I have now read twenty Russians novels over the past couple of months, which should be able to give me some insight into the Russian novel but I am not sure that it does. Last year, I did the same with Icelandic novels but, of course, Iceland is a much smaller country and has a much shorter literary tradition, at least as far as the novel goes. The twenty novels I have just read were written between 1907, the earliest, and 2009, the latest. A lot changed in that time. However, here is a very crude summary of what I have learned.
1. The Russian novel or, rather, Russian novel writers, are a gloomy lot. I knew that, of course, well before reading these novels but this confirms it. Most of these novels had an element, often a strong element of gloom in them, though, to be fair, not all of them did.
2. Just as in any other large country, the main metropolitan areas are not the same as the rest of the country. Again, this is obvious but Vasily Golovanov makes the point and we should not forget it, even if we are well aware that New York is not the same as Idaho, London not the same as Yorkshire and Paris not the same as the Camargue.
3. The Russians can do humour, particularly satire. The humour may often be gallows humour but humour it is.
4. Politics has had and continues to have a greater influence on the Russian novel than on the Western novel. While there are many interesting political novels in the West, particularly post 9/11, there are many first-class Western novels where politics is entirely irrelevant and authors whose interest in politics is, at most, marginal. This is far less the case in Russia. Yes, there are Russian novels where politics plays a limited role but living in a society, be it under the Tsar, the Soviets or Putin, where the state is so oppressive and so intrusive into the lives of its citizens, it is difficult to keep politics out all together. Could a novel like Санькя (Sankya) be written in the United States or United Kingdom? I am not sure. (Though it could very much be the case in Latin America, e.g.Teoría de las catástrofes [Catastrophe Theory]. It might be argued that Soumission [Submission] is along the same lines but I think it is much more tongue-in-cheek and less serious.)
5. Russian novels are long. Well, yes, we all know that. Several here were over five hundred pages. I enjoy a good long novel but a poor long novel is, well, boring (see para below).
Of the twenty, I enjoyed seventeen. I was disappointed with Даниэль Штайн, переводчик (Daniel Stein, Interpreter), Шатуны (The Sublimes) and Творимая легенда (The Created Legend), particularly as two of the authors had written other novels I had enjoyed
Seven I particularly enjoyed:
- Преподаватель симметрии (The Symmetry Teacher)
- Москва — Петушки (UK: Moscow Circles; US: Moscow to the End of the Line)
- Призрак Александра Вольфа (The Spectre of Alexander Wolf)
- Венерин Волос (Maidenhair)
- Прайс [Preis]
- Остров или Оправдание бессмысленных путешествий [Island or A Justification for Meaningless Travel]
- Генерал и его армия [The General and His Army]
I would wholeheartedly recommend all seven though the last three, sadly, are not available in English. So overall not any great insights, except to say that there are a lot of interesting novel from Russia, both past and present, not all of which are available in Russian. Here is one I would love to be able to read, for example, but will probably never be able to do so. Still a browse in my library reveals a whole load of Russian novels I have yet to read so more to come.