Tag Archives: Russian literature

First Monday Book Day – All Unhappy Families

I started reading Anna Karenina.

I wasn't really planning on it, but Becca Rothfeld invited people to tackle a big long book and have a discussion group with her. Well, I find Rothfeld to be interesting and someone that has a different perspective. A big novel? A group of interesting thoughtful readers? Sign me up!

And then they chose Anna Karenina.

I read the first 10 pages in high school and never really had any inclination to go back to it, but I had recently read that George Saunders book about Russian short stories. And I had enjoyed The Master and Margarita and The Idiot in recent years, so maybe Russian literature could be my thing.

I'm not sure it's my thing.  I'm 550 pages in, I've got 250 to go, and it's a little bit of a slog for me.  The reading group is not quite as interesting of a group as I had hoped (there are some true literature snobs in there - George Saunders is not a serious enough writer for some in this group).  So now I will finish the book this month. There are parts of it that are really really good. I liked the observation someone made about how Tolstoy is pre-Freudian so he could not care less about anyone's backstory or childhood. That tickled me a bit.

Alright, what literature classics have you been accidentally roped into agreeing to read this month? Share it all below.

March Books

I read A Swim in a Pond in the Rain by George Saunders this month.  Saunders is a professor at Syracuse and he reflects on the stories that he enjoys teaching the most and then goes through seven examples by four Russian authors (Chekhov, Tolstoy, Turgenev, and Gogol).  It does read like a class on fiction writing at times, but it was also really fun to watch someone who is undeniably good at something pick apart how other people do that thing.  I also enjoy people writing and discussing teaching, so this was right up my alley. I heard about this book because Saunders appeared on the So Many Damn Books podcast and he sold me on it.

All of that aside, I did get a little bit tired of the perspective of seven stories all told by old Russian dudes. So if you are looking for a read that has diversity of perspective ... this ain't that.

As is required whenever I mention George Saunders, I have linked to my favorite of his performances below.

First Monday Book Day: Reading in Translation

J.M.G. Le Clézio - DésertLast week, as we rolled south toward Kansas, Mrs. Hayes and I occupied our minds with podcasts. The pillowy ride of the new (to us) full-size Buick sedan and the monotony of eastern Iowa might have lulled us to sleep were it not for The Incomparable, The /Filmcast, Roderick on the Line, and Radiolab. "Translation," last week's Radiolab episode, got me thinking about the books I've read in translation, particularly the book I'm reading right now –  J.MG. Le Clézio's Désert, translated in my edition by C. Dickson.

This is my first modern French novel. I dutifully read, as I'm sure many of you did, Voltaire and Victor Hugo and Guy de Maupassant in high school. I might be forgetting a few. Since I don't speak French, I never read any of them in anything other than English, just like I'm reading Le Clézio. Mostly, reading this book is flying blind. I'm ignorant of any conventions in French literature, and completely reliant on C. Dickson to convey Le Clézio's entire persona as an author – characterization, phrasing, pacing, voice, everything except the plot. If Désert were a film by Godard or Melville I might have more to go on; I wouldn't need a translator to help with anything other than dialogue. But C. Dickson's my only lifeline to the ship Le Clézio is sailing across the Sahara. I'm over halfway through it, and while I can't say if I "get" it yet, I can say with conviction I'm in awe of the writing. Or is it the translation?

I read and translated a little Russian literature in Russian as an undergrad: Pushkin and Akhmatova and Gogol come to mind. I don't speak or read Russian well enough to read a book anything but haltingly, but at one time I got along enough to form a few opinions, mainly about poets. Blok and Akhmatova blew me away. I know enough about Russian literature and culture to have a decent idea of what an author or poet is doing or the society his work is engaging. With the French, I have no idea. (I will be even more lost when I finally get to Ha Jin's War Trash, hopefully by the end of the year.)

It's funny. Some of my favorite authors are those I can only read in translation. Murakami, for example. There are books of his I like better than others, but despite my near-complete ignorance of non-automotive Japan and my total Japanese illiteracy, he is definitely near the top of my list of favorite writers. How much of that do I owe to Murakami, and how much of it to his English translators, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel? I suppose I could answer that by saying I never recommend anyone read Constance Garnett's translations of Dostoevsky or Tolstoy or anybody else. (Please. Read the newer and superior Prevar & Volokhonsky translations.) A good translator gets out of the way and imparts as much of the original author's vision and voice as possible, and a bad one can completely destroy the original while leaving the reader completely unaware of the demolition. The problem is knowing which translator has been at work.

What are you reading?