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October 24, 2013

Only a couple, but two of my favorite bloggers are talking about Russian books that I’ve read and you probably have too:

Wuthering Expectations is writing about Dostoevskii, starting here (Dostoevskii was like a jazz musician “who practices for eight hours during the day than plays completely different music at the club for two sets”) and here on The Gambler (Игрок, 1866):

I will glance back at the opening paragraph. The narrator’s absence is never really explained.  The sister, Marya Filippovna, departs the novel after doing nothing at about the one-fifth mark. The money of course fits the gambling theme. And then there is Mezentsov, the great Mezentsov, who not only never arrives but is never mentioned again. Never hinted at. Dostoevsky’s Godot.

And it’s true. According to this online concordance, the name Mezentsov never occurs in all of Dostoevskii except in the first paragraph of The Gambler.

Meanwhile Languagehat has reached Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (Герой нашего времени, 1840) in his chronological march through Russian prose:

But what kind of hero is Pechorin? Lermontov mischievously called him “a hero of our time,” explaining in the preface he added for the second edition that he was made up of “the vices of our entire generation in their full development,” a portrait of “contemporary man.” Besides providing fodder for the unfortunate vice of social-realist fiction which was to preoccupy Russian literature for the next century and a half, this is misleading in that (as Nabokov says) Pechorin is at least as much a copy of previous world-weary protagonists like Goethe’s Werther, Byron’s various Byronic heroes (not to mention the poet himself), and Pushkin’s Onegin as he is a portrait of anything contemporary. But if we are to try to bring him up to date, to make him comprehensible in cultural terms more present in our minds than Goethe and Byron, what can we compare him to? Certainly not to “hipsters,” pace this misguided attempt by Harry Leeds; hipsters (whoever they are) may be bored, but they don’t go around getting people killed. No, I think the closest comparison from post-WWII culture is Harry Lime, the dangerously attractive psychopath at the center of the classic 1949 film noir The Third Man (played unforgettably by Orson Welles). Pechorin, like Lime, doesn’t really give a damn about anybody but himself, and I can very easily picture him delivering Lime’s famous speech from the Ferris wheel (“Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Look down there. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever?”). Such people can be fun to read about, but they are (as Lady Caroline Lamb said of Byron) mad, bad, and dangerous to know.

“Unfortunate vice”! I fear LH may not enjoy Pisemskii as much as I’ve been enjoying him, but I’ll be curious to see.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. October 24, 2013 11:33 pm

    I loved the Harry Lime comparison. I can imagine Pechorin going to Greece like Byron, not to fight for independence but as an arms dealer.

  2. October 25, 2013 10:29 am

    It’s not that I dislike social-realist fiction as such (though it’s not usually what I prefer); the vice I meant was the imposition of such fiction as the only permissible one, which did such harm to Russian criticism and literature, sinking the reputation of authors who preferred to write with other aims, as Nabokov tirelessly pointed out.

    • October 25, 2013 11:01 am

      Imposition by whom, though? Maybe I’m reacting too much against the Nabokov view, but the more I read about the period, the more I think it’s unfair to claim Belisnkii, Chernyshevskii, Dobroliubov, Pisarev, and Mikhailovskii forced Russians to read a certain kind of fiction. Too much is made of the power of private gatekeepers and taste-makers, and too little of the government’s limitation on the number of journals, combined with even more important spirit-of-the-time patterns of what most writers and readers felt like pursuing.

      For all his literary enemies Leskov managed to publish thousands of pages of fiction that had aims beyond social realism from the 1860s to the 1890s.

  3. October 25, 2013 11:14 am

    Well, obviously not “imposed” in the sense that Stalin imposed his version of socialist realism, but the “spirit-of-the-time patterns” were, if not imposed, certainly heavily promoted and to the extent possible (critical reviews, choice of who to publish, etc.) enforced by Belinsky et al. There was no organized body of opinion promoting any other kind of literature, there were only a few lonely and largely disregarded voices like Apollon Grigoriev on the other side. And yes, Leskov published a lot, but how was he regarded, compared to how the artistically negligible Chernyshevsky was regarded? Even as late as 1937, when Nabokov tried to take Chernyshevsky down a peg, Sovremennye zapiski (disgracefully) refused to publish that chapter of his greatest novel (and so perceptive a reader as Bunin was enraged by it and talked of Nabokov’s “monstrosities”). No, I stand by my point.

    • between4walls permalink
      October 28, 2013 6:19 pm

      Personally, I don’t think Sovremennye zapiski’s refusal to publish that chapter was disgraceful, but publishing the book without that chapter- a whole fifth of the book- was disgraceful and in a sense dishonest, trying to have their cake (the benefit of publishing the book) and eat it too (not publish content hey found so distasteful). Though at least they apparently told the readers that there was a missing chapter.

      I do have a question about the whole affair, though- since it was published in a serial form, would the editors have known, at least in general terms, about Chapter 4 before they had already published the first few chapters?

      • between4walls permalink
        October 28, 2013 7:13 pm

        It seems they read Chapter 4 between the publication of Chapter 1 and 2. Which is early enough that I’m not really sure what to think of the whole thing- as someone I discussed this with pointed out, if they hadn’t published the rest, it would have been Nabokov to take the hit financially.

  4. October 26, 2013 8:21 am

    I should add for the benefit of readers not immersed in the details of Russian literary/cultural history that Sovremennye zapiski (Paris) was the great “thick journal” of the émigré community (it saw itself as the successor to the pre-Revolutionary Otechestvennye zapiski) and published all Nabokov’s novels from 1929 on; the editors, though from the radical tradition, saw themselves as publishing literature of quality without regard for politics, and in general did so — but mockery of the sainted Chernyshevsky was too much for them. That chapter of Dar wasn’t available until the book was published by the Chekhov Publishing House (NYC) in 1952, whereupon (as Alexander Dolinin writes): “Strange as it may seem, neither of the leading émigré periodicals hardly even mentioned the fact of the long-delayed appearance of Nabokov’s major work, to say nothing of reviewing it.” Such was the power of the critical traditions laid down a century earlier in Russia.

    • October 27, 2013 12:05 am

      I’ve been thinking about these issues enough that I think I’ll do a new post on them and continue the discussion there instead of in this comment thread. You may be right, and I doubt I’ll change your mind, but I still think the power of the critical tradition is overrated.

  5. October 27, 2013 8:32 am

    Well, I don’t think it’s a matter of being right or wrong — how could anyone prove the exact degree of influence of critic X or tradition Y? — so much as a matter of perspective; the more attracted one is by the kind of writing favored from mid-XIX on, the less bothered one is going to be by the… suppression? neglect? disfavor?… of alternative styles of writing. If, like me, you’re strongly attracted to those alternative styles (and thus resentful of someone like Veltman dropping down the memory hole), you’re going to be looking for someone to blame. At any rate, I’m glad to have prompted you to think about it, and I look forward to the post!

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