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The Shaken-Up Rubbish Heap

September 10, 2013

The Shaken-Up Rubbish Heap

Chapter XVIII

The Subordinate and His Superiors

Subordinate: As I was passing by in these parts, I considered it my duty to call upon your excellency.

Superior A: Very well, my good fellow. But it seems to me there are unpleasant rumors about concerning you?

Subordinate: It is not my fault, your excellency, it’s just that the younger men at the office have sullied my reputation, but before you, sir, I am innocent as I am before god.

Superior B: You’re not a child to put the blame on others. Off you go…

This epigraph, from a novel that would be very famous if it existed, presented itself vividly to the hero of our story on one summer day of 1862…

It was evening, the weather was rainy, it was on the Isle of Wight.

Our hero was sitting at the window and looking at the sea.

The postal agent was standing by the door and looking at red-haired Kecaya.

Kecaya went up with a letter and a package, and went out without a letter or a package.

Our hero stopped looking at the sea.

The postal agent continued to look at golden-haired Kecaya.

Our hero read the following: “One of the main purposes of my journey to London was to meet you in person, to shake the hand of a man whom I have been so long accustomed to love and respect. When will you return? Please inform NN, whom I had the good fortune to meet back in RR.”

P.S. “I ask you to accept this new edition of my works as a sign of my deepdeep respect for you…”

And our hero unwrapped the works, which were bound in Morocco leather and gilded — and did not read them.

A week passed, summer and the rain continued…… Kecaya remained on the little island, our hero was on a very big one. At nine o’clock in the evening it was raining on Westbourne Terrace and rain was not the only thing…

(to be continued)

That’s all of Gertsen’s “The Shaken-Up Rubbish Heap” (Взболтанная помойная яма, 1863), a parody of Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863). It’s in the December 15, 1863 issue of The Bell (Колокол), available in .pdf format here. It’s nice to see The Bell as scanned pages, by the way — I knew it was published in London for years, but I didn’t realize that meant that every page had “THE BELL” and the date in English, and the first page noted that it was “registered at the general post-office for transmission beyond the United Kingdom.”

The hero of “The Shaken-Up Rubbish Heap” is Gertsen himself. Here’s Charles Moser on what happened:

[Pisemskii] continued to London, where he went to great lengths to obtain an interview with Herzen. Evidently he told Herzen that he had come to London largely for the purpose of paying him a visit, and presented the exiled revolutionary with a copy of his collected works as a “sign of his immense esteem.” Pisemsky had always regarded Herzen as one of the most attractive figures of the generation of the 1840’s, that “golden age” of his youth, and it is likely that he expected to find in him a sympathetic listener to his complaints against the younger radical generation, with whom Herzen had also had some misunderstandings. If such was his expectation, he was grievously in error, for Herzen was quite cool toward him in the course of an uncordial conversation. As a consequence, Pisemsky temporarily turned against Herzen. For example, in his antinihilist novel of 1863, Troubled Seas, Pisemsky caused one of his heroes to be arrested for attempting to smuggle revolutionary proclamations from London into Russia. The implication was that Herzen incited rebellion from a safe distance, using dupes as his agents so that they might suffer if detected, while the master revolutionary sat comfortably in London. (120)

In the parody I think the short sentences and paragraphs that describe people outwardly, but in a way that makes their internal states seem straightforward and obvious, are meant to simulate Pisemskii’s style. I’m not sure if the changing hair color is playing on some inconsistency. It’s personal enough to seem a bit petty, but it’s more elaborate in the context of the “Miscellany” column in The Bell, where the rubbish heap starts as a criticism of Gertsen made by the hostile Northern Bee in Russia (Gertsen has a team transport нечистоты ‘sewage’ out of London), but is turned around to be a trash heap of Russian periodicals written by informers and conservative fanatics for hire, who unlike the Hébertists cannot even claim to be sincere fanatics. On this trash heap crawl all sorts of northern “bees, worms, gadflies, and gilded houseflies.” This flows into an attack on Katkov, who emphasizes his voluntary service to the authorities, “as if one could force a man against his will to inform on people, and slander them, and point out victims, and clap for the executioners?” And from there to Pisemskii, writing in Katkov’s journal.

Is “Superior B” in the made-up epigraph Ogarev? And what kind of name is Kecaya (Кецаiя)?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. September 10, 2013 4:39 pm

    That is a very weird name. (I’m glad you provided the Russian, because I had no idea what the original was; I’m not used to seeing c for /ts/ in an English context.) I hope somebody comes up with an explanation!

    • September 10, 2013 5:43 pm

      At first I took my usual pedantic path of simplified Library of Congress transliteration in all cases, but “Ketsaiia” looked transliteration-weird, so I settled on the weird-weird “Kecaya.” But yeah, it’s kind of misleading. I feel like I’m missing a reference. Maybe it’s a modified form of a strange name in a Pisemskii story I’ve never read, or a whimsically disguised name of a real servant of Gertsen’s, or something.

  2. Vika Thorstensson permalink
    October 7, 2013 2:09 pm

    It is great to see that you’ve been thinking about this episode too! The following is from my dissertation. Sorry, the format is going to be all wrong and I think the footnotes are lost… (but if you are interested, I can send you a better copy). If only I knew that you translated thew Bell article…

    The episode of a visit to Herzen by characters of Pisemsky’s 1863 novel The Troubled Sea lies at the source of the motif of a pilgrimage to Herzen in Russian literature. Like the history of Katkov’s role in the creation of the conspiracy theory around Herzen, the real-life story of Pisemsky’s own trip to London serves as an excellent illustration of the phenomenon of the interpenetration of literature and journalism. The analysis of the Herzen connection in Pisemsky’s novel also shows how different layers of emplotment brought about the “bitter fate” of the novel. Pisemsky’s journey to London was undertaken as a search for a remedy to the deeply “unfair” insult to his pride and literary reputation. In April 1862, Pisemsky obtained a foreign passport and went to London to seek a resolution to his literary battles with the Russian press from Alexander Herzen.
    With expectations set this high, Pisemsky’s pilgrimage to Herzen was bound to turn into a disaster. Herzen, who was familiar with the journalistic escapades of Nikita No-Snout as well as other Pisemsky pseudonyms, initially did not want to receive Pisemsky at all, in spite of the latter’s respectful offering of a copy of his collected works in a beautiful morocco binding. The meeting that Pisemsky was finally able to obtain took place in the presence of a mediator, Herzen’s old friend, Valentin Korsh and consisted of “long and unpleasant explanations.” In addition, at a reception at Herzen’s house a few days later, to which Pisemsky was also invited, Pisemsky was spotted by Grigory Peretz (a spy of the 3rd Department) and his name was included in the list of people (which Herzen was later able to obtain and publish in The Bell) to be interrogated or arrested upon their arrival back to Russia. In the Petersburg port of Kronstadt, Pisemsky and his luggage were thoroughly searched, but nothing criminal was found. This was not the case with the luggage of another passenger, Vetoshnikov, a merchant who was carrying Herzen’s letter to Nikolai Serno-Solovyevich and whom Pisemsky had met during that reception at Herzen’s. That letter – in which Herzen suggested that Chernyshevsky publish The Contemporary (which was closed by authorities) in either London or Geneva – later became a key piece of evidence in Chernyshevsky’s case. Vetoshnikov was convicted and sent to hard labor in Siberia, where he died.
    Pisemsky finished his novel The Troubled Sea one year later. In its last chapters, the characters seem to reenact Pisemsky’s own journey. Alexander Baklanov, his wife Evpraksiya, and her brother Valerian Sobakeev travel to London. Many of the other, negative, characters of the novel also assemble there: Basardin, Galkin, and Petzolov. These “pseudo-liberals” advise Baklanov and his family to visit “the local gentlemen” (“здешних господ”) who “treat young people very well” (“ласкают молодежь”). Baklanov and Sobakeev contact Herzen (who is, of course, one of the unnamed “local gentlemen”), receive proclamations, and hide them on their bodies. Curiously, Pisemsky (who, as a good acquaintance of his fictional characters, appears under his own name in earlier chapters) is not mentioned among the passengers on that ship. Upon return, while going through customs, the characters are searched by the police. Baklanov narrowly escapes arrest because, in the course of their trip, his wife Evpraksiia discovers the proclamations and, without telling him, throws them into the sea. Another bearer of illegal proclamations, Evpraksiya’s brother Valerian Sobakeev, suffers for his “foolishness.” He is arrested and, subsequently, sentenced to twelve years of hard labor in Siberia.
    The Troubled Sea greatly annoyed and angered Herzen, who saw it as political denunciation. Comparing Pisemsky unfavorably to Turgenev, whose Fathers and Sons he considered to be a work of art in spite of its political urgency and topicality, Herzen wrote, “What was stopping him [Turgenev] from sending Bazarov to London? Despicable Pisemsky was more than happy to provide travel expenses to his troubled freaks.” Herzen disliked the fact that Pisemsky made him (as a literary character) receive his “freaks” as guests, and by the description of this visit in which he saw a satirical retelling of the circumstances of Vetoshnikov’s arrest. In his novel, Pisemsky does not mention names or dates, and all conversations happen outside of Herzen’s house. However, if we compare the topics discussed by the characters with the records of Herzen’s activities and concerns at that time, close correspondences that point to Pisemsky’s meeting with Herzen and the reception he attended at Herzen’s house become evident. Pisemsky could not have written these scenes using only public information, such as the articles in the Bell. In fact, some Soviet scholars have used the London chapters of The Troubled Sea to reconstruct the conversations that could have occurred between Herzen and Pisemsky. It is also possible that, knowing that the unfortunate Vetoshnikov received letters and documents from Herzen during the same reception that was attended by Pisemsky, Herzen (and, presumably, some other people) saw in the novel’s London chapters an instance of direct denunciation. To turn someone’s personal tragedy into an entertaining story of some “freaks’” adventures abroad would certainly have been a heartless and inappropriate gesture for any writer. In any case, Herzen was quite sure of the real meaning of Pisemsky’s story. In a letter to Tata and Malwida Meysenbug, Herzen wrote, “Pisemsky wrote a novel called The Troubled Whirlpool (a curious mistake, since in 1871, Pisemsky would indeed write a novel, In the Whirlpool, which continued the discussion of nihilism) where he, in the most foul manner, told the story of how Vetoshkin (sic) was arrested and how we gave him printed materials.”
    But was Pisemsky a renegade? Did he write a political denunciation? Herzen himself rewrote Pisemsky’s visit in a fictional manner at least twice: in part one of Chapter Seven of My Past and Thoughts, and as a “picture from a novel” in his satirical article “The Bringing of Feces to London” (“Ввоз нечистот в Лондон”). In My Past and Thoughts, Herzen appears as a cautious and gentle host: he does not give letters to Vetoshnikov; instead, Vetoshnikov asks for them. Herzen urges Vetoshnikov to hide the letters and another gift (a photograph of Herzen) to not arouse suspicions, and he is mindful of possible spies in the room. In “The Bringing of Feces to London,” Herzen plays the role of a stern Superior, while Pisemsky is represented as an ingratiating Subordinate who addresses the “Superior” as “Your Excellency” (ваше превосходительство). The Superior uses the informal “ты” while chastising this new Akakii Akakievich for his bad behavior, of which “there [are] some rumors.”
    As for Pisemsky, he seemed to not understand the reasons for his persecution by Russian liberal and progressive circles, and he definitely did not understand why his novel would anger them so much. Indeed, he was very proud of this novel, in which he “attempted to present a panorama encompassing twenty years of contemporary Russian history, including elements of corruption, anarchy and bold ignorance which all surfaced in society when it was shaken to the foundation by a moral and material crisis that unexpectedly befell it.” In spite of the bitter experience of his visit to Herzen, Pisemsky preserved respect for Herzen until the end of his life.

    • October 7, 2013 2:49 pm

      Thank you very much for this, Vika! It’s great that you wrote on Troubled Seas in your dissertation – I think it deserves more attention than it’s had. Do you take it that Superiors A and B are Herzen and Korsh, then? And does Кецаiя mean anything to you?

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