Three Crazy and Absurd Russian-Language Writers you may Have Never Heard of
February 19, 2018
by Anna Wahler
Mention Russian literature and many people think of giant novels like War and Peace, or philosophically complex creations like Crime and Punishment. The awesome thing is that there’s so much more weird, funny stuff out there. Here I’ll briefly talk about three of my favourite Russian-language authors, and why I think they deserve to be better-known.
Nikolai Gogol (1809-1852)
In an attempt to simplify the complicated circumstances of Gogol’s “nationality” I’ll let it suffice to say that Gogol was born in the territory of modern day Ukraine, but wrote in Russian.
Gogol is best known for parodying Russian society in stories that are at once super-readable and also quite clever. (He also wrote a satire of Ukrainian Cossack culture as well–Taras Bulba–showing he was capable of poking fun at everyone equally.) One of his most famous short stories, titled The Nose, involves a bureaucrat who wakes up one morning to realize his nose has left his face and is carrying on a life of its own.
My Favourite Work–Dead Souls
Dead Souls was incomplete at the time Gogol passed away, and some debate just how incomplete it is. The ending leaves off mid-line, but some scholars of Gogol hypothesize that this was just another of his stylistic tricks. But regardless of the state of the manuscript, the story centres around a rather unconventional and sometimes downright annoying protagonist named Chichikov, who has discovered a completely foolproof way to get rich fast by buying serfs. There’s just one thing about these serfs–they’re not alive any more. This might sound like something paranormal, but Gogol’s comments about human psychology and greed are just as strange and engrossing, and it doesn’t hurt that the books is also hilarious.
Mikhail Bulgakov (1891-1940)
Born in Kiev, Bulgakov wrote both about what is today Ukraine, and also about Russia. As a doctor during WWI, he has some very disturbing and vivid experiences which he draws on to fuel his insights into human behaviour. If you need a break from pure craziness, his short story collection about life as a rural doctor is also said to be semi-autobiographical, and the only fantastic elements are the real lives of people he encountered which seem sometimes too strange to be true. Bulgakov’s later satires on Soviet culture were predictably was not taken kindly to, and like many Russian writers only gained in popularity after the strictest times of Stalinist censorship had lifted.
My Favourite Work–The Master and Margarita
The talking cat who eventually gets ahold of a gun is only half of the awesomeness of this novel. Really two (or three) stories all woven together, the main plotline is set in the 1920s in Moscow, where the devil shows up in the middle of a park, wondering why nobody believes in his existence any longer. Strange things start happening. People go missing and lose their heads in bizarre magic shows, and nobody can figure out how to do a thing about the devil. But far from being purely fantasy, this story is actually a complicated allegory that holds up to multiple readings.
Daniil Kharms (1905-1942)
If Kharms doesn’t sound very Russian to you, you’d be right. It’s a pen name, partly created as a pun on the fictional detective Holmes (the kh is similar to the ch in the composer’s name Bach), who was oddly popular in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century, and a play on the English word charms. Kharms wrote mostly short stories and plays, centring around such bizarre themes as falling off buildings, sudden death, and death after eating too much. The Soviet Government wasn’t a big fan of his style, which was hard to follow and often downright creepy. Though he avoided the censor by writing for children’s magazines during his lifetime, Kharms was rediscovered after the fall of the USSR and some of his work was reprinted and translated into English.
My Favourite Work–Anecdotes from the Life of Pushkin
This might sound serious and terribly dry, but it was the complete opposite. This collection of tiny short stories (in total about three pages) is completely absurd and illogical. In it, Kharms proposes several completely bogus theories about the life of Aleksander Pushkin, Russia’s most beloved poet. For example Kharms describes Pushkin’s complete inability to sit in a chair (unfounded) or his irritation at people with beards (also unlikely). We’ll never know what Kharms was thinking, but it may have been a joke at sensationalizing the lives of famous figures, or just a product of his very strange sense of humour.
These writers may get less press in the English-speaking world than Tolstoy or Dostoevsky, but I see no reason why it should have to stay this way. Even beyond showcasing their historical era and culture, Gogol, Bulgakov and Kharms are uniquely funny writers with great voices and ideas.
Is there a writer from your region or culture who you think deserves to be better known? Tell us about them in the comments below and check back next week for another post by Amanda!