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“He had before him a fairly wide selection of fashions and manners…”

December 13, 2013

I’ve been enjoying the posts on Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons at Wuthering Expectations this week, starting here:

Still, it is that first, compact chain, 1862 – Fathers and Sons, 1863 – What Is to Be Done?, 1864 – Notes from the Underground, that I marvel at.  The central issues of the day engaged at the highest intensity in fiction.  As art, the episode did well, too, with two masterpieces, one of them a rare case of a genuine philosophical novel.  The Chernyshevsky book is pretty bad, and likely the most influential of the lot, a book that did real damage.

What most amazes of course is the place fiction had in Russian intellectual life at the time.

Some of the books I’ve been reading recently were early examples of this bush’s “other branches” that Amateur Reader (Tom) alludes to: Pisemskii’s Troubled Seas (1863), Leskov’s No Way Out (1864). And, I guess, Tolstoi’s play An Infected Family (1864). Seeing so many nihilists from so many angles has made me start imagining these writers not as reacting to each other, but as copying the Darwin-obsessed, chain-smoking, anti-clerical short-haired women and long-haired men they saw all around them directly from life. Books about, say, the Vietnam War might react to earlier books about the Vietnam War, but they might also be connected to something the writer lived through outside of fiction.

Just as I was reading Tom’s post and thinking along these lines, I found this:

Gordanov had not had his present uniform made right away; there was a time when he had worn a different one. Belonging not to the new, but to the newer cult, he had before him a fairly wide selection of fashions and manners: Bazarov, Raskolnikov, and Markushka Volokhov had passed before him in their finery, and Gordanov had measured, weighed, analyzed, and judged all of them: not one of them stood up to his criticism. Bazarov, in his opinion, was foolish and weak — foolish because he argued with people and did himself harm with his harsh words, and weak because he went mad from the “opulent body” of a woman, which Pavel Nikolaevich Gordanov considered a weakness surpassing all others. As for Raskolnikov, Gordanov likened him to a chicken that could not help clucking about the egg it had laid, and he deeply despised that hero for his habit of incessantly poking at his spiritual corns. Markushka Volokhov (whom Gordanov had known during his life) was in his opinion both stronger and more intelligent than the former two, but this rough diamond lacked polish, while Gordanov wanted to be a finished diamond and felt the right time for that had now come. (part 2, chapter 1)

That’s how Leskov opens part 2 of At Daggers Drawn (На ножах, 1870-71), his third “anti-nihilist” novel after No Way Out and Bypassed (1865). Mark Volokhov is a controversial character from Goncharov’s The Precipice (1869, translated into English in 1915 or 1916 by M. Bryant, and possibly abridged). You couldn’t ask for a more direct reminder that writers really were responding to each other, not just independently describing their world.

The relevant Dostoevskii character here is not the Underground Man but Raskolnikov, a reminder that Crime and Punishment (1866) is thoroughly tied up with pro- and anti-radical polemics, and also that Notes from Underground received surprisingly little attention when it was published.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 13, 2013 10:17 am

    Wow, look at how the controversy expands. I forgot about Pisemskii’s existence – it has been a long time since I read Mirsky.

    Those Leskov novels have not been of much interest to English translators, have they? So I am stuck with the folksy Leskov. The quotation you give is fascinating.

    I will mention, and perhaps should have said this at the home site, that I am not exactly envious of the high place of literature in Russian culture at that time (and later). I know it is in part the result of the tiny size of the intellectual class, and of Czarist censorship. I prefer a million people doing their own thing. Still, the Russian example is thrilling to study.

  2. December 15, 2013 1:38 pm

    It’s funny you should mention that, Tom – I’m currently working on translating Leskov’s No Way Out, or rather co-translating it with Victoria Thorstensson, who comments here sometimes as vikathoria. It’s true that translators have neglected those early novels so far, though the recently retranslated Cathedral Folk has some anti-nihilist moments and kind of connects the long novels of the “sick talent,” 1860s Leskov to the shorter, mostly later, not-about-nihilists works that are better known here.

    I agree with you about the undesirability of the place of literature in nineteenth-century Russia, in that I wouldn’t want my world to suddenly change into one where hardly anyone could read, and the few who could write had to watch what they said very carefully. But a lot of good pages came out of that restricted environment, somehow.

  3. December 15, 2013 9:07 pm

    How exciting! For me, I mean. How laborious for you. Tell potential publishers that you have at least one guaranteed reader.

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