Published:  12:19 AM, 07 June 2018

Happiness is a salty potato and other life lessons from Russian literature


Viv Groskop

Don't trust a woman who wears too much perfume and know your limits - Viv Groskop on the 10 top tips Chekhov, Tolstoy and others have for us today

Happiness is a salty potato War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

This is the five-page kernel of what Henry James called "the large, loose, baggy monster" (read from page 1,074 of the Penguin Classics edition).

The character of Platon Karatayev, the everyman muzhik (peasant), pops up fleetingly to proffer a potato sprinkled with salt to Pierre Bezukhov and deliver the most important message of Tolstoy's entire oeuvre: love your parents, have children of your own, bear your fate with acceptance and patience. And relish every mouthful of that salty potato.

Don't trust a woman who wears too much perfume Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy

The horrors of "vinaigre de toilette" crop up regularly in Anna Karenina. It's the fragrance of choice of the salon "ladies" patronized by Anna's champagne-swilling brother Stiva and a stench his best friend Levin - the stick-in-the-mud Tolstoy stand-in - simply can't bear. A cologne-style blend of herbs and spices, vinaigre de toilette represents artifice, pretence and delusion: everything Levin - and all of us - must fight against.

Never underestimate the importance of dressing properly Requiem by Anna Akhmatova

The great 20th-century poet is known as the high priestess of sorrow and angst, perfectly expressing the bitterness of the Gulag years with her hymn to those left behind waiting for news of their loved ones, Requiem.

But her work is filled with wry flashes of the painfully mundane: from her mention of the importance of a sleek black skirt in one early poem to her counsel against wearing tight shoes for prison visits.

You're not as smart as you would like to think you are Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky

Poor Raskolnikov. Wanting to prove himself invincible, he hits on the perfect scheme to snaffle some cash by murdering an old lady.

He bungles the job, kills an extra person by mistake and manages to leave most of the money behind. Rodion Romanovich, you are very silly indeed. But all is not lost. He can get some degree of comfort by becoming heavily religious. The lesson? Sometimes we do things so stupid that even God struggles to forgive us.

When things go wrong, put one foot in front of the other One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitysn

The limited perspective in this novel is intricately crafted and transmits a powerful message: when your horizons become rather literally limited (because you are in the Gulag), you see everything in close-up and suddenly life appears clearer.

Ivan Denisovich is focused on taking things one step at a time, one spoonful of porridge at a time. Time slows down and there is a keen sense of life being worth living even in the worst of circumstances.

Beware the burden of comparison Three Sisters by Anton Chekhov

As well as being a brilliant four-act advert for the Moscow Tourist Board ("To Moscow!"), Three Sisters is an elaborate caution against comparison.

It may often seem to us that the grass is greener elsewhere - and no place is more verdant than Moscow in this play - but in reality this impression only serves to blind us to the advantages of the grass we're already standing on. Russians love to say: "Life is better there where we are not." But Chekhov suggests that this is comically self-defeating. Find the good in your situation instead of envying that of others.

Avoid flirting with your best friend's girl Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin
The chief transgression of Eugene Onegin is usually regarded as his rejection of Tatyana. She gets her revenge, of course, when she rejects him in turn years later. (Come on, I am not going to apologize for a spoiler dating back to 1833.) But surely the worse crime is Onegin's behaviour towards his best friend, Lensky? He flirts with Lensky's girl, Lensky is forced to call him out in a duel and Onegin promptly shoots him dead. Pushkin's warning? Don't be as idiotic as this man.

Give in to destiny Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak

Destiny or fate (sud'ba in Russian) is a convenient excuse for all kinds of bad behaviour (especially adultery in this novel); and it is also an excellent way to move the plot along, particularly when your hero is banished 700 miles from Moscow and his mistress just happens to end up in exactly the same spot. This is a continuation of Tolstoy's favourite theme. Someone more important than you (God) has decided your fate, so don't fight it.

You've got to laugh or else you would cry The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

How to weather the horror of the Stalinist purges of the 1930s? Unleash your sense of humor. Imagine Satan has come to Moscow in the guise of a professorial German magician, accompanied by a giant talking cat. Throw in a decapitated literary editor, a writer's muse flying naked across the USSR, a wall-eyed assassin and a fiendishly allegorical rival plot involving Jesus and Pontius Pilate, and you'll cheer up no end. Bulgakov delivers a masterclass in using satire as a means of survival.

Know your limits A Month in the Country by Ivan Turgenev

In real life Turgenev knew few limits and was an ardent admirer of champagne (favorite brand: Louis Roederer, served with ice) and beautiful women. In this play, though, Rakitin, the character closest to Turgenev, learns when to cut his losses.

In love with his best friend's wife (this is turning into a theme), Rakitin realizes she doesn't return his interest and he is in danger of being upstaged by another, younger rival. He leaves before things get too humiliating. Knowing when to make an exit is surely one of life's most precious skills.


The writer is a broadcaster and stand-up comedian. She is author of The Anna Karenina Fix: Life Lessons from Russian Literature

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