Reading Russians

My reading list is currently dominated by the Russian authors of yore. It all started when I first read Anna Karenina about a year ago. I’d always thought it was an overdramatic tale of unrequited love… boy, was I wrong. I just could not put that book down. I lugged it with me everywhere I went, stealing a furtive read every second I got the chance – in the subway, queuing for the cash machine, anywhere – even a few pages would do. It had been the first time in years that a book enraptured me that way. I absolutely loved it – Tolstoy’s intricate characterization brought each figure so alive, which reminded me of the paradox that the more one expresses one’s most intimate thoughts, the more “universal” our experience becomes. It’s one of those books I can imagine reading and rereading again, and there will always be a new theme, a new image, a new reflection to be found. It’s more than a plot with colourful characters: because it speaks to the psyche, it’s a book about life itself. [You can imagine how sore I was when I found out that a girl I’d just met was reading it and her response to my gushing was a diplomatic grab to find something good to say, which was “yeh, yeh, the author is clever, I see what he’s doing”. I found a whole lot of post-(only post?)colonial self-centredness in this. The finding was not dispelled by the fact that when we visited a bookshop in an ex-colony, which was renowned for focusing on lit from that ex-colony, MsClever only browsed white Western authors. Honey, you can’t even pronounce “th” properly, and it’s one of the defining sounds of your language. But this will be the subject of another post.]

Right now, I’m almost halfway through Nikolaj Gogol’s “Dead Souls”. I decided to buy it because (a) he’s Russian (as much as I find national labels vacuous, for the above reasons it seems to be something of a guarantee for me lately) (b) walking home after a rejuvenating night out, I chanced upon a plaque commemorating the place where he wrote part of it (c) the name was intriguing. Solid reasons, eh? So I dug into it, expecting a dark tale of despair and depravity. Well, not the case so far. I’d say that the predominant tone is rather caustic sarcasm and cynicism, which sometimes take a downright hilarious turn. Yesterday I laughed out loud at a description of an heavily drunken party among men, whose conversations grew in a crescendo of absurdity; when the discussion turned to politics, “they effortlessly solved a multitude of intractable problems” thanks to the sweet nectar. Unfortunately, many English versions available online seem to be rather stuffy and omit this genius phrase. The power of a good translation!

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