I’ve long since overcome my reluctance to read Russian novels, but I’ll admit that there was a time when they seemed impenetrable. At best, I’d have to draw up a list of characters in order to keep all the names straight–no easy task with those patronymics. Now I seem to have overcome these early difficulties. Was it just practice? The main point is that I identified and laughed at a section of Ernesto Sabato’s novel The Tunnel in which a few characters discuss this same issue. Since the narrator of The Tunnel reminds me of the narrator from Notes from Underground, it’s no coincidence the Russian novel mentioned was written by Dostoevsky.
In The Tunnel, the main character, painter Juan is in pursuit of Maria, the woman he’s obsessed with, and he travels to the country home of her cousin Hunter to find her. Here’s Hunter and Mimi Allende (“a skinny woman with a ridiculously long cigarette holder”) discussing art which leads to the subject of Russian novels. We start with Mimi and Hunter talking while the narrator listens:
After all to claim that one is original is really like pointing one’s fingers at the mediocrity of others–which to me seems in very doubtful taste. I am sure that if I painted or wrote, my art would never attract attention.
“I don’t doubt that,” Hunter said maliciously. “Then you would not want to write, let us say, The Brothers Karamazov.“
“Quelle horreur!” Mimi exclaimed. She rolled her eyes heavenward, then completed her thought:
“To me, they are the nouveaux riches of the consciousness. Can you bear Russian novels?”
The last question, unexpectedly, was directed at me, but the woman did not wait for an answer; she rushed on, again speaking to Hunter:
“My dear, I have never been able to finish a Russian novel. They are so tiresome. I think there are thousands of characters, and in the end it turns out there are only four of five. Isn’t it maddening just when you begin to recognize a man called Alexandre, he’s called Sacha, and then Satchka, and later Sachenka, and suddenly something pretentious like Alexandre Alexandrovitch Bunine, and later simply Alexandre Alexandrovitch. The minute you get your bearings, they throw you off the track again. There’s no end to it; each character is a whole family in himself. Even you will agree that it is exhausting, even for you!”
Later there’s a discussion of mystery novels….