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“A Realist in a Changing Reality”

February 26, 2013

A few months ago I was halfway through half a dozen of Leskov’s longer works and starting another new one was more appealing than finishing any of them; with Pisemskii I couldn’t wait to finish, and a book was keeping me from the internet instead of the other way around. As soon as I finished, I wanted to read about it and found Jenny Woodhouse’s “A Realist in a Changing Reality: A. F. Pisemsky and Vzbalamuchennoye more,” The Slavonic and East European Review 64.4 (1986): 489-505.

Woodhouse wants to look at Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) as a broad realistic novel, rather than a political screed against the nihilists. There’s apparently a tradition of seeing it as half one and half the other – she quotes Mirsky as saying “The first three parts are quite on his best level, but the last three are a scurrilous and unfair satire on the young generation, too profoundly distorted by the personal embitterment of the author.” (Cf. Leskov’s “sick talent.”)

However, the anti-nihilist part of the novel is pretty short, the sincere nihilist Valer’ian Sabakeev is one of the most positive characters, and while the nihilist-for-profit Viktor Basardin and the briefly-a-nihilist-to-avoid-social-awkwardness Aleksandr Baklanov come in for criticism, so do many, many non-nihilists. The problem is deeper than the young generation: the novel “carries in its artistic structure a picture of a society whose every aspect, old and new, is damaging to its members” (504). In general Pisemskii seems to be skewering people’s tendency to parrot whatever is fashionable more than the nihilists’ particular ideas.

Pisemskii book coversWoodhouse likens Pisemskii to Balzac, as both are “interested in the interactions of the individual not merely with his immediate environment, but with wider social structures” (492). He shows sides of life other Russian writers didn’t, like what bureaucrats actually did at work: “when N. V. Gogol’ and Dostoyevsky portray chinovniki their interest is largely psychological, and we are given no indication of the purpose of their activities” (499), but Pisemskii’s characters in government service do particular things that matter, such as sitting on a judicial commission investigating a murder.

A good part of “A Realist in a Changing Reality” is devoted to comparing Troubled Seas to A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858; black-and-white film version) in their treatment of family, love, money, travel, and work. The leitmotif is that Kalinovich in A Thousand Souls manages to accomplish things, or at least to appear to have the potential to accomplish things, while Baklanov in Troubled Seas seems doomed to failure.

This is where I part ways with Woodhouse. For me a major part of Troubled Seas is that Baklanov, who starts out young, handsome, rich, intelligent, good-hearted, and free to pursue any path he chooses, could have done anything, but ends up doing worse than nothing. No one makes him give in to his laziness, his thirst for variety and luxury, but he does, and hurts many along the way. He is specifically a Russian nobleman who came of age in the 1840s, but those “spoiled by fate” could squander their opportunities in any society.

Woodhouse, on the other hand, argues that the characters’ fates “are functions of the corrupting effects of the social structure on individual development. Alexander and Sophie at the centre are each handicapped and misshaped by their upbringing; so, in their various ways, are the serfs, the nihilists, and a whole range of minor characters” (504). Interestingly, Woodhouse also claims Baklanov, as he is linked to many major and minor characters by family relationships, seems “ineluctably tied by birth and breeding” to a “total, oppressive, corrupt society” so that “his freedom of choice is correspondingly narrower” than Kalinovich’s in A Thousand Souls, who is an outsider and “has the chance either to enter or to escape from the circle” (494-95).

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