Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Stories by Foreign Authors: Russian by Ivan Turgenev, et al.

Weak selections from superstar authors
Ivan Turgenev
This collection of Russian short fiction is part of a ten-volume series published in 1898 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, entitled Stories by Foreign Authors. Though the other books in the series offer a mix of famous and lesser-known writers, this volume features nothing but superstars. Despite the fame and glory achieved by these illustrious authors, the selections included here are not their best work, and the collection as a whole is a major disappointment.

Russian literature rose to prominence among world readers during the transition from romanticism to realism. Russian writers, along with those of France, led the vanguard in breaking away from the conventions of the past and defining the new realist style. In Ivan Turgenev’s “Mumu,” a wealthy old woman presides over a house full of servants in Moscow. Among them is a frighteningly gigantic laborer who is both deaf and dumb. After being spurned by a woman, this gentle giant develops a loving attachment to a puppy. In “The Shot,” by Alexander Pushkin, the narrator, an army officer, forms a friendship with a retired soldier. He later questions his judgment of character, however, when his new friend displays indications of cowardice. Both of these are adequately good stories, but they both give an inkling of what’s wrong with Russian realism. Turgenev and Pushkin seem to go out of their way to bore the reader, as if providing any degree of entertainment or satisfaction would be pandering to romantic conventions. Tugenev’s story is a little too cutesy at times, with characters that are often little more than cartoon caricatures. Pushkin’s narrative leads toward two possible outcomes, but in the end he opts for a third option that’s neither interesting nor gratifying but merely fizzles to a halt.

Nikolai Gogol’s story “St. John’s Eve” is a horse of a different color entirely. It’s yet another man-sells-his-soul-to-the-devil story, this time about a servant who wants to marry his rich master’s daughter. That’s my best guess anyway, because it’s really an unintelligible mess. It delivers loads of spooky Halloween imagery expressed in interminable run-on sentences. It opens with a bizarre and pointless intro that makes even the identity of the narrator unclear. It’s hard to say who’s to blame for this epic failure, the author or the translator, so I blame them both.

Not even the greatest Russian writer of all time, Leo Tolstoy, can save this collection. The book closes with a selection that poorly represents this great master, “An Old Acquaintance.” This story is set in an army camp in the Caucasus. What war they’re fighting isn’t important, since the narrative doesn’t concern itself with combat, but revolves around the relationships within the Russian ranks. A former gentleman of the higher class who has fallen on hard times volunteers for military service in hopes of improving his station in life. The officers don’t respect him because he’s poor, and he looks down on the common soldiers because they’re uncultured. 19th-century Russians may have found these class issues fascinating, but for everyone else the story is just a bore. None of the characters, of any rank or class, inspire any interest or sympathy.

Out of all ten volumes of the Stories by Foreign Authors series, this book is clearly the worst. Although intended to showcase the best that Russian literature had to offer in the late 19th century, it only showcases poor editorial choices and weak translations. If you’re looking for an introduction to classic Russian literature, you’d be better off searching elsewhere.

Stories in this collection
Mumu by Ivan Turgenev 
The Shot by Alexander Pushkin 
St. John’s Eve by Nikolai Gogol 
An Old Acquaintance by Leo Tolstoy 

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