Posts Tagged ‘Russian novel’

Book #116: The Cancer Ward

I liked Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Cancer Ward much, much more than I thought I would.

It takes place in a cancer ward in a hospital in a city in the USSR, sometime in the 50s – after Stalin’s death but before the Khrushchev “thaw,” though I don’t think it was ever specified. The men in the ward are a colorful cast of characters, from the self-important, bureaucratic Pavel Rusanov, to the young student Dimka, whose leg needs to be amputated, to the main protagonist Oleg Kostoglotov, who was allowed to come back from exile somewhere in the steppes to seek treatment, they are a diverse group.

Solzhenitsyn moves in and out of these – and many other – characters’ minds as they grapple with their mortality and illnesses, while in the background Stalin’s death and the fall of the secret police chief Beria have the USSR roiling.

The book is somewhat autobiographical – like Kostoglotov, Solzhenitsyn was a political exile. He also based the events of the book on his own experience in the cancer ward during his own treatment.

The book is almost the perfect combination of events and plot and reflection on mortality, the government, and many other things. Sometimes the Russians tend to wax a bit too philosophical in their fictions, going on and on and sometimes abandoning the plot for way to long. Solzhenitsyn found a good balance though, and all reflection felt natural, but the characters were still important and real, and I still found myself really caring what happened to them.

It was a pretty long book – about 800 pages in my edition – but I read it pretty quickly and was sad when it was over.

If you’re thinking about reading it, I say go for it. I think it’s much more accessible than some 19th-century Russian novels like those by Dostoevsky and Tolstoy.

Rating: ****
Up Next: The Plague

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Book #91: War and Peace

I was really excited to start this set of books, because it was leading up to Book 100. And then when I went through and selected them, it looked like it was going to be the worst. group. ever.

First I had to read War and Peace, then two books later Ulysses. I wound up losing the rest of the list, but I know that Sartre and Beckett were also on there. Definitely tested my resolve.

Anyway, I’d never read Tolstoy, but I had some experience with the Russians and I had some idea of what I was getting into here. Lots of suffering and cold and philosophizing mixed in with some plot. I wasn’t wrong. That’s pretty much what War and Peace is. There’s some war, then there’s some peace, then there’s more war, people die, there are some Freemasons and some rich people then there’s some tragedy, and everything ends eventually.

I had a bit of trouble getting into War and Peace for the first 100 or so pages. It’s the story of a couple different Russian families and their experiences during the Napoleanic Wars. I had trouble keeping the characters separate and figuring out who went with which family and how they were all connected. The edition I was reading didn’t have one of those handy “Here are all the characters” things in the front. I tried to make notes to sort it all out, but it was too confusing. I just went with it and by the time I was 300 pages in, I had it mostly worked out.

For all the impenetrability of the Russian names and Tolstoy’s insistence on bursting out of the narrative at particularly symbolic points to be like, “Hey, see what I did there? Did you get that? Did you? This is what I meant. See? Get it?” I really liked War and Peace. Probably because it dealt a lot with the questions of how history is recorded and interpreted. I go nuts for that kind of stuff.

A big focus of the novel was how lots of smaller events and individuals eventually lead up to the huge events we see as “history,” but historians hardly ever study the causes of history, mostly just the effects. Given that I want to be a historian, it was really interesting to think about.

I’ll end with one “practical” bit of advice for anyone who wants to read Tolstoy (or probably any other books written in this time period): If you have to read something like War and Peace (and I noticed that Hugo did it in Les Miserables too), but you got too busy with other things besides reading a 1000-page confusing Russian novel and you really need to understand the point of it well enough to discuss it in class, just read the epilogue.

Tolstoy spent probably the last 100-150 pages of War and Peace being like, “Hey. Hey this is what the books is about. Hey. This is the point of the book. This is the moral. Didja get it? Didja? Didja? Hey. See what I did there. Hey. This is what this means. Reader, reader, reader, reader…hey…hey…this is my point.” He rehashes pretty much every major take-home point of the book in that epilogue, in case you weren’t paying attention for the last 900 pages or so. That was actually my only real beef with the book, in the end. I found myself wanting to scream GET ON WITH IT at Tolstoy because I read the book. I got it. But I guess he just wanted to make really sure.

So there’s my helpful “study” tip for anyone out there who may be desperately trying to get caught up on reading for English class. Just skim the epilogue. It won’t help with the plot, but you’ll get ALL the interpretation.

Rating: ****
Up Next: The Time Machine

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