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“…equally voracious, submissive, and improbable”

August 7, 2020

Muireann Maguire recently reviewed Lisa Hayden’s translation of Eugene Vodolazkin’s Solovyov and Larionov (Соловьев и Ларионов, 2009). In it a post-Soviet graduate student (Solovyov) researches a fictional White Army general (Larionov):

Solovyov visits Yalta, where the general spent his final decades as a tenant in a communal apartment, to make contact with the woman to whom the old man dictated his memoirs. Instead, Solovyov meets—and is rapidly seduced by—her daughter Zoya. Here and elsewhere, Vodolazkin struggles to write convincingly about female sexuality. Leeza, Solovyov’s first love, is a study in Portnoy-ish passivity, constantly available and readily forgotten. The Crimean seductress Zoya is equally voracious, submissive, and improbable. Take their first encounter: “He went over to Zoya’s bed and pressed his legs into her. […] A moment later he was lying next to her. […] As if out of nowhere, she took a condom and placed it in Solovyov’s hot hand.” Compare Ustina, the hero’s perfect helpmeet, in Vodolazkin’s second novel, Laurus; or Anastasia in his third, The Aviator, whose romantic interchangeability with her granddaughter Nastya (both are, at different times, engaged to the narrator) is ludicrous. Vodolazkin captures minor female characters brilliantly (like Solovyov and Larionov’s glorious Professor Dupont), but as soon as a woman becomes a love interest, she loses all subjectivity. This is a rare weakness in the author’s otherwise carefully crafted style.

I haven’t read Vodolazkin yet, but Maguire’s examples are persuasive. I’ve been wondering lately why we as readers have such strong reactions to how authors write about sexuality. In a way the topic is like all others: artifice is required to make a literary simulation of something seem like the real thing. But since sexuality is typically private and clearly different from person to person, you’d think we’d be forgiving, even credulous, when reading about it, leaving open the possibility that the author is accurately describing something we’ve never encountered. The opposite is true: we’re strict on this point. Many ways of writing sexuality don’t feel right, and they quickly start to seem ridiculous.

Our instinct that an author does this well can also be strong. Anna Kozlova’s F20 (F20, 2017) felt like the most convincing portrayal of female sexuality I’d ever read—but why do I have an opinion? I also thought male sexuality in Roman Senchin’s Nubuck (Нубук, 2003) and Moscow Shadows (Московские тени, 2008) seemed realistic, even though what many of his male characters feel—a minor temptation for adulterous or otherwise illicit sex with female strangers, in service of a major temptation to wreck one’s own life—is as far from my experience as Kozlova’s teenage girl protagonist.

I suspect readers often agree about which portrayals of sexuality seem plausible (just as they agree about which written simulations of oral speech sound authentic), but not always. To move to a nineteenth-century example, I once thought Fet’s poems written from a female persona would seem implausible to a female reader, but I’ve since heard women say that “Sister” (Сестра, 1857) rang true to them.

Maguire’s full review is mostly about other things and makes the book seem well worth reading!

Kinship terms in one picture

July 28, 2020

Via Ilya Klishin (@vorewig) on Twitter:

I’ve seen versions of this, but this one is as compact and intuitive as any I’ve seen. Note that two words are given common but prescriptively incorrect spellings: husband’s father should be свёкор (not свёкр), and one’s wife’s sister is properly one’s свояченица (not своячница).

This isn’t a complete picture. Your wife’s sister’s husband is your свояк, for instance, and your husband’s sister’s husband is your зять, the same term used for your daughter’s husband or your sister’s husband. Also notice the asymmetry of зять and невестка. Невестка works for your brother’s wife and, if you’re a woman, for your son’s wife, but if you’re a man, your son’s wife is your сноха; on the other side зять covers all the analogous relationships. The situation has become even less parallel as сноха has expanded to encroach on невестка: now сноха can be used to mean a woman’s son’s wife as well as a man’s son’s wife. Ushakov’s dictionary says this is absolutely not allowed (with an exclamation point that proves people were using it that way anyway), and Ozhegov’s more recent dictionary matter-of-factly says it is.

The tweet accompanying this chart says “the human brain is not capable of mastering this information,” which matches my impression that native speakers of Russian recognize all these words as kinship terms and use the ones that mean mother- or father-in-law all the time, but parts of the chart get a bit hazy for them too.

Crazy Money

July 27, 2020

The Maly Theater has been posting videos of entire plays to YouTube since at least 2014 (collected on this playlist), and about a month ago they published a 1978 televised version of Ostrovskii’s Crazy Money (Бешеные деньги, 1870):

The story is one of those late 1860s/1870s reactions to capitalist culture emerging after the end of serfdom. Lidiia and her mother are heavily in debt but refuse to give up their stylish Moscow lifestyle. The daughter is surrounded by suitors: several aristocrats whose main talent is putting on a show of not being penniless, and one up-and-coming “practical man” from the provinces, who is un-aristocratic even in his first name. Ostrovskii describes him like this: “Savva Gennadich Vasil’kov, provincial, about 35. He doesn’t fully reduce his unstressed Os and uses expressions belonging to residents of the middle Volga: ‘kogda zhe net’ instead of ‘da’ for ‘yes,’ ‘ni Bozhe moi’ in place of a negation, ‘shaber’ instead of ‘sosed’ for ‘neighbor.’ His provincial origins are noticeable in his clothes.” Lidiia holds her nose and marries the non-aristocrat, only to discover he wasn’t offering her the carefree life of luxury she was expecting. This, oddly, made the first two-thirds of the play remind me of the first two-thirds of the perestroika movie Intergirl (Интердевочка, 1989), where a woman also marries an older man from another social sphere, expecting riches, and is disappointed. In Ostrovskii, however, the mother helps the daughter as she (with shocking forthrightness) tries to exchange her youth and beauty for the best offer of economic security. Vasil’kov has some lines at the beginning that make his “love” for Lidiia seem like a reciprocally shocking attempt to buy a wife who is striking enough to be useful in his business meetings.

The acting let the script speak for itself. Nikita Podgornyi’s (1931–1982) Teliatev was my favorite—he came across as good-naturedly cynical and clear-sightedly tipsy. At first I thought the actress playing Lidiia could have played her in a more faux-naive way, instead of making her seem worldly and composed as if she were as old as her husband and suitors—Ostrovskii’s list of characters says she is exactly 24, while the men range from about 35 to about 60—but then I saw that Elina Bystritskaia (1928–2019) must have been 50, only 8 years younger than the actress playing her mother, Irina Likso (1920–2009), and it’s remarkable she made Lidiia seem as young as she did. I could imagine a different director taking a more exaggeratedly mocking attitude toward all the characters.

Crazy Money is the title used by the late Stephen Mulrine (1937–2020) in his translation of the play; besides Ostrovskii, he translated Pushkin and Chekhov and Venedikt Erofeev. I’ve also seen the title as Money to Burn, which is fine for the title in isolation, but “crazy” works better when Teliatev explains his philosophy of money in act 5, scene 3:

Telyatev. It certainly is [a pity]. Even the money’s smarter these days—it all goes to these business chaps, and not to the likes of us. Money was a bit dumber in the old days. And that’s just the sort of money you need.

Lidiya. What sort?

Telyatev. Crazy money. That’s the only sort I ever had, you can’t keep it in your pocket. Easy come, easy go. You know, it’s just dawned on me why our money was like that—it’s because we didn’t have to earn it ourselves. Now, money you get by your own labour, that’s smart money. That stays where it’s put. We try and attract it, but it won’t come. It says, “No, I know the kind of money you want, and I’m not coming near you.” And you can beg all you like, it won’t come. Which is a bit offensive, really, that it doesn’t want anything to do with us. (250)

Телятев. Еще как жаль-то! Теперь и деньги-то умней стали, все к деловым людям идут, а не к нам. А прежде деньги глупей были. Вот именно такие деньги вам и нужны.

Лидия. Какие?

Телятев. Бешеные. Вот и мне доставались все бешеные, никак их в кармане не удержишь. Знаете ли, я недавно догадался, отчего у нас с вами бешеные деньги? Оттого, что не мы сами их наживали. Деньги, нажитые трудом, — деньги умные. Они лежат смирно. Мы их маним к себе, а они нейдут; говорят: “Мы знаем, какие вам деньги нужны, мы к вам не пойдем”. И уж как их ни проси, не пойдут. Что обидно-то, знакомства с нами не хотят иметь. [This is Ostrovskii’s text, which Podgornyi delivers with superficial changes in the video, 2:07:48–2:08:34]

Based on this passage, I like Mulrine’s translation a lot—I translated these lines myself before I realized I had access to his version, and in that half-page he made a dozen choices that were better than mine and found a perfect voice for Teliatev.

Next I’m curious about the theater’s 2009 recording of Aleksei Tolstoi’s Tsar Ivan the Terrible (Царь Иван Грозный, originally called Смерть Иоанна Грозного, 1866).

Winged and wingless realists

July 24, 2020

Which of Pisemskii’s works would you expect to see translated into English first?

There are a few that made a good impression on contemporary audiences and critics and later scholars, mainly A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858) and A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859).

There are the early “peasant” stories that gave Pisemskii “the false reputation of being primarily a chronicler of peasant life” (54). and you might see a translation of a popular one like “The Carpenters’ Guild” (Плотничья артель, 1855).

There are his later plays, of which Mogilianskii singles out Former Falcons (Бывые соколы, written 1865, published in part 1868, in full 1886), Fledglings of the Last Flight (Птенцы последнего слета, written 1865, published 1886), and Baal (Ваал, 1873).

I personally would prioritize translating his later long novels like Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), which was something of a succès de scandale, and In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871), a favorite among contemporary readers.

And mostly this is indeed what you see, though the translation of the peasant stories has been scattered, A Bitter Fate and Baal are the only plays of his that exist in English, and A Thousand Souls the only one of the six long novels. But one of the main Pisemskii translators and scholars, Maya Jenkins, also translated “Nina“ (Нина, 1848) and “The Comic Actor” (Комик, 1851). Why those?

Jenkins doesn’t like the view that Pisemskii was “a ‘wingless’ realist who was skeptical of all idealistic aspirations and deliberately avoided any manifestation of life’s beauty and poetry” (12). Beauty and poetry meant “the perfect world of art” or “the beauty of nature” or “the realm of pure love,” which mattered to Pisemskii’s most sympathetic characters and gave them “an escape from life’s drab reality” (12). Jenkins sees evidence of this throughout Pisemskii’s career, with examples from Troubled Seas and The Masons, but she chose to translate “Nina,” “The Comic Actor,¨ and “An Old Man’s Sin” (Старческий грех, 1861) to prove her thesis and show English-speaking readers another side of Pisemskii, the side that wished he could write more like Turgenev (13).

“Nina” was Pisemskii’s first published story and was mangled by a journal editor so badly that the author turned his back on it forever, but Jenkins thinks it can tell us something about Pisemskii anyway (13). The narrator is in love with Nina and shares with Nina’s father a love for art as well. But, Jenkins says, Nina disappoints him:

“It is not for this world that you were destined!” thinks the young man of Nina. In characteristic romantic fashion he envisages trials and sorrows in her life, which he fears begin to take shape when the local “lion” Mazurin, with whom Nina becomes infatuated, tires of her company. But Nina does not die of grief. Instead, she marries a fat and rich suitor and becomes a nagging, gossiping young matron, fully satisfied with her worthless existence. On seeing her after an absence of several years, the narrator comes to the painful realization that this was the real Nina, and that her heavenly, “otherworldly” aura had been created entirely in his imagination. (14)

So far, so pessimistic, and the story has been read as anti-Romantic, a clear-headed bursting of idealistic bubbles. But for Jenkins the main thing is the narrator’s plea at the end, “May God grant me the ability to make mistakes like this all my life and imagine people to be better than they really are!” (Дай мне Бог так ошибаться весь век и видеть человека лучшим, нежели он в самом деле!) Jenkins sees this as “sympathy for a disillusioned romantic,” not “derision for a superficial one” (15).

Jenkins also argues there was a “kinship of talent” between Pisemskii and Gogol (17, 19), unlike Mogilianskii, who would later argue that Gogol’s comic influence was a false path Pisemskii had to learn not to take.


Funny Dostoevsky

July 20, 2020

Years ago I linked to a 1906 anthology of The World’s Wit and Humor where Dostoevskii was included in the Russian section, right between Gogol and Nekrasov. Lynn Patyk and Irina Erman are organizing a whole conference next May on that principle:

Has the global pandemic, economic recession, and creeping authoritarianism of 2020 got you down? If it has, then there’s one surefire cure: read Dostoevsky. Dostoevsky is chock-full of hilarity in all forms: satire, parody, good old-fashioned vaudeville, the carnivalesque (of course!), and micro humor. Sadly, literary criticism has focused overwhelmingly on “dark Dostoevsky” or “heavy Dostoevsky,” in the process saddling Dostoevsky with the partially undeserved reputation of being one of the deepest, darkest, and most depressing writers of European modernity. No doubt this is because the high seriousness of the academic enterprise, following the classical genre system, leads it to devalue the comedic and privilege more elevated styles and themes: the philosophical, the psychological, the metaphysical. Yet in Dostoevsky’s novels, many of these themes sound or are manifest in a slyly or raucously comic key, Ivan Karamazov’s devil being one outstanding example.

I’m going to guess that non-academic readers of Dostoevskii in English also make him out to be dark and depressing, since the act of translation and the passage of time are both enemies of the comic more than the tragic, but it sounds like a great conference to me. Here is the complete call for papers.

2010s vs. 2000s

July 17, 2020

Sometime in the late 2010s, I heard a liberal guest on Echo of Moscow demonstrate how much Russian politics had changed by reading pro-democracy rhetoric, which now sounded dated and radical, off a politician’s website from the 2000s, the punchline being that it was the site for one of Vladimir Putin’s campaigns. I had the same feeling when, after months of watching Russian detective shows from 2015–20, I went back and watched The Call (Вызов, 2004–09).

It’s usually easy to see tons of implicit social commentary in any contemporary, realistic, hour-long drama about crime, but the recent shows seem to focus on ethics as a matter of personal conduct. In an episode of Working Theory (Версия, 2018), the shortcomings of a racist teenage bully result from his father leaving his mother and starting a new family with another woman in the same apartment building. It’s true there’s also an episode where a traffic control officer kills his partner because the latter is too principled to take bribes, but it feels like an individual moral failing by the would-be bribe-taker. Gender roles are a popular topic. The conventions of the genre mean that half the crimes in Russia are solved by beautiful 27-year-old women, and these women tend to be committed to some difficult professional path (not always the police), of which their mothers or grandmothers disapprove, thinking they should prioritize getting married instead. I’m pretty sure I remember some version of this intergenerational argument in both Death in Focus (Смерть в объективе, 2020) and Lawful Duet (Дуэт по праву, 2018). Whether and when women should forgive their unfaithful husbands comes up in Lawful Duet and Working Theory.

Khromov (left) looks skeptically at Shapovalov (right) in the secret private prison

The Call felt different. It took itself less seriously, with occasional dialogue making fun of the genre. It had a pattern of X-Files–style fantastic plots (giant radioactive rats, teleportation, zombies), except they usually turned out to have a rational explanation. And it went in for social commentary that indicted the system rather than individuals, playing Dobroliubov (condemning systemic problems) to the 2015–20 serials’ young Saltykov-Shchedrin (exposing individual evildoers). Most strikingly, the solution to the giant rat story revolves around an ex-cop, Shapovalov, who is so disillusioned with the Russian justice system that he starts his own underground private prison and is paid to kidnap criminals who’ve escaped justice: he fakes their deaths and keeps them on suicide watch forever. Shapovalov explains his motives to the hero Khromov, a phlegmatic detective from Moscow:

After I buried my wife and daughter, I went from one courthouse to another for two years until I realized there’s no such thing as disinterested justice in our country! I worked for the police and had all the evidence of the murderer’s guilt, and I still couldn’t put him behind bars. Even a petition to the Supreme Court didn’t help! That’s when I lost faith in the fairness of our justice system and God’s providence once and for all, and there are a lot of people like me! Take Major Zakharov here—he has his own story, but it’s a lot like mine.

Когда я схоронил свою жену и дочь, я два года ходил по судам, пока не понял, что беспристрастного суда у нас и в помине не существует! Я, работник милиции, имея все доказательства вины убийцы на руках, не смог его засадить за решетку. Даже обращение в Верховный суд не помогло! Вот тогда я и потерял окончательно веру в справедливость нашего правосудия и Божьего провидения, и таких, как я, много! Вот майор Захаров, у него своя история, но очень похожая на мою. (33:47–34:24)

At this point we cut to Khromov’s colleagues, who are independently learning the story: Major Zakharov’s daughter was raped and died by suicide, and though the rapists were caught and tried, they were allowed to go free, because, as Zakharov himself explains,

Their parents turned out to be very influential people. And I was just a plain old defender of the fatherland.

Их родители оказались очень влиятельными людьми. А я всего лишь простым защитником отечества. (34:48–34:55)

Shapovalov explains that another of his assistants saw the other side of the Russian justice system:

Yes, Spiridonov did time for murder. For a murder he didn’t commit. We have a fantastic system of justice, you know. It doesn’t just let criminals go, it also puts innocent people in prison.

Да, Спиридонов сидел за убийство. За убийство, которого не совершал. У нас ведь замечательное правосудие. Оно не только отпускает преступников, но еще и сажает невиновных. (35:15–35:27)

Khromov himself doesn’t disagree, saying “Possibly. But that doesn’t justify what you’re doing” (Возможно. Но это вас не оправдывает).

This critique of Russian courts isn’t unique, and I doubt it made waves when it was broadcast (The Call was the most popular show in Russia for a while, before the Great Recession caused it to wrap up early), but it made me notice the rarity of scenes like this in more recent mainstream shows.

Another moment that now feels like it’s from another time: Khromov gets in an argument with a less sympathetic law enforcement type and quotes “patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.”

[Update 7/23/20: One more example: a key plot point in Bright Future in a Suitcase (Саквояж со светлым будущим, 2006), based on a novel by Tat’iana Ustinova, involves a twelve-year-old boy walking in on two gay men in a compromising situation. Almost all the characters are straight in the mysteries I’ve watched from 2015–20. A 2013 law might be why.]

The burning bush

July 15, 2020

What’s known in English as “the burning bush” from Exodus 3 is неопалимая купина in Russian, something like “the can’t-be-consumed-by-fire bush.” It doesn’t only mean the burning bush from that story, though:

Meanwhile Kir’ian took the neopalimaia kupina out of the front of his clothes and, taking it in his hands, the way people ordinarily carry icons, he started to walk around the unburnt part of the settlement with it. Suddenly the flame stopped burning at an angle and began to burn straight up; it wavered for a few minutes and then bent again, but this time toward the field, in the direction away from the village.

Кирьян между тем достал из-за пазухи неопалимую купину и, взяв ее на руки, как обыкновенно носят иконы, стал с нею обходить еще не загоревшуюся часть селения. Вдруг пламя из косого направления приняло прямое, поколебалось несколько минут и снова склонилось, но уже в поле, в сторону, противоположную от деревни.

icon with Mary in the burning bush

Moses looks into the burning bush and sees Mary with Jesus (detail of the corner of an icon)

That’s from chapter 2 of Pisemskii’s story “The Father” (Батька, 1862). I initially misread “the way people ordinarily carry icons” as a contrast (it was a different thing, but he carried it the same way), and this led me to read about the plant Dictamnus albus, known as “burning bush” in English and neopalimaia kupina in Russian, which can irritate the skin with a deceptive delay, and if you hold a match near it, you discover it has some flammable oils.

But what we have here is a complicated kind of icon that was written up in detail by David at Icons and Their Interpretation. It’s an icon of Mary, surrounded by angels and the four Evangelists (appearing as an angel, an eagle, an ox, and a lion), and in the corners by four Old Testament stories thought by Orthodox Christians to prefigure Mary: the burning bush, the root of Jesse’s tree, Jacob’s ladder (Mary was the “‘ladder’ by which Christ descended from heaven to earth”), and Ezekiel seeing a closed door (which symbolizes “perpetual virginity”). In Russia people used the icon to ward off fire, just like in “The Father.” There’s lots at the IaTI post, including a tour through the “apocryphal sources responsible for this notion of angels controlling the weather and the elements.”

When the neopalimaia kupina first appears earlier in chapter 2, it’s clearly an icon in hindsight. The 12-year-old narrator’s mother chases after her husband, her son, and Kir’ian as they are about to rush to the fire:

My mother appeared on the porch.

“Take the neopalimaia kupina with you! What are you doing, who are you putting your hope in?” she said.

На крыльце появилась матушка.

— Возьмите неопалимую купину, что вы, на кого надеетесь? — сказала она.

So the icon was believed to have miracle-working properties in the manor house, not just among the peasants. If you like Pisemskii I recommend reading “The Father” without knowing the ending, if I haven’t ruined that already.


July 11, 2020


Mogilianskii on The Masons

July 9, 2020

I started reading Mogilianskii’s book to see what he had to say about The Masons (Масоны, 1880), and I’ve finally got to that part. I absolutely agree with his reading of Zverev and Sverstov and Chentsov and I think Marfin too. And I was pleasantly surprised that he considers it Pisemskii’s best novel! If I had to rank them today, I’d put it second, after Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), but ahead of In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871), Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869), and A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858). I still need to read The Bourgeois (Мещане, 1877). But I definitely agree that The Masons wins for “artistic unity.” Here is Mogilianskii:

The Masons is as massive and varied as Men of the Forties, but more unified

It’s obvious at first glance that The Masons is different from Pisemskii’s three previous novels, and further study only strengthens that impression (143). In the Whirlpool and The Bourgeois had both been tightly limited in place and time (143). The Masons is like Men of the Forties in that it covers a massive area, chronologically, spatially, and otherwise (143). But unlike Men of the Forties, the parts of The Masons are held together in a complex unity (143).

A philosophical novel with historical and sociological aspects

The complexity and uniqueness of The Masons aren’t evident at the beginning (144). In the early chapters, physiological (and almost zoological) elements predominate over the ascetic Masonic beliefs of the main character, Marfin (144). Later in the novel the ascetic/Masonic element gets more prominent, but it will both have a dialectical self-negation in itself and it will be defeated on purely philosophical grounds (144).

The Masons is thus a philosophical novel, but this doesn’t prevent Pisemskii from also addressing philosophical/historical questions, and to some extent sociological ones which occasionally take on a political flavor (144). These questions are worked out in the novel through a detective fiction–like element of the plot (144). Pisemskii successfully used the criminal plotline to develop both the Masonic theme and the philosophical/historical and political ones (144).

Important elements: a detective story, Masonic and anti-Masonic views, Marfin’s asceticism, and the appearance of real historical figures as characters

In part 1, chapter 7, new characters are introduced in connection with the murder of the merchant’s agent (kupecheskii prikazchik) Vasilii, who had been transporting a large sum of money to Nizhny Novgorod (144). The most important is Dr. Sergei Nikolaevich Sverstov, who plays a major role in solving the murder and also in resolving the Masonic and anti-Masonic philosophical themes (144).

Another key part of the novel is the development of the contrast between the ascetic Marfin and his Don Juan of a nephew, the spendthrift Chentsov (144). This doesn’t go in the expected direction, and the tragedy of Chentsov’s death is a major component of the part of the novel that could be called “the philosophy of life” (144). Also important in the philosophy-of-life part of the novel is Aggei Nikitich Zverev, who is important for the Masonic theme, and the theme of Marfin’s asceticism, and the solving of the murder (144). Zverev’s unusual and contradictory personality means that he can interact with a wide variety of other characters, from the grasping Miropa Zudchenko the imperturbable Mason Vibel’ (144).

One more element we should include in our enumeration is the fact that The Masons is a historical novel where historical figures appear as characters, including the brilliant and progressive government official Mikhail Speranskii and the reactionary Prince Aleksandr Golitsyn (144–45).

What makes The Masons different from Pisemskii’s other works is the number of different things he is doing at once and the way all the different ingredients are connected to each other (145). This makes Pisemskii’s last finished work particularly important and substantive (145).

Marfin’s asceticism is critiqued by the sympathetic Dr. Sverstov

The historical layer of The Masons is primarily the story of the Masonic movement after it was outlawed (145). For this reason a number of historical figures who had played significant roles in the earlier legal Masonic movement are introduced (145). The main character, Marfin, is based on Fedor Nikolaevich Glinka (145). F. N. Glinka also appeared in The Bourgeois, and as is often the case with Pisemskii, Marfin is based not only on Glinka, but is rather a composite of several figures (145n156). Glinka also appears in The Masons directly, as the author of religious/mystical poems, which were written by Vladimir Solov’ev to be included in the novel (145).

Marfin’s asceticism, including his decision to have a platonic marriage, is central to the semantic structures of The Masons (145). The failure of his first attempt to get married, which ends with the death of Liudmila Ryzhova at the beginning of part 2, did not stop him (145). He pursues Liudmila’s younger sister Susanna, using Speranskii’s suggestions to guide her in her reading (145). Marfin does marry Susanna, and their platonic marriage becomes the focus of the novel (145). Pisemskii traces in detail the married Susanna’s attraction to the young Uglakov, which takes up much of part 4 (145). The attention paid to Susanna and Uglakov fits with the philosophical message of the entire novel, which is against religion, mysticism, and idealism in general (145). It is significant that when Dr. Sverstov (the author’s favorite character) finds out about the mutual attraction between Susanna and Uglakov, he says it’s a law of nature and there’s nothing one can do about it (145). Sverstov had earlier in the novel had an argument with Marfin about asceticism; the doctor called it “egoism personified and practically idiocy”; after Marfin’s death and Susanna’s quick remarriage to Terkhov [Uglakov had also died by this point], Sverstov again says something ironic about Marfin’s platonic marriage, citing the authority of “all physiologists” (146).

Masonic ideas are also critiqued, but not by Sverstov

The author’s sympathy for Sverstov comes out of Sverstov’s democratic leanings: Sverstov wants to spread Masonry to the peasants (146). He has Sverstov criticize Marfin’s asceticism and platonic marriage (146). But he leaves criticism of Masonic ideas to another character: “What does Masonry mean today…? An empty word without any content!” [in the text a non-Mason bishop, whom Marfin is visiting to plead the case of a priest who is a Mason, seems to say those words with a look, while saying something else out loud, and it’s not clear this is the authorial position—EM] (146). Besides this, a character named Batenev (that is, Iurii Nikitich Bartenev, already known to the reader from Troubled Seas) critiques Masonry from a pro–natural sciences position, ending with “Когда Ванька поет, так уж Машка молчи!,” meaning that when Van’ka, who represents the natural sciences that are making major discoveries all the time, is singing, then Mashka, representing “all religions and abstract philosophies” including the Masons’, should be silent (146).

Sverstov solves the murder of Vasia Tuluzov

Thus the novel exposes Masonry to a devastating critique, but the ever objective Pisemskii found positive characters among the Masons too, first among them Sverstov (146). This is why Sverstov is given the most important role in solving the murder of Vasia Tuluzov; Sverstov was the doctor called on by the police to examine the young man’s dead body (146). The beginning of the novel, with talk of Halley’s Comet and rumors of prophets and catastrophes, puts the reader in a mystical frame of mind, independent of Masonic ideas (146–47). Sverstov, impelled by an internal feeling and by the mood generated by this atmosphere of mystery and doom, resolves to catch the murderer who killed Tuluzov (147). This can’t happen until many other events take place: Chentsov commits suicide, and his widow, Catherine Krapchik, is seduced by her estate manager (who had a hand in Chentsov’s separation from Catherine and, indirectly, his death) and marries him (147). Sverstov learns that Catherine’s second husband goes by the name Vasilii Tuluzov and springs into action as a detective (147).

The cases of Tuluzov and Liab’ev show the worthlessness of the pre-reform Russian judicial system

The murder of Tuluzov is immensely important in the novel, and it is contrasted to the case of Liab’ev (based on the composer Aliab’ev), who is wrongly accused of murdering Count Indobskii during a card game (147). Through these two murder cases Pisemskii shows his contempt for the pre-reform Russian judicial system (147). L’iab’ev’s sentence is called barbaric, and the impostor Tuluzov is never sentenced for killing the real Tuluzov at all; this leads to Pisemskii’s refrain that “there is no place for decent people in government service” (147). In this case it is supplemented by “it is getting impossible to live any kind of life,” which anticipates the revolutionary M. K. Tsebrikova’s letters to Alexander III that were published abroad illegally (147). Though Sverstov is a positive character, the narrator remarks on his naivete for thinking he can get justice through the Russian courts (147).

Characters are complicated: even the worst characters can be sympathetic, and even the best ones do bad things

The world of injustice revealed by the cases of Tuluzov and Liab’ev are one of the most important aspects of the novel after its anti-Masonic philosophical thrust (147). But the novel does not deal in absolute Good and Evil: Marfin, who tries to get justice for the murdered Tuluzov, is far from an ideal character, and the pseudo-Tuluzov who uses the dead man’s passport displays ability and intelligence, including in matters that are for the good of the people (narod) (147). But the relativity of ethical categories and the complexity of human behavior are given particular attention in the characters of Valer’ian Chentsov and Aggei Zverev (147).

Valer’ian Chentsov: a cynical and debauched nobleman who kills himself over love for a peasant woman

Chentsov is a variation on familiar themes, and his life could be summarized in a few unflattering words (147–48). Though he is good-natured, his cynicism and immorality are extreme (148). That said, his psychological makeup ends up not being entirely compatible with his lifestyle of constant vice (148). After he marries Catherine Krapchik for money, he has an affair with a married peasant woman, Aksin’ia (148). He is forcibly separated from Aksin’ia by his now ex-wife Catherine and kills himself (148). This is the third variation on the theme of A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859), after Troubled Seas and Former Falcons (Бывые соколы, written 1865, published in part 1868, in full 1886) [what about Implev and Plavin from Men of the Forties? Is it a question of house slaves vs. field slaves?EM?] (148). Like A Bitter Fate but unlike Troubled Seas and Former Falcons, in The Masons the married peasant woman voluntarily has a sexual relationship with a nobleman (148). But Chentsov and Aksin’ia’s relationship is otherwise nothing like the one in A Bitter Fate (148). It seems disgusting to the reader in the beginning: the worst form of slaveholder debauchery, aided by an experienced procuress (148). Malan’ia, the first peasant woman Chentsov found through the procuress, disgusted him with how obviously she wanted money, but the second, Aksin’ia, impressed him by being unusual and disinterestedly attracted to him: she was from a well-to-do peasant household and did not love her husband, whom she hadn’t seen in three years (148). She is nothing like Lizaveta from A Bitter Fate, but then, Chentov isn’t anything like Cheglov-Sokovin either (148).

Captain Aggei Zverev: he represents Russian and real life, but love leads him to commit crimes

Captain Aggei Nikitich Zverev is like no other character in Pisemskii’s works, unlike the superficially banal Chentsov (148). Marfin is formally the main character of The Masons, but Aggei Nikitich is the true main character; his functions in the novel are numerous and complex (148). Zverev has all the features of (Pisemskii’s idea of) a typical Russian nature and of real life in general (148). He is above all a seeker who is driven by a spiritual thirst (148). But he is overcome by an ordinary love that leads him to criminal acts (148). He is overcome by life as such, but this does not turn him into an ordinary, unremarkable person (148). On the contrary, he is quite distinctive, which makes it hard to give a brief description of him (148). In The Masons as a philosophical novel, Aggei Nikitich symbolizes life (148). His character is drawn in an optimistic way, and this gives the whole novel a feeling of optimism (148).

Other characters: a priest who leaves Masonry for science, a highly moral German Mason, and the latter’s Polish wife, who brings another language into the text

What has been said here does not exhaust the complexity and depth of PIsemskii’s last novel (148). We have not even mentioned so important a character as the priest Vasilii, who leaves Masonry and finds his place in science (148–49). Nor have we said anything about the moral grandeur of the German apothecary Vibel’ or his Polish wife, who brings a memorable strain of colloquial Polish into Pisemskii’s multilingual novel (149). S. Khoroshevskii’s memoirs say that Pisemskii put a good deal of thought into the Polish passages as he worked on The Masons: Severnyi krai, 1900, no. 19, p. 3 (149n158).

The Masons as Pisemskii’s best novel, despite the decline in other areas of his life and works in his final years

We can rightfully speak of Pisemskii’s last novel as the peak of his novelistic art (149). On the one hand this seems improbable, as the writer’s physical and moral strength was waning (149). In his dramatic works, he clearly declined after Baal, to the point that he couldn’t even finish A Domestic Pool (Семейный омут, also called Old Accounts or Старые счеты, 1876–80) (149). But we don’t see any similar decline in The Masons: it is his most complex and deep work and at the same time the one that reflects the most varied spheres of life while retaining a great artistic unity (149).

See chapter 10, “Последние романы [The Last Novels]” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 136–149.

Constance Garnett’s family history and alleged prudishness

July 8, 2020

My fellow Constance Garnett fans will want to read Olga Zilberbourg’s post about her over at Punctured Lines. I get what Zilberbourg means when she says Garnett wasn’t a Victorian prude, and I take her point, but I wonder if “strong views about the privacy of sexual matters,” like Garnett’s, are what Victorian prudishness boiled down to anyway. (Looking through past posts about Garnett, I see I once suggested she might have skipped a page of Goncharov out of prudishness, though I’m still not sure what the most likely explanation is.)

Before reading Carolyn Gold Heilbrun (pen name: Amanda Cross), Zilberbourg had had the impression that Garnett “fell to translating from Russian almost randomly.” After reading a piece by Rosamund Bartlett, I’d come to think Garnett got into translating with the help of Russian native speaker friends and lovers. But it turns out that Garnett was also the granddaughter of Peter Black, “Naval Architect to the Tsar, Nicholas I,” who is buried at Kronstadt. Her father, David Black, grew up in Russia. So she has ties to the culture on all sides, which helps explain how she did so much so well without the dictionaries and online tools Russian-to-English translators have today. (Which didn’t save her from being made fun of by literature professors through the second half of the twentieth century!)