When people (including me) talk about Russian literature, they are usually talking about big novels from the nineteenth century. But they should also consider talking about the shorter experimental works of the 1920s and 30s!
Here are four of my personal favorites.
Shklovsky, a literary critic who co-founded the Russian Formalist movement, was hopelessly in love with the writer Elsa Triolet. This ingenious epistolary “novel” consists of the letters Shklovsky wrote Triolet during his political exile in Berlin. (Triolet, who really wrote the seven letters attributed to her in the book, subsequently expanded one of them into a novel, became a novelist, and won a Prix Goncourt.) Triolet forbids Shklovsky from writing to her about love, and Shklovsky nominally complies…but every seemingly innocent subject—from the weather, to the fate of the publisher Zinovy Grzhebin, to the engine design of the Hispano Suiza, to the living conditions of Berlin's anthropoid ape—turns out to be a metaphor for the pain of exile and unrequited love. Zoo is at once incredibly funny and incredibly sad, like all my favorite books.
Written in the 1930s but not published until 1999, long after Platonov’s death, this beautiful and terrifying novella opens with the graduation of a student called Nazar Chagataev, “a young man who was not a Russian,” from the Moscow Institute of Economics. Chagataev is assigned to a post in his birthplace in Central Asia. His mission is to “build socialism” among his people: a nomadic tribe of orphans, outcasts, and criminals known as Soul, because they own nothing but their own souls. In one of the stranger and more nightmarish homecoming scenes of world literature, Chagataev finds his people starving to death, wandering around a lurid desert dreamscape of feral sheep and man-eating eagles. In Soul, Platonov weaves together Sufi philosophy, Persian travelogue, socialist realism, and the language of Soviet bureaucracy into a magical tissue with the luminous, universal quality of myth. Soul is an unforgettably weird retelling of a familiar story: the struggle of an educated young man to assimilate his present with his past.
Mandelstam is the author of some of the most brilliant, inaccessible, and untranslatable poetry of the twentieth century, famous for its density of historical and classical allusion. Anglophone readers are lucky he also wrote a brilliant but accessible prose memoir, The Noise of Time. “My desire is to speak not about myself, but to track down the age, the noise, and the germination of time,” writes Mandelstam, in a strange opening for an autobiography. In fact, “the noise of time” is the key to the poet’s identity: a geological layering of historical and literary moods, deposited during his childhood by the grown-ups in the room. “The first literary encounter is irremediable,” Mandelstam writes in a particularly dazzling description of his parents’ bookcase—by extension, a description too of the strange and beautiful way we are all isolated, as prisoners of modernity, in our own private languages and histories.
Before he starved to death in a psychiatric prison ward at age 36 during the Nazi blockade of Leningrad, the great absurdist Daniil Kharms wrote some of the most hilarious lines in world literature. Among the most famous of his dramatic fragments and vignettes is a series of “Anecdotes about Pushkin.” My favorite anecdote, which I reproduce in its entirety, explores the capacity of Pushkin, the biggest giant in Russian literary culture, to embody and transmit the great social value of sitting on chairs: “Pushkin had four sons and all of them idiots. One didn’t even know how to sit on a chair and was always falling off. Pushkin himself was not so great at sitting on chairs. As it often happened—simply sidesplitting—they're sitting at the table. At one end, Pushkin keeps falling off his chair—at the other end, his son is doing the same. You’d laugh like it was the end of the world!”
Elif Batuman was born in New York City and grew up in New Jersey. She now lives in San Francisco. She is the recipient of a Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award. She teaches at Stanford University.