Friday, July 16, 2010

Russian books are short

Not the long ones.  I know that.  But in general.  The idea that Russian literature is characterized by long books is a misconception.  When I mentioned this to Stefanie of So Many Books, she said (I paraphrase slightly) “Oh yeah – prove it, buster!”

So, a list of short Russian books.  The rules are: short = less than 300 pages, acknowledging that “page” is itself vague.  The 19th century only, although the results are no different for 20th century Russian literature.  Lyric poetry (short!) omitted, narrative poetry included.  Most importantly, only the really good stuff, the best, so no second-stringers like Vladimir Odoevsky (whose books are short).

Please correct and amend.  I’m sure I’ve forgotten something.

Alexander Pushkin: The greatest Russian poet, the wellspring of Russian literature, wrote short books, exclusively.  Essential reading: the tragedy Boris Godunov (1825), the short stories in The Tales of Belkin (1831), “The Queen of Spades” (1834), the short historical novel The Captain’s Daughter (1837), the novel in verse Eugene Onegin (begun in 1823), and a sheath of narrative poems and verse plays. Mozart and Salieri (1830) and The Stone Guest (1830), a version of the Don Juan story, are my favorites, but it’s a rich list.  All short.

Mikhail Lermontov: Only short books.  The semi-novel A Hero of Our Time (1840) and a number of narrative poems as good as Pushkin’s.  “The Demon” (also 1840?) is better.

Nikolai Gogol:  Extraordinary short stories, especially “The Nose”(1836) and “The Overcoat” (1842).  A play of similar quality, The Government Inspector (1836).  I love that play.  And then the Greatest Novel of the First Half of the 19th Century, in any language, Dead Souls (1842).  I see a complication here – the Penguin Classics edition is over 400 pages, Not Short, although Not Long.  Does it include the unfinished Part II?  Forget Part II.  Ignore it.  Part I is complete (and short).

Keen observers may object, at this point, that I am basically just listing every great work of Russian literature.  Yes!  Because they’re short.  We’re halfway through the 19th century now.

Ivan Turgenev: He specialized in novellas.  Almost everything he wrote is short.  The Chekhovian play A Month in the Country (1850), the novels and stories Rudin (1855), The Home of the Gentry (1859), On the Eve (1860), First Love (1860), Fathers and Sons (1862), Smoke (1867), Spring Torrents (1867).  The novel Virgin Soil is Not Short, and the collection of stories A Sportsmen’s Sketches (it has many other, similar translated titles) verges on Long.  Still, a huge amount of first-rate, short Turgenev.

Sergei Aksakov is still read for three marvelous volumes of memoirs: the 200 page A Russian Gentleman (1856), the 300 page Years of Childhood (1858), and the 150 page A Russian Schoolboy (1856).

Alexander Ostrovsky was a playwright.  Plays are short.  The Storm or The Thunderstorm (1860) seems to be the best known.

I want to skip Tolstoy and Dostoevsky for a minute, and sweep together the rest of the latter part of the century:  Nikolai Leskov, Anton Chekhov, Leonid Andreyev, and Ivan Bunin. All are known, almost exclusively known, for short stories or plays or both.  Those so-called short stories often extend to 100 pages.  Still: short.

Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote immensely long novels.  They also wrote short books that are just as good as their longer work.  I could simply refer interested readers to The Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy and The Great Short Works of Dostoevsky, essential, accurately titled collections.  More specifically: Notes from the Underground (1864) is not inferior Dostoevsky, or starter Dostoevsky.  It is central, great, and so on. Not to be missed by the reader serious about Dostoevsky, no more or less than Crime and Punishment.  Similarly, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886) and Hadji Murad (1904!) are as important, as well-written as War and Peace or Anna Karenina. Maybe not as complex; nowhere near as long.

The long, the really long Russian books, amount to: three Tolstoy novels, five Dostoevsky novels, and Alexander Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts.  Add in the substantially shorter, but Not Short, Oblomov of Goncharov, and we’re up to ten long books.  Please compare this count to the major French or English literature of the century.  Not to the Germans – this was the age of the novella, so their literature will average out even shorter.

All right, that’s off my chest. Please let me know where I’m wrong. Here’s Rebecca Reid, with a long collection of short Russian literature.


  1. At last! The promised list! Thanks for the Proof :)

  2. I appreciate your pointing out all these short Russian classics, AW -- this is a good list. One personal favorite: I particularly enjoyed Dostoevsky's White Nights, a romantic novella.

    I guess Saltykov-Shchedrin's The Golovyov Family might be a little too long for your list: my edition comes in at around 320 pages, but maybe others have smaller print and less pages! It's very good, albeit horribly depressing in a claustrophobic kind of way.

  3. So, of the eight Russian books I've read, I've managed to get through half of the long ones? I suppose that having a backgound of Victoriana, it was inevitable that I'd be drawn towards the monsters...

  4. I have, using your list, read all of the really long Russian books but Olbomov-if there are only eight long Russian must reads there are many Victorian English writers with twice that many long classics-I recently read Turgenev's Diary of A Superfluous Man and really enjoyed it-FMF speaks super highly of Turgenev in The March Of Literature but on the other had he nearly ignores Tolstoy, praises James Fenimore Cooper to the sky and completely trashes Dickens-but it is still a wonderful work of genius-

  5. The next thing I would do, if I were to pursue this, is to try to figure out why (and also when) four long books (W&P, AK, BK, C&P) became the definition of Russian literature in English. Related question, I predict: when did War and Peace become a synecdoche for "long novel"? Les Miserables is almost as long; Clarissa is substantially longer. Why the Tolstoy?

    I've only read the famous four myself, so Tony, you're one ahead of me.

    Right, Lizok, I'd put the Saltykov-Schedrin novel in the "in between" category, with Memoirs from the House of the Dead and St. Petersburg and so on. And Chernyshevsky, if I felt I had to include him.

    White Nights probably suffers in reputation from not feeling quite like "Dostoevsky". I agree, it's excellent.

    mel - you've read Herzen's monstrosity? That one is definitely on the Essential list. I think you're right, that the 19th century English canon has far more genuinely long books. All of those 20 part serials, for example. Although I could write a related post about great short Victorian books.

  6. Ah, this is a great list!

    A Thought on why Russian literature is known as the long novels: they are Foreign, so add in the unfamiliar history and tradition, add in the three names each character has and it's much more intimidating than even Les Mis, which has more familiar names to English reader, and a more familiar history.

    AT least, when I say more familiar, I mean to me. That said, I'm still very intimidated by Clarissa, and I tend to like English lit a lot!

  7. Rebecca, perhaps that's what I'm arguing. Readers should make Russian literature less foreign. Minimal knowledge dispels a lot of nonsense.

    Feel free to try an abridgement of Clarissa - there are a couple of good ones. It's not a difficult book, except that it's so insanely long.

  8. Thanks for the mention on Hadji Murad. I think another dimension usually attacheed to Russian literature, in addition to its length, is its depth. Especially with the reputation of some writers like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky you always hear about the depth which I guess is supposed to imply additional slogging through a book in order to "get it".

    While all of the writers you list do have "depth" or deeper meanings, most of them can be read at any level you choose, even just a 'surface reading', and provide enjoyment.

  9. Isn't the long Russian novel just some kind of metaphor for the long Russian winter? Lots of moodiness, "deep" psychology, cold, long names, vodka, no sunlight...

    Kidding, of course, but I certainly get the sense that it's all wrapped up in a sense of "Russian" "intensity" or whatever. With no knowledge of when this actually became the case, I blame Dostoevsky.

  10. Yeah, and the Russian short story is a metaphor for the short Russian summer. And The Cherry Orchard is the Russian autumn.

    I'd phrase it a little differently, but I suspect you're both right. Modernists saw the Four Big Books as models for The Novel of Ideas. Chekhov and Dead Souls, and Hugo and Richardson, were something else, something lesser.

    Aesthetically, this is absurd, and a challenge for me, since Profound Meaning makes me nervous. I also want to put quotes around "deep" and "depth".

  11. Aesthetically, this is absurd, and a challenge for me, since Profound Meaning makes me nervous.

    Yeah. I wouldn't say it makes me nervous, per se, but it's not my favorite thing, not by a long shot. I mean am I going to go around saying Profound Meaning makes me nervous after a week of posting on Moby-Dick? Of course, I didn't exactly talk a lot there about the usual litany of Profound Meaning. But it works for me there in a way that it doesn't in Brothers Karamazov.

    Okay, I'm not sure how much sense I'm making anymore.

  12. Sense - that's just it. Moby-Dick, aesthetically, as I understand that word, is a substantially superior book to Karamazov. Dostoevsky demands engagement with his Big Ideas. Melville contains so many other pleasures.

    "Nervous" is, I'm afraid, just the right word for me. I'm working on it, I'm working on it!

  13. I could not possibly agree more with your first paragraph. But you knew that.

  14. There is so much to like in this post. And the comments. And everything around here.

    I had this short period where I tried to educate myself with all the classics, and found myself diving into the fattest books I could find. I succeed with War and Peace. I got stuck with Dostoyevsky (and this with several chunksters on the shelf...). And then I felt like a failure.

    Meanwhile, I've read Turgenev and Chekhov. I desperately want to dive into Pushkin already, I've got Gogol on hold somewhere, and I absolutely loved Tolstoy's shorter works. But with the exception of Chekhov's major works, I came to all of these options kind of in shock. "What? These aren't famous books!" What qualifies as famous? I didn't recognize the authors or titles as a kid, unlike Tolstoy and Dosteyvsky. It was a little weird.

    I think the reason Russians are associated with "fat Russian novels" is more because people like the idea of a fat Russian novel. Sometimes it seems like reading big books gives people a sense of superiority, the same way maybe that kids like bigger books because it shows that they're old and mature enough to tackle them... As for the "Russian" part... I'm not sure. I'm just guessing here, anyways.

    Thanks for writing this.

  15. Thanks or reading it! I'm going to follow my own advice, with Turgenev, soon.

    There is a certain sense of satisfaction associated with completing a fat novel, regardless of quality. And when the quality is that of Anna Karenina! I see how it would stick with a reader.

  16. "And then the Greatest Novel of the First Half of the 19th Century, in any language, Dead Souls (1842)"-main possible competition seem to be 1830-The Red and the Black or-1839 Charterhouse of Parma?

    I am currently reading a great new biography of Katherine Mansfield-I am coming to the conclusion that one of the most influential writers of the first two decades of the 20th century was Constant Garnett-her son Bunny Garnett was a member of the Bloomsbury set

  17. Oh, I have a long list before I get anywhere near Stendhal. I see nothing like the formal perfection of Dead Souls or Eugénie Grandet or The Entail. Stendhal is off in some other aesthetic universe that I do not really understand.

    Feel free to dismiss this as a blind spot.

    I completely agree about Constance Garnett. English-language readers owe her a lot.

  18. The 1960s-70s novels are mostly short. I'd especially recommend Yuri Trifonov's 'city novellas' or 'Moscow novellas' with 'The Exchange' as the best in my opinion.

    Does anyone have modern writers to recommend? I am reading Письмовник (Sample Letters) by Shishkin, very impressed.

  19. Thanks for those recommendations.

    Do you know Lizok's Bookshelf? She keeps up on contemporary Russian fiction and will have a thousand ideas.

  20. yes, I do, I'd recommend Lizok's Bookshelf as the best source of no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point advice on anything related to Russian literature, past and present. I've never seen anything as organised and common sense anywhere on the web. Whenever I visit there, I just leave a squeal of praise and quickly leave feeling humbled.

  21. I have a lot of reading to do, thanks! I want put in a thumbs up here for Sologub's Petty Demon.

  22. We all have a lot of reading to do, and it will ever be so.

    The Petty Demon does sound pretty great.

  23. This is an awesome and really useful post. And quite correct too. I remember not having any long works in the school program until the 10th grade (I went to school in Russia), and nevertheless those who actually read all the suggested stuff were very well acquainted with the scope of Russian literature by then. I think the most readable prose (which means even the laziest students in our class read some of these) is by Turgenev, Pushkin, Chekhov and Bunin, and that's what I usually recommend to my foreign friends when they say War and Peace is too mercilessly long :)

  24. This was a fun post to write - and look at how good the comments are!

    Your "readable" list is completely credible, although I have foolishly never gotten to Bunin.

  25. Wonderful list, thank you Tom! I love that you've included Gogol and Turgenev. I think one of my 2014 challenges will be to finish up Tolstoy's work and read some Russian authors that are new to me, so I'll definitely be bookmarking your post.

    Hopefully you'll get more people reading Russian literature!

    Best wishes,

  26. Good - I hope so, too. I am completely sympathetic to readers for whom length is an issue. Sometimes it is an issue for me. But that is no reason to skip Russian literature, or even Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. Or for that matter Charles Dickens or James Joyce.

  27. I'm sorry I missed this thread back when it was active, but since I've found it: I strongly agree with Sashura about Trifonov, and I would urge everyone to read as much Bunin as they can (shamefully, he hasn't been translated in full, even though as far as I'm concerned he's a better short-story writer than Chekhov -- maybe the best ever). There has been lots of great short fiction in recent decades -- off the top of my head, Nagibin, Tendryakov, Kazakov, Andrei Bitov, Tatyana Tolstaya, Lyudmila Petrushevskaya -- but much of it hasn't been translated.

  28. A return to the Classics! The Wuthering Expectations Classics. A simple-minded exercise in literary history. Whatever the subject, it is bigger than I think. Use modifiers, even if it weakens the rhetoric. "Some Russian books are long." Can't argue with that.

    Bunin is so good. I've read him, at least a little bit, since 2013.

    Contemporary Russian literature, even with Lizok's help, looks like energetic chaos to me (for example). Someday I'll have to take a closer look.

  29. "Energetic chaos" is a good description. Of course, it describes Russia as well over the last few decades...