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What Pisemskii writes about

May 24, 2013

After reading 1 1/2 long novels by Pisemskii, it seems like there’s a lot of:

  • Women named Kleopatra. Kleopatra Petrovna in Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), an old woman who may have slept with the Emperor Paul. Another Kleopatra Petrovna in Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869) – she was born much later, so it doesn’t seem to be the same character in two books – has an unhappy marriage and two affairs [update 6/28/13: more than two]. And then there’s a Kleopatra Sergeevna in Vaal (Ваал, 1873). I assume the diminutive “Kleopasha” sounds as funny and strange to native speakers as it does to me, because if you search for it you get Pisemskii and an obsolete public listing for a “Masha Kleopasha” on Facebook. So far I haven’t run across any overt mention of the famous Cleopatra or any acknowledgement inside the make-believe world that these women have an unusual name.
  • Raphael's Sistine Madonna (1512)

    Raphael’s Sistine Madonna (1512)

    Scenes where authors read aloud from their works. In Troubled Seas this is the narrator who is suddenly and temporarily identified as “Monsieur Pisemskii.” It’s Pavel Vikhrov in Men of the Forties, which I assume is one reason this novel is considered “semi-autobiographical.” Vikhrov reads first to his impressed fellow students: “Only in the friendly family of young male students can one find so sincere and so complete a recognition of talent” (part 3, chapter 5). Then he insists on reading it to Kleopatra Petrovna and another woman: “They say nothing is more useful for authors than to read their works to an unsympathetic audience. Then the weak spots in their effort appear before them in horrifying magnitude” (3.8). In the first reading we wonder if Vikhrov is reading a novel about his friends to those friends; in the second he tells Kleopatra it is about her (though she finds the female character unrecognizable). [update 6/28/13: Later in Men of the Forties the narrator intrudes to apologize for having so many scenes of Vikhrov reading his works aloud (there’s a third) and rehearsing and acting in plays.]

  • Passages about how different people interact with art and literature. Several times we see how young men in or just out of university feel a need to appreciate art and show off their ability to appreciate it. They don’t get everything right. See especially part 6, chapter 1 of Troubled Seas, where Baklanov and Sophie go abroad and visit museums:

“That’s Rembrandt, that’s Giulio Romano, that’s Claude Lorrain; I can look ahead and tell without approaching.”

Sophie took a look at the label.*

“No, this was signed by Titian!” she said.

“Yes, well, they’re similar in manner,” said Baklanov, and they went in to see the Madonna.

The Sistine Madonna has an effect on both Baklanov and Sophie. The difference in their formal education controls how they talk about it, but not its power over them, which is significant, but not enough to overwhelm their other-than-aesthetic cares.

* This is надпись in Russian; it’s not clear to me if Sophie is reading the signature on the painting and nothing else, or if this gallery had the explanatory labels next to the paintings that you’d find in a modern museum.

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