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Disconnected thoughts on Ol’ga N.

April 22, 2013
  1. “About dead languages he spoke like a poet of the Greek Anthology…” (274). This is Viktor Tarbenev in Ol’ga N.’s (real name: Sof’ia Engel’gardt) Live Not As You Like, But As God Commands (“Не так живи, как хочется, а так, как Бог велит,” 1854). Later a flower falls from his beloved’s hair and “he took it away with him, supposedly wishing to confirm its Latin name” (325); he is initially taken at his word. Having learned of Engel’gardt from Languagehat I was glad to see these LH-friendly elements.
  2. The title seems to refer to Tarbenev’s decision to keep his promise to Anna’s dying mother and marry Anna (what God commands) instead of marrying the widow Lizaveta Vasil’evna (as he would like, and L.V. would like, and might even suit Anna, who likes shopping and household management and is not curious enough to be a good match for Viktor). But there’s also a scene where L.V., not yet Anna’s rival, advises Anna “do not what you like, but what Viktor likes” (делай не то, что тебе нравится, а что нравится Виктору, 312). It’s hard not to see an implicit woman:man::mortal:God there.
  3. The “Shakespeare’s sister” problem. Assuming an equal distribution of literary talent among men and women, but unequal access to the leisure, education, and basic material security needed to write (a room of one’s own), talented women will be missing from the canon because their works were never written in the first place. The project of finding forgotten women writers may unearth those justly forgotten. This may be especially true with writers who broke into print in the last years of Nicholas I’s reign, 1848-1855, when journal editors had trouble finding enough prose that could get past the censor to fill an issue. This meant more translations and more works “on themes of love and family relations,” often written by women, which would have been rejected for something else in other years.
  4. The “old boys’ club” problem. An awful lot of women did manage to publish poetry and prose in nineteenth-century Russia, but the main critics and editors were men. Even their praise could be patronizing, as they put all women writers together in a second-class subcategory. Thus the critic for The Contemporary (probably Botkin for these pages) moves from qualified criticism of Ol’ga N. to qualified praise of E. Narskaia (pseudonym of N. P. Shalikova) with a “speaking of works by women…” Also in 1855 the critic for National Annals divides 5 female from 17 male poets when talking about the best then writing. With these gatekeepers, women writers may have been unjustly forgotten. This keeps us from finding out about individual works and gives us an unrealistic picture of the entire nineteenth-century literary scene, as the canon now is more male-dominated than the full range of high-profile publications was at the time.
  5. After reading one novella, I think Engel’gardt illustrates #3 and #4 – a similarly OK man might have been republished and remembered a little more, but the missing masterpieces weren’t written by her and forgotten. Some other woman who was working in the fields or sewing clothes or raising children or putting her energy into organizing a salon never wrote them.
  6. The reception of Ol’ga N. Vera Sergeevna Aksakova, writing in her diary in 1855, likes some sermons she read much better than “a rubbish story by Ol’ga N., rubbish in execution and disgusting rubbish in the immoral atmosphere to which it belongs, whose task is the confusion of all conceptions of good and evil, the silencing of the conscience, and everything revolting.” On the other hand, Sof’ia Bibikova is said to have protested in 1862 against Ol’ga N.’s assumption that “woman’s only lot is the hearth,” whereas it is clear in our time that “personal happiness by itself cannot satisfy a thinking woman, woman must also devote herself to civic action, etc.” Fedor Koni’s journal Pantheon praised “Mr. Tulub’ev, Miss Ol’ga N., and the anonymous Z.” as promising new writers, singling out Ol’ga N. as the most promising (quoted in The Muscovite). Pantheon devotes over 6 pages to a review of Engel’gardt’s story “The Country” (Деревня, 1853).
  7. Here is a part of Engel’gardt’s memoirs, from November 1887.
  8. Botkin wrote to Nekrasov on September 3, 1855, “The other day, to my great surprise, I received a letter from Ol’ga N., written and composed, it seems, with great effort — and in French. Among other things she says that Panaev ‘severely criticized her proverb,’ and that the tone of his criticism makes her fear The Contemporary might not pay her… But imagine my horror, when, after complaining about Panaev’s (!) review, she suddenly asks me to tell her my opinion of her proverb, adding that she is finishing another proverb, and that this is her favorite genre. I was decidedly at a loss. The most frustrating thing is that Ol’ga N. is a very nice, extremely kind woman, without any particular pretensions. I’ll get out of it somehow, but let me know whether you will write to her or not.” Ol’ga N. took the anonymous critic in The Contemporary to be Panaev and wrote to Botkin about him, but the unfavorable review of her “proverb” Ум придет—пора пройдет in National Annals belonged to Botkin himself. She is worried The Contemporary will not pay her for Live Not As You Like, But As God Commands. Nekrasov hadn’t been planning to pay her on the grounds that first-time authors weren’t compensated, but did pay 50 rubles after this letter from Botkin and intervention on Ol’ga N.’s behalf by the Granovskii family. See Gin, Mostovskaia, and Mel’gunov’s commentary in N. A. Nekrasov, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem (1981-2000), vol. 11.2: 361.
  9. A love triangle between a young man, intelligent but not overly suave; a rather inexpressive woman he finds physically attractive; and another woman, older than the man and jaded, widowed or unhappily married, who comes to appreciate him. This is close enough to the plot of Live Not As You Like and some of the early chapters of Pisemskii’s Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) that, for the first time in my life, I actually got confused which book I was reading. I’m not sure if that’s the coincidence in plots or something that will keep happening as I rely more on e-readers and can’t count on the physical object to remind me what I’m doing.
2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 23, 2013 8:56 am

    I’m delighted to get this report, and looking forward to reading her myself! I wouldn’t have guessed that “антологический поэт” referred to the Greek Anthology, so it’s good to have an expert on the XIX век doing some preliminary brush-clearing. The insistence on the primacy of “civic action” over “personal happiness” is a pathology that ruined most Russian criticism from the 1840s on, and critics like Apollon Grigoriev (not to mention authors like “Olga N.”) suffered for not toeing the line. One can understand why Nabokov was so vicious about it.

    for the first time in my life, I actually got confused which book I was reading.

    That’s hilarious, and you make a good point about e-readers — it will probably happen to me.

    • April 23, 2013 12:21 pm

      The difficult thing is that Ol’ga N. was being called out for not toeing two lines at the same time. I don’t know exactly what Aksakova and Bibikova were reacting to (and really, I’m relying on a brief anonymous summary of Bibikova, so there could have been more nuance in her original article), but it sure looks like Ol’ga N. is a dangerous free-love feminist in the eyes of a conservative and, to a radical, a timid self-absorbed willing servant of men. And that’s before you get to male readers’ reactions!

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