Even the most casual visitor to the Ramblings will be aware of my love of Russian books and their authors, and during the last year or so I’ve spent a lot of time immersed in volumes short and long, from Tolstoy to Dostoevsky to Krzhizhanovsky. I’ve never quite pinpointed what it is that appeals to be me so much about these works, but I came across an interesting quote on “Russia Beyond the Headlines“, whose arts pages I peruse regularly:

“I recall how once at a conference in America a Japanese professor stood up and announced: β€œI have studied Russian literature my whole life and have pinpointed four key qualities of Russian prose. One, it is something inordinately large in scale, and two, it purports to edify the reader. Three, it is very somber and devoid of humor. And four, the author conceitedly places himself above the reader. But then we have the author Sergei Dovlatov, in whose case all four of these qualities are reversed. It is not edifying, he converses with his reader on equal terms, he writes with brevity and is funny.”

Image courtesy

Image courtesy

This was an exaggeration on the part of the professor. The point there is that Russian literature is not conceited, it simply digs too deep for most ordinary people. And if we want to isolate the enzyme of Russianness, then it lies in the perception of literature as some kind of ultra-text, literature that goes beyond its boundaries and directly influences life, much like a sermon. Such a stance towards the world is not meant to be unpalatable, and there are certainly comparable situations elsewhere. But the crux is the nearly unattainable goal of translating and re-rendering this for broad consumption.”

(by Dmitry Bak, a professor at the Russian State University for the Humanities and director of the Museum of Literature)

I found myself chucking at the Japanese professor’s statement that Russian literature is “somber and devoid of humor”, as I’ve found it far from this, laughing my socks off at some of the volumes I’ve read – anything by Bulgakov, for a start. However, I think Bak really hits the nail on the head when he talks about digging too deep – it’s the depth I love in Russian literature, and I rejoice in its ability to mixture humour, pathos, deep philosophy alongside the ridiculous. I feel another year of spending time with the Russians coming on!