Saturday, February 5, 2011

An Overview of the Russians- Tolstoy versus Dostoevsky versus Turgenev versus Chekhov

After recently completing Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons, I can now say that I have at least sampled the four most renowned Russian authors of the 19th century.  I greatly enjoy Russian literature, as I feel that it captures a complexity and insight that is sorely lacking from modern novels.  So, for my first post, I have decided to rate the four authors, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each.

This post discusses the following authors with representative novels/stories in parentheses:

  • Fyodor Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, Notes From Underground)
  • Ivan Turgenev (First Love, Fathers and Sons)
  • Leo Tolstoy (Anna Karenina)
  • Anton Chekhov (The Lady With the Dog, The Kiss, The Cook's Wedding, other short stories)

Strengths: Excellent characterization, great at developing emotional connections, writings present major philosophical viewpoints in a readable manner
Weaknesses: Inconsistent plotting, occasional odd word-choices

Where does one start with Dostoevsky?  His novels are clearly imperfect (perhaps the most imperfect of the four authors that I am discussing today).  Take, for example, the opening sentence of Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky's most well-known book: "At the beginning of July, during an extremely hot spell, towards evening, a young man left the closet he rented from tenants in S_____y Lane, walked out to the street, and slowly, as if indecisively, headed for the K______n Bridge."  This is a terrible opening line.

Indeed, Dostoevsky is rife with technical flaws.  His pacing is inconsistent, and his word choice is not always impressive.  Yet I can safely say that he is probably the greatest novelist I have ever read.  Why do I enjoy him so much?

Dostoevsky captures life in a way that no author can.  His characters are more than characters: They are ideas.  Unlike many authors (here's looking at you, Turgenev), Dostoevsky fills his novels with conflicting viewpoints, allowing each character to have their say.  His The Brothers Karamazov challenges religion and faith more effectively than any other piece of writing, fiction or nonfiction, than I have ever read, yet Dostoevsky's conclusion, that a God exists and that faith in both God and people is worth having, is a timeless idea.   Dostoevsky, in short, writes about life and the meaning of what it means to be human and alive.  His works are masterpieces.


Strengths: Very readable, great use of plotting
Weaknesses: Lacks the emotional impact of other authors, characters are often unsympathetic

If Dostoevsky wrote about the importance of life and the meaning behind it, Turgenev wrote about the opposite: The absence of meaning in everything.  Known for his views and writings on "nihilism" (which literally means belief in nothing), Turgenev's novels are filled with morally questionable characters and a decidedly Western approach to characterization and plot (his greatest novel, Fathers and Sons, is less than half the length of The Brothers Karamazov).

One cannot read Fathers and Sons, however, and at least question Turgenev's belief in his own ideal.  Midway through the novel, when the two main characters (who throughout the novel declare that they believe in nothing) separately fall in love, it is then that the novel seems to come alive.  And it is the character that ultimately embraces this love that comes to a happy ending, while the other, who holds to his belief in "nothingness" seems to remain bitter and unhappy.  This is despite the fact that Turgenev spends the novel putting forth one viewpoint, nihilism, with no other alternate views credibly presented.  I am not making Fathers and Sons out to be a very enjoyable novel: on the contrary, however, it is probably the most readable of any of the pieces I am discussing.  I can't help but wonder, however, whether Turgenev truly believed in the nihilist views that he so often wrote about.


Strengths: An excellent technical writer, phrasing is often great
Weaknesses: Characters are often unlikeable, lack of meaning

More than anything, Tolstoy is a great writer.  There is simply no denying this fact.  It is intimidating to pick up a 800+ page book (as Anna Karenina is), yet there is never the urge to flip to the end to see how many pages are left.  The major reason for this readability is Tolstoy's use of short chapters, most of which are about four pages long.  This is an ingenious plotting device and one that makes Tolstoy the best technical writer of the four.  Also, Tolstoy has a way with words: Read the first sentence of Anna Karenina, and you will want to keep reading.

But I am not drawn back to Tolstoy like I have been with other Russian authors.  Anna Karenina is undeniably a great novel, but the protagonist's choices are strange and unsympathetic.  The characters are ultimately not memorable, and, while there are some truly amazing scenes (the section of the book involving a major birth still remains vivid in my mind), they are most memorable for their amazing descriptions and not for the meaning behind them.  So, while Tolstoy was clearly a great writer (and arguably as flawless a technical writer as I have read), Anna Karenina, on memory, seems strangely soulless.

Notably, I have not yet read War and Peace.  Perhaps when I complete it, I will come back and reconsider my views on Tolstoy.


Strengths: Effectively captures human emotions, filled with very likable moments
Weaknesses: Greatly inhibited by the short story medium

Chekhov is most known for his plays, none of which have I read or seen performed.  I have read several Chekhov short stories, however, and have enjoyed some of them greatly.  "The Kiss," along with Ernest Hemingway's "Hills Like White Elephants," is probably among my favorite short stories of all-time.

Chekhov remains constrained, however, by the medium that is the short story.  He paints realistic, life-like pictures and has some truly great moments; however, there is no connection with the characters because there is no time to develop them.  Chekhov is best at capturing small moments that all humans can sympathize with; "The Kiss," for example, ends by summarizing an emotional feeling that I truly felt a connection with.  It is at these points that Chekhov is the greatest.

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