I finished What Is to Be Done? about a month ago, and as you see I’ve been slow to post about it. I think it has to do with the order I read things in. I started with Crime and Punishment as a teenager with little life experience and no knowledge of Russian, and I wasn’t much older when I read Anna Karenina, Fathers and Sons, Dead Souls, and Resurrection. When I began to read in Russian in college, The Gambler, The Insulted and the Injured, and War and Peace still seemed like a new thing I was experiencing for myself. And now I thoroughly enjoy books like At Daggers Drawn or Troubled Seas that even after graduate school I’ve heard relatively little about.
But in between there were books like Oblomov and What Is to Be Done? that I’d heard discussed so much before I read them that they weren’t half as much fun as they should have been. It wasn’t that the plots had been spoiled. I felt like more than 100 years of critics’ and readers’ attitudes had been distilled and trickled down to me through offhand remarks and conversations with professors. I knew what I was supposed to think, and it didn’t help that I often did think it.
This has me wondering: does anyone ever read through some set of literary works backwards? Could you decide in advance you were committed to reading classical epic poems, start with the most obscure ones that have been preserved, and work your way up to Vergil and Homer?
Here’s one way it could work for nineteenth-century Russian:
- Year 1: Gnedich, Zagoskin, Butkov, Krestovskii, Avdeev, Mamin-Sibiriak, Ol’ga N., Vovchok, Sleptsov
- Year 2: Viazemskii, Merzliakov, Del’vig, Ryleev, Ogarev, Mel’nikov-Pecherskii, Sluchevskii, Nadson
- Year 3: Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, Gan, Druzhinin, Grigorovich, Tur, Mei, Grigor’ev, Panaeva, Shcherbina, Polonskii, Gleb Uspenskii, Korolenko
- Year 4: Zhukovskii, Baratynskii, Kol’tsov, Griboedov, Odoevskii, Vel’tman, Pavlova, Goncharov, Gertsen, Maikov, Ostrovskii, A. K. Tolstoi, “Koz’ma Prutkov,” Chernyshevskii, Saltykov-Shchedrin
- Year 5: Batiushkov, Krylov, Lermontov, Tiutchev, Turgenev, Sukhovo-Kobylin, Pisemskii, Fet, Nekrasov, Leskov
- Year 6: Pushkin, Gogol, Dostoevskii, Lev Tolstoi, Chekhov
You could start on year 2 or year 3 if you wanted, but the key would be to read down the list instead of up. It might be hard to find Zagoskin in translation (though it’s easier than I thought) or to learn Russian well without encountering Pushkin along the way. But if it were possible, I bet it would be amazing. The combination of knowing the context better than I used to, but not knowing the book, made Men of the Forties a great joy, and I’ll always wonder what it would be like to read Eugene Onegin or The Idiot that way.