I finished Chekhov’s The Duel and Other Stories last week and while I enjoyed it, I also remembered why I get so lost when reading 19th century Russian literature. It isn’t because I can’t relate to the period or the locations, not that I can really, just saying that they are written well enough that I can picture them. It is because of the freaking names of the characters!
Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, Ivan Turgenev, et al, they confuse me by constantly calling their characters by different names at different times in the stories. Oh, and if that isn’t enough, half of them all have similar first or middle names! Andre, Alexi, and Ivan, or some version there of, are the Russian versions of John, Matthew, or Michael. There are also tons of –evich, -ovich, -ovna, or –evnas around. This befuddlement led me to not only make a cheat sheet of the characters every time I read them, it led me to some research.
I knew why the names Alex, Andre and Ivan were popular. I mean they were well known rulers of Russia at one time or another. I am sure that Abraham was a popular name in the United States in the 1860’s and 70’s. That makes sense, but what about all those viches & venas? I am sure that I learned this in school, but that is a long ways back and there is only so much room in my swiss cheese brain….
Russians use patronymic names. Isn’t that a cool word to say? Say it out loud, Patronymic. Anywho, that means that children are named after their father. If the child is a boy, the middle name will end in either -evich, or -ovich. If the child is a girl, the ending will be -ovna, or -evna. So instead on being John Smith Jr, a son would be Johnevich, “son of John”. My dad’s name is John, so I would have been Johnovna. He has always gone by Jack though, so I would have been Jackovna. Say that out loud, but DO NOT LAUGH. Really glad that I am not Russian at this point.
Have I made you learn too much and said too little about Russian Literature of the 19th Century? Probably so, but I bet that you will be better prepared when you do pick it up. I am partial to Dostoyevsky and his Crime and Punishment, but the short stories of Chekhov would be a great introduction.
If you use a Kindle or the Kindle app on your iPhone/iTouch, Amazon has The Duel and Other Stories for FREE!