Top ten fictional writers in Russian literature

The Guardian’s list of the 10 best writers in novels is so patently rubbish (two each entries for Martin Amis and Stephen King!?) that I feel compelled to respond with my own round-up of fictional writers in Russian literature. The usual rule applies: no more than one work per author. On the basis that he makes it onto the Guardian list, I have excluded Charles Kinbote from Nabokov’s Pale Fire.

10. Elena Gan, The Ideal.  Gan’s 1837 society tale contains a brilliant portrait of a cynical Petersburg poet, Anatoly Borisovich. We see him the eyes of the normally level-headed Olga, as she becomes first infatuated and then disillusioned with him. Gan is one of several female 19th-century Russian writers who deserves to be far better known than she is.

9. Ivan Panaev, The Petersburg Feuilletonist. Included in Nikolai Nekrasov’s famous 1845 almanac The Physiology of Petersburg, Panaev’s sketch is a slightly heavy-handed, but witty depiction of the rise and fall of the most Peterburgian of literary figures. Replete with references to fashionable Petersburg life, it represents the most self-reflexive piece in a collection based on the idea of self-reflection, as the sketch-writer is typified to become the subject of a sketch himself.

8. Boris Pasternak, Doctor Zhivago. I have to admit I’m not a great fan of Pasternak’s prose, which rather too often feels like wading through soup, but one cannot deny that his mystically-inclined poet-hero is a classic depiction of a writer in his time.

7. Nikolai Leskov, Cathedral Clergy. Archpriest Tuberozov’s journal takes up a significant proportion of part I of Leskov’s chronicle. It is a wonderful depiction of his struggles against the various opponents he faces (both old believers and free thinkers), as well as giving insight into his character and to his surprisingly tender relationship with his wife.

6. Kharms, Starukha. Possibly the least successful writer on the list, the narrator of Starukha can write only one sentence of his story: ‘The miracle-worker was tall.’ He also loses the ability to understand time and is incapable of managing the task of narrating the story of what is happening to him. | English translation

5. Evgeny Zamyatin, We. D-503 begins his journal, which forms the entire novel, in order to praise the OneState. As much as it charts his flirtation with rebellion, the journal reveals the development of his imagination, and the process of him becoming a writer.

4. Mikhail Lermontov, A Hero of Our Time. I have in mind Pechorin’s journal, a superb mixture of honesty and cynicism that keeps on playing with our perception of the extent of his self-knowledge. But the novel as a whole is important because of its multiple narrators and chronological shifts, which show remarkable understanding of the potential of the novelistic form before it had properly established in Russian literature. | English translation

3. Fyodor Dostoevsky, The Brothers Karamazov. As usual with Dostoevsky, there are multiple possible entries here: the underground man’s endless confession; Raskolnikov’s article; Ippolit in The Idiot; the hilarious chronicler of Demons, or the writer Karmazinov, a vicious caricature of Turgenev, in the same novel; Arkady Dolgoruky in The Adolescent... In the end I felt I had to go for Ivan Karamazov, because his story, The Grand Inquisitor, has taken on a life of its own. Has any other story-within-a-story gained so much currency in its own right? Both that text and Ivan’s article on ecclesiastical courts play central roles in framing the novel’s philosophical debates that perhaps ultimately overshadow their author within the text. | Russian text: part 1 | part 2 | part 3| part 4

2. Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita. The Master’s novel about Pilate and Yeshua is itself significantly influenced by Ivan Karamazov’s story, and as in The Brothers Karamazov, the author of the inserted narrative receives little attention in comparison with his work. The Master’s self-effacement means that he is less memorable than many of the other characters in the novel, and that his status as a broken, tragic figure is often undermined.

1. Nikolai Ostrovsky, How the Steel was Tempered. I regularly denounce this book in my early Soviet literature classes as being monumentally badly written and  cliched, and I stand by that. But as a writer-hero, Pavel Korchagin takes some beating: blind and paralysed, but determined to continue to serve the revolution, he dictates his autobiographical novel, only for the sole copy to be lost in the post. So he writes it again. | English translation: part 1 | part 2

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4 Comments

  1. Another of Dostoevsky’s writer protagonists is Vasya Shumkov, of “Слабое сердце” (1848), who was based on his friend Yakov Butkov, a struggling writer who achieved some success in the 1840s (mainly for «Петербургские вершины») but was soon forgotten. He was the subject of an affecting reminiscence (1890) by Aleksandr Milyukov, who ends by saying “He was one of the sadly lost talents so abundant in the annals of Russian literature”; it contains an unforgettable recounting by Butkov of his terrifying encounters with the censorship board (“I enter the censors’ sanctuary; behind a table arrayed in a green covering, upon which is performed the sacrament of literary castration, sit the high priests in their armchairs…”). I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for him ever since I first read it.

  2. Yes, of course! I’ve been reading Butkov only recently. There are, when one starts to think about it, an awful lot of writers, both fictional and fictionalized, in Russian literature.

  1. A feuilletonist, a cynical poet, and a homeopathic foot: bloggers on 1830s and 1840s prose | XIX век
  2. “Poor thing! they coaxed a fateful ‘yes’ from her…” | XIX век

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