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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Russian Lit Yields Masterpieces

Written by Jon Williams

Earlier this month, Entertainment Weekly magazine published an issue containing their lists of the Top 100 movies, TV shows, albums, and novels of all time, respectively. While one can debate the order of these lists, and in some instances even their content (that’s what they’re for, after all), there’s no doubt that they’re a great starting point for anyone hoping to sample some of the best that pop culture has to offer.

For their #1 novel of all time, EW chose Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy. They’re hardly alone in their praise; William Faulker said the novel was “the best ever written.” This tragic romance between the protagonist and the dashing Count Vronsky has captivated readers since it was first published in complete form (it originated as a serial tale) in 1878. It’s been adapted for film a number of times, most recently starring Keira Knightley and Jude Law in 2012.

Of course, while Anna Karenina is Tolstoy’s greatest masterpiece, it is by no means his only renowned work. He is also the author of War and Peace (#28 on EW’s list), The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and a number of other novels, short stories, and plays. More to the point, he is just one well-known writer of Russian literature that has provided a treasure trove of novels and stories over the years.

One of Tolstoy’s contemporaries was Fyodor Dostoyevsky, himself an icon of world literature. Dostoyevsky is known for such works as Crime and Punishment (#14 on EW’s list), Notes from Underground, and The Brothers Karamazov (#23), among others. He and Tolstoy were at the heart of 19th century Russia’s “Golden Age” of literature, which also included Ivan Turgenev, poet Alexander Pushkin, and playwright Alexander Ostrovsky.

Coming slightly later, and influenced heavily by both Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, was Anton Chekhov. A doctor by trade, he once said of himself, “Medicine is my lawful wife, and literature is my mistress.” He wrote a number of classic plays, and his roster of short stories is among the finest ever written. Chekhov then led into Vladimir Nabokov, author of a number of modern masterpieces, both in Russian and in English. His best-known, Lolita, clocks in at #19 for Entertainment Weekly; it was a finalist for the National Book Award in 1959. Nabokov never won the National Book Award, but was a finalist seven times in all.

As outstanding as the history of Russian literature has been, it’s likely that none of it would have come to be without the influence of Nikolai Gogol. Gogol was the author of Dead Souls, a novel (although Gogol himself referred to it as a poem) that paints a broad portrait of life in the Russian countryside in the early 19th century. He envisioned it as the first in a trilogy; however, he suffered from writer’s block and then died young, burning what he had written of the second book before he did so. Nevertheless, the one volume he did write paved the way for the rich tapestry of Russian literature to come.

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