Russian Literature’s Surprisingly Positive Life Lessons

Book review: The Anna Karenina Fix, by Viv Groskop
Book Depository

The Russian classics are, admittedly, not the most obvious place to look for tips for a happier life. Russian literature is full of gloomy people wondering how on earth they have ended up in the appalling predicament in which they find themselves, looking around desperately for someone else to blame and then realizing that, in fact, they were right in the first place: life really is extremely inconvenient and annoying, and we are all just waiting to die. But they also teach us that it can, crucially, be survived. And it can be enjoyed, beautifully.

The best blurb for Viv Groskop’s The Anna Karenina Fix is author Gary Shteyngart’s. This single-handedly motivated me to read it: “Learn how to hack life 19th-century Russian style! You’ll totally be like Anna Karenina without getting (spoiler alert) run over by a train!”

This kind of gallows humor perfectly matches the tone Groskop takes in this hybrid memoir about time spent in Russia alongside entertaining and humorous analysis of popular and canonical works of Russian literature. All of this is refracted through what Groskop has learned of life and behavior from her own experiences, and boosted by what we can learn from the very desperate people depicted in stories reflecting Russia’s often-bleak circumstances. Lest it sound like a mess of a mish-mash, let me assure you it works perfectly.

I worried it might be self-helpy, but it doesn’t read that way. The life lessons don’t try for a depth that feels disingenuous, and aren’t earth-shattering in their revelations. Rather, they’re tongue-in-cheek even when quite serious and somehow always uplifting. They’re witty, happy, even joyful despite the notoriously gloomy themes of Russian literature. For example, she pulls this from analyzing Bulgakov: “On a deeper level, he is asking whether we are okay with standing up for what we believe in, even if the consequences are terrifying. And he is challenging us to live a life where we can look ourselves in the eye and be happy with who we are. There is always a light in the dark.” 

Or an argument for empathy and compassion courtesy of Chekhov, someone whose utter charm I wasn’t aware of. As Groskop summarizes, “Ultimately, if you are going to stay sane, you need to be more like Chekhov.” 

She describes the overall effect of this analysis best with the surprisingly fitting (but undeniably hilarious) combination of Oprah and Tolstoy that the book aims for: “This book … aims to channel the Oprah side of Tolstoy. It’s what he would have wanted. Please, no overeating while reading it. Neither Oprah or Tolstoy would like it.”

Tolstoy was a cranky old thing who espoused the opposite of widely popular self-help principles:

A lot of quotes directly contradict the messages of today’s self-help movement, which encourages us to devote ourselves passionately to the art of learning to love ourselves, or, at the very least, to move away from self-hate. In A Calendar of Wisdom, it’s the other way round. Pride and a love of the self are wrong; and if we are going to hate anyone, we should hate ourselves. (It literally says this. This sentiment is very typical of Tolstoy, who disliked doing anything pleasant, easy or fun.)

Groskop intersperses her exploration of Russian 18th and 19th century literary classics with anecdotes of studying, living and working in St. Petersburg and Odessa. These memoir aspects aren’t necessarily the focal point, but she has such a wonderful, light and funny way of storytelling that they blend well with the literary connections she makes.

Her explanation for what drew her to Russia and all things Russian feels flimsy, and that’s my only complaint. Yes, I’m judgmental for saying I dislike someone’s personal reasoning. But I mention it because it gets so much page space that I got tired of reading it because I didn’t really buy it. The gist is that no one in her family knew the origin of their surname, she guessed it might be Russian and glommed onto studying Russian in the hopes of finding heritage and a deeper identity there.

Groskop goes through an identity crisis of sorts when she realizes they don’t have Russian roots, and it never convinced me. She herself refers to it as an “enthusiastic but pointless quest for an identity”. Now, maybe it’s all true and as I said, I’m being unnecessarily judgmental. As someone who’s also obsessed with Russia and all things Russian, I understand that it’s an interest that draws questions and curiosity that you repeatedly defend. But her explanations felt superfluous. Maybe that’s my personal perspective intruding, and this wouldn’t bother someone else at all. I mention it because it was the sole drawback for me.

Apart from that, the book is delightful. It’s a little course in Russian literature that’s lighthearted but still smart if you’ve read and know these books and authors well, and hilarious and brief enough if, like me, you’re not at all interested in reading the majority of them. I loved that so much of the material focused on the authors, their eccentric personalities and the times they lived in.

I particularly loved the chapters exploring works by two of my favorites: Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita and Anna Akhmatova’s “Requiem” poem (she being “the voice of a time when no one wanted to speak”). Readers with favorites among the authors and titles here are sure to feel similarly delighted with Groskop’s treatment of their works and philosophies. She tells insightful, amusing stories, tying it all into the culture and their Russia, and of course, what we can glean from their lives and lessons today.

Even for nonfiction readers, this will expand your reading list – I can’t wait to read Manuscripts Don’t Burn with Bulgakov’s letters, which Groskop quotes heavily. She connects literature to so much in life and history, it’s just delightful all around and made me want to read more of what’s inspired her.

Read them in bed, read them on the bus, read them in the place that Vladimir Putin would call “the outhouse”. (He once gave a memorable speech in which he assured his people that Russia’s enemies were not safe anywhere, even in the outhouse. Please find yourself the safest possible outhouse, which Putin cannot know about, and treat yourself to a few pages of Three Sisters.)

While this is a book mostly about fictional worlds, it’s more precisely about classics of their time and what they have to teach us about life for all time.

Pleasantly joyful and light despite the infamous gloom of Russian literature, a treasure trove of lively, accessible literary analysis paired with sweet and simple life lessons, well told personal stories, and a sense of humor that could even warm up a bleak Russian winter. 4.5/5

The Anna Karenina Fix:
Life Lessons from Russian Literature
by Viv Groskop

published October 23, 2018 by Abrams Press,
originally published October 2017 in the UK

I received an advance copy from the publisher for unbiased review.
Amazon
Book Depository

 

12 thoughts on “Russian Literature’s Surprisingly Positive Life Lessons

    1. Exactly! This captures that so perfectly and how oddly applicable much of it can be, even beyond the drastic situations that make up the settings in Russian lit. I loved that she had the idea to write this!

      Like

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