Monday, December 31, 2007

Happy 2008! -- С новым годом!

If the Russian belief “as you greet the new year, so you will live it” proves true, I look forward to my 2008 reading after a so-so 2007. I met 2007 reading Vasilii Aksenov’s uneven Московская сага (Generations of Winter) trilogy, leading to a year of uneven, mostly post-Soviet, reading. I’m finishing a very satisfying Dovlatov kick as I see in 2008, so hope that’s a positive omen for next year’s reading!

Favorites for the year. Vladimir Makanin's short novels Лаз (Escape Hatch) and Долог наш путь (The Long Road Ahead). Sure they’re a little dreary, but they’re so good I bought them as a Christmas gift for my brother. (Previous entry)

Favorite post-Soviet book not by Makanin. Petr Aleshkovskii’s (Peter Aleskhovsky) Жизнеописание хорька (Skunk: A Life). I have no idea why the translator or publisher felt compelled to change the title character from ferret to skunk, but you have been warned! Aleshkovsii’s conglomeration of genres – notably life of saint with mysticism, crime, road novel, adventure, coming of age, fable – doesn’t always mesh, but there are lots of high points. My favorite episodes are set in the wilderness, where Ferret (instinctively, of course) fits with nature better than with people in his native town. Less a novel than a fictional biography. (Translation excerpt)

Biggest overall surprise. Somehow, I made only one dip back to the 19th century during 2007: Dostoevsky’s Insulted and Injured, which I was moved to read when I saw that a Moscow theater had adapted it into a musical.

Most unexpected reading. Arkadii Gaidar’s “Судьба барабанщика” (“The Fate of the Drummer”). I read about this story and its significance in a film journal and pulled it off my shelf… I’m not sure if this novella is available in English translation, but it’s an intriguing and entertaining combination of a “Home Alone”-type young adult adventure story with the author’s personal confessions. Gaidar is best known as a writer of children’s stories, but memories of his excessive actions during the Civil War always haunted him. Former Russian prime minister Yegor Gaidar is Arkadii Gaidar’s grandson.

Best unexpected book loan. Four volumes of Sergei Dovlatov. It’s been odd spending the holidays with Dovlatov’s dark humor, beginning with Компромисс (The Compromise) and moving on to Иностранка (A Foreign Woman). A Foreign Woman, a novel about the émigré community in New York, disappointed a little after Compromise, though I’m glad I read it. I think Dovlatov works best with linked stories: in Чемодан (The Suitcase) he tells of clothing he packed to bring to America, remembering how he acquired each item in the USSR. Previous entry on The Compromise.

Best book-length nonfiction. Orlando Figes’s The Whisperers by default since I rarely read book-length nonfiction. I’m reading a bit at a time, filling in the gaps of my knowledge of Stalin-era history. The book sometimes feels overfilled by stories from individual families – there are many – but the stories are also the book’s strength. Fortunately, Figes places these accounts in context, sometimes gently reminding the reader who’s who. The book has enough background to be an introduction to the era for general readers but plenty of details to satisfy people like me, whose knowledge of the time is quite good but not very methodical. I’m especially interested in the story of writer Konstantin Simonov, whose life Figes describes in detail. My biggest complaint about The Whisperers is pretty minor: the book is so physically heavy that it’s difficult to read!

2008 reading. Beyond finishing The Whisperers, I’ve already got a shelf full of books I can’t wait to read in 2008, including my Russian Reading Challenge books, Aleksandr Kuprin’s Duel, and a trilogy by Aleksei Tolstoi.

I wish everyone a very happy new year’s holiday and plenty of quiet time to read lots of good books in 2008! С новым годом!

Books on Amazon:

Makanin's Escape Hatch & the Long Road Ahead: Two Novellas

Aleshkovsky's Skunk A Life(Glas 15)

Figes's The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Electricity + Anna + Minaev = Blog Entry

Happy Power Engineering Day! What better way to celebrate electricity than reading some Andrei Platonov, who once worked as an electrical engineer?

One fitting selection is Platonov’s short story “Родина электричества” (“The Motherland of Electricity”), which I recently read and enjoyed. The narrator of this quirky 1926 story walks for days to reach a town needing drought relief and help with an electrical system that’s a relic from the White Army. Platonov covers a lot in 10 pages, touching on religious, political, technological, and mythical themes.

“The Motherland of Electricity” is included in Soul, a new collection of Robert Chandler’s translations of Platonov stories published by the New York Review of Books. Soul contains an extensive introduction by John Berger.

Name Day for Annas. Sorry, Ms. Karenina, but my favorite literary Anna is Akhmatova. It’s worth listening to Akhmatova read her own poetry even if you don’t understand Russian. This online anthology includes two recordings of Akhmatova, some poems in Russian and English, biographical information, illustrations, and links. The photo of Joseph Brodsky at Akhmatova’s funeral illustrates their closeness.

Sergei Minaev in the New York Times. Today’s New York Times included a “Saturday Profile” of Sergei Minaev, author of the best-selling novel Духless (Soulless). Soulless is an unfortunate book: it might have become something quite good had Minaev and his editor been patient enough to work through another draft or two. Decadence alone does not a novel make.

The Times article quotes Vasilii Aksyonov saying that “Minaev’s hero is a superfluous man.” That’s true, but the book’s lack of structure and real characters doom it from contributing to the pantheon of superfluous men in Russian literature, antiheroes like Lermontov’s Pechorin and Goncharov’s Oblomov. Minaev’s characters are conscious that they’re a lost generation, but Soulless was probably successful primarily for its voyeuristic look into another lifestyle, like Oksana Robski’s Casual. I hesitate to say that Soulless probably won’t be translated into English: Casual already made it.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Dovlatov’s Uncompromising "Compromise"

Sergei Dovlatov’s Компромисс (The Compromise) prompts recognition. Though the novel’s narrator, a heavy-drinking journalist named Sergei Dovlatov, recounts a dozen unevenly sized slices of life set in Soviet Estonia, most readers will find bits of themselves in The Compromise.

Dovlatov looks at compromise and honesty through his vignettes, each consisting of a newspaper clipping plus Dovlatov’s account of gathering information for the article. These loosely linked stories show his boss’s ridiculous demands, typical bureaucratic hassles, and the pervasive lack of logic in life. Dovlatov’s job takes him to a birth house, a dairy farm, and a cemetery, among other places. He makes frequent use of vodka and humor during his travels.

Dovlatov’s co-workers, friends, and sources drop in and out of his narratives in various levels of development but still feel lifelike: we can fill in missing details. We already know them, just as we know Dovlatov, even if we’ve never lived in Soviet Tallinn. We’re all imperfect humans with a dose of Dovlatov in us: we’ve all been forced into situations that made us feel compromised, used, and alienated.

Dovlatov is a friendly and inherently unreliable storyteller who crafts his tales with a simple, elegant style that makes his characters and situations feel universal. I think familiarity is what makes Dovlatov’s sad humor so funny. The situations and complications that he presents – as at a funeral where he becomes a pallbearer despite not knowing the deceased – are predictable.

But predictable works here. Even when I knew what would happen, I wanted to guess and then hear Dovlatov’s twists on familiar stories. And I wanted to empathize with someone I know, someone who, at his core, resembles me. I often found myself simultaneously laughing out loud and shaking my head while I read The Compromise. It felt just right.

Some aspects of The Compromise – specifics about everyday Soviet life – might feel unfamiliar to non-Russian readers, but Dovlatov provides an apt introduction to the warped rules that pervaded public and private lives. They, of course, pop up everywhere. No matter how we escape our individual problems – through vodka, beer, TV, or, yes, even fiction -- I think the layered narratives of The Compromise, which reveal paradoxical truths and metaphors about life, should appeal to readers everywhere. Maybe they will also help us to laugh a bit more at ourselves.

SUMMARY: Very highly recommended for readers who enjoy simple, well-crafted prose about everyday events that have larger significance. Aspects of Soviet humor and life that appeal to some people (like me!) may feel “depressing” to others. The Compromise is, for me, an example of what fiction should be: stories that read easily when one is tired at the end of the day but carry ideas that seep into the subconscious and attach themselves.

Note: According to my borrowed Dovlatov book, the vignettes in The Compromise were written as individual stories during 1973-1980. Most did not originally include the newspaper “preambles,” which were added later to connect the episodes. Oddly, the New York Times review of The Compromise refers to 11 stories, but my Russian edition has 12…

Friday, December 14, 2007

(Ras)Putin, Robski, and “Moskva-Petushki”

A few random Russian literature news notes for the end of the week:

1. Writer Valentin Rasputin received a Russian government award -- Order for Service to the Fatherland (3rd degree) -- yesterday from Vladimir Putin. (Photo) According to the Kremlin Web site, Putin bestowed awards on 49 “outstanding Russian citizens.” Rasputin also received a special award from Big Book in November.

Putin’s speech at the Kremlin awards ceremony included this line:

Both now and in the future we must do everything we can to ensure that, along with the growth of our economic power, the people creating our national culture become household names in the rest of the world, and that Russian language and literature continue to develop as a means of interethnic and international communication.

I wonder if Putin knows about the Russian Reading Challenge

2. One of this morning’s top news stories (!) on was an item claiming that Oksana Robski, author of Casual and other bestsellers, plans to sell her house. It seems that selling tons of books isn’t enough to maintain a residence in the exclusive Rublyovka part of Moscow. Selling her Bentley would evidently only fund Robski’s expenditures for six months.

Casual fictionalizes Robski’s lifestyle. The book combines genres – primarily chick lit about the upper classes and detective – and became a huge bestseller. When I told a Russian reader friend that Casual had been translated into English, she said, “You mean someone took the time?” She and I both love a good piece of pulp fiction, but Casual lacks substance, structure, and heart. Casual is most notable as a view into Russia’s nouveau riche and for spawning copycat novels, but it’s still not very compelling. Bookslut has a full review.

3. The Biblio-Globus bestseller list for last week included a bit of a surprise: an “author’s text” edition of Venedikt Erofeev’s Москва-Петушки (Moscow to the End of the Line). (This summary has spoilers.) The book was written in 1970 but forbidden in the USSR until perestroika. I always wondered what I missed in my 1990 edition…

Moskva-Petushki is a tough book to summarize, but here’s what I wrote for a Soviet literature workshop last year:

Moscow to the End of the Line is the stream-of-consciousness narrative of a man who makes his way around and out of Moscow, drinking very heavily, philosophizing at times, and never seeming to make it to see the Kremlin. The book is depressing, sad, profane, and (of course) bleak, but there’s another reason it has a cult following: it is also very funny in spots, and the narrator (who coincidently shares the author’s name) shows a lot of heart. That’s why he drinks so much. Unfortunately, heart and soul are qualities that many Soviet literary characters lack. Though difficult to follow in places, this small book is a “Hit Parade” item in a large Russian on-line library.
Moscow to the End of the Line is a great example of messy postmodernism fitting a subject perfectly. And it’s just the right length. Though Moskva-Petushki won’t please everyone, it’s a minor classic.

Books in this posting:
Oksana Robski's Casual on Amazon
Erofeev's Moscow to the End of the Line on Amazon

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Of Mice, Golubchiki, and Tolstaya

Tat’iana Tolstaya’s Кысь (The Slynx) is a novel of posts: postmodern, post-Soviet, post-apocalyptic. It describes a Russian settlement, formerly Moscow, that was bombed back to, roughly, the Stone Age. The wheel was just reinvented, candles light huts, and people barter in mice, a valuable food source. The government is repressive, and its leader claims to have written all of what we know as Russian literature. Scribes copy those texts onto birch bark.

Of course there’s much more, including mutations that cause humans to grow tails, coxcombs, and claws, as well as a couple of fairly typical intellectuals who’ve survived hundreds of years to remember the old days and put up a statue of Pushkin. Tolstaya’s main character, a scribe named Benedikt, a fellow with a tail, becomes enamored with books, but he’s a bit of a blockhead so reads everything from poetry to crafts books without truly differentiating their meanings.

Despite loving dystopian novels and views of the future, I found that Tolstaya’s imaginative descriptions fail to become compelling: she creates a vivid setting but skimps on characters. Instead of creating real people, she tosses out figures to represent positions. Her primary focus is on language.

Tolstaya’s linguistic pyrotechnics in The Slynx have earned her praise from some Russian reviewers, but I found them distracting, just as I find extensive use of regional accents distracting in American novels. Characters in The Slynx make more mistakes with Russian grammar and pronunciation than typical Russian 101 students because they're barely literate, and Tolstaya invents new words to fit her “reality.”

Tolstaya’s preoccupation with language doesn’t end with spelling and grammar. The book is arranged like a primer, with each chapter named for a Cyrillic letter, some obsolete. The book is more about language, cultural literacy, and misinterpretation than anything else but these cultural aspects of the book are probably more difficult to feel in translation than in the original: two New York Times reviews (here and here) do not even allude to them.

Tolstaya quotes frequently from Russian literature, fairy tales, and other cultural materials, making the book resemble a parlor game for catching literary allusions. Tolstaya’s Big Point is stated in multiple locations: people must understand their primer basics, both for reading and life. Books are more than just collections of letters.

I agree. But the problem – and bitter irony – here is that the novel depends on superstructure plus familiar messages that, despite the originality of the setting, feel recycled from previous dystopian novels and history itself. Those don’t magically add up to good fiction any more than 26 Roman alphabet letters equal Shakespeare.

The Slynx has fans among Russian and Western readers who like wordplay and dystopias, but this reader grew impatient with its literary devices. I wanted to like The Slynx but the book's occasional moments of literary clarity and satirical humor – some of which are excellent – don’t compensate for hundreds of pages dominated by heavy-handed, self-conscious technique and messages.

SUMMARY: Recommended for readers who enjoy postmodern books where form and linguistic tricks trump or determine content. A very deep knowledge of Russian literature is a big plus. Not recommended for readers squeamish about the idea of eating mice. (Disclosure: we dispose of mice trapped in our garage and attic.) People with little patience for exclamation marks and sound effects (Eeeeeeee!!!) in fiction may also experience anxiety while reading this book.

Mentioned in this posting:
Slynx on Amazon

Sunday, December 9, 2007

"Soviet Deadpan" and Absurdity

As a self-taught observer of the absurd – my training comes from trips to the DMV, trying to converse with Russian bureaucrats, and reading about politics – it feels strange to read analysis of Daniil Kharms’s absurdist writing. Deciding what, exactly, made Kharms “weird” or absurdist feels like an inherently absurd act.

That’s not to say that “Soviet Deadpan,” George Sauders’s essay about Daniil Kharms in today’s “New York Times Book Review,” isn’t worth reading. It is! Saunders appreciates the energy and paradox of Kharms’s stories, and touches on the borders between Kharms’s narratives and what he calls “traditional stories.”

Russian literature has a long tradition of absurdity. One classic 19th century example is Nikolai Gogol’s “Нос” (“The Nose”), the tale of a man who wakes up without his nose, only to find the nose on the street, now man-sized, dressed in a nice uniform, and exiting a carriage. Gary Saul Morson’s article “’Absolute nonsense’ – Gogol’s Tales” from The New Criterion provides a wonderfully readable introduction to Gogol’s world.

Mikhail Bulgakov’s Собачье сердце (Heart of a Dog) is another favorite that combines absurdity with fantasy as it shows, among other things, what happens when a man’s organs are transplanted into a stray dog. (For one thing, he becomes head of cat control…)

Sergei Dovlatov takes a very different angle on absurdity in Soviet life and journalism in the book I’m reading now, Компромисс (The Compromise). So far The Compromise is nominally realistic – none of Bulgakov’s talking animals or Gogol’s walking body parts – as it addresses the meaning of truth in the USSR. I’m not worried if using “realistic” to describe absurdity sounds paradoxical: that’s what absurdity is all about.

An earlier Lizok's Bookshelf piece on Kharms: “The Charms of Kharms

Edit, 13 December: For more on Kharms, check out "It's Kharms week, here" on Languor Management, a blog that also includes author Kevin Kinsella's poetry translations.

Mentioned in this posting:
Daniil Kharms book on Amazon
Bulgakov's Heart of a Dog on Amazon
Dovlatov's The Compromise

Saturday, December 8, 2007

Russian Reading Challenge 2008

Are there four Russian novels, plays, story collections, or other books that you've always meant to read but never found time for? I'm sure there are! 2008 is your year.

The Russian Reading Challenge 2008 blog encourages visitors to read four Russian-related books between January 1 and December 31, 2008. The best part about the challenge format is that nobody will be alone -- dozens of participants should mean lots of discussion.

I'm going to use the Challenge as a way to assuage my guilt about missing these classics for too long:

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Бесы (The Possessed)

Nikolai Gogol’s Ревизор (Inspector General) plus stories I haven’t read in Вечера на хуторе близ Диканьки (Village Evenings near Dikanka -- not the video game!) and Миргород (Mirgorod)

Vasilii Grossman’s Жизнь и судьба (Life and Fate)

Andrei Platonov’s Котлован (Foundation Pit) or, as a backup, Ювенильное море (Juvenile Sea)

For now I'm reading and enjoying Sergei Dovlatov's Компромисс (The Compromise), a very funny-but-sad autobiographical novel about working as a journalist in Soviet Estonia. A friend lent me four volumes of Dovlatov -- t0 be sure I'd find something I liked! -- and I may be reading it all cover-to-cover if everything is this good.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

2007 Russian Booker Goes to Ilichevskii

Aleksandr Ilichevskii (Alexander Ilichevsky) won the 2007 Russian Booker prize for his novel Matisse, acing out Liudmila Ulitskaya’s Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator), which won the Big Book prize in late November. Ilichevskii received $20,000 for his efforts.

Ulitskaya is, by far, the best known of the six finalists, and this analytical piece in the English Moscow News, by Vladimir Kozlov, summarizes the Booker’s “identity crisis.” I'm sure the Booker's focus on works by relatively obscure writers is one reason you shouldn't expect (m)any of the finalists to be translated soon: usually only two or three of a year’s finalists seem to appear in English. The inaugural prize was awarded in 1992.

The remaining 2007 finalists, each of whom received $2,000 for being named to the Booker short list, are:

Andrei Dmitriev for Бухта радости (Bay of Hope)

Aleks Tarn for Бог не играет в кости (God Doesn’t Play Dice)

Iurii Maletskii for Конец иглы (The Point of the Needle)

I’ve only read works by Ulitskaya and Dmitriev. Some of my thoughts on Ulitskaya’s books are on this page.

Dmitriev’s writing can be quite dense, laden with literary and religious references and symbolism, but the three novellas that I read differed so much in style that I’d be afraid to generalize anything about his writing. This Iowa State page includes excellent analysis. Dmitriev’s (A Turn in the River), the most difficult of the three novellas that I read, was a Booker finalist in 1996.

Edit, January 8, 2008: Here is an English-language summary of Ulitskaya's Daniel Shtein.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

A Bright Spot or a Dark Cloud?: Andrei Gelasimov’s “Zhanna”

Are you an optimist or pessimist? If you’re not sure, try reading Andrei Gelasimov’s short story “Жанна” – “Zhanna” transliterated but “Joan” in this translation.

One Russian site hosting the story includes comments from readers and Gelasimov himself, who writes that people find either optimism and light or darkness and Satanism in the story. Gelasimov concludes that it’s not the story that causes the polarization but readers themselves, who interpret the story’s problems from their own perspectives.

A first-person narration about a teenage mother’s life with her disabled son does indeed sound quite gloomy, but Gelasimov infuses both his heroine and his story with a subtle sense of hope.

“Zhanna” is written in a stripped-down style that doesn’t overload the reader’s senses with superfluous emotion, imagery, or pop culture references: Gelasimov includes just enough of these details to unify the narrative. Zhanna tells her story as an actual teenage girl might, jumping between doctor appointments, her mother’s dreams of France, childhood memories, and her son’s difficulties. Her life and troubles feel quite real and, though I don’t often like a flat-sounding narrative voice, this one fits the character.

This English translation by Alexei Bayer captures the mood and simplicity of the Russian original quite nicely. Though I find the choice of “Joan” instead of “Zhanna” for the narrator’s name somewhat curious, I suspect “Joan” makes the story feel more universal to non-Russian readers. Incidentally, the story mentions a song about a stewardess: it is “Стюардесса по имени Жанна” (“A Stewardess Named Zhanna”), Vladimir Presniakov’s irritatingly catchy perestroika-era pop hit. (Bonus link! Presniakov singing the song on YouTube.)

I wish I could list other works by Gelasimov that have been translated into English, but I don’t know of any. I enjoyed Gelasimov’s novel Год обмана (The Year of the Lie) very much, particularly a section of diary entries that were published separately as “Нежный возраст” (“The Sensitive Age”). The novel blends genres – coming of age, action – with humor and observations about life and lies, creating a satisfying and touching picture of one contemporary Russian family’s quirky life. On, Gelasimov recommends The Year of the Lie as a fun text and “Zhanna” for its sincerity. I concur.

A Related Reading. Thematically, “Zhanna” reminded me a bit of a novella by Liudmila Petrushevskaia, Время ночь (The Time: Night), a first-person narrative about three generations of dysfunctional family problems. Both stories have also been read in theaters as solo shows. Although I recommend The Time: Night as a look at societal breakdown in the late Soviet period, it takes a hysterical tone and feels claustrophobic, contrasting with Zhanna’s even tone and emptying apartment. Both narrators feel authentic, but I’d much rather spend a day with Zhanna’s quiet struggle than Anna’s shouting.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

"Times" Article -- Russian Culture as Putin's Final Frontier

Russian culture made the front page of today’s New York Times with Michael Kimmelman’s detailed and thoughtful analysis of the precarious position of freedom of expression.

Kimmelman includes quotes from two Russian writers, Viktor Erofeev and Vladimir Sorokin. Both writers have been accused of writing “pornography” in works that included content – sex, swearing, and the like – that would have been censored under the Soviet regime. Shrill labels, of course, politicize and polarize literary criticism and draw debate away from literary merit. Both writers speak out regularly against the constraints of the Putin era.

It appears that Russian writers may still write and publish what they want. As literary critic Andrei Nemzer commented in a roundtable discussion published in Искусство кино (The Art of Cinema), “собака лает, ветер уносит” – basically, “the dog barks, the wind carries,” a line from Denis Fonvizin’s play Недоросль (The Minor). Most literary barking dissipates quickly because of small print runs for books read only by the intelligentsia.

One can only hope that book publishers will not be pressured to stop supporting controversial authors who, like Sorokin, dare to write what they wish and speak out against Putin. I’m not sure that would be politically expedient for Putin, anyway, because the Sorokins and Erofeevs are so easy for a pseudo-moralistic regime and its apologists to demonize. This English-language piece on Sorokin's Web site mentions that and other ironies of the campaign against them.

Putin’s regime has shrewdly focused on creating new patriotic motifs for the masses through television, often using miniseries as a platform. Many series build on old pride in the military victory of World War 2.

A 2007 40-episode (!) series on Stalin, though, responds to demand from a segment of society for a portrait of Stalin as a wise, just, and moral leader, writes critic Semyon Ekshtut in The Art of Cinema. Ekshtut refuses to debate the filmmakers’ concept in the article, writing that polemics are useless. Unfortunately, I’m afraid he’s correct.

Also... Russian speakers/readers wishing to learn more about Russian debate on government control and the arts might want to listen to or read the December 1, 2007, edition of the "Культурный шок" ("Culture Shock") radio show on Эхо Москвы (Echo of Moscow). The guests are Andrei Erofeev of the Tretiakov Gallery and literary critic Andrei Nemzer.

For images and more background, watch “A Photographer’s Journal: Putin’s Russia,” a multimedia presentation in today’s Times. Photographer James Hill’s narration to this three-minute feature provides cultural and historical context for his black and white images.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Vladimir Sorokin's "Ice" Capades

Probably the most famous statement in Russian literature about ice is “Лёд тронулся.” It translates roughly to “the ice is moving” and indicates progress, advancement. Who said it? A conman, Ostap Bender of Il’f and Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs. The more I think of Vladimir Sorokin’s novel Лёд (Ice), the more I think of Ostap Bender: Sorokin’s Ice is more con than novel.

Ice chronicles the activity of certain blue-eyed, blond-haired people who search for others that look like themselves. When they find them, they bang on their chests with icy hammers. Some hammerees respond by speaking their “true” names through their hearts; they are rehabilitated. The rest, the “empties,” are left to die.

There are many layers to the book that I won’t detail, lest you, too, get sucked into this slippery mess and want to discover its core. Be ready: Ice may max out your capabilities for the willing suspension of disbelief.
Sorokin divides his book into several stylistically dissimilar sections that he links with the ice motif. The first part of Ice takes place in contemporary Russia, and the heart hammerers resemble a Russian criminal group. This part of the book is brutal, at least in the Russian original, with so much gratuitous and graphic violence, swearing, sex, and other ickiness that many readers may want to abandon the novel.

Why did I keep reading? For one, I wanted to finish the book to get a feel for why Sorokin has caused so much controversy. One lesson learned: Sorokin’s love for writing about bathroom-related topics made it obvious why Putin’s youth group Walking Together (Идущие вместе) used a toilet to collect Sorokin books during a protest.

Still, I have to, grudgingly, give Sorokin some credit: he has a decent sense of timing and knows how to manipulate the reader to finish a book. Just as the violence and abuse in Ice became too much, Sorokin shifted his narrative. By this point, it was too late for me to put the book down because my interest was piqued. Would the book get better? Were the hammerers an Aryan cult? What did the heart have to do with everything? Or anything? Would I send my copy of Ice to Russia for a flush?

I finished and kept it. The book calmed down some but didn’t exactly improve, meaning that, unfortunately, the answers to the other questions are murky. In terms of meaning, Ice is as empty as the heartless victims of the hammer, and I won’t consult the other installments of Sorokin’s trilogy for further clarification. Once is enough, thanks.

One positive: as Ice progresses, Sorokin rather cleverly shows the group altering its operations to fit societal changes, operating under KGB cover during the Stalin years and later distributing ice hammers for home use.

The biggest reason I don’t want to finish the trilogy is that there’s nobody to care about in Ice. Whether the hammerers are good or bad forces in the world becomes a moot point because they feel as icy as their hammers, despite allegedly speaking with their hearts.

Although Sorokin has said that this is his first book where content is more important than form and that he believes the book is about the search for a lost spiritual paradise rather than about totalitarianism, I can’t buy his supposed sincerity. Ice is about a utopian abstraction, not real people.

That leads to another problem. Ice also feels, to me, like a confused and ambiguous statement about the Soviet past, where another perverted utopian abstraction took precedence over real people. Like the Soviet regime, the hammerers abuse their power to lead a chosen few toward the promise of a bright future, meanwhile pounding at the chests of the less fortunate masses, whom they condemn to death and ignomy. It’s an odd form of compassion.

Somehow, it seems fitting that my copy of Ice is flawed: the book’s innards are glued upside down inside the cover. Perhaps even the publisher isn’t sure which end is up. Paging Ostap Bender…

Summary: Not particularly recommended except as an insight into what some Russians are reading these days. Ice, a combination of melodramatic kitsch, science fiction, and pop philosophy, is a book that gets under your skin and reads quickly if you get hooked in. Not for the faint of heart (sorry) or those impatient with postmodernist manipulation of genre or readers. The translation looked quite decent in spot checks, though the first section seemed overly colloquial. Jamey Gambrell’s English-language translation of Ice was published by the New York Review of Books in the icy depths of January 2007.

PDF of Ice, Chapter One

Ice (New York Review Books Classics) on Amazon

Sunday, November 25, 2007

James Wood & Lev Tolstoy, History & Literature, &tc

It’s a happy day when I can read an analysis-review in The New Yorker by a favorite critic, James Wood, writing about one of my favorite books, Lev Tolstoy’s Война и мир (War and Peace). I’m even happier that Wood succeeded both in illustrating the superiority of a new translation of War and Peace and describing Tolstoy’s techniques in the span of about five pages.

I always enjoy reading Wood’s reviews because he shows a rare talent for illuminating literary texts: he explains literary theory and techniques in ways that make books more intriguing rather than stripping them of their mysteries.

Wood’s piece on War and Peace praises the translation of Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear because he believes they give “new access to the spirit and order of the book.” Although I can’t quite share his enthusiasm for the use of “juicy” for сочный instead of “sappy” in the passage detailing Prince Andrei’s observations of an oak tree – this juice is sap, so neither word is truly right or wrong – his analysis of Tolstoy’s narration should help readers link the book’s style and substance.

Wood’s commentary on Tolstoy’s paradoxes – Is Tolstoy’s narration intrusive or absent? Are his characters unique or typical? – mentions that Tolstoy, who read European fiction as well as “awkward misfits” of Russian literature, didn’t consider War and Peace a novel. Wood also covers the literary device of defamiliarization, “making it strange” (остранение), and Tolstoy’s views of history, including his belief in “ordinary” people instead of famous figures.

A Couple Thoughts on History and Literature. Writing and reading fiction about historical figures raises questions about plenty of books beyond War and Peace. A friend who's reading Anatolii Rybakov’s Дети Арбата (Children of the Arbat) mentioned that she has trouble with the passages about Stalin. Despite loving most of the book, I did, too, and admit that I skimmed many of the Stalin scenes because I preferred the fictional characters; a Russian friend did the same.

I read fiction because I like to lose myself in stories that combine imaginary people, ideas about real life, and literary devices that help make the stories compelling. Every now and then, though, I find myself caught up in historical novels with figures who once lived. When I began thinking more about what historical characters work for me, I realized that I react best to figures about whom I have the least book knowledge. For example:

-Tolstoy’s generals are fine because of my limited knowledge of the War of 1812.

-I have read so much about Stalin, though, that I much preferred fictional characters in Rybakov’s Children of the Arbat trilogy.

-Vasilii Aksenov’s Московская сага, which begins in English with Generations of Winter, did not impress me when a fictional character gave Stalin an enema. It’s not proctology that was the problem, though: I didn’t like his fictional characters’ interactions with real writers, either. I know too much about Stalin and the writers. Meanwhile, though, I didn’t mind Aksenov’s characterization of Stalin’s son because I knew little about him. In fact, Aksenov piqued my interest enough that I watched a documentary about Vasilii’s exploits as a pilot.

Book Reviews. Today’s New York Times Book Review contains two reviews of nonfiction books about the Soviet Union and Russia:

Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. Review by Richard Lourie.

The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin’s Russia, by Orlando Figes. Review by Joshua Rubenstein. Although I rarely read nonfiction books, Figes’s inclusion of the stories of Pavlik Morozov, Aleksandr Tvardovsky, and Konstantin Simonov should be more than enough to inspire me to look at the factual side of Russian cultural life for 700 or so pages. Figes’s Natasha’s Dance is a valuable book on Russian cultural history.

Books in this posting:
Pevear-Volokhonsky's "War and Peace" on Amazon
Children of the Arbat on Amazon
Vasilii Aksenov on Amazon
Simon Sebag Montefiore's Stalin Books on Amazon
Orlando Figes Books on Amazon

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Big Book Awards, Part II

I caught the end of a Russian newscast today, just in time to hear an excited correspondent announce the newly minted "Большая книга" (Big Book) award winners for 2007.

Liudmila Ulitskaya won first prize with Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator), mirroring her win among "ordinary" readers who voted for their favorites over the Internet. Third place went to Dina Rubina for На солнечной стороне улицы (On the Sunny Side of the Street). That book won second place among Internet voters. (My earlier posting about Big Book Internet voting has information on these two writers' translated books.)

Aleksei Varlamov took second prize for his biography Алексей Толстой (Aleksei Tolstoy). Varlamov is now writing a biography of Mikhail Bulgakov. Although Varlamov's books don't seem to be available in translation, several of Aleksei Tolstoy's are, including children's stories and the science fiction classic Aelita.

Big Book presented three special prizes, too:

A posthumous award to Ilya Kormil'tsev, a translator and poet who also wrote song lyrics for the rock group Nautilius Pompilius.

Andrei Bitov, author of Пушкинский дом (Pushkin House), and Valentin Rasputin, a Siberian writer controversial for his political views, won the other special awards.

Bitov's Pushkin House is a dense piece of metafiction packed with literary allusions. I found it alternatively fun and tedious: four-page paragraphs get me down in any language! I read about half the book, enjoying some of the many (many!) endnotes more than the main text. He says in this interview that he doesn't edit his work.

I'm even less familiar with Rasputin, though I did read and enjoy a story or two years ago. His Прощание с Матёрой (Farewell to Matyora) is probably his best-known work.

That's it for this Thanksgiving day: the turkey is almost done!

In this posting:
Liudmila Ulitskaya Books on Amazon
Aleksei Tolstoy Books on Amazon
Andrei Bitov Books on Amazon
Valentin Rasputin Books on Amazon

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Mikhail Bulgakov and Ivan Vasilyevich

Its no mystery why Leonid Gaidai’s Иван Васильевич меняет профессию (“Ivan Vasilyevich Changes Profession”) became a Soviet box office hit. The movie has everything: antic comedy and gags, songs, a pretender to the throne, Ivan the Terrible, satire on Soviet bureaucracy, a geeky hero named Shurik, a time machine, and more. This YouTube video of one of the first scenes will give you a sense of its now-retro feel.

Several of Gaidai’s movies remain so popular that many Russian can recite famous lines -- I knew a couple from “Ivan Vasilyevich” without realizing where they came from! The screenplay for “Ivan Vasilyevich” is particularly rich with humor because it’s based on Mikhail Bulgakov’s play Ivan Vasilyevich, written in 1935-1936. The movie retains much of the play’s dialogue despite transferring action from the 1930s to the 1970s. I can’t find evidence that the play is available in English, but it shares characters, including Ivan the Terrible, and motifs with a predecessor, Bulgakov’s 1934 Блаженство, available in English as Bliss.

Readers of Bulgakov’s novel Мастер и Маргарита (Master and Margarita) will recognize some familiar elements, albeit on a smaller scale, in “Ivan Vasilyevich.” Although the two works may not seem to have much in common, both involve demons, witches, and unclean spirits, either as characters or superstitions. Both also center around mysterious occurrences and neighbors in Soviet apartment buildings. Though Ivan Vasilyevich, at 40 pages, lacks the richness of M&M, its contrasts – historical and contemporary, reality and fantasy – encourage thought along with the fun.

I loved watching the movie and highly recommend it to students of Russian language, literature, and culture. Even if you don’t enjoy Soviet humor – it’s an acquired taste for many westerners – or catch cultural references, “Ivan Vasilyevich” is worth watching. It’s an important remnant of Soviet popular culture and an example of Mikhail Bulgakov’s wonderful imagination and comedy. Best of all, you can sample clips on YouTube, then add the DVD to your Netflix list! It is now known as "Ivan Vasilievich - Back to the Future" in English.

In this posting:

Mikhail Bulgakov on Amazon
Leonid Gaidai on Amazon (all four are classics)

Friday, November 16, 2007


One word of Cyrillic – плутоний (plutonium) – in an advertisement was enough to catch my eye last night, sending me to my basement stockpile for a book that I had (guiltily) ignored for several years. I’m glad I reacted and took a break from another nuclear-themed book, Tat’iana Tolstaya’s Кысь (The Slynx).

The advertisement: The Half Life of Timofey Berezin
The book: Pu-239, by Ken Kalfus

Half Life adapts Kalfus’s title story into a feature film produced by the SoderburghClooney&Co. movie cartel. It premieres in the U.S. tomorrow night on HBO.

What I respect most about Kalfus’s story “Pu-239” is his willingness to take risks. Writing about Russia is an inherently dangerous endeavor for an American writer, but Kalfus’s combination of a character – a nuclear plant technician sickened by radiation after an accident – with ‘90s Russia, rarely feels touristy. Kalfus instead shows Moscow through the eyes of the technician, Berezin, as he drives through the city, recognizing landmarks he’s seen on television but wondering why advertisements aren’t written in Russian.

Other than a few gratuitous sightseeing details used to plant the story in a time frame, “Pu-239” flows naturally as it shows a dying man removed from his usual environment. I won’t write more about Berezin’s actions and their consequences, but I will say that I think they fit the era perfectly. I admire Kalfus’s ability to write a story about radiation poisoning and plutonium that is both tragic and laugh-out-loud funny at the end.

Unfortunately, a review in Variety indicates that Scott Burns’s big/small screen adaptation is “an uncomfortable and unsatisfying sit.” I’m not surprised: it would have been tough to transfer the story’s atomic metaphors and psychological subtleties to commercial film. You can read the start of the story on the New York Times site.

The book Pu-239 also includes a story, “Anzhelika, 13,” that Kalfus says is related to Liudmila Ulitskaya’s “March 1953” (“Второго марта того же года...”). Pu-239 includes four other short stories plus “Peredelkino,” a novella about Soviet writers in the ‘60s that makes for a nice breather from Tolstaya’s post-nuclear world. I’ll write more on those soon…

Edit: Review of the film from the New York Times.

Books in this posting:
Kalfus Books on Amazon
Glas 6: Jews and Strangers (New Russian Writing, Vol 6, includes Ulitskaya's "March 1953")

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Russian "Big Book" Award 2007 Internet Voting Winners

"The most popular Russian writers are Liudmilla Ulitskaya, Dina Rubina, Viktor Pelevin"
-Большая книга (Big Book Award) site

Okay, I know I'm picky, but a more truthful subheadline would refer to this troika as the most popular Russian literary fiction writers. Big Book's system neatly combines critical views with popularity: literary critics nominate finalists, then readers vote for their favorites over the Internet and a jury determines who wins prizes.

Although 2007's Internet vote winners for audience favorites haven't yet been translated into English, all three authors have written books that are available in translation.

Liudmila Ulitskaya's Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Translator) took first place among readers. Ulitskaya wrote the book because she wanted to tell the story of Brother Daniel, a monk who converted from Judaisim during World War 2, in her own way. I'm looking forward to reading it: Ulitskaya is a rare post-Soviet writer who has achieved critical and commercial success by filling her books with vivid characters and situations that make reading feel easy. They also have enough depth to encourage rereading.

Three Ulitskaya books are available in English: two collections of novellas and stories, Весёлые похороны (The Funeral Party) and Сонечка (Sonechka); and the novel Медея и её дети (Medea and Her Children). The Funeral Party, about people who gather to witness a friend's last days, and Medea, a portrait of an extended family, both feel like collections of quirky characters linked by common situations. I don't particularly like that type of construction, though Ulitskaya's people and places in these works often have enough charm to keep me interested. If you're not as tied to plot movement and linear stories as I am, you may enjoy them quite a bit.

, about a woman who might be said to prefer reading fiction to facing life, is more realized as a story, though it veers away from Sonechka for some time, to describe another character who will change Sonechka's life. I think the most intriguing aspect of Sonechka for American readers will be Ulitskaya's descriptions of relationships, aging, and how women see themselves. Sonechka's choices (which I won't reveal) toward the end of the story may come as a surprise or shock to Americans, but a friend from the Former Soviet Union reminded me that Russian women perceive themselves differently as they age.

I hope that more of Ulitskaya's books will be translated into English soon. My two current favorite Ulitskaya novels -- Казус Кукоцкого (The Kukotskii Case) and Искренне ваш Шурик (Sincerely Yours, Shurik) -- have yet to appear in English. Kukotskii, about a doctor and his family, won the 2001 Russian Booker prize, and Shurik looks at a young man who tries to please everyone. Both books already exist in many languages other than English.

Dina Rubina won second place among readers with На солнечной стороне улицы (On the Sunny Side of the Street), which was also nominated for the 2006 Russian Booker. I haven't read it yet: I'm still working on her Вот идёт Мессия! (Here Comes the Messiah), a postmodern novel that mixes plot lines as it shows emigre life in Israel. Many of the vignettes are very nicely written and quite humorous, but I don't like the constant shifts between sets of characters. Only Rubina's Messiah has been translated into English, though other books are available in other languages.

Several books by Viktor Pelevin, who won third place with Ампир В ("Ampir V," get it?), have already been translated into English, though it's tough for me to understand why he fascinates American publishers. Then again, I may have started with the wrong book: Generation П, which was inexplicably "translated" into English as Homo Zapiens. I enjoyed the beginning of the book, with certain pop (literally) culture references and a post-perestroika combination of drear and hope, but the whole thing rapidly degenerates into a messy mass that involves channeling Che Guevara through a Ouija board, advertising, and mushroom-induced strolls. I might have enjoyed Generation П more if its characters felt more like people than props for Pelevin to express ideas. My Russian reader friends don't like Pelevin much, but some Russian readers' comments on online forums seem to recommend Чапаев и пустота (Chapaev and Emptiness, in the Buddha's Little Finger collection) and Оман Ра (Omon Ra) as favorites.

Edit: Post corrected on November 22, 2007.

Books mentioned in this post:
Books by Ulitskaya on Amazon
Dina Rubina's Here Comes the Messiah!
Books by Pelevin on Amazon

Friday, November 9, 2007

Reading Russian Classics Needn't Be Painful!

Who would have thought that the novel no high school student has ever finished reading would make such engrossing theater?
-"Dostoevsky's Homicidal Student, the 90-Minute Version," The New York Times, November 9, 2007

Maybe I should demand a correction from Times: I did finish Crime and Punishment in high school. Trust me, I do have a sense of humor, but sometimes it gets tedious to read hyperbolic references to Russian literature in the mainstream press... Nobody has ever finished Crime and Punishment before retirement!... War and Peace, that Everest of novels, has littered the path to enlightenment with oxygen-deprived bodies for over a century!

So what's the problem? Russian lit just needs some better P.R. Yes, many Russian novels are quite long, and many have portentous titles. For me, that's a big part of their appeal. If I like a book, I don't want it to end. And what good is a book if it doesn't consider something serious, whether through comedy or tragedy?

In truth, when you reduce most novels -- from Danielle Steele to Dennis Lehane to Dostoevsky -- down to bare motifs, most turn out to address life, love, and death, with a few subplots thrown in. One Russian theorist, Vladimir Propp, analyzed fairy tales and found only 31 basic plot turns and 8 characters. Take a look, and you'll find that many of Propp's functions apply to literature for adults, too.

Joking that Russian novels are all long and boring might score easy laughs for journalists and readers who haven't touched the books, but there are plenty of relatively simple ways to make even the longest novels more accessible:

Start Short. Sometimes a big masterpiece isn't the best introduction to a writer, particularly if you're not taking a college class. Read something smaller -- a short story or novella -- but well-regarded first to get a feel for the author's views and styles. Then work up to the doorstops. For example:

Pushkin: Try Повести Белкина (The Belkin Tales) before Евгений Онегин (Eugene Onegin). The Belkin stories may be prose to Onegin's poetry, but they're short, very enjoyable, and an important part of Russian literary history.

Dostoevsky: Try the shorter, romantic Белые ночи (White Nights) or spite-laden Записки из подполья (Notes from Undergound) before Crime and Punishment or The Brothers K. These novellas show different sides of Dostoevsky's psychological approach to fiction.

Tolstoy: Novellas like Хаджи Мурат (Khadzhi Murat) and Казаки (The Cossacks) show a lot about Tolstoy's philosophical views, including what happens when cultures come together.

Don't Panic about Russian Names. Some translations of novels include lists of characters, along with nicknames. Make your own if the book doesn't have one. If you want to learn a little more about Russian names, you might want to read this PDF handout that I wrote. You might also like this fairly lengthy list of diminutive forms (nicknames).

See the Mini-Series or Movie. I love to imagine scenes when I read, but sometimes seeing them illuminates meaning: my high school English teacher helped us through Crime and Punishment by showing a PBS mini-series. And even after reading Master and Margarita twice, it took watching the Russian mini-series adaptation for me to truly grasp the horror of what Bulgakov wrote about Satan's ball.

Read the Introduction. Yes, I often skip author bios and introductions, too. But even my small Signet Classic paperback edition of Crime and Punishment from high school includes concise information that illuminates what happens in the book. Background on Dostoevsky mentions his commuted death sentence and philosophy, and the translator's introduction notes the roots of many of the characters' names.

Find It in Translation. Literary translation requires endless decisions, so results vary a lot. Should the translator divide long sentences? Repeat the repetition of the original? Test read the first few pages of different translations to see what fits your taste. If you compare translations of Dostoevsky, you are likely to see that some translators feel compelled to simplify his writing. English and American editions may differ greatly, too.

In the end, any translation is a compromise -- most people would read originals, not translations, if they could -- so find whatever will keep you reading. Don't worry if the translation with the best reviews feels worse to you than an older or cheaper version with no blurbs. Take what you will enjoy: even if that version is a little further from the original than another, you're still much closer to the author's message than if you hadn't read the book at all.

Some recommended listings mentioned in this posting:
Crime and Punishment
The Complete Prose Tales of Alexandr Sergeyevitch Pushkin
The Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky (Modern Library)
The Cossacks and Other Stories (Penguin Classics)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Fiction for Revolution Day

Today's date felt suspiciously important when I wrote it, but it took a news report on to realize why: today is Revolution Day. Yes, indeed, that photo shows the old Soviet flag in front of the Russian Duma, as a prop for a "meeting" of 7,000 communists.

Revolution is one of the first things that foreigners think about when Russia is mentioned. But when I started to think about favorite books related to revolution, I struggled. Of course there's Boris Pasternak's Доктор Живаго (Doctor Zhivago), one of my all-time favorites. It's easy to recommend on any day of the year.

I can also recommend Aleksandr Blok's atmospheric poem Двенадцать (The Twelve), which, like Zhivago, includes religious themes along with its political and ideological observations. The poem was written in January 1918, when the streets probably were as snowy and windy as the city the poem describes. Although Blok was generally considered sympathetic to the Russian Revolution, the violence of the poem -- and its ending -- makes one wonder. Part of my enjoyment of The Twelve is that I hear voices and rhythm when I read it: a theater from Arkhangel'sk performed this and several other poems in Portland during the early '90s.

My biggest difficulty with many novels (poetry is another matter) about revolution and revolutionaries is that their authors often focus most on making political points. The majority now read more as period pieces with historical importance or samples of ideology, than as art. That can make the books interesting to analyze, though they may not feel satisfying if you're looking for recreational reading. Keep that in mind as you read these descriptions!

Что делать? (What Is to Be Done?), by Nikolai Chernyshevsky. A dubious classic with the subtitle "Tales about New People". This book has taken a lot of abuse over the years because it's ideological, not literary: Chernyshevsky himself evidently admitted it wasn't very good. The book was on my graduate reading list, and I was saved by an abridged edition that I read through quickly -- sometimes the obviousness of political books makes them easy to read! This one also has a catchy title. Best of all, with modern technology, you can now download the Russian original onto your cell phone!

Мать (Mother), by Maksim Gorky. One of the quintessential Russian novels about revolutionaries. That doesn't mean it's good: I read the first half of this book, about a group of young revolutionaries who get help from a member's mother, and then couldn't go on. Here's what I wrote about it for a workshop last year:

Maxim Gorky’s “Mother” was so awful that I couldn’t even finish it as an example of Soviet-era kitsch. It holds moderate interest for its mixture of pre-revolutionary socialist propaganda and religious motifs, but it is inadequate to simply say that the characters are clichéd and the plot is predictable. The book itself is a work of determinism; my Russian friends have always complained about being forced to read it. I do recommend reading a portion of it to get a feel for what passed as “literature” during the Soviet period and to understand why many see Gor’kii as untalented. (I also did not enjoy his Childhood very much.)

Аэлита (Aelita)
by Aleksei Tolstoy. If revolution on the Red Planet -- yes, I do mean Mars -- is your thing, this is the book for you! It's a quirky classic that's not very well known outside Russia. Here's what I wrote about Aelita for my workshop:

What can be said about Aleksei Tolstoy’s “Aelita,” a book that describes a 1920s trip to Mars? This is a very strange piece of work that combines, among other things, science fiction (and the inevitable existentialist musings), an odd bit of socialist realism, giant spiders, and a love story. Although Tolstoy was a decent writer and the account of early space flight is entertaining – a matter of days from Earth to Mars? -- I found the book rather sloppy. Adapted into a silent film, Aelita, Queen of Mars, available on NetFlix. For his efforts, Tolstoi has a crater on Mars named after him.

Воскресение (Resurrection), by Lev Tolstoy. This last of Tolstoy’s major novels is a medium-length (400+ pages) book that looks at how a man reacts when a woman he seduced years ago has trouble with the law. Revolutionaries come into the last third of the book, though I won't say how... Although much here is fairly obvious, the book should be particularly interesting to people who have read War and Peace and Anna Karenina – you’ll see some stylistic differences and notice some common themes. Tolstoy sold the book earlier than he might have wanted to because he wanted to give money to a religious sect that he supported. The book evidently caused quite a ruckus in Russia because of its scathing portrayals of the legal system and clergy.

Конармия (Red Cavalry),
by Isaac Babel. I definitely can't say I enjoyed these short stories by Babel: I read them because I had to, and I found their violence quite difficult to take. That said, many hold them in high regard, and it's tough not to have a certain respect for a Jewish writer who rode with Cossacks during the revolution. Lionel Trilling's introduction to my old edition (New American Library, 1955, pg. 11) of Babel stories includes this line: "It was impossible not to be overcome with admiration for Red Cavalry, but it was not at all the sort of book that I had wanted the culture of the Revolution to give me."

Two other books: Тихий Дон (And Quiet Flows the Don), by Mikhail Sholokhov, also looks at Cossacks; it helped win Sholokhov a Nobel Prize. Not a favorite from my grad school reading list, perhaps in part because my edition was blurbed by Maksim Gorky, who compared it to War and Peace. (No comment there.) There is also Бесы (The Possessed), by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which might be described as a psychological sketch of revolutionaries. This is one that I've been meaning to reread for years. It has gotten a lot of attention in recent years because of its parallels to 21st-century terrorism.

Edit: I neglected to mention a favorite title: Valentin Kataev's Белеет парус одинокий (A White Sail Gleams). This is a quirky book because it mixes ideology with coming of age as it looks at the 1905 revolution and two boys in Odessa. A friend who read it in childhood lent it to me, and I enjoyed it, too. And another: Nikolai Ostrovskii's Как закалялась сталь (How the Steel Was Tempered) is a classic socialist realist novel that fictionalizes Ostrovskii's own experiences fighting in the Civil War and later becoming blind and paralyzed. I don't know how I could forget that one, either!

For more ideas on books about revolution, be sure to visit SovLit -- they specialize in this stuff and have lots of background material to help you get the most out of your reading!