“All happy families resemble one another;
Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
– Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy
One of the things that have kept me going through my fourth year of PhD is Russian literature. These past few months — since September last year, in fact — I have accummulated much debt to these legendary Russian authors of the 19th and 20th centuries, and have been moved by the truths of Tolstoy, the dark wisdom of Dostoevsky, and by the gay serenity of Goncharov.
This obsession began when my Muscovite friend could not stop talking about Dostoevsky one day and got me intrigued about Russian literature. It then occurred to me: I’d never actually picked up anything written by a Russian author before. I asked my friend for some advice on what would be a splendid introduction to this genre, and she recommended her all-time favorite: Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov. I too soon fell in love with the idyllic and picturesque country life of the Russian gentry, and was most of all enamored by the proactive figure of Stoltz, who was both ambitious and adventurous. This was the first of many other Russian classics I later fell in love with.
This fascination with a new literary genre, a new culture, a new people, and a whole different era of history altogether soon became a preoccupation short of obsession: I’d go through one book every three to four weeks, and was already ordering the next title before I’d reach the last fifth of the book I was currently reading. I soon found that having all these titles in the sleek Everyman’s Library Edition added significant aesthetic value to my bookshelf; indeed, this collection, pictured above, is often one of the first things people notice when they enter my room.
Russian literature also gave order of a different kind to my life that was more temporal in nature. I always dedicate the last hour of my evening before I drift off to sleep and the first hour of my day when I wake up to read about 20 to 40 pages of the book. On days when I was reading a particularly good part of a particularly absorbing book, this was perhaps even the highlight of my day. Sometimes the struggle in doing this is not to open the book and to start reading, but rather to put down the book and start my day, or get some sleep. When I was reading Crime and Punishment, I remember spending my days in the library in complete agony as I awaited with bated breath for my bedtime to see how Raskolnikov’s fate unfolded. The first time Tolstoy surprised us with Andrew Bolkonsky’s pseudo-death, I was amazed that I could even function properly in the library, given my utter devastation upon discovering the love of my life (at that time) had just had his life truncated (rather unjustly by his creator).
I have learned so much from reading Russian literature — not only about Russia and Russians, but also about patience. It was tempting to flip forward several pages whenever accounts of war intervened in the blossoming romance between the characters in War and Peace, but I endured them all. I also thought it was important to maintain other interests that have nothing to do with who I am today. I was having coffee with an acquaintance the other day who was not impressed that I was reading literature; in his mind, I should embrace my “own” culture and read Malay literature instead.
I do not feel guilty for reading Russian literature and not Malay literature. I am already spending hours in the library reading and writing about Malays, and therefore have absolutely no need to consume more Malay “culture” through embracing my own literary heritage. The whole point of this endeavor is to appreciate difference, rather than retreating into sameness. Besides, I cannot even begin to explain how much of a pleasure it is to start and end my day with something that has absolutely nothing to do with my PhD — the Lord knows that no matter how much I’m enjoying this writing-up process, I do need the occasional break from it. This, ladies and gentlemen, is why I read Russian literature.