Best Viking yet/Superbly edited Russian anthology

The Portable Twentieth-Century Russian Reader, edited, with an introduction and notes, by Clarence Brown. Various translators. New York: Viking/Penguin. 599 pp. Cloth $18.95. Paper $7.95. This superb anthology contains more than 40 prose and verse selections from 26 modern Russian writers. It ranges from such early classics as Chekhov's ``The Bishop'' (which seems to be an impressionistic autobiographical tale) and Ivan Bunin's exquisite story ``Light Breathing''; to the celebrated revolutionary poets Alexander Blok, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and Osip Mandelstam; to later fiction writers like Evgeni Zamyatin, Andrei Platonov, and Isaac Babel; and to such modern and contemporary ma sters as Vladimir Nabokov (the Russian Nabokov -- before ``Lolita''), Andrei Sinyavsky (alias ``Abram Tertz''), and Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The collection ranges in style from the lucid simplicity of Tolstoy's ``Alyosha the Pot,'' an unforgettable portrayal of a saintly simpleton, to the Joycean involution and irony of Sasha Sokolov's unconventional protest novel ``A School for Fools.'' It also includes such relative unknowns as Nadezhda Teffi, ``the chronicler of Russian Paris,'' whose comic stories about emigr'es in Europe were once highly popular, and Velimir Khlebnikov, whose rough, powerful story ``Nikolai'' earns him a pl ace among the strongest of the realists.

What the volume most surely reveals is a stubborn tradition of dissent. This tradition is evident as early as Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandelstam and their contemporaries and comrades in the first decades of this century, and powerfully present in recent writings like Varlam Shalamov's ``Kolyma Tales'' (the definitive fictional indictment of the Stalinist death camps), Vladimir Voinovich's savage comedy ``A Circle of Friends'' (the ``friends'' are Stalin's trusted aides), and Georgi Vladimov's ``Faithful Ruslan,'' whose title figure (and narrator) is a guard dog in a Soviet prison camp.

Editor Clarence Brown has chosen lively and idiomatic translations by various hands. Several are his own, including a newly prepared one of Yuri Olesha's 1927 novel ``Envy,'' a satirical tale of the looming Soviet future in which men will be replaced by perfectly functioning ``machines.'' (This version vividly suggests the original's noted hilarity, bawdry, and uniquely eccentric characterizations.)

Brown's own introductory notes are filled with incisive and perfectly phrased commentary and focus clearly on his chosen writers' central qualities and preoccupations. He explains, memorably, how all Russian writing is, necessarily, ``political.'' Brown notes Maxim Gorky's ``observation'' of and ``sustained sympathy toward men and women of all kinds,'' Blok's ``ambivalent relationship with his native land'' (as expressed in his amatory poems), and ``the preternatural shrewdness with which Nabokov manage d his career.''

He can be surpassingly eloquent, as here, on Pasternak's poetic volume ``My Sister, Life'': ``The `life' to which he [Pasternak] was a brother was a democratic continuum in which the humble articles furnishing a room stood on an equal footing with nature's grand occasions and with the human consciousness uniting them.''

I'd quarrel with some of the proportions (there isn't enough of Akhmatova's grave and beautiful verse) and inclusions (Danil Kharms's ``Anecdotes About Pushkin's Life'' so eerily resembles Donald Barthelme that it's difficult not to suspect a hoax; besides, it's flat and unfunny). And, there are important omissions: the fiction writers Mikhail Bulgakov and Boris Pilnyak; the poets Vladimir Mayakovsky, Andrei Vosnesensky, and Joseph Brodsky -- and perhaps others.

But these are minor objections. This is one of the richest and most enjoyable anthologies of recent years, and it is one of the best Viking Portables ever put together.

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