Edyta Bojanowska’s article had me browsing through the last issue of Time, where I stumbled on this story by a minor writer who was new to me, Petr Gorskii. He shared the literature section with K. Babikov, N. Poletaev, P. A. Bibikov, Mikh. Iletskii [pseudonym of M. L. Mikhailov], V. V. Krestovskii, Liodor Pal’min, and a translation of an 1853 novel by Elizabeth Gaskell.
Joseph Frank calls Gorskii “one of the numerous denizens of St. Petersburg’s literary Grub Street who clustered around the various publications, eking out a beggarly existence on the edge of destitution and often supplementing their literary labors with manual work” and a “confirmed alcoholic” who “lived on much the same miserable level as the figures who peopled his sketches” (9, 11).
His sketch “Poor Lodgers: Sublime Love. A Story” both is and isn’t what I expected. It’s the story of a poor clerk scraping by on a meager salary and meager bribes who decides to save a beautiful young girl from a life of prostitution. Instead of the rescue ending there triumphantly, like Nekrasov’s famous poem, or exploding in the ugliness of human psychology, like in Notes from Underground, Gorskii’s story continues well beyond the successful rescue. It’s all a flashback, so we know things will end badly for the hero Oblachkov, but otherwise it would look like happily ever after: Natasha loves him, is intelligent, tactful, an enthusiastic and talented housekeeper; she raises enough money that the couple can move to a decent apartment, and is perfect in all ways. Her only flaw is that she is so self-sacrificing that she doesn’t want to waste their money on heat for her comfort, so she gets sick and dies.
I thought a physiological sketch would be long on specifics meant to prove the author knows how things really are, and would be narrated in a sparse style that affected not to comment on anything. Gorskii delivered on the first part but surprised me on the second. I learned that one type of alcoholic is remarkable in being able to quickly get as drunk off only a kosushka as another would from a shtof, while a different type feels no effect after splitting an entire chetvert’ with one other person (267). (A kosushka is a quarter of a shtof, which is a tenth of a vedro. Even bigger is a chetvert’, apparently a quarter of a vedro. A vedro is about 3.25 US gallons.) Other details we find in the sketch that would have been left out of most novels: Oblachkov has to pay to get Natasha’s passport back (283), and when Natasha is dying the landlady insists she be taken out of the apartment because she isn’t formally registered as living there (“она непрописана,” 293). Meanwhile Oblachkov couldn’t take her to the hospital because the hospital administrators were juking the stats: they were held accountable for the ratio of deaths to recoveries, and they guarded their bonuses by refusing to admit the sickest patients on bureaucratic pretexts (292). Never again will I think of “what gets measured gets done” as a modern idea, and Gorskii will be in my mind the next time I read an exposé of a similar scandal in a modern police force or school.
The odd part of the sketch (would this have been different in the 1840s?) was how self-consciously literary it was. You could see this in absurd names like Pustoporozhnev or Dorimedont Asklipiodotovich (287). You could see it in the narrator’s comments about how common and well-known aspects of the story were. And you could see it in simile after simile. Some of these were reasonably clever in a cynical way, like “her love burned stronger and stronger, like the fires that break out in large oil, liquor, and wine stores” (283-84). Some of them explain why Gorskii was mocked by literary snobs of his time. On page 275 we have “to cap all his misfortunes, Oblachkov’s friend, as it were, sprinkled salt with ground glass into the wound in his heart, which was beginning to fester.” A few sentences later it is as if his friend is twisting a dagger in his heart. Two pages after that another dagger is at his heart.
Here’s a 2-volume 1864 edition of Gorskii’s Satirical Sketches and Stories (TOC 1, 2). The sketch I read is not the same as the “Poor Lodgers” in volume 1, though that sketch has a Dorimedont Flegontovich.