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“A Novel in Seven Letters”

March 18, 2013

To make myself take a break from Pisemskii and pay attention to the first half of the century for a change, I read Bestuzhev-Marlinskii’s “A Novel in Seven Letters” (Роман в семи письмах, 1823). It really is just seven letters (well, plus an epigraph and parentheticals like “one week later”), all from a hypermasculine but sensitive cavalry officer to his poet friend Georges about his love for one Adele. In letter 3 he laments

[…] why can I not love ordinarily, like other people! Why does blood flow in my veins and not milk! Why, for example, am I not like those dandies who are seen everywhere and remembered by no one, who are engaged in everything and utterly satisfied with themselves, or like my comrade Forst, who piously inhales the phlegm of his ancestors from an heirloom pipe and, to fall in love classically, is waiting for the rank of captain?

I first took it as a given that the author and reader are meant to be winking at each other here, knowing the letter-writer’s passion is as ordinary as can be, but maybe in 1823 that wouldn’t have been automatic.

The letter-writer is appealing: sincere, suave, intelligent, committed to love and friendship, confident, but exposing his secret vulnerabilities in these private letters. He is patriotic in a bland and universal way. One can imagine young noblemen in the 1820s imitating his conduct and verbal style. But his approach to life leads to tragedy. The effective part of the story is having this sympathetic voice reflect, after killing a good man in a duel out of jealousy, on how unrealistic the psychological scenario was that he had been implicitly counting on: murdering the man who replaced him in Adele’s affection would not lead to happily ever after.

I gather Bestuzhev-Marlinskii’s duels get a whole chapter in Irina Reyfman’s 1999 Ritualized Violence Russian Style: The Duel in Russian Culture and Literature (here’s an interesting review by Lauren G. Leighton, author of a book on Bestuzhev-Marlinskii).

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