Russian Literature -- Journal Entry Book Report

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Russian Literature -- Journal

Entry #1 -- Bezhin Meadows -- Ivan Turgenev -- "I finally reached the corner of the woods… but there was no road there at all…an empty field was visible."

What an absolutely perfect representation of the Russian soul -- empty fields, no roads, unmet expectations, broad, unkempt forests, night closing in, overgrown paths. It seems as if the narrator is not just describing a Russian meadow, but the particularly gloomy way Russians tend to look at life.

The story, Bezhin Meadows, is, like most of Turgenev's works, simple, straightforward, without any frills -- yet full of symbolism and rather complex meaning. It is a chronicle of a journey, but not necessarily a journey planned - yet contemplated with the wisdom of children, of everyday life, and of the things we tend to take for granted. The story reads as a litany of descriptions of various landscapes. The landscapes seem to represent the various aspects of human psychology, but all relating to the noble nature of the peasants, their honesty, hard work, and ability to find the semblance of an idea without any unneeded or undue philosophizing.

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Nature, in this story, is unspoiled -- it is perfect even when the consequences of its actions are unpleasant (thunderstorm, strong wind, etc.) but it is in the balance of these various landscapes that represent human psychology: wants, needs, desires, contentment, mysteriousness, anger, shock, awe, friendship. Thus, it is the individual that is in conflict with nature in the sense of trying to reshape, redefine, and remaster what already is perfect. Thus, the process of trying to change nature is what causes human misery and scorn, the process of adapting nature to our needs (making nature fit society), one of the ways in which nature can never be harnessed. The reader then has the decision -- once loss, and on the precipice of the abyss -- plunge forward, as in life, not knowing what will be around the next corner -- feeling lost and usually alone; or finding the safe and comfortable path that may, in fact, lead nowhere.

Book Report on Russian Literature -- Journal Entry #1 -- Assignment

Entry #2 -- Crocodile -- Fydor Dostoevsky- "They are right…. The principles of economics before everything…. In our age of industrial crisis it is not easy to rip open the belly of a crocodile without economic compensation…"

Clearly at odds with "new socialism" and the idea of the monarchical State (e.g. this was written in 1865, prior to the revolution) run concept of economic value, Dostoevsky makes one feel that the entire nature of value and materialism are circumspect and, for lack of a better word, part of nothing but slapstick humor.

The idea, of course, is the narrator telling an ostensibly true story of his friend Ivan who was swallowed alive by a crocodile. Ivan found the inside of the beast rather pleasant, and despite his wife's pleas, not enough money could be raised to allow the owner of the crocodile, a German, to part with the beast. Ivan's wife eventually divorces him but Ivan carries on his work as a civil servant from inside the animal.

It seems no accident that the owner of the crocodile is German, and so capitalistically greedy that a human life is not worth the life of an exotic beast. Ironic, too, that Ivan's wife because so impatient that she divorces Ivan rather than finding another solution to his dilemma. The nature of a crocodile, likely, represents society -- dangerous, brooding, and yet somewhat pliable from the inside. Once captured, though, the individual is somewhat subsumed and must carry on the best they can, regardless of the circumstances.

The story is a great example of the way in which wry irony can use humor to mimic social commentary -- for truth be told, none of the characters are particularly noble or exemplary. It is society as a monolith -- the individual as a cog, that Dostoevsky seems to say has an economic value, one just doesn't know what that value might be.

Entry #3 -- the Nose -- Nikolai Gogol -- "Naturally, these events greatly pleased also gentlemen….even their own daily quarrels…."

The Nose is a satirical story of a St. Petersburg official whose nose disappears one day, has a life of its own, and goes on adventures. Looking up the name, it turns out the Russian word for nose is Hoc (Nos) and reversed it is Coh (son) -- perhaps as the way to compare and contrast the ridiculous nature of the story, yet everyone believes it, and searches for a normal explanation. Gogol may have been playing off the old maxim, "It's as plain as the nose on your face," meaning that it cannot get more obvious, yet no one sees it -- whatever that might be. Somewhat like a retelling of the Emperor's new clothes?

The story really reads like it should be a dream, which, it appears, was the way another version ended -- with Kovalyov waking up. Instead, we're presented with magical realism in which we cannot believe our own senses. The very idea of a person having their nose cut off means it will be difficult for them to rise in society -- let alone that nose walking around. Perhaps Gogol also wants us to feel again, that man vs. society- we as individuals are helpless unless we have all the parts complete -- one minor flaw and we are finished.

However, it could also be that Gogol was having fun with the reader and the seriousness with which people take things "literary." It is likely that some of the words have dual meanings in Russian, or at least suggestive meanings that make the irony of the story make more sense.

Entry #4 -- the Overcoat -- Nikolai Gogol -- "To tell the truth, he found it at first rather hard to get used to these privations…. His whole existence had in a sense become fuller…. As though someone else was with him…. And it was the man in his new overcoat." This story seems to be one of the more important in Russian literature. Dostoevsky is said to have commented on the work, "We all come from Gogol's Overcoat."

The story is about a poor civil servant named Akaky Bashmachkin who lives a dour life in St. Petersburg. Although he is dedicated to his job, thinking it so very important that he personally hand-copy documents. In reality, the younger clerks tease him and his self-importance, with his old and tattered overcoat as the butt of their jokes regarding his high and mighty attitudes. Finally, Akaky has enough and he takes the coat for repair -- but the tailor (Petrovich) declares that it must be burned, it has no value. Saving every penny and replacing his zeal for hand work with a Zeal to save, Akaky gradually finds enough money to go to the shops to get new materials. Finally the coat is made and taken to the office at which time there is a celebration. Akaky must get home, though, and it is upon his way home that he is assaulted and killed. The coat, however, goes missing. Akaky is beside himself, and inquires at all apartments and offices regarding his possession. Finally, he seems to give up all home about it, and rather delirious when he finally dies, cursing the bureaucracy that caused him to lose a valuable possession. Akaky's ghost is now reported haunting periphery: while another ghost, one taller and who bears a resemblance to the person who robbed Akaky

Akaky is certainly distant from society and his fellow man -- he is an individual living an individual's world -- individualistic thoughts, seeming self-important but without any real power other than influence. Of course, he will also not offer to share is treasures should that eventually be possible. In fact, one might call him border-line schizophrenic. He is confused when the route in change from one day to the next -- he cannot fathom a less that completely allocated and organized life. That he gives so much power and energy to something as lifeless as a coat -- which it seemed that the narrator may have done around a similar study finding that stimulation, exercise, running, etc. are all part of the natural way humans eventually form compromises. Man, as the individual, is self; Self, in the eyes of the creator, does not see all this materialistic to be necessary for happiness. and, one is left wondering "Is that all there is?" Once Akaky dies, we now know he lived day-to day, saved nothing, and counted on at least three individuals to help he, and the others, maintain their connection with the world. Once the symbol for that connection is gone -- in reality a bit of cloth sewed together, so too is life.

Entry #5 -- Overvoat II -- T.C. Boyle -- ". . . he was a patient and enduring as the lines along the Boulevard Ring…. And he knows how vital… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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