Today’s theme for the Buccaneer Blogfest is favorite writers. I was so born out of my time, since none of my favorite writers are modern. Even my favoritest writer, who passed away coming up on 4 years ago, was older than any of my grandparents. It’s not that I don’t read modern books, just that I’ve always preferred books and writers from previous eras and generations. I think it’s a combination of the old-fashioned writing styles you don’t see much of anymore, coupled with my love of history.
My favoritest writer, and also one of my heroes, is Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn (11 December 1918-3 August 2008), may his beautiful memory forever be for a blessing. I first heard about him sometime in the fall of ’95, and started reading my first book by him, the somewhat censored The First Circle, on 29 December 1995, 11 days after my 16th birthday. The library didn’t have One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, so I opted for the book that was available. I totally ate that book up, and seriously need to get my hands on the full-length version that was FINALLY published a few years ago.
Following TFC, I devoured Cancer Ward, Volume I of The GULAG Archipelago, Stories and Prose Poems, The Oak and the Calf, Ivan Denisovich, Invisible Allies, The Love-Girl and the Innocent, Lenin in Zürich, August 1914, November 1916, Prussian Nights, Volume II of Archipelago, Candle in the Wind, Prisoners, Victory Tanks and Celebrations, his non-fiction essays and writings, you name it. We’re long overdue for the English translations of the final two books in his Red Wheel saga, March 1917 and April 1917!
The influence Aleksandr Isayevich has had on me, as both a person and a writer, cannot be overestimated. He reawakened my Russophilia, inspired me to study Russian and Eastern European Studies at university, was a big influence on my themes and writing style when I went back to my Russian novel in November ’96, you name it. I’m in awe of how he kept so many full novels, plays, stories, and long poems memorized in his head for years before he was at liberty to write them down, and how he was prepared to lay down his life for the sake of his writing. And even though many people tried to dismiss him as some washed-up has-been in his later years, he never stopped writing or speaking. Being past your heyday≠irrelevance!
Second-favorite is Hermann Hesse (2 July 1877-9 August 1962). I discovered him during the summer of ’94, when I was 14, and found Demian in one of the boxes of old books my parents kept in my closet. That book was so good, so soul-awakening, I often stayed up past bedtime to read it in bed in the dark. Since then, I’ve read all of his novels, and some of his works of shorter prose.
It’s kind of odd, since I normally love a novel with meat on its bones, that I can climb into and live in for a few weeks, but Hesse generally wrote very short novels, a number of them practically novella-length. It just goes to show that a good writer knows how to write a book at the length that works for it, instead of trying to plan a story around a set amount of words. His longest novel, The Glass Bead Game, was actually his only book I found boring and a chore to read instead of a joy and a delight.
My favorite Hesse novels are Demian, Steppenwolf, Rosshalde, Narcissus and Goldmund, and Beneath the Wheel. Steppenwolf is the book that’s had the most impact and influence on my life, and N&G and Demian have also influenced my life in profound ways. Hesse had such a deep, amazing soul. It’s a pity some people associate him with the hippie movement or talk about their “Hesse phase,” when he wrote all those books well before the hippie movement. Just because some people only discovered him because his novels fit with their ideology, then abandoned him when they lost interest, doesn’t mean he was a fad writer!
Third-favorite is Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (29 January 1860-15 July 1904). I read my first story from him, “The Ninny,” sometime in ’92, maybe early ’93, in my 7th grade English class (taught at the 8th grade honors level). I didn’t read him again till January ’96, when my Russophilia was being awakened in a major way. I devoured several collections of his stories my parents had, and in the fall of ’99, I think, I read the rest of their Chekhov story collections. I’ve also read some of his stories through the library, including one collection of his early, undiscovered writings. To date, I haven’t read any of his plays.
His stories tend to have melancholic, depressing endings and themes, but he wouldn’t really have been the writer he was if he’d written happy endings and cheerful subject matter. In fact, that’s the reason why many people don’t like his novella The Duel, since it has a happy ending. I personally loved that story and found it hilarious (I particularly liked the Deacon), but I agree with critics who say the resolution seems kind of strange and unnatural.
Fourth-favorite is Ivan Sergeyevich Turgenev (9 November 1818-3 September 1883). I discovered him around the same time I discovered Chekhov, and similarly devoured his short stories. I’ve since read most (don’t remember if I read all) of his novels. Like Hesse, Turgenev also wrote very short novels, but they work at that length. I really wish we could move back to that older writing model, where we weren’t so obsessed with counting words and trying to fit stories into a certain number of words. Some stories work beautifully at only 200 pages or so, while others blossom at 1,000 pages or more.
Also like Chekhov, Turgenev wrote stories that were rather depressing and melancholic, but it fit with who he was. He had such a deep, beautiful, poetic soul, and it really shows in his prose. Though he was from a generation and class that often seemed more French than Russian, all his stories have a very Russian feel to them. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that his most-famous novel is really titled Fathers and Children, not Fathers and Sons!
Honorable mentions: Bertolt Brecht and Mark Twain. I love Twain’s distinctive narrators, how he captured a specific era and region, and I love how Brecht bravely stood against the Nazis, wrote about the pain of exile, and incorporated his Socialist beliefs into his plays, poems, and stories. I discovered Brecht in the spring of ’95, and I started reading Twain sometime in the 5th grade, during the 1990-91 year.