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Top ten food in Russian literature: part 2

I shall keep you in suspense no longer.

5. Shalamov, ‘Condensed Milk’. As in the case of Solzhenitsyn, hunger is ubiquitous in Shalamov’s stories, so food also plays a significant role. ‘Condensed Milk’ is unusual in depicting a moment of triumph and satiation: the narrator, offered a place on an escape, asks the ringleader Shestaskov for some cans of condensed milk to help build him up for the journey. He polishes them off with enormous relish and then tells Shestakov that he isn’t going with them after all – he knew it was a trap all along. Russian text

4. Dostoevky, The Double. Although the vocabulary of devouring and cannibalism plays a significant role in Dostoevsky’s writing, and there are significant scenes that revolve around meals, such as Marmeladov’s funeral feast, and the underground man’s dinner with school friends, food itself is not as important to him as it is to some writers (this is one indication that his characters are generally not, in fact, embodied). It’s telling that his most memorable food scene is in his most Gogolian work. In chapter 9 of The Double Mr Goliadkin goes into a restaurant on Nevskii Prospekt and eats a pie. He goes up to the till to pay his ten kopecks, only to be told his bill is one ruble ten kopeks, for eleven pies. It’s one of the many moments of uncertainty about the status of the double – Mr Goliadkin is in the middle of rationalizing the consumption of eleven pies, when he suddenly on the other side of the counter, where he thought he had been looking in a mirror, he catches sight of his dastardly double making off, smacking his lips in pleasure. It’s a beautifully constructed scene, also remarkable for the narrator’s entanglement in trying to prove he knows the difference between the two Goliadkins. Russian text | English text

3. Kharms, ‘What they sell in shops nowadays’. Food actually appears less in Incidences than I expected, though there is this very memorable murder by cucumber:

Коратыгин пришел к Тикакееву и не застал его дома.
А Тикакеев в это время был в магазине и покупал там сахар, мясо и огурцы.
Коратыгин потолкался возле дверей Тикакеева и собрался уже писать записку, вдруг смотрит, идет сам Тикакеев и несет в руках клеенчатую кошелку.
Коратыгин увидел Тикакеева и кричит ему:
– А я вас уже целый час жду!
– Неправда, – говорит Тикакеев, – я всего двадцать пять минут, как из дома.
– Ну, уж этого я не знаю, – сказал Коратыгин, – а только я тут уже целый час.
– Не врите! – сказал Тикакеев. – Стыдно врать.
– Милостивейший государь! – сказал Коратыгин. – Потрудитесь выбирать выражения.
– Я считаю… – начал было Тикакеев, но его перебил Коратыгин.
– Если вы считаете… – сказал он, но тут Коратыгина перебил Тикакеев и сказал:
– Сам-то ты хорош!
Эти слова так взбесили Коратыгина, что он зажал пальцем одну ноздрю, а другой сморкнулся в Тикакеева.
Тогда Тикакеев выхватил из кошелки самый большой огурец и ударил им Коратыгина по голове.
Коратыгин схватился руками за голову, упал и умер.
Вот какие большие огурцы продаются теперь в магазинах!

Koratygin came to see Tikakeev and did not catch him at home.
Tikakeev at the time was in the shop and there he bought sugar, meat and cucumbers.
Koratygin hung around Tikakeev’s door and was about to write a note, when suddenly, look, here comes Tikakeev carrying an oilcloth bag in his arms.
Koratygin saw Tikakeev and shouts at him:
‘I’ve been waiting a whole hour!’
‘That’s not true’, says Tikakeev, ‘I’ve only been out twenty-five minutes’.
‘Well, I don’t know about that’, said Koratygin, ‘but I’ve been here for a whole hour’.
‘Don’t tell lies!’ Tikakeev said. ‘Lying’s shameful’.
‘Dear Sir’, Koratygin said. ‘Watch your expression’.
‘I think…’ Tikakeev began, but Koratygin interrupted him.
‘If you think…’ he said, but here Tikakeev interrupted Koratygin and said:
‘You’re a good one!’
These words so infuriated Koratygin that he closed one nostril with his finger and blew the other one at Tikakeev.
Then Tikakeev whipped out the biggest cucumber from his bag and struck Koratygin on the head on the head with it.
Koratygin clutched his head in his hands, fell down and died.
That’s the size of cucumbers they sell in shops nowadays!

This came to mind in the recent e-coli outbreak and the dramatic headlines it generated (now sadly removed from the BBC website) about killer cucumbers, before the real culprit was uncovered. Incidences: Russian text | English text

2. Gogol, ‘The Nose’. If you’re in any doubt about the importance of food to Gogol, read Nabokov’s biography of him. There are various scenes I could have chosen, in particular from Dead Souls, but my favourite is in fact the opening of ‘The Nose’, when the barber Ivan Iakovlevich, breakfasting on bread and onion (a combination that perplexes some but is actually fairly normal in the context), but eschewing coffee in order to avoid the wrath of his wife, cuts open a bread roll and finds a nose in it. It’s a good metaphor for Gogol’s work as a whole, and I have particular affection for it because it was when I first read this scene as a teenager that I realized how amazing Russian literature was. Russian text | English text

1. Tolstoy, Anna Karenina. This is not just to prove that I’m not prejudiced – whatever my reservations about Tolstoy, and this novel in particular, I genuinely believe it belongs at the top of this list. I’m thinking of two connected scenes in part 6. The first is in chapter 2, when Kitty, Dolly and their mother are making jam and upsetting the old servant Agafia Mikhailovna by using a new-fangled method. What makes it really special is the way that discussion of the technical aspects of jam making are intertwined with the women’s recollections of their marriage proposals. The second scene, in chapter 5, is connected in both style and theme, as Levin’s brother Sergei Ivanovich fails to propose to Varenka whilst explaining the finer points of mushroom hunting. The mirroring of the two scenes apart, I don’t think there’s any great symbolism at work here; they work because they’re so natural and life-like, and they remind you that Tolstoy could do this better than anyone else. This is the main reason I get so annoyed with him – he could be so perfect, yet spent half his life trying to be something else. Russian text

So what else should have been in there? Many would say Nabokov’s description of mushroom picking in Speak, Memory should have been included, but unfortunately it strikes me as a prime example of precisely what I dislike about him: an overwritten parade of knowledge and cleverness for its own sake. Bunin does food well, but no particular text really sticks out, and on the whole I’m not convinced by him, apart from ‘The Gentleman of San Francisco’. When I was teaching Bunin on a short story course, I kept coming across articles on him that started by insisting that he was a great writer, which came across as strangely defensive. It’s hard to imagine anyone finding it necessary to say that about Chekhov.

There are  other brilliant scenes that I did want to include. The first is from the second volume (I think – my copy is in the office) of Evgeniia Ginzburg’s memoir, Krutoi marshrut, translated as Within the Whirlwind, when Ginzburg, working in a camp canteen, realizes she’s serving one of her former interrogators. The second, from Vladimir Dal’s ‘The Petersburg Yardkeeper‘ (from Nekrasov’s Petersburg Physiology), is a lovely description of two yardkeepers, Grigorii and Ivan, eating peas and gooseberries. Food is also very significant in Goncharov’s Oblomov, in particular Oblomov’s dream of of his childhood in Oblomovka, while his Vyborg Side landlady’s pies are essentially what allow him to return to that state of childhood bliss. Finally, on the symbolic use of food, the references to bread in Zamyatin’s ‘The Flood‘ are also worth a mention.

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  1. Julia

     /  June 22, 2011

    Your list is wonderful, but I do think that “Oblomov” should make it. The new translation by Mariam Schwartz even includes Gastronomical Glossary that explains “okroshka” and “kulebyaka.” I think that kvass is extremely important in the conversations between Oblomov and Zakhar, and even the movie version ‘plays with food.’ This novel is so loved in Russia, and most Russians would put it within the first five. Still, Oblomov and his attitude towards food is universal …

  2. You’re probably right. I have to admit it’s a while since I read it, and that may have been a factor while I was struggling with what to leave out…

  3. And thinking more about Oblomov, in a way it’s almost that there’s too much food in it – unlike some of the texts I included, where there’s a single, very memorable scene, in Oblomov it all seems to merge together. That’s also one of the reasons I chose ‘The Nose’ over Dead Souls.

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