WINTER READING: THE GREAT RUSSIAN NOVELS
“The air still, transparent, fresh. It was a dark night but the whole village with its white roofs, the smoke rising from the chimneys, the trees, silver with rime, the snow-drifts, could be seen distinctly. The sky was sprinkled with gaily twinkling stars, and the Milky Way stood out as clearly as if newly scrubbed for the holiday and polished with snow.” –Anton Chekhov, “Vanka”
Hallmarks of Russian Literature
Let’s face it, aesthetics are very important and one of the main reasons we use stories as an escape. While everything has to work: characters, themes, plot, mise-en-scène, etc., visually stunning details of setting transport the reader.
Russian novels contain some of the most achingly profound and extraordinarily beautiful scenarios ever written about winter, so it’s fitting to revisit them this season.
Of course, Russian literature is mainly about redemption through suffering, but more than that, it is a philosophical look at life and human nature. It has everything! Go ahead: dust off your college copy of “Crime and Punishment” and start reading!
“He looked at the snowflakes dancing above the fire and remembered the Russian winter with a warm, bright house, a fluffy fur coat, swift sleighs, a healthy body, and all the love and care of a family.” –Tolstoy
While reading the book is optimal, we all get tempted by streaming services. To make your literary experience come alive on the silver screen, try one of these classics! The ultimate cinematic adaptations of our favorite Russian novels include:
- David Lean’s Dr. Zhivago starring Omar Sharif, Julie Christie, and Geraldine Chaplin: Even with the devastating, severe subject matter, the movie is realistic and captivating. Watch for the cinematography, beauty of Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin, masterfully orchestrated scenes of battles on horseback, snow castles, elaborate furs, and, of course, the romantic “Lara’s Theme” as the score juxtaposed with the harsh reality of the Russian Revolution.
- Anna Karenina: There are two classics: one with Greta Garbo and the other with Vivienne Leigh: take your pick!
- War and Peace with Audrey Hepburn.
Writerly Wisdom from Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, etc.,
“People try to do all sorts of difficult things to improve life instead of doing the simplest, easiest thing—refusing to participate in activities that make life bad.” –Tolstoy
What makes Russian literature exemplary? We are compelled to study transcendent themes from our favorite 19th-century greats, such as socialist realism and the profound nature of mankind. Suffering is unavoidable, and, according to Leo Tolstoy (one of the titans of literature), life is made up of everyday, prosaic moments and not grand gestures.
“Man is sometimes extraordinarily, passionately, in love with suffering.”
Dostoevsky is one of the most deeply philosophical figures of any century. An inspiration and teacher for some of the greatest minds of the nineteenth century (including Freud and Nietzsche), his philosophy was that love is the greatest redeemer of all and that, for life to have meaning, we must have something to actually live for. Simply existing is not enough. We cannot live fulfilled, unexamined lives. Nietzsche referred to Dostoevsky as a psychologist and wrote that he ranked it as one of the most “beautiful strokes of fortune” in his life.
The Masters and the Must-Reads
“If, then, I were asked for the most important advice I could give, that which I considered to be the most useful to men of our century, I should simply say: in the name of God, stop a moment, cease your work, look around you.” – Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy, “Anna Karenina” (1878): “We are asleep until we fall in love!”
The master writer considered this his first true novel. It tells the story of a woman who, desperate in her pursuit of love, eventually sacrifices everything, even her own life. It’s pretty difficult to wait for a train and not think of this novel if you’re any sort of romantic or lover of literature. A tragedy, “Anna Karenina” is a portrait of realism, love, and death. It expertly juxtaposes passionate love with a more intimate, familial life.
“Reading Dostoevsky’s ‘The Brother’s Karamozov’ is comparable to pushing a beautiful grand piano up a very steep hill.” –Kevin Ansbro
Fyodor Dostoevsky, “Crime and Punishment” (1866) and “The Brother’s Karamazov” (1880)
Dostoevsky believed that suffering was necessary but still saw the beauty in life and that, through inevitable suffering, we will find redemption. His work explored the idea of good and evil and that all human beings are capable of both. These novels are guides to introspection and serve as literary tools for examining our own complex nature.
Anton Chekhov: the Master of Short Stories
- “The Lady with the Dog” (1899) is one of the quintessential pieces of short fiction, one of the greatest stories ever written. To call something Chekhovian implies that there is a challenge for stability and, of course, frustration. This is evident here as the plot centers around an adulterous love affair.
Ivan Turgenev, “Fathers and Sons”
- Published in 1862, this novel is essentially about growing up, leaving childhood behind, and what happens when two young men return home from college, most specifically in how they relate to their fathers.
And more for your consideration:
- Vladimir Nabokov will always be associated with his controversial “Lolita” (1955) and even once said that “Lolita is famous, not I. I am an obscure, doubly obscure, novelist with an unpronounceable name.” The only 20th-century author mentioned in this blog, Nabokov will indeed always be remembered for “Lolita,” which will be read and re-read in wonder at the sheer audacity of the story. Complete with some of literature’s most remarkable characters, “Lolita” gives the fully formed, sympathetic villain all new meaning. Professor Humbert Humbert is a narrator so complex that, even though he does malevolent deeds, he is pitiable and inspires sympathy. This is what makes a successful character in fiction!
- Nikolai Gogol’s satirical, surrealistic short fiction, such as “The Nose” (1836), uses absurd themes to delve into deeper issues like identity.
- Mikhail Bulgakov’s “The Master and Margarita” is a philosophical novel that wasn’t published (and was highly censored) until 1967, after Bulgakov’s death.
For more information on books and authors to add to your reading list, check out Full Cycle Publications.
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