When I had four small children, I swore off the Russians. I think I was reading Dostoevsky at the time, and I found myself getting more and more depressed. Now, the fact that I was getting almost no sleep at night probably accounted for some of it, but the fact remains that as the story devolved my mood devolved with it.
Instead of crying because a child (who we swore would not be allowed to drink out of anything but a sippy cup until she reached the age of thirty-two) spilled her milk for the hundredth time, I was crying because some vodka swilling Russian was most likely going to commit suicide.
So I swore off the Russians, even though a lot of depressing books are amazing opportunities to plumb the depths of the human condition. Finally, a year or so ago, I taught One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch by Solzhenitsyn. It went well; I didn’t see the world in shades of muddy gray. So I began making a To-Be-Read list of the Russians. Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and Crime and Punishment were at the top of the list. I was to start this summer.
In the meantime, I picked up another novel called The Swan Thieves (written by an American, not a Russian). And while the writing is utterly lyrical, the novel is about an artist’s descent into madness. Right now (I’m about a quarter of the way through the novel), the main character Robert is not only covering the rafters of his attic in lurid obsessional painting, he’s also ruining the life of his wife and daughter. And I’m getting cranky—how dare the artist throw away his gift and his family like so much trash?
The bad news is that my husband is also an artist, and, though it’s unlikely that he will begin painting ropey veined hands on the ceiling, I find myself scowling at him.
Of course, all this moodiness is highly unfair to my family. So, I’ve come up with a plan—a literary antibiotic to the bacterial disease of depressing novels. I can read the Russians or any other dismal novel as long as I end my reading period with a couple of PG Wodehouse quotes.
Here’s the treatment plan.
I read twenty minutes of a gloomy novel (usually done while cooking dinner, though this does account for the occasional odd mix of spices), then I read some quotes from a PG Wodehouse novel, for example, The Code of the Woosters.
(Bertie): “There are moments, Jeeves, when one asks oneself, 'Do trousers matter?'"
(Jeeves) "The mood will pass, sir.”
“I could see that, if not actually disgruntled, he was far from being gruntled.”
Yes, that will surely cure my literature-induced moody blues. Interestingly, I’m fairly certain that Wodehouse may have had the same reaction to the Russians that I have. If not, how could he have written the following…
“Freddie experienced the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Tolstoy's Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day's work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city's reservoir, he turns to the cupboards, only to find the vodka bottle empty.”