Discovering the Great Russian Authors

Pushkin: A Biography
For people who like to deal with the “big questions,” like Love and Death, Russian authors have always held a unique fascination, especially the great novelists Leo Tolstoy and Feodor Dostoyevsky (also transliterated as Dostoevsky in many book titles) and the playwright Anton Chekhov. The Russian literary tradition begins with Pushkin in the early nineteenth century, and Russia produced some of the world’s greatest novels, stories, and plays in the century that followed. These works continue to attract and fascinate today’s readers. Below are some ways to get to know the great Russian authors using the resources of the Mercer County Library System.

War and Peace; Idiot; Anna Karenina; Brothers Krarmazov

Russian literature became more popular in the English-speaking world in the early twentieth century, when Constance Garnett and others translated such masterworks as War and Peace by Tolstoy and The Idiot by Dostoyevsky into English for a wide audience. Although these were the standard translations for many years and are still widely available, their style may seem out of date to modern readers. If you wish to seek out more modern translations of Russian literature, some of the more celebrated in recent years have been the Pevear-Volokhonsky translations of Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov and other major Russian works. New translations of Anna Karenina by Rosamund Bartlett and Marian Schwartz have also been published in the last few years.
Uncle Vanya; The Plays of Anton Chekhov
Chekhov’s plays have been translated and adapted numerous times. Although some of the older translations may seem stiff and old-fashioned, David Mamet’s vivid adaptation (working from a literal translation) of Uncle Vanya and Paul Schmidt’s The Plays of Anton Chekhov have revived these classic dramas for an American audience by using modern language and style.

Literary Surveys and Biographies:
Various Titles
If you find reading long Russian novels a little intimidating at first, you can start with some background material. The Giants of Russian Literature: Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov by Liza Knapp is an excellent audiobook survey course which will give you basic information about the lives of these authors and their major works. Give War and Peace a Chance: Tolstoyan Wisdom for Modern Times by Andrew D. Kaufman reveals how readers of the Tolstoyan epic can find timeless wisdom within its 1,500 pages about living a meaningful life. And if you have read all the novels and really want to find out the shadowy streets in St. Petersburg where Dostoyevsky’s characters would have lived and the exact house in Moscow where Gogol wrote Dead Souls, check out Literary Russia: A Guide by Rosamund Bartlett and Anna Benn. Virtually every location in Russia which is significant to Russian literature is noted in this book, making it a great companion for a literary trip to Russia.
Tolstoy: A Russian Life; Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time
Then, of course, there are the biographies. Tolstoy is the subject of many biographies including Tolstoy: A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett, and the thoughtful and revealing Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson. Another of the great Russian authors, Dostoyevsky, gets an exhaustive biographical treatment in Joseph Frank’s Dostoevsky: A Writer in His Time.

The Russian Authors on Film:
Doctor Zhivago; Anna Karenina; The Last Station

When many people think of the Russian novel on film, David Lean’s version of Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago might be first thing that leaps to mind. But Tolstoy has had his share of movie adaptations. The Mercer County Library System has no less than four versions of Anna Karenina on DVD, the most recent of which is director Joe Wright’s innovative 2012 version, which sets all the action of the novel inside a theatre. And you can check out the Russian 1967 version of War and Peace, which is widely considered one of the greatest Russian films ever made. The delightful and touching biographical film The Last Station traces the events of the final year of Tolstoy’s life. Dostoyevsky has fared less well in Hollywood, but the library system has on DVD a quirky independent version of Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground.
Irrational Man; Crime and Punishment; Vanya on 42nd Street; Uncle Vanya
Woody Allen has mined the world of Russian literature for comic material more than once. In Love and Death Woody Allen spoofs virtually all the great Russian authors, and his newest film, Irrational Man, is based on Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Numerous films have been made of Anton Chekhov’s plays, including The Cherry Orchard and Sidney Lumet’s version of The Sea Gull. Those looking for a more accessible version of a Chekhov play might try Vanya on 42nd Street (dir. by Louis Malle) which features David Mamet’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya and includes great performances from actors such as Wallace Shawn and Julianne Moore.

-Michael Kerr


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