all, William Faulkner took a year off from the post office to read the Russians, and look what it did for him. He became yet another author people feel they should read.

The trouble is, people don’t read what they should read. And I don’t think they should. People should read for enjoyment. So don’t read the Russians because you think you should. Read them because you feel like it.

I’d start with that spirited troika of contemporaries: Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol and Mikhail Lermontov.

Pushkin, of course, is revered in Russia above all other writers. At one international literary conference, one of the speakers began a discussion of one of the female characters in the epic poem “Boris Gudonov.”

A burly Russian scholar, I am told, rose up from his seat and waved his finger at the speaker, and said in a menacing tone, “You leave Tasha alone!”

People often think of Russian novels as long and ponderous like War and Peace and Crime and Punishment, but this troika of authors, who are acknowledged as the founders of Russian literature, have a number of very lively short works.

Pushkin wrote a very interesting “History of Pugachev’s Rebellion,” and in “The Negro of Peter the Great” he tells the story of his great-grandfather, an Abyssinian prince kidnapped and sold into slavery in Turkey. Gannibal, as he was known, was adopted by Peter the Great and became the toast of European society. Voltaire called him “the dark star of Russia’s enlightenment.” His descendants, besides Pushkin, include Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Gogol, a close friend of Pushkin’s, wrote a bunch of books and plays that are really hilarious. His novel Dead Souls (sounds morbid, but it’s actually very funny) is about a guy who goes around buying dead serfs, referred to as “dead souls.”

You see they took a census of serfs (people who were owned by landowners) every ten years and that was used to determine the landowners’ tax bills. So if a serf died, the landowner had to go on paying taxes on him or her until the next census.

So this guy Chichikov shows up and offers to buy the “dead souls,” whom the landowners are happy to sell because it reduces their tax liability.

So why is this guy buying dead serfs? Well it turns out that the government is giving grants of land to people who own a certain number of serfs and apparently they weren’t checking whether the serfs were dead or alive. Anyway, it’s a funny story and it gives Gogol the opportunity to do what he does best, which is to spoof provincial Russian society.

Another excellent provincial spoof by Gogol is his play “The Inspector General” in which a dissolute, bankrupt nobleman arrives in this province just when the local officials (all laughable fops) are expecting a government inspector, so they all start kissing up to him until they find out who he really is.

Gogol also wrote a short novel about the Cossack Taras Bulba which reads like Homer. It was made into an excellent movie. The high point comes when Taras (played by Yul Brynner) shoots his son (played by Tony Curtis) at point-blank range. I have no particular animus against Tony Curtis, but for some reason I really enjoyed seeing him shot at point-blank range.

Two other Gogol stories that should not be missed are “The Queen of Spades” — my favorite, a real corker — and “The Overcoat,” probably his most famous story. Dostoyevsky said, “We all came out of Gogol’s Overcoat.”

Lermontov was more a disciple of Pushkin’s. He got in trouble for writing “The Death of a Poet” in which he insinuates that members of the tsar’s court, and even the tsar himself, were complicit in causing the duel in which Pushkin died. The tsar (Nicholas I) gave Pushkin the lowest possible court title to humiliate him and to allow his wife, who had many admirers, including the tsar, to attend court balls. Pushkin then challenged his wife’s reputed lover to a duel and was killed.

Anyway, some say Lermontov surpassed his hero and certainly his novel A Hero of Our Time is, in my humble opinion, one of the best books every written, right up there with A Passage to India by E.M. Forster. I make this comparison because both are beautifully crafted works with masterful shifts in the narrative point of view. That’s probably why Vladimir Nabokov took the trouble to translate the work into English.

Regrettably, Lermontov was also killed in a duel at a young age.