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Smoke of the fatherland

August 17, 2012

Goncharov’s voyage on the Frigate Pallas

Ivan Goncharov, author of Oblomov and two other novels that start with “O,” also wrote The Frigate Pallas (Фрегат Паллада, 1855-57), which Milton Ehre calls “his second-best book.” It is an account of an expedition that “led him to Europe, Africa, and Japan before ending unexpectedly at the mouth of the Amur River in Siberia after the outbreak of the Crimean War” (21).

That description belongs to Ingrid Kleespies, from her recent article on how Goncharov treats Siberia in The Frigate Pallas. The Siberian “Wild East” isn’t symmetrical to the American “Wild West”; there was plenty of culturally palpable center/periphery contrast within European Russia, while Siberia’s status was ambiguous, part of the Russian Empire but not the Russian nation. Or something like that – how nineteenth-century Russians thought of “nation” and “empire” was complicated (23-25).

Goncharov, traveling through Siberia towards European Russia, finds it almost like home but not quite. He emphasizes that the villages lack a manor house and other signs of serfdom. Kleespies doesn’t agree with those who think Goncharov is endorsing “Siberia’s relative political and social freedom” (28); instead, she reads Goncharov as pointing to a lack of “homeyness” in Siberia, the same feature that is missing in English industrial capitalism and that makes the Russian gentleman and his life superior to the English one and his (29). Homeyness is always missing, though: “in Siberia, this way of life has never existed; in the central Russia depicted in Oblomov it no longer exists,” and so in both “the world of the feudal estate is something fondly recalled, but beyond reach” (30).

Here’s a passage where Siberia is not quite home (I believe it’s in Kleespies’s translation; I’ve removed the emphasis):

Thank goodness! Everything has begun to look like Russia: settlements and villages appear often […]. Crows and starlings fly by, roosters crow, little boys whistle and wave at the passing troika, and smoke rises in vertical columns from a multitude of chimneys—the smoke of the fatherland! These scenes of Rus’ are familiar to everyone. (25)

Kleespies pulls out the phrase “smoke of the fatherland” and (following Stephen Baehr, and see also Michael Pursglove here) shows how it’s a quote from Griboedov, who was quoting Derzhavin, who was quoting fumus patriae dulcis, “generally attributed to Ovid,” who may have been paraphrasing Homer. Through all these intertextual echoes the smoke is not about homecoming as much as the impossibility of homecoming (25-28).

Ingrid Kleespies, “Russia’s Wild East? Domesticating Siberia in Ivan Goncharov’s The Frigate Pallada,” Slavic and East European Journal 56.1 (2012): 21-37 (no link). I took the map above from a 2010 post at Poemas del río Wang that, among much else, tells a story about one copy of The Frigate Pallas.

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