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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

THE WORD'S WORTH:




"The glory of a nation is in its writers," wrote Samuel Johnson, but it is strange how some nations have differing ideas about what another nation's chief glories are.


The pantheon of English literature in Russian is not at all what we might expect, even allowing that large parts of it were denied the reader during Soviet times. A good domashnaya biblioteka, home library, over here - the definition of a good library being one that seems several times too large for the apartment it is in, and where books fall on your head when you're on the toilet - would certainly include collected works of Russian translations of Shakespeare and Dickens.


But we would also almost certainly find such fourth-rate, dull and almost forgotten writers like John Galsworthy and the rather tedious humor of O'Henry, and by God no one will hear a word against them. I would like to take the opportunity to inform the greater public that by no stretch of the imagination is John Galsworthy any good as a writer, or, at least, I've yet to hear any non-Russian with a kind word to say about him. Take his sobranie sochinenie, complete works, and throw them out the window.


Jack London also features large, though this might simply be a case of a good writer who was mistaken for a great one, great enough to have his entire oeuvre translated into Russian, whereas I doubt any English-speaking readers out there are even aware of his numerous polemic works.


To be fair, the way the English-speaking world views Russian literature is also rather peculiar. Inevitably, one finds Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as the duumvirate by which all other standards are to be judged, which also creates the impression that Russian literature is chiefly populated by immensely long and verbose works, which, these two giants aside, is hardly the case. Indeed, English literature is far more populated by 800-page-plus novels than Russian literature is.


One cannot expect the English-speaking world to embrace the genius of Pushkin unless the reading public suddenly set about an intensive study of Russian, and translations here and there can hardly do him service. Some poets use sufficiently lurid and weird imagery to still look interesting in another language; Pushkin, with his classical restraint, is not one of these.


So for the time being, Russian literature will ever be the kingdom of long philosophical arguments and half-crazed soliloquizing monsters, and a row of tomes bearing the names Galsuorsi, O'Genri and London on their spines will continue greet you as you enter any intelligentny Russian home.