And where did all these sages get the idea that man needs some normal, some virtuous wanting? What made them necessarily imagine that what man needs is necessarily a reasonably profitable wanting? Man needs only independent wanting, whatever this independence may cost and wherever it may lead.
Notes from Underground · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1864
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 1994 · 136 pages, paperback
With Notes from Underground, first published in 1864, Fyodor Dostoevsky picked up an axe of condemnation and swung—hard. Hard against an imposed ideal, hard against a code of right and wrong in human feeling, hard against the presumption that reason could dictate desire.
Dostoevsky tells us that not only is man inherently flawed but he is flawed because he wills himself to be so. Continue reading
Death and the Penguin is a game of chance played with a stacked deck – and against a card sharp no less, one who turns the tables on this writer of obelisks. Andrey Kurkov’s novel has the sullen resentment of living fairly in an unfair world, and it has a dark humor to combat that same resentment. It’s also one that might make the lonely feel a little less alone.
Death and the Penguin · Andrey Kurkov · 1996
George Bird translation · Vintage, 2001 · 228 pages, Paperback
When you do know what’s what, it will mean there no longer is any real point to your work or to your continuing existence.
Viktor Zolotaryov writes obituaries of deputies, military officials, businessmen and others of VIP caliber in Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov’s novel Death and the Penguin. But the obituaries have a predetermined publication date – that list of notables from which Viktor has been taking his assignments is also a hitman’s register. Continue reading
With Gogol, strangeness is inevitable and the one constant is a vertigo that abruptly skews reality before allowing it to settle again – only it’s shifted an inch from where we thought we’d find it.
The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol · Nikolai Gogol · 1830-‘42
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 465 pages, paperback
To read a Gogolian story is to read a story of layered perspective and one that fuses dreams with reality, metamorphosing into a singularly bewitched universe that exists side by side with our own. Continue reading
I ask because your rivers darkle (and I know there’s no other word for it), and your phantoms and men are one and the same.
…I love it.
School-age grudges and backroom bargains line up the chips against ladies’ secrets and counterfeit fathers in The Adolescent, Fyodor Dostoevsky’s penultimate novel and one that built on his previous work with surprising maturity.
The Adolescent · Fyodor Dostoevsky · 1875
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2004 · 608 pages, paperback
Vladimir Nabokov, in his Lectures on Russian Literature, said of Dostoevsky that the man “seems to have been chosen by the destiny of Russian letters to become Russia’s greatest playwright, but he took the wrong turning and wrote novels.” Though he was talking about The Brothers Karamazov, which Nabokov called a “straggling play,” the comment holds for The Adolescent, a gossipy soap opera done in high style. Continue reading
Ivan Ilyich is a comer. Promotion after promotion, he’s making a steady climb in the government. And though each promotion is accompanied by extra roubles, he and his wife are in constant straits. With each rise in status, they’re moving in ever more opulent circles.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich · Leo Tolstoy · 1884-‘86
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 52 pages, paperback
To Ivan it’s a headache. To Ivan it’s fakery. To Ivan…well, it was the same as with all people who are not exactly rich, but who want to resemble the rich, and for that reason only resemble each other.
Like much of his work, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich snubs affectation in all its guises. With Ivan Ilyich though, this putting on of airs is a suffocation when time is running short. Ivan Ilyich is dying, so please will you stop pretending?
The Kreuzer Sonata is about two things: one, a man past his prime who allows himself to be cucked by a musician, kills his wife, and blames it all on Beethoven; and two, a past due morality in sexual affairs written by a man who struggled to reconcile mortality with religion and right passion.
The Kreuzer Sonata · Leo Tolstoy · 1889
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Vintage, 2009 · 71 pages, paperback
How he came to murder his wife: the perspective of the novella is one year after the fact. Pozdnyshev is a fornicator turned loyal husband who got his comeuppance in a disloyal wife, and now, while on the train, he finds in a fellow passenger a man willing to listen to him as he reasons out his moral penury. Continue reading
Dozens of travelers in various states of tiredness, en route to destinations far-flung and close by, take refuge at an inn while the whirling snow buffets the window panes and threatens to become a blizzard. Sleepy chatter among the travelers lazily rises against the warmth of a large Russian stove until one man’s comment stops them all.
The Enchanted Wanderer and Other Stories · Nikolai Leskov · 1865-‘87
Pevear and Volokhonsky translation · Knopf, 2013 · 575 pages, hardcover
The story Leskov’s narrator tells, that of “The Sealed Angel,” taking place on the cold banks of a river and requiring the theft of religion (in more ways than one), is so far removed from the inn of these travelers that it’s a secret pleasure when someone interrupts the narrator, bringing us once more into the warmth of the inn.
The stories in this new collection of Nikolai Leskov’s work, selected and translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, vary in scope, tone and depth, but each of them comes wrapped up in this same brotherly feeling.
With its passages of simple brutality and deadpan humor, the morality of a man’s steadfast nature and a heavy layer of religio-mythic magic (that has just enough truth to lend credence to fantasy), The Enchanted Wanderer has the coziness of an old Russian folk tale and the insightful warning of an age-old parable.