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Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Book Round-Up: Russian Edition

The Possessed by Elif Batuman: The book that started my little Russian lit project. It got a wonderful review in the NYT, and it deserves it -- Batuman is a gifted writer with a dry, blunt sense of humor, skilled at using simple language to highlight the oddities and absurdities of life. The book is a collection of writings on her experiences with Russian literature, and the people she encountered in her studies and travels. Like Rosenbaum, her passion for the subject matter is infectious, and she made me regret that I have never been as taken as she is by Russian authors (I read Anna Karenina the summer I was in Spain, and I don't remember much except that Anna was rather annoying; and try as I might, I could not finish the widely-acclaimed Master and Margarita). Batuman also had some insightful things to say about literature in general, something I don't get to think or read about as much now that I'm not in college or grad school. I'd love it if she puts out another book about literature.

Russian Fairy Tales: There are a lot in this anthology, originally compiled by Aleksandr Afanas'ev (the Russian Grimm), so rather than read them all I dipped in and out of the helpful albeit slightly inaccurate index. I was especially interested in those tales involving Baba Yaga, firebirds, and Koschei the Deathless (not surprising, given that The Firebird is my absolute favorite ballet). There was an intriguing and creepy story about a vampire, somewhat different from our Western European concept, and many tales similar to Grimms' but with an appropriately Russian feel (including some remarkably bleak stories). I also loved seeing the little ticks in their language of folktales -- "he traveled for some time, a long time or a short time"; "for speedily a tale is spun, but with less speed a deed is done"; "I drank mead at their wedding; it ran down my mustache but did not go into my mouth."

There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby: Scary Fairy Tales by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya: An appropriate follow-up to the previous book. Petrushevskaya is considered to be one of Russia's most talented writers, and so provocative that her work was banned under the Communist regime, even though she never wrote about politics. The introduction to this collection of her short stories gives a little background on her career, but it also emphasizes the despairing nature of the stories, something I disagree with. The stories are bleak, certainly (I think that is required by law of all Russian writers), and some are terrifying, like the story referred to in the title, but they are also surreal and elegant and touching. There is redemption too, particularly in the two last stories, "The Old Monk's Testament" and "The Black Coat," which are profoundly moving, and gorgeous because of it.


  1. You have given me some wonderful book suggestions! Thank you very much. I'm afraid that I was bitten rather severely by the 19th C Russian novel bug many years ago. I'm going to get myself the to the library and check THESE out. Also, may I suggest my friend, Kevin Kinsella's, translation of Russian poetry, Poems from Children's Island...

  2. If you were bitten by the 19th century Russian novel bug, then you absolutely must read Batuman's book -- you'll probably enjoy it even more than I did. And thanks for the poetry suggestion!