Все счастливые семьи похожи друг на другу, каждая несчастливая семья несчастлива по-своему.
[All happy families are alike, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.]
I think Tolstoy’s famous phrase could certainly apply to literature as well. All happy literature may contain conflict, but everything gets resolved by the end, oftentimes unrealistically. But every unhappy piece of literature has its own way of being unhappy.
Until this weekend, I was under the impression that there was no happy Russian literature. I always chalked it up to that elusive Russian soul. Pretty much all the Russian literature I’ve read has been quite depressing. The Master and Margarita is, at heart, a very melancholy piece of work, despite its dark humor throughout. (I won’t spoil the ending because you absolutely must read it for yourself, but if you want to discuss it in the comments, feel free.) Doctor Zhivago is likewise depressing, as is Anna Karenina. Crime and Punishment is a bit harder to characterize since there is redemption – or at least the promise of redemption – at the end, but there is a sufficient amount people dying and suffering to render it depressing. In the novel I’m reading now, A Hero of our Time, two people have already died and I’m not even halfway through.
The novel that changed this for me was Pushkin’s The Captain’s Daughter. I just finished it this weekend. And yes, I know there is a civil war (the Pugachev uprising under Catherine the Great) that takes place throughout most of the novel, but everything just works out so well for the protagonist in the end. Really, what was Pushkin thinking? It is quite shocking and it’s not like Pushkin was incapable of writing something completely depressing. (Have you read his poem The Bronze Horseman?)