Thursday, April 1, 2010
Nick's post on his ten most influential books about Russia inspired this post. Here are my top ten Russian history or literature books:
1) Riasanovsky's History of Russia. I don't recall much about this book, only that it was a magisterial undergraduate introduction to the study of the world's largest country. I took Russian history by a quirk of my undergraduate catalog: it was the only two-semester course that counted as both a Western and non-Western European country. I'm not sure the college understood the depth of the statement they were making about the Russian soul. It's all a blur now (although Vikings, Old Believers, Byzantines, Cossacks, Mongols and the Time of Troubles come to mind), but I saw a copy of the textbook in a used book store the other day, and also heard that Mark Steinberg of University of Illinois had taken over the famed textbook. Bravo.
2) Dostoevsky's The Possessed. This was the first and probably best novel of ideas I'd ever read. Although very little happened, the Possessed (often translated as the Demons) was enthralling. The plot, such as it is, centers around a criminal conspiracy among radical youth to kill one of their own. This criminal act was based on a real scandal of the day and therefore felt "ripped from the headlines" in the best sense of Dick Wolff's oft-repeated phrase. Whether the conservative author intended the reader to sympathize with nihilists or not (and I guess he couldn't have), I suspect that this book retarded my moral development for many years to come.
3) Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment. Nick and I agree on this one. I am not sure how this book influenced me, but it's one of the most thrilling books I have ever read. It established Dostoevsky in my mind as perhaps the greatest novelist ever born, and made me suspect that Russian literature as a whole might be the greatest literature in the world. I liked the fact that the author seemed to understand radical as well as conservative impulses. (Who else but Isabel Allende in House of Spirits has done this so well?) I liked his noir sense of style and his grim and claustrophobic depiction of St. Petersburg.
4) Trotsky's My Life. The book convinced me that Trotsky's self-aggrandizement was right: there never was a smarter man than he. One wonders if Stalin let him escape Russia alive because he knew that a Great Man needed an equally Great Adversary. Or is Orwell's nastier formulation of this equation more plausible?
5) Karl Marx's Communist Manifesto. I share this choice with Nick. I taught this book frequently. It's such a wonderfully easy book to read, but so persuasive and prophetic. I remember thinking that even the Cosby Show didn't make sense without Marx's analysis of the bourgeoisie.
6) Gogol's Dead Souls. It's been 20 years since I read this book. Who knows if it has influenced me or not. But how does one appreciate what it means to be a government bureacrat or modern city-dweller or everyday flim-flam man without referring to Gogol? Would St. Petersburg be St. Petersburg without him? Would we have a proper regard for dark cynicism, gothic ghost stories, and black humor without Gogol? Would later Russian writers have been possible without Gogol? Surely it's time to read him again. I think the magic of Gogol can best be explained with reference to Terry Eagleton's theory of gothic literature outlined in Heathcliff and the Great Hunger. Eagleton says that gothic literature is always inspired by concrete crimes, usually of an economic nature. Murder, slavery, and stolen land inevitably give rise to at least subconscious guilt in the occupying or offending social classes. This guilt, in turn, leads to great ghost stories, or at least haunting story lines. By Eagleton's logic, Gogol owes his strange imagination to Peter the Great's brutal construction of St. Petersburg at the expense of thousands upon thousands of Russian serfs. Perhaps Dostoyevsky, who hated St. Petersburg, also owes his unusually feverish prose style to the original crime that was the founding of St. Petersburg.
7-10) Tolstoy's War and Peace. I think this book took a year out of my life so it deserves a few slots. Immersing myself in the book I realized at long last that I was closeted introvert. For me, the irony of War and Peace is that I read it when I was too young to understand its themes, but now that I am mature enough to handle it, I doubt that I will be able to find the time to re-read it.