Tag: Russian classic

A Dog’s Heart by Mikhail Bulgakov

Posted September 19, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic, Russian Lit Project / 4 Comments

A Dog’s Heart by Mikhail BulgakovTitle: A Dog's Heart (Goodreads)
Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Translator: Antonina W. Bouis
Published: Alma Classics, 1925
Pages: 144
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Library Book

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Serge Voronoff is a surgeon born in Voronezh, Russia and later a naturalised French citizen, famous for experiments implanting animal testicles into humans. This was during a time when xenotransplantation research was trending and in 1889 he injected himself under the skin with a combination of ground-up dog and guinea pig testicles. He theorised that the animal implants will help increases the hormonal effects to retard ageing. However his methods quickly lost favour when it was discovered any improvements were a result of the placebo effect. This real life scientist helped inspire Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel Dog’s Heart (also known as Heart of a Dog).

While foraging through the garbage on winter night in Moscow, 1924 a stray dog is found by a cook and given a scrubbing with hot water. While waiting his end, the dog lies there in self-pity, but to his surprise a successful surgeon Filip Preobrazhensk comes and gives him a piece of sausage. The dog followed Filip home where he is give the name Sharik, which is a word to describe a well pampered dog. Very experiments were performed on Sharik, including various transplants of human organs until he was transformed into an unkempt human and given the name Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov.

Having read a few books by Mikhail Bulgakov, I have come to expect one thing; social satire on the state of Communist Russia. A Dog’s Heart has this in spades, satirising the Communist ideal of the New Soviet man, while even criticising eugenics. The New Soviet man was an idolised version of what the Communist Party of the Soviet Union believe all citizens should be like. Leon Trotsky wrote about this in his 1924 book Literature and Revolution; “Man will make it his purpose to master his own feelings, to raise his instincts to the heights of consciousness, to make them transparent, to extend the wires of his will into hidden recesses, and thereby to raise himself to a new plane, to create a higher social biologic type, or, if you please, a superman.” The New Soviet man (or woman) was selfless, learned, healthy, muscular, and enthusiastic in spreading the socialist Revolution, this was the ideal citizen needed to grow the Soviet nation.

The plot of A Dog’s Heart parodies Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein while it looks at the idea of the New Soviet man. This gives Bulgakov the ability to look at eugenics as well. Take for example the practices of Serge Voronoff and compare them with Victor Frankenstein. This paints a vivid picture and if the Soviets knew how to create their ideal citizen in a lab there is no doubt in my mind they would be working towards; it is possibly, they were researching a way in secret.

Mikhail Bulgakov seems to have started a tradition of doubling names with patronymic; Poligraf Poligrafovich in A Dog’s Heart and Leopold Leopoldovitch in A Young Doctor’s Notebook. This could be considered a nod to Nikolai Gogol’s with his hero Akakii Akakievich in “The Overcoat”. However I have come to learn this is also satirising the new naming conventions adopted during the early Soviet Union. A large number of Soviet children were given atypical names to show their Revolutionary support. This included initialisms, for example; Мэл (Mel named after Marx, Engels and Lenin), Марлен (Marlene named after Marx and Lenin) and Стэн (Stan named after Stalin and Engels).

The more I read from Mikhail Bulgakov, the more I think he was one of Russia’s best satirist. I have been slowly working my way through Manuscripts Don’t Burn, which is a collection of Bulgakov’s letters and diary entries compiled by J.A.E. Curtis. This has been beneficial in gaining insight to the start’of the Soviet Union at the time of writing his novels. A Dog’s Heart is one of Bulgakov’s better known novels and I am glad to have read it with an understanding of the personal and historical context. I believe The Master and Margarita is Mikhail Bulgakov’s best novel but A Dog’s Heart is worth checking out too.


Smoke by Ivan Turgenev

Posted August 27, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic, Russian Lit Project / 2 Comments

Smoke by Ivan TurgenevTitle: Smoke (Goodreads)
Author: Ivan Turgenev
Translator: Michael Pursglove
Published: Alma Books, 1867
Pages: 256
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Library Book

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Set in Baden-Baden, a small spa town in the foothills of the black forest, in the south west of Germany, near the border of France and Switzerland. Grigory Mikhailovich Litvinov has arrived in the town after spending years in the west; here he plans to meet up with his fiancée Tatyana. While there, he bumps into Irina an old flame, who is now married to a prominent aristocrat General Valerian Vladimirovitch Ratmirov. This chance meeting derails all Girgory’s plans for the future and sends his life into turmoil. Smoke is a melancholy novel of an impossible romance and an apogee of Ivan Turgenev’s later novels.

I know what my wife would say, this is a typical Russian novel about a man that has a fiancée that has waited for him all these years while he was out west but then an old flame turns up and he doubts his relationship. This is a common trope in classic Russian literature but this is also autobiographical for Ivan Turgenev. At the time of writing this novel, Turgenev was living in Baden-Baden to be near his lover Opera singer Madame Viardot. Creepily, he moved next door the singer and her husband. His relationship with Madame Viardot turned into a lifelong affair that resulted in Turgenev never marrying, although not sure what her husband thought of it all.

Smoke is a satirical novel aimed to highlight the problems Ivan Turgenev found with mother Russia. The conservatives are unwilling to change and adapt to the help modernise Russia, while he believed that the revolutionaries were glorifying a Slav mysticism, which we all know as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. With one novel, Turgenev managed to alienate the majority of Russia in one hit; the book even sparked a heated feud with fellow writer Fyodor Dostoevsky.

While this satirical exposé into his fellow countrymen was met with a lot of criticism within Russia, Smoke was still published in the March 1867 issue of The Russian Messenger. The Russian Messenger is one of the best Russian literary magazines during the 19th century publishing the majority of the great pieces from this country. Smoke may not be the best Ivan Turgenev novel to start with but it was an interesting book to read none the less. The amount of debate it sparked was fascinating to explore and I believe Smoke holds a well-deserved spot in the Russian canon.


Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

Posted May 28, 2015 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic, Russian Lit Project / 0 Comments

Anna Karenina by Leo TolstoyTitle: Anna Karenina (Goodreads)
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translator: Aylmer Maude, Louise Maude
Published: Oxford World's Classics, 1873
Pages: 831
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Personal Copy

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Anna Karenina is the tragic story of the socialite’s marriage to Karenin and her affair with the wealthy Count Vronsky. The novel begins in the midst of their families break up due to her brother’s constant womanising; a situation that preferences her own situation throughout the novel. Running in parallel to this story of Konstantin Levin, a humble country landowner that wishes to marry Kitty, who is Anna’s sister in-law. Anna Karenina is a pinnacle piece of realist literature, exploring a wide range of family issues.

At over 800 pages, Anna Karenina can be a daunting novel to pick up; the large cast of characters does not make it any easier. I look at this classic novel as an exploration into melodrama that just about every family experiences. Born in 1828, Lev (Leo) Nikolaevich Tolstoy was born into a large and wealthy Russian landowning family, and has often been suggested that Anna Karenina is based on a similar social upbringing. While there are vast differences, issues with wealth, religion, farming and morality are issues that seem to parallel between reality and fiction. The story arch of Levin is considered to be autobiographical; Tolstoy’s first name is Lev (although in English he is known as Leo) and the Russian surname Levin actually means Lev.

Leo Tolstoy has been known for adding real life events into his fiction as a way with dealing with current political and social issues. Within Anna Karenina, events like the liberal reforms initiated by Emperor Alexander II of Russia and the judicial reform are used as the backdrop for the novel. This allows him to explore current issues, like the developing of Russian into the industrial age and the role of agriculture in these changing times. Also Tolstoy questions the role of the woman in this changing society and (the ever popular in Russian lit) class struggles.

The story of Anna Karenina is probably the most interesting for me and I enjoyed reading the struggle between love and the public opinion. She was trapped in a marriage and wanted to divorce but Karenin, who was a politician cared more about his public image. Then there is the fact that Anna’s brothers womanising destroyed the family and now she is faced with a similar situation that could cause the same damage. Adultery becomes a big theme within the book and seems to be a common theme within Russian literature to this day. However with Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850) and Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), these three novels seemed to start a fascination in exploring the themes of passion and adultery in the mid to late nineteenth century.

There is a lot to explore within this book, and re-reading Anna Karenina was such an enjoyable experience. I know big books often scare me but there is something about going back to a much-loved novel that I find enjoyable. Leo Tolstoy intentionally made this novel long, he wanted to replicate life’s journey and the struggles people face along the way. I think he was able to capture that struggle and Anna Karenina will remain a favourite on my shelves and in Russian literature. There are so many more themes that could be explored within the novel but I will leave that for others to discover on their own.


War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Posted March 20, 2014 by Michael @ Knowledge Lost in Classic / 2 Comments

War and Peace by Leo TolstoyTitle: War and Peace (Goodreads)
Author: Leo Tolstoy
Translator: Aylmer Maude, Louise Maude
Published: Oxford World's Classics, 1869
Pages: 1392
Genres: Classic
My Copy: Personal Copy

Buy: AmazonBook DepositoryKindle (or visit your local Indie bookstore)

When people thing of big books often War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy is mentioned. This Russian classic depicts the French invasion of Russia in 1812. True to Tolstoy form, War and Peace also looks at classes and the impact of the Napoleonic invasion on the Tsarist society. While this book can be considered an epic historical war novel, for me this was a work of philosophical ideas. This is one of the hardest books to review, not because I have nothing to say but rather there is so much to cover and I have no idea where to start.

Just to put things into perspective, I started this book in October and have been slowly chipping away at it for four months. It is a hard battle and you really need to take your time with a book like this because Tolstoy has a lot to say. This is the kind of book that feels like you‘ve climbed a mountain when you finally finish and you can just feel your pretentious levels rising. For those interested, I read the Oxford World’s Classics edition which has the translations by Aylmer and Louise Maude. Many people debate on which translation is the best but I thought going with an Oxford World’s Classics would be a safe bet; I love this publisher and know I’m always getting a decent copy of the book.

Right off the bat you are flung into this world and you meet so many people. Tolstoy has an amazing ability to give the reader a sense of a person with a few lines, so even the minor characters in this book get some sort of personality. There are hundreds (over 500) characters within War and Peace and I often found it difficult to keep up with them all but thanks to Leo Tolstoy’s writing ability I could relax a little because even if I forgot about a character, when they reappear further in the book I still had a sense of who they are. This is possible due to the way this book was originally written and I will talk more on that later.

Most of the major characters within War and Peace are members of the aristocracy and it is interesting to see them all fighting for a higher position in society, government or the military. People like Boris rise in society while others like the Rostov fall, Dolokhov gets demoted while Pierre plots an assassination. Not only do we have the Napoleonic war happening within these pages, a battle for social standing rages through this novel. It is all about power but paradoxically the people with the most power within this book are the ones that seem to give up control.

If you don’t have the knowledge of Russian or Napoleonic history, this novel accommodates the reader. I found myself at times looking up information about the history just to satisfy my curiosity but as the book progressed, my research subsided. It is in Leo Tolstoy’s style to give you as much information as possible, this does make the book longer but for me I think it was a huge bonus. But you must realise this is a work of fiction and most of the people are fictional. Tolstoy was telling a story of the invasion and the harsh nature of war. You can even look at the second epilogue and read more of the authors thoughts on the subject and the philosophical ideas held within this book.

War and Peace was originally serialised in the literary magazine The Russian Messenger between 1865 and 1867. This magazine plays host to many of Leo Tolstoy and Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s novels. This means that originally people read War and Peace over the course of three years. This means at times the novel may feel repetitive and covering plot points done before but this is just a result of the original format. It comes in handy with characters as they are reintroduced and because I took my time reading this classic, it became a vital part.

There is so much going on within War and Peace and it took me a long time trying to work out what I wanted to say and what to leave out. This is the kind of book that needs to be revisited in the future, Tolstoy has a lot to say and I’m interested in exploring the themes. I loved this book; it is a roller-coaster of emotions and philosophical ideas. I’ve only scratched the surface of what is happening in this novel and then wrote a small amount of what I discovered. I can’t imagine ever being able to fully understand the brilliance of Tolstoy and War and Peace. For me, Fyodor Dostoevsky is a better writer but Leo Tolstoy has a unique ability to capture the lives of everyone involved in one war.