Good Reading : September 2008
22 goodreading ı SEPTEMBER 2008 of characters, including the socially gauche, illegitimate son of a wealthy count, Pierre, and the beautiful Natasha, born into the noble Rostov family. Their eventual romance is the central thread in a rich tapestry of intertwined narratives, a summary of which could easily span this entire essay. The upheaval of war, financial woes, a brush with the freemasons and some ill-considered marriages all feature in a work showing all of Tolstoy’s fatalistic tendencies. Here, his characters are mere puppets pulled by the strings of unseen forces, bit players in the grand sweep of history. Perhaps nowhere is this theme more fully realised than in the character of Pierre, who has the quixotic idea of bringing down Napoleon on his own, and who mistakenly views the great comet of 1812 as some kind of personal harbinger of good fortune: ‘In Pierre, however, that comet with its long luminous tail aroused no feeling of fear. On the contrary he gazed joyfully, his eyes moist with tears ... It seemed to Pierre that this comet fully responded to what was passing in his own softened and uplifted soul, now blossoming into a new life.’ In a different field entirely, Anton Chekhov carved out a reputation almost as colossal, becoming one of the most influential short story writers to have ever set pen to page. Collections of his stories abound, but make sure you find one which includes ‘The Lady with the Dog’, a devastating portrait of an unhappy middle-aged man who has an affair with a married woman visiting his provincial seaside town.They come to see themselves as ‘a pair of birds of passage, caught and forced to live in different cages’. Following a more fantastical approach than Chekhov’s realism was Yevgeny Zamyatin, who wrote one of the great dystopian novels, We, widely acknowledged as an influence on George Orwell’s 1984. Set in a futuristic society, ‘One World’, where human behaviour has been rationalised and regimented, these uniformed robot-people are assigned sexual partners.The protagonist, D-503, tries to break the schackles when he falls in love with I-330, only to find himself overwhelmed by the power of the state. Love of a more traditional kind is explored in the cherished Doctor Zhivago, the story of a man who is a doctor by profession and a poet by temperament. Surviving the horrors of war and maintaining a stoic love for military nurse Lara, herself embroiled in a torrid love triangle, Zhivago remains the ultimate idealist.This is one of the great historical romances, and well worth reading if you’ve only seen David Lean’s film adaptation, which wanders some distance from the source material.While the political undertones here are more subtle than in, say We, Pasternak’s novel, like many before it, fell foul of Russian authorities, who persuaded him not to accept the Nobel Prize he was offered. With such state interference in the work of novelists still commonplace, the 20th century saw something of a mass exodus of writers from Russia, with Vladimir Nabokov the most notable émigré. His notorious classic Lolita has been both reviled and revered, translated into 25 languages, sold more than 50 million copies and placed in the very upper reaches of the Modern Library’s top 100 novels of the century.The plot of this fairytale hinges on a twist of fate which delivers self-styled Euro aesthete Humbert the opportunity to ‘fix the perilous magic of nymphets once and for all’, his sham marriage ending with the 12-year-old object of desire in his care, on the lam in a series of tacky American motels. Often oversimplified by critics as an ironic allegory for the duplicitous nature of the supposedly innocent, new world America, Lolita is actually troubling in its sympathetic treatment of Humbert and its insistence on his eventual redemption. Nabokov was something of a strange individual (he is said to have gone blind studying his extensive llection of butterfly nitalia under a microscope) ut nonetheless one of the eatest stylists ever to write n English, his work dense with nuance, showing the uits of a determination which saw him write over a million words in his adopted anguage before ever seeking o get his work published. Read it and make up your own mind. Perhaps it is fitting that Nabokov, the ‘icy puppeteer’ of Russian literature should have the last word. ‘I think that what I would welcome most at the close of a book of mine is a sensation of its world receding in he distance and stopping omewhere there suspended’, he once said, capturing the niquely enchanting elixir f otherworldly intrigue and ainfully recognisable human nsight the best of these works conjure up. Something bout Russia indeed ... Leo Tolstoy Following a more fantastical approach than Chekhov’s realism was Yevgeny Zamyatin, who wrote one of the great dystopian novels, We, widely acknowledged as an influence on George Orwell’s 1984.