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Turgenev and French plagiarism

June 9, 2011

The literary world of early-to-mid-nineteenth-century France was, as Melissa Frazier presents it, commercial and competitive: Alexandre Dumas signed contracts for more work than he could possibly produce, and fell behind despite having a “collaborator” write novels to be published under the Dumas brand (929-31, 939). Writers of feuilletons, a form imported to Russia from France, borrowed liberally from others to keep up with a hunger for words (928-29).

Alexandre Dumas in 1855

Turgenev’s A Nest of the Gentry (Дворянское гнездо, 1859) critiques a kind of “French and feuilletonistic” loquacity, contrasted to a Russian commitment to truth and silence. At least, that’s my one-sentence summary of Frazier presenting Jane Costlow’s view (932). But Frazier complicates things: the “good” Russian characters in the novel, and the author Turgenev himself, have more of the feuilletonistic in them than Costlow’s neat opposition would seem to allow. The allegedly anti-feuilletonistic characters are “noted passers-on of other people’s words”: for example, Lavretskii sends his wife a letter with her lover’s letter to her enclosed, using the other man’s words in his own communication much as feuilleton-writers quoted or just took long passages other people had written (937). And Turgenev wrote feuilletons himself, including about Dumas’s trial for breach of contract. In these he criticized Dumas for something much like plagiarism, but he did so “in typically feuilletonistic fashion […] by helping himself generously to others’ words himself” (930).

I think that’s the heart of Frazier’s argument, but there’s more to the article. I may have another post or two on her views on plagiarism’s new relevance in the age of literary professionalism, on an amazing story (well-known to specialists, no doubt, but new to me) about Goncharov accusing Turgenev of plagiarism, and a strange definition of litotes. For Frazier it’s “the negation of a negation” (927, 939), but surely it’s just affirming something by denying its opposite? That’s not quite as pedantic as it sounds – I think it may actually be significant for her point.

See Melissa Frazier, “Turgenev and a Proliferating French Press: The Feuilleton and Feuilletonistic in A Nest of the Gentry,” Slavic Review 69.4 (2010): 925-43. (Abstract)

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