One well-respected writer said to another, “Dostoevsky is amazing because I can so clearly remember when I first read his writing.” The other writer nodded seriously, and the moderator of the panel on The Russian Ghosts pursed his lips. ”I mean I can go straight back to that moment, you know?”
This remarked the moment when I realized the panel was drifting lazily into less interesting territory. It’s always a disappointment when someone who’s sitting on a raised platform says something boring. A statement any consumer of art could say about any artist - “I remember what I was doing when I read that.” I too believe art is valuable because we can distill our own experiences through our enjoyment and parsing of it, but I was hoping to hear something more scholarly and literary from a panel of incredibly educated men. One of the men had studied Russian literature, reading the great literary works in the original, and the other two had published their own novels to critical acclaim. I thought it was interesting that by the nature of their being novelists, they and their work could be compared to who and what came before, The Russians even.
When one American male writer says to another that the value in brilliant Russian writing is in the memory of reading their books, and the other American male writer nods seriously, we’re missing out on some valuable literary analysis. But, when in the same conversation, the same American male writers claim that there is no serious American writing of ideas in the tradition of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, we are seeing something else altogether. I found this opinion ludicrous of course; an only cursory look at American literary history would prove them wrong instantly. It’s almost not worth mentioning some of the many great American novels and writers I think would fall into the category of “writing about ideas,” (Wallace, Pynchon, Melville, Robinson, McCarthy, Bellow, Morrison etc.), all of whom these two men largely ignored. One of them mentioned Melville passingly. These men didn’t talk about writing about class struggles, as so many Americans have done, or about oppression from any point of view, Russian or American. They didn’t mention a single woman writer in the entire discussion about Russian or American writing of ideas. All three men seemed oblivious to these gaping holes in their conversation, favoring the literary value of loftier and less practical subject matter.
Both of the writers admitted to only reading translations of Russian novels and admitted that their inadequacy reading in other languages causes them to steer clear of reading work in translation in general. This led me to believe that they’re reading a small subset of translated writers, in English, through an American critical lens. In effect, they’re kind of reading these books as though they are written by Americans, which is detrimental to talking about why there are Russian ghosts, why Russian books haunt us, why Russian writing is so wonderful beyond aesthetic appreciation. A literary perspective that overlooks oppression, suffering, and the importance of the quotidienne would make it hard to recognize that there are plenty of American big idea novels, and it would make you wrong about why Russian novels are so powerful.
Perhaps it is my own immigrant upbringing that makes me assume these American male writers were struggling to bring The Russians into relatability, and that their only associating Anna Karenina with the place and time they first cracked its spine is narrow-minded. I’ve found that some Americans think that “other” experience is more special than theirs. For example, the historic Russian life of starvation, imprisonment, despotic history, and complication is more interesting, and more worthy of literary exploration, than an average American’s. So even if they can’t read the actual language, a translation is like a window into another, more exotic world. A writer or reader might naturally be fascinated by this kind of glamorization of the foreign, but still favor the English language, avoiding translations except in the cases of classics like Crime and Punishment. Does this simultaneous fetishization of Russian writing and experience, but English linguistic limitation, prejudice us towards these classic translations?
I recently read Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. It’s an incredible novella that describes one day in a labor camp in Siberia in Stalinist Russia. I huddled under the covers during the Polar Vortex unable to warm myself while reading of men working building factories and struggling to game the system of the camps in -41 weather. I will always remember piling on the blankets that day. I will remember looking up more information on the status of Pussy Riot members and the political prisoners in North Korea when I finished reading Solzhenitsyn’s incredibly realistic novella. But to me, that day is not the value of this particular Russian’s writing. The value in it was, and what I believe the value in most perfect writing is, the distillation of a human’s experience. I will never be in a Siberian labor camp. But Solzhenitsyn can show it to me, and if he writes well enough for me to believe him, he has written a truthful existence that anyone can wear. And readers need to look inside other human lives, even if that life is just another Brooklyn writer’s. Doing so makes us able to empathize, able to care about the larger context of the world around us.
So as these two American male writers and their moderator kept talking about what makes Russian writing haunt us, I couldn’t help but think that they were missing something really important. They were missing the misery of existence, a misery that is a universal human trait, but which certain Russians were able to convey so masterfully because of the combination of their intellect and the times they lived in. Reading about misery is sure to haunt one, especially one who will never see the inside of a Siberian labor camp.
The Master and Margarita, Notes from the Underground, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Crime and Punishment, and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. These are all Russian masterpieces centered on misery, inflicted by the outer forces of Russia and what it means to live there, or inflicted from within by the madness we are driven to by guilt, death, love, and ambition.
Of course, the writer to bridge this gap is Vladmir Nabokov. A Russian whose protagonists are famously miserable, some in traditionally American ways. The panelists were careful not to claim him, careful to ascribe him to the host of Russian wonderfulness, Russian mastery. But Nabokov lived in the US for a long time and wrote his best work (arguably) in English. As Americans watched the spectacle of the Russia-hosted winter Olympics, I wondered if their ability to keep a distance between their consciences and their enjoyment of the games was similar to these authors’ inability to see Nabokov as a partially American writer. Are we comforted or intrigued that he was from Russia, where we’re not surprised by anything that might happen? Where Americans enjoy watching things go wrong, criticizing authoritarianism, supporting the activism of young, attractive women. By maintaining an interested distance, Americans can enjoy the moral and literary back-bending of Nabokov and the Olympics from a distance, without taking any blame or pleasure in having shaped them.
I started getting more interested in my own thoughts and texting myself quotes from the panel and phrases that would become the notes and inspiration for this essay. And I also texted myself “Andrei Russian writer” during the panel, because like Solzhenitsyn, I couldn’t spell or pronounce this recommended “Andrei’s” last name. And something about the way the panelists described him intrigued me, made be believe he had something to teach me about Russian existence. Now I google ”Andrei Russian writer” trying to figure out what prompted me to try and remember him, a particular writer, what it was about the way they discussed his work that interested me. But I haven’t bee able to figure out which Russian Andrei writer it was yet.