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There’s anti-nihilist and anti-nihilist

October 19, 2013

Leskov’s No Way Out (Некуда, 1864) and Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863) are grouped together as anti-nihilist novels, but No Way Out seems much more anti-nihilist. In Troubled Seas there’s an admirable nihilist or two, and the nihilists who are critiqued, like the shameless Viktor Basardin and the weak-willed main character Aleksandr Baklanov, merely bring to the revolutionary movement personal failings established in their pre-nihilist days. Most of the book is about the two generations before the nihilists.

What I’d heard about No Way Out before starting it, besides its usual classification as an anti-nihilist manifestation of Leskov’s “sick talent,” was a challenge to the conventional wisdom: the novel isn’t simply anti-nihilist, because sympathetic, three-dimensional characters like Liza Bakhareva, Rainer,  and Doctor Rozanov are drawn to the nihilists, and there are all kinds of gradations among the minor nihilist characters as well. That’s true as far as it goes, but it’s also true that various nihilists in No Way Out long for blood to run through the streets of Moscow, call for free love as an excuse to neglect their illegitimate children, inform on their comrades, or unjustly accuse each other of being informers. Some of them are laughable windbags. The transformation of one Polish character into a ruthless Jesuit plotter once the Russian revolutionaries go home could be from a comic book.

Here’s one measure of how unsympathetic the nihilists are as a group. Bakhareva, a young, educated, wealthy noblewoman isn’t satisfied with the prospect of living with her father’s family until she is married off. She is driven to find ideas worth believing in and people capable of doing something useful. She leaves the provinces and pushes her way into a Moscow nihilist circle. How is this strong-willed and talented woman received by the nihilist men? They don’t enlist her help printing radical proclamations, or suggest that she start a sewing co-operative, or see if she’s willing to try to marry an influential man and smuggle their ideas into the bureaucracy through him. Instead they nickname her “the pencil” and discuss over beer at a tavern what she’d look like naked (book 2, chapter 11). As the narrator reminds us, this makes them just like the provincial louts Bakhareva overheard evaluating her own and her friend Jenny Glovatskaia’s necks and shoulders at a ball (book 1, chapter 22).

In a way it’s too bad so many people start with Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (Отцы и дети, published 1862) in college courses. The ambiguous treatment of Bazarov makes it an interesting book but imperfect as an introduction to the 1860s intergenerational clash, and discussion gets bogged down in the origins of the word “nihilist.” If you really want a sense of the conflict read No Way Out or Lev Tolstoi’s less nuanced play An Infected Family (Зараженное семейство, 1864).

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