What first got you interested in Russian literature?
I was lucky enough to learn Russian at school, with encouragement from my father, who visited the Soviet Union in 1957, and my grandfather, who had joined the Communist Party while a student at Cambridge. He became disillusioned when he visited Moscow in the early 1930s and was told there were no telephones in England, but retained his interest in Russian culture. So I began reading Turgenev and Chekhov in the original when I was 16 years old. I found it all dreadfully difficult to begin with, but then became inspired when I spent time in Leningrad as an undergraduate in the early 1980s. It is hard not to be swept up by the passion and serious engagement of Russian writers, and it was exhilarating to discover that they were revered in the Soviet Union as national heroes, as they had been in the despotic days of the Tsarist regime. [Alexander] Solzhenitsyn was not exaggerating when he referred to Russian literature as the country’s second government. It frequently fell to writers to be bearers of the truth.
Your five book choices focus on short stories. How would you define them as a genre, as opposed to the big Russian novels like War and Peace?
It’s true that we think of novels before short stories when considering the Russian literary tradition, but all the great novelists wrote peerless short stories as well. And considering their profound influence on Russian novels and also operas, those short stories are sometimes unjustly overlooked. Although we do not expect to find in them profound discussions of the meaning of existence, Chekhov’s body of work certainly bears comparison. He rebelled by only writing short prose, and it is typical of his subversive style that his stories are so deceptively simple – he challenged convention by posing questions rather than giving answers. And if Chekhov was able to tear up and rewrite the rulebook for writing a short story, it is a credit to all the earlier Russian writers whose short stories inspired him.
The short story form is certainly a lot easier to assimilate – many of the great Russian short stories are real page-turners, and fun to read. They can provide an ideal introduction to Russian literature for anyone intimidated by the big novels, and tend to cover a far wider social and geographical spectrum, so are just as valuable as sources of insight into the Russian mentality, past and present. My selection of these five individual works has been based on artistic merit. But I also want to convey something of the stylistic range and thematic diversity of the Russian short story. Inevitably, that means making some invidious choices and leaving out superlative stories by writers such as Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Nabokov, Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn.
The first short story you recommend is The Queen of Spades by Alexander Pushkin, in the Oxford World’s Classics collection.
Whatever one’s criteria, it is impossible to leave out The Queen of Spades. It’s a story about gambling, and the first undisputed masterpiece in the genre by the writer seen in his homeland as the “Russian Shakespeare”. Pushkin was a protean genius who moulded the cumbersome Russian of the 18th century into the supple and beautiful literary language used today. Although he was primarily a lyric poet, he started moving towards prose fiction at the end of his short life, as you can see in EugeneOnegin, Russia’s first great novel, written in verse.
Apart from being a gripping read, The Queen of Spades is the quintessential St Petersburg tale and an astonishingly modern work. Its author was far more hotheaded than the superbly cool, detached style of the story’s narration suggests. He was sent into exile for his rebellious ideas, and then had to endure submitting his manuscripts to Nicholas I for his personal approval. Pushkin was a gambler himself, of course, and even gambled away his own poetry on occasion. And he went out of his way to fight duels. He was killed in a duel four years after completing The Queen of Spades, at the age of 38.