My sophomore year in college, I took a class on the Russian novel. I remember our good-looking young professor striding across campus in a long black coat, heads turning in his wake. It was said he looked like Lenin. His eyes burned like coals, his cheekbones were good, his pointed beard was roguish. Despite his fierce aspect, he was a kindly man, and under his tutelage, we read many novels in translation, among them Oblomov, Dead Souls, The Brothers Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, And Quiet Flows the Don—but no Tolstoy, for some reason.
I assigned myself, from a list of optional titles on the syllabus, a book called What Is to Be Done? Its author, Nikolay Chernyshevsky, had written it in the 1860s while incarcerated in a tsarist prison. Despite the courage of this accomplishment, the book was searingly boring: clumsy, tendentious, high-toned, hectoring. It was so much less readable than anything else we’d been given that I felt at sea with it. What was the professor after, offering us this 500-page wad of chaff? Was he making fun? Being ironical?
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