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“Overwrought plots, crude didacticism, and clumsy prose”

January 7, 2013

Vera Pavlovna’s rational sewing cooperative in Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done?

I’ve finally read the fifth of Sarah J. Young’s excellent lectures on Russian thought, on Dostoevskii’s Notes from Underground. Reading about Chernyshevskii’s “rational egoism” made me think how much Chernyshevskii’s and Ayn Rand’s critics sound alike, which is the sort of thought that is so obvious once it comes that you realize you’re far from the first to think it. The two writers, with their opposite utopias, make a sweeping false consciousness argument: “once I tell people that they already want what I think they should want, they will start to act in their own interests, and this will lead not to conflicts from incompatible goals, but to paradise.” Or so it seems – I concede I’ve read only a little Chernyshevskii and no Rand.

D. Barton Johnson gives a whole genealogy of a Russian tradition from Chernyshevskii to Ayn Rand, in an essay about the similar origins and different methods of the authors of the 1957 and 1958 bestsellers Atlas Shrugged and Lolita:

Nabokov and Rand shared a much more immediate literary context than that of the nineteenth century. If the aristocratic young Nabokov breathed in the recherché atmosphere of the Symbolists, Alissa Rosenbaum (whose self-made father owned a pharmacy) was of the affluent bourgeoisie whose family reading matter probably tended more toward such bestselling writers as Anastasiya Verbitskaya (who far outsold Tolstoy), Leonid Andreev, and Mikhail Artsybashev whose Sanin titillated the Russian reading public. Verbitskaya’s and Artsybashev’s ideological potboilers featured socially and sexually emancipated heroines and heroes spouting half-baked Nietzscheanism.  With sensationally overwrought plots, crude didacticism, and clumsy prose, their novels, at least  in part, find their Russian origin in Chernyshevsky’s  What is to be Done?. The literary line of descent from Chernyshevsky’s mess of pottage to Gorky’s 1906 Mother, with a segue through the Verbitskaya, Andreev, and Artsybashev school, to Ayn Rand’s ideological epics of the forties and fifties is clear enough.  Rand’s heroes and heroines are direct descendants of those of Verbitskaya and Artsybashev, popular vulgarizers of Nietzsche.

DBJ seems a bit hard on Leonid Andreev here (interestingly, Andreev wasn’t mentioned in some preliminary notes that DBJ sent to a Nabokov listserv but asks not be quoted; I hope linking is OK). The rest rings true – reading Gor’kii (I think it was The Life of a Useless Man) as a teenager making my way through the big names of Russian prose in translation, with a vague and naive expectation of another Turgenev,  was about the biggest disappointment I’ve ever had as a reader.

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