Bite-Sized Russians

Bite-Sized Books

Penguin’s Little Black Classics series includes a number of works by Russian writers, who haven’t figured very prominently in my reading to date. It was time to correct that. These short stories gave me the chance to have brief encounters with Pushkin, Dostoevsky, Gogol and Chekhov, none of whom I’d read before, as well as renewing my acquaintance with the towering Tolstoy. It has felt rather like speed-dating with Russian authors. Along the way I’ve been introduced to ambitious officers, unhappy wives, unscrupulous peasants, mentally unstable dreamers and an errant nose with a penchant for disguise. My appetite has certainly been whetted and, in due course, I’ll be looking into some of these authors in greater detail. By the way, I must stress that I’m well aware Gogol is Ukrainian by birth, but I hope I can be forgiven for including him here, as he’s often cited among the great Russian-speaking writers. Now, don your fur hat, grab your tot of vodka and hie ye to your troika, as we delve into the 19th-century Russian mind…

THE QUEEN OF SPADES: ALEXANDER PUSHKIN

★★★★

One night, while playing cards, a group of idle young officers are entertained by the stories of their colleague Tomsky. He tells them a legend about his grandmother, the Countess X, who as a young woman lost a great deal of money at cards at Versailles. When her husband refused to pay her debts, she sought out the aid of her friend, the Count of Saint-Germain, who told her a secret technique by which, with only three cards, she could be sure of winning back her money. The officers are delighted by this story, but none more so than young Hermann. His financial caution has prevented him from ever joining in with the gambling, but if he could be sure of winning… why, he could set himself up for life! As time passes, the idea grows on Hermann and gradually he becomes obsessed with it. If only he could find a way to get into the Countess’s presence! And then he spots the virtuous Lizaveta Ivanovna, the Countess’s ward, sitting sewing in her window, and a cunning plan begins to take shape in his mind.

This is another classic short story and, like Gogol’s Nose (below), inspired an opera. Written in 1833, it’s a delicious blend of unscrupulous ambition, avarice, immortality and eerie ghost story, and its message is clear: you get what you deserve. I hadn’t read any Pushkin before and was delighted by his witty turn of phrase, beautifully translated by Rosemary Edmonds. For example, when asked why he doesn’t play cards, Hermann explains that he is ‘not in a position to risk the necessary in the hope of acquiring the superfluous‘. And, when Lizaveta shyly asks Tomsky about Hermann, the young officer ebulliently replies: ‘he has the profile of a Napoleon and the soul of a Mephistopheles. I think there must be at least three crimes on his conscience‘. It was a real pleasure and I’ll have to seek out some more of his work. Maybe one day, when I’m feeling brave, it’ll be time for Eugene Onegin

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A NERVOUS BREAKDOWN: ANTON CHEKHOV

★★★

This is my first experience of Chekhov, who’s often cited as one of the greatest short-story writers, and I have to confess that the jury’s out for now. This little book contains three stories, translated by Ronald Wilks: the eponymous A Nervous BreakdownThe Black Monk and Anna Round the Neck, and they are all rather grim. In the first, the law student Vasilyev is driven into a state of distraction after spending an evening with his friends trawling the brothels of Moscow. Sensitive Vasilyev is distressed by the vulgarity of these working women and the way that his educated friends can happily flit between their high-minded studies and the exploitation of prostitutes. I’m not really sure what the point is, unless to suggest that too much reading and too little life has driven Vasilyev past the brink of reason…

The other two stories feel more successful. In The Black Monk, the overworked Kovrin seeks sanctuary with his childhood guardian Pesotsky and Pesotsky’s daughter Tanya in the country. His erratic mental state finds expression in visions of a black monk, whose flattering addresses lead Kovrin to an exaggerated notion of his own importance. Moving from exuberant affection to cold disdain, his sense of his own brilliance leads him into a tragic sequence of events. And, finally, Anna Round the Neck sees the titular Anna married off to a rich but old and ugly Modeste Alekseyevich. Having given up her freedom in the hope of gaining financial security for her impoverished family, Anna is distressed to realise that her husband means to keep a tight rein on the purse-strings. But, when she becomes something of a social sensation, Anna’s principles are quite to disappear as she savours the thrill of high-society living.

I have another collection of Chekhov’s short stories (Gooseberries) waiting to be read, which will feature in a future Bite-Sized Russians post, but at the moment I’m not exactly bowled over. The stories don’t have the power of The Queen of Spades or the nonsensical wit of The Nose. However, I’m sure that it’s just a case of waiting until I find the right one, and then I’ll be swept off my feet. Any suggestions of your favourite Chekhov story?

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THE MEEK ONE: FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY

★★★

This bleak and puzzling story, originally published in 1876, is a tale of love gone wrong. Its narrator is a former army officer turned pawnbroker, who resigned from the army in disgrace to find that his brother-in-law had squandered the family’s meagre fortune. Having clawed his way back to a semi-respectable style of living, he’s embittered by the world and seeks to take his revenge on it. He decides to marry a quiet and put-upon orphaned teenager who comes to him trying to sell trinkets from a happier past; but he resolves to be stern with her. When she rushes to him, brimming over with affection, he puts her off; he encourages contemplation and silence; all the time thinking that he’s creating a rational and deep connection between them – never realising that he is making her life so miserable that, one day, suicide may be the only option for her.

Dostoyevsky is not renowned for being a laugh a minute and, based on this story, it’s a reputation that’s well-deserved. At first I loathed the narrator, whose cold and clinical approach to love seems designed to torment his young wife – to make her, in microcosm, the butt of all the resentment he feels against the world at large. Then I began to feel for him: his tragic misunderstanding, his cowardice and his desperate attempts to revive a love that he has already crushed into ashes (‘You don’t know with what paradise I would have surrounded you. The paradise was in my soul; I would have planted it all around you!‘). No, he isn’t a straightforward villain. He’s cruel without understanding the human heart, selfish, tyrannical and supercilious; but he’s also a deeply wounded man whose claim to hate the world belies the fact that he cares deeply about rank and success. His determination to make money through business, and to retire to a life of comfortable wealth, has blinded him to the more delicate emotions and will, ultimately, deprive him of the chance of real happiness. No. It isn’t exactly upbeat.

I should point out that this story is also often translated as A Gentle Creature. In fact, Penguin Classics published it by that title in their Penguin 60s Classics series, in a 1989 translation by David McDuff. This current version is translated by Ronald Meyer.

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HOW MUCH LAND DOES A MAN NEED?: LEO TOLSTOY

★★★½

In these two stories, translated by Ronald Wilks, Russian peasants find themselves caught up in unwitting encounters with the supernatural. In the first, the titular How Much Land Does a Man Need?, the humble peasant Pakhom and his wife live a modest but contented existence in the country. Yet Pakhom has one desire: ‘I don’t have enough land. Give me enough of that and I’d fear no one – not even the Devil himself!‘ But, unluckily for Pakhom, the Devil is lurking in his cottage than night and sees an excellent opportunity to put this ambitious peasant to the test. And so Pakhom finds himself in a position where he starts being able to acquire more land; but, with each gain, he becomes hungry for more. The more he acquires, the more he wants, while the Devil watches with glee from the sidelines. It makes for a pointed fable about the damaging effects of avarice and the importance of being content with your god-given lot in life.

The religious theme continues in the second story, What Men Live By, which in one sense is a retelling of the Good Samaritan. The impoverished shoemaker Semyon is returning from town one day, in low spirits, when he finds a naked man sitting in the cold outside a chapel. Semyon’s instinct is to walk on and mind his own business, but compassion leads him to return to the man, give him his own worn coat, and take him home to share a dinner they can ill afford. Semyon’s goodness is repaid by loyalty: the foundling, Mikhail, turns out to have a gift for shoemaking and the business prospers. But Semyon and his wife know so little about their new assistant, and the enigma deepens as the years pass, until Mikhail is finally ready to reveal the truth of his identity: one that emphasises the importance of sharing, looking out for one another and acting with kindness.

Like the first story, this has the air of a fable or fairy story, charmingly devout. As such, neither tale has the impressive power of some of the stories covered here, but they were some of the most enjoyable to read (except, of course, for the gleefully nonsensical Nose). I won’t be reading War and Peace again any time soon, but I should seek out some more of Tolstoy’s short stories, as they confirm him as a gifted and graceful storyteller.

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THE NOSE: NIKOLAY GOGOL

★★★½

The barber Ivan Yakovlevich has a terrible shock one morning when, tearing open a breakfast roll, he finds a nose within. Even worse, he recognises it as the nose of Collegiate Assessor Kovalyov, one of his customers. Frantic with worry, Ivan decides to dispose of the nose, hoping that it can’t be traced back to him, while, across town, Kovalyov is waking up to discover a shock of his own: his nose has vanished, to be replaced with a flat and featureless expanse of skin. Indignantly the aspirational Kovalyov sets off in the hope of recovering his nose which, it transpires is having a whale of a time without him and seems to have adopted an even higher social status than that of its erstwhile owner (‘my nose,‘ exclaims the unfortunate Kovalyov, ‘is driving at this very moment all over town, calling itself a state counsellor’).

Written in 1836 and translated here by Ronald Wilks, Gogol’s famous story is deliciously surreal. The nose changes size and costume several times, as if to escape detection: the police finally ‘intercepted it just as it was boarding the stagecoach bound for Riga. Its passport was made out in the name of a civil servant. Strangely enough, I mistook it for a gentleman at first. Fortunately I had my spectacles with me so I could see it was really a nose.’ There seem to be several learned theories about what this little piece of nonsense actually means: is it a castration allegory? A satire on social mobility and people with ideas above their station? Or simply the latest in a long line of Russian fables about errant body parts? Gogol’s proboscidal classic sits here alongside another of his short stories, The Carriage. Even less happens here than in The Nose, but it seems once again to be a social satire on the pretensions of its hapless protagonist Chertokutsky, who manages to make a fool of himself in front of the very people he most wishes to impress.

I’d love to read some more of Gogol’s short stories and I’m now rather curious about Shostakovich’s operatic adaptation of The Nose, which might be amusing. (P.S. Fun fact: Gogol was apparently self-conscious about the size of his own nose.)

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5 thoughts on “Bite-Sized Russians

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Thanks Charlie! I really have been trying to find cheerful things to read, honest, but it turns out my library doesn’t actually have that many daft diverting books in it – which is why The Nose was such a pleasure. 🙂 Overall I’ve been really impressed with these Russian writers – not all that upbeat, it’s true, but considerably richer and more engaging than I’d expected. I’m looking forward to reading the next batch of Russian short stories that I have lined up, but I think I should probably take a bit of a break first!

      I’m doing OK, thanks for asking. Some days the humiliation and aching loss still hit me like a brick wall, and it’s going to take a long time before it heals, but I’m keeping myself busy. There’s loads going on and I have some wonderful people to share it with, so I’m very lucky in that respect.

  1. dehggial says:

    The Queen of Spades is supposed to come to ROH in the next couple years in a new production. I am definitely going – it’s a very lovely opera – Tchaikovsky is doing his best impression of Mozart (and has a whole scene where he isn’t even hiding his Mozart fangirling by presenting a fictitious Mozart opera) – and he’s good at it, too.

    Shostakovich’s Nose is better seen and heard than only heard 😉 though he is very inventive in that early 20th century way. The Kosky production at ROH was a riot, one of my favourites ever.

    I’m a very big Gogol fan! His stuff is mad in the best way. IMO, one of the most innovative writers I’ve ever come in contact with, his stories break out in directions that have surprised the hell out of me. He has this subtle humour that is somewhere between cynical and surreal that I don’t know anyone else achieves.

    I’m not so much a Chekhov short story fan (I actually started reading Gogol after being bored with Chekhov) but his play The Seagull is great.

    Anyway, make sure you read Gogol’s Dead Souls and The Government Inspector as well. They have all the hilarious bite Chekhov’s social criticism misses. As for short stories, they are all good but my favourite is Viy. It gets absolutely bonkers when you least expect it but if you’re familiar at all with Russian/Ukrainian folktales then it… well, it won’t make sense but it’s got that flavour.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      This is fantastic Dehgg! You’re clearly the person to come to for advice about Russian literature. I’m glad to hear that the rest of Gogol’s work is similarly mad and I look forward to experiencing it. Yes, I am curious about the Queen of Spades opera, so I’ll keep my eye open for that – and I would quite like to see the Nose if it comes back. And yes, I wouldn’t dare criticise Chekhov as a dramatist. I went to see The Seagull some years ago and really enjoyed it. But it looks as though Gogol is the one to focus on for now 😉 Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts!

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