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“…conquered a whole swarm of willful beauties with two or three of his magical lines.”

February 18, 2013
Portrait of Pisemskii (1880) by Repin

Portrait of Pisemskii (1880) by Repin

Beginning in part 5, chapter 3 of Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), the narrator rather unexpectedly does several chapters in the first person as a demonstratively autobiographical writer-character addressed as “Monsieur Писемский” before beginning chapter 9 with “Back I go to the objective manner.” Invited to read one of his works at a party, he reflects:

When our great Pushkin went somewhere to read at a high-society salon, of course he conquered a whole swarm of willful beauties with two or three of his magical lines.

Our inestimable friend Ivan Sergeevich Turgenev, brushing against the hearts of the fair sex like some pleasant-scented breeze, arouses in them the most noble and elevated emotions, giving them a bit of philosophy and as much of feelings and passions as is acceptable in good society.

Goncharov’s “Ol’ga,” before our eyes, made such an impression on one very lovely, intelligent, and young lady that she covered her eyes with her hand, began to shake her little head, and declared, “Oh, how I would like to meet Oblomov, fall in love with him, and make him love me.”

Finally, before our eyes, at the Aleksandrinskii Theater, the women in the audience shed bitter tears at [Ostrovskii’s] The Storm, sympathizing with Katerina’s passions.

The author has never produced an impression one iota like this, nothing even a tiny bit similar, on the fair sex with his feeble creations. To the indifference of young, charming ladies, however sad this may be to him, he has long become entirely accustomed. (5.7)

This isn’t the first thing that struck me as oddly modern. I could imagine a male musician today making this kind of self-deprecating (and lightly other-deprecating) speech about which musicians have more success with women than he does. Young children in the book and their parents also seem more like parents and children I see around me than parents and children from other nineteenth-century books.

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