Monday, January 24, 2011

Seeking Slavic Literature

by Julia Buckley
I have taught Dostoevsky’s wonderful Crime and Punishment for many years. I love it; it might be my favorite novel in the world. However, we are considering replacing the book next year, simply because the students have a tight curriculum and have very little time to read this 500-page novel.

So I find myself in the position of having to come up with some other great work from the Slavic region. And I need help from readers!

I considered someone like Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina or War and Peace, but that would present the same problem that Crime and Punishment does: they are very long books.

I thought of Anton Chekov—maybe The Cherry Orchard—except in this world literature class they already read four plays, and five would make it more unbalanced than it already is.

I considered Alexandr Solzhenitsyn; he’s a Nobel Prize winner and his writing would certainly bring awareness of the rigors of the gulag. But perhaps, I thought, that might be too grim, since we’re already reading two existential novels that leave the students rather depressed.

Dostoevsky himself has shorter works—Notes From Underground is very manageable—but again there is a highly existential message that might make the class seem like an existential philosophy course.

Then I thought—what about a mystery? Something deep and interesting with far-reaching themes? Since I am not well-versed in foreign mysteries, I thought I’d ask for suggestions from the readers.

What are some great books (mystery or otherwise) from any of the Slavic regions? I’m including Russia, Ukraine, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Croatia, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Slovenia, and Republic of Macedonia.

I’d love to introduce them to something fresh which still had a strong sense of setting. And the value of a fairly obscure title is that students can’t immediately go onto a website to read summaries of what the story is about—-they would have to read and think about it for themselves.

So I'm asking for comments. What’s the best book with a Slavic setting that you ever read?

Thanks in advance for your help!


Jerry House said...

THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov. A wickedly funny fantasy/satire that would be an enjoyable read. It's about 400 pages,so it may not fit your criteria.

Another suggestion would be to assign a couple of short stories; there's a lot of great ones out there.

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks, Jerry! I will look that one up. Is it contemporary?

Diane said...

I think the issue here is that not many people here in the US have read much - if any - Slavic literature. Unless forced to in school, of course. I think that's because much of it is known to be really long and many people perceive it to be somewhat trying. It's also possibly why - when the more well known works are assigned, students go to the internet. The modern day version of those synopsis books students used to buy instead of reading the real thing.

Julia Buckley said...

Yes, probably many issues are at work. But I do think that some people have a fascination with foreign literature--check out all the followers at Detectives Without Borders, for example.

Leslie Budewitz said...

Julia, late responding so I hope you see this. Master & Margarita is a good choice. Can't recall the author right now, but a terrific novel called Cement is a perfect illustration of Soviet Socialist Realism -- had the author had the freedom, oh what a novelist he would have been, but even so, he managed to write within his constraints AND exceed them at the same time.

I personally adore Dr. Zhivago -- great to read the book, then see the movie and compare; both are fabulous and entirely different -- perhaps the best example of a movie well-excised from the source. There's a recent mystery series set in Russia, author Boris something, that I haven't read that get great reviews.

Back to existentialism, but what about Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Show the movie?

And there must be some Polish mysteries!

Julia Buckley said...

Thanks for all these great suggestions, Leslie!