Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Hero of Our Time by Mikhail Lermontov

Four of the last nine novels I've read have been Russian, which is a record for me. Before September, my only foray into Russian lit had been two nonconsecutive weeks with Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov). Lermontov has some similarities with other Russian authors, and the byronic hero is a common character. We see him in Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, again in Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, and now in A Hero of Our Time's main character, Pechorin. Lermontov was conscious of Byron's influence on his writing, and Byron is mentioned or alluded to several times in this novel.  

A Hero of Our Time sets itself apart from the other Russian novels I've read recently in part due to its incredible descriptions of the Caucasus and its people. There are around fifty languages spoken in the Caucasus, and it's not possible to generalize about one culture type or people group exemplified by the region. However, it's safe to say that the peoples of the Caucasus aren't Russian, either in their mother tongue or their culture, yet they were part of the Russian Empire.  For Russia, the Caucasus represents both the self and the other, and an interesting discussion of the role of the Caucasus in Russian literature can be found here.

I wouldn't say there is a lot of in-depth character development in this novel, but the byronic hero is meant to be read as a type, not as a complex individual, and the author accomplishes what he sets out to do. I would recommend A Hero of Our Time as a softer introduction to Russian lit than Dostoevsky. Lermontov also captures the senses of romantic longing, appreciation for nature and inescapable ennui just as Pushkin does in Eugene Onegin, but with a more active plot. If you want to read about horses and samovars and Russian scenery, this is the book for you. On the other hand, if you want to read about thwarted characters or characters for whom life has lost its meaning...this is also the book for you. Finally, if you don't have a lot of time and you're looking for something under 300 pages but with more intellectual weight than a plot-based current bestseller, this is the book for you too! And if, upon finishing, you find yourself casting about for something even more deep, dark and delicious, well...there's always Dostoevsky.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Persuasion by Jane Austen

The fourth Austen novel I've read this year, Persuasion follows Pride and Prejudice, Sense and Sensibility, and Emma. Persuasion was Austen's last novel, and her only one featuring a heroine who is far past her youth.  The novel has great merit as a love story with social commentary, and while Austen's comedic sense is at times apparent,  the overall effect is not as humorous as that of Pride and Prejudice or Sense and Sensibility.

Although I've heard critiques of Austen on the basis that she is a product of her time, the complaint is both obvious and disingenuous. Austen could no more write from the viewpoint of a postmodern feminist than I could write from a viewpoint that will be common in 2315 CE. I personally find it valuable to have access to works written from earlier viewpoints. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to understand history without authentic documents, which include letters, biographies, newspapers and, of course, works of fiction.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

This book will knock you out and leave you for dead in Mexico. Or at least, if you're rather flighty and nervous like me, it will keep you at the edge of your seat, with occasional heart palpitations. The Woman in White, written in 1859, is one of the first mystery novels and has earned its reputation as one of the best. I do have to say, at the risk of opening a can of feminism, that the plot is probably creepier to a woman reader, since it concerns the manipulation, threatening, drugging and forcible confinement of women by two plotting men. I'm sure a feminist critique would yield much about nineteenth century gender relations and power differentials. I'll get right on that...when I have a moment...  Also interesting is a point brought up by Michael Chabon's essay "Fan Fictions: On Sherlock Holmes" in Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, in which Chabon explores the changes in attitudes toward novel genres such as mysteries and science fiction. A hundred years ago, a novelist could write a mystery or science fiction novel and still be considered a serious writer of literature. This is not generally the case today. Chabon asks, if Conan Doyle had written A Study in Scarlet today, would it come to be considered a classic, or would it be buried in the "mysteries" corner at the bookstore, dismissed due to its genre label? That fate could have come to The Woman in White if it had been published a hundred years later. I'm glad it wasn't. But I plan to take a second look at the mystery or sci fi section in my library. Perhaps I will find an author who explores universal themes, or who writes incredible prose, or who makes characters come alive. Perhaps I'll find a book that shouldn't have been judged by its cover.