Sunday, September 16, 2012

I've Perestroika-ed Gold!: Adventures in Russian Literature

True story: I read Alexander Solzhenitsyn's Cancer Ward on my honeymoon. Top that, nerds.

A high school European History class included reading assignments from Dostoevsky (man as a piano key - anyone? anyone?) and this segued into a summer reading suggestion: Anna Karenina.
OMG peeps. Outside my window, it was July in the suburbs of New York. In my feverish teenage brain, it was winter in St. Petersburg and I was the third wheel with Kitty and Levin, Anna and Vronsky.

The sweeping Russian epic novel became my new best friend. War and Peace? On it. Did I comprehend any of what Tolstoy wished to get across about the 'great man' theory of history? Absolutely not. But, as the baby Jeebus is my witness, I would have walked to Moscow if it had meant saving Prince Andrei from his post-war disillusionment. 

All happy families may be alike, but I refuse to accept that happy readers are anything less than unique.We've all had that 'transported' sensation. We've all been so caught up in a book that we're surprised to discover it's 1994 in American suburbia and not 1812 in a French dungeon, but WHAT transports us? WHAT so envelops us that we lose track of time and place? For whatever reason (vodka?) the great Russian novels affect me in this way far more than other books. But, let's be honest, I share a love for these books with many people. So, we cannot just say that we readers are distinguishable by our 'top 10' lists. I think our continental drift into reading islands is a matter of sehnsucht (as usual, the Germans have a word for this otherwise indescribable sensation). 

Sehnsucht is a longing for some far-off place, but not a real country which we can identify. It's a longing for a missing someone, but not a particular individual we can name. We feel that the place or person we yearn for is very familiar, maybe even the place or the person we're meant for, but it/he/she is always just out of reach. The longing is insanely intense and punctuated by an almost unconscious sadness at the object's unattainability.

This is what I mean:
 Do you remember the description of Raskolnikov's garret?  
"His garret was under the roof of a high, five-storied house and was more like a cupboard than a room. It was about six paces in length. It had a poverty-stricken appearance with its dusty yellow paper peeling off the walls..."

I do remember that description because that peeling yellow wall paper was what hauled me out of myself and conveyed me to S. Place near K. Bridge. I do not mean that I imagined myself in Raskolnikov's garret. I mean that I was suddenly stabbed by a yearning for this place as if it were not only real, but known to me. It wasn't like I was there; I had been there and the claustrophobic description made me physically shrink as if ducking my head against the low-pitched ceiling.

Once I discovered my love for Mother Russia, I was a goner. Tolstoy led to Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky led to Solzhenitsyn and Solzhenitsyn led to non-fiction Russian history. Non-fiction Russian history led to lonely prom nights. 

But, hey, lonely prom nights led to helpful reading suggestions such as these: 
Bright side!

1. Life and Fate, Vasily Grossman
2. Gulag: A History, Anne Applebaum
3. Young Stalin, Simon Sebag Montefiore

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