WARNING! The following post contains minor spoilers about the following books:

  • Mikhail Bulgakov - A Country Doctor's Notebook
  • Bonnie Jo Campbell - American Salvage
  • D. W. Wilson - Once your Break a Knuckle
  • Jhumpa Lahiri - Interpreter of Maladies
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky - The Brothers Karamazov
  • Fyodor Dostoevsky - The Idiot
  • James Joyce - A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
  • Willa Cather - Death Comes for the Archbishop

I just finished reading A Country Doctor's Notebook by Mikhail Bulgakov. I think what I liked about the short stories was that each wrapped up nicely with a wholesome, "And all was well ever after" feeling. Modern short stories I've read—American Salvage, Once You Break a Knuckle, Interpreter of Maladies—almost seem to compete at being the most cynical or disheartening. Bulgokov reminded me that not all literature had to be this way.

But this isn't the first time I've felt this way about some Russian work. For example, Dostoevsky's anecdote in The Brothers Karamazov about Elder Zosima's youth as a soldier. And also, how the children came to love Ilyusha. And in the anecdotes in The Idiot about the innocent Prince Lev. Am I just cherry-picking examples based on my experience, or, is there a cultural tendency for Russian literature to give off a positive vibes.

I'm trying to think of where I've experienced this "niceness" outside of Russian literature:

  • The way the children lifted Stephen and cheered, "Hur-oo! Hur-oo!" in James Joyce's A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
  • The way Father Latour found safety again and again in a setting of desolation and hardship in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop.

But that's only 2 of about 30 non-Russian works I've read, versus 5 of 15 Russian works.

  • 2
    I think you may be asking the wrong question. My impression is that 19th century English literature is quite often nice (for example, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens). But you're comparing Russian literature to 20th-century English literature. The question should be: what happened to serious English literary fiction in the 20th century?
    – Peter Shor
    Dec 3, 2017 at 14:58
  • @PeterShor - Fair enough! I thought I had a fair sampling of non-Russian literature from the 30-odd I'd read of Modern Library's Top 100 and what I read in secondary school. But your question might be more apt. I really don't know. Dec 3, 2017 at 21:49
  • 2
    Note also that for much of Russian literature, we rely on Soviet or even pre-Soviet writers or editions, which were censored before allowed to be published. Censorship in Russia has a history long before bolsheviks - Tzarist Russia was quite heavy on it, too.
    – Gnudiff
    Dec 6, 2017 at 6:11


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