Why I Find Russian Literature Irresistible
June 06, 2018
Reading the Russians is not just tantamount to broadening your literary horizons; it also means creating a space in your life for the fact and the act of writing. Like all good writers, they will make you think about why we write at all. Russian literature – works like Anna Karenina in particular – will prove unexpectedly addictive, leaving you hungering after truths you may already know, looking for reiterations, confusions, and the bad dreams we all share; all of it will be new and ageless – and it will please and trouble you like never before. You will wonder how fur-cloaked noblemen from Tolstoy’s society can remind you of characters you just saw yesterday in your own hallway; how the mores of a cold, dated regime can seem identical to the struggles against which we are fortifying ourselves for today. And it will bring you back to the violent and astute nature of the desire to write, and – as Francine Prose wrote:
“As writers, we are inclined by sensibility to look beneath the surface, to analyze and make distinctions […] As writers, as citizens of the world, we need to remember—as Samuel Beckett said, echoing Chekhov, a century before— “in the particular is contained the universal.” […] And as lovers and producers of literature, we cannot forget what literature continues to teach us: that each of us is a unique entity with something—that mystery called human nature—in common that should be, for us, a bottomless well of empathy and compassion”
It has always been a curious literary fact for me that a nationality can act as an adjective, and what’s more, an effective adjective. It is no casual confluence of opinions that immediately conveys the meaning of Indian or French or German or Japanese when these words are followed by the noun fiction. There are always cultural forces at work that either determine or undermine a particular understanding of a nationality, at a given point in time. Now, it goes without saying that even if ‘the Russians’ belonged to the Golden Age of Russian Poetry, they all lived and wrote about a different Russia. To pick apart the fine threads to discover which Russia is painted by whom can be the pleasurable task of an entire lifetime. And what is even more interesting is to unpack the weight Russian conveys, to see for oneself if that’s a weight one can carry.
Despite the history shared, so to speak, by India and the Soviets, there were hardly any resources for me to learn Russian comfortably. And time was flying. So I let my Russian plans – if I may call them that – fly away as well. It seems comic to me, later on, that I was thinking, in all honesty, that I could learn Russian and then read Gogol in his own language. It was not a good feeling, the severe failing of a challenge I set myself. So, in the bustle of preparing to leave college, I read The Idiot. Much like my 15-year-old self, I did not complete the book. My head was filled with a single question, one no reader should ever entertain: Who would ever act like this? It is a question even I know has no rhetorical worth, for humans I personally know have acted far more impetuously, crudely, and simplistically than any one person in The Idiot. And yet, frowning into Dostoyevsky’s world, I’d been brought down to a version of myself that I didn’t understand, that wasn’t worldly, that didn’t immediately think, Of course he did that, he’s a monster. I’d begun thinking like an ‘idiot’ myself. For an adult who otherwise understood jealousy and passion, to give up all those understandings up in favour of – in favour of what? I returned the book, and I imagined burning it. Perhaps I did not understand jealousy and passion at all. And as that single thought occurred to me, I wanted to hug the book close and tight, and thank it for exposing to me this freedom of simplicity, this freedom in simplicity. All one has to know is that one doesn’t know.
Sayali was born in Bombay and is a student of English and German. Her chief interest lies in finding out if words are ever enough. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.