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How to get ready for nihilist guests

January 2, 2014

Leskov’s books about nihilists get more openly metaliterary as they go along. No Way Out (Некуда, 1864) was scandalous partly because Leskov wasn’t writing a theoretical tract about Bazarov’s flaws, he was mocking his recognizable acquaintances in public and revealing their secrets. Turgenev only shows up in a scene in a journal editor’s office, where a brash young writer doubts the editor bothers to read submissions from Turgenev before accepting them, and believes his own can therefore also be accepted unread (book 3, chapter 22). By the time of At Daggers Drawn (На ножах, 1870-71) we have open comparisons of Turgenev’s, Dostoevskii’s, and Goncharov’s nihilists. There’s a scene like this in Cathedral Folk (Соборяне, 1867-71) too:

At that time the exciseman himself was not home, and only the exciseman’s wife was there to represent the household, a young lady about whom we know a little from the accounts of Deacon Akhilla, the old communion-bread baker, and the teacher Prepotenskii. This interesting lady was eagerly expecting guests, including Termosesov, in whom she took a particular interest, as he was known to her as an extremely influential political actor. She had heard a great deal from her husband about said person’s strength of character and importance and therefore, herself being a woman of politics, she awaited this guest not without trepidation in her heart. Wishing to present herself to him in the best manner, that most advantageous for her reputation, Biziukina had been troubled all day by the question of how to put her house into such a condition that even the external appearance of her living quarters would produce a coherent impression on the new arrivals. Early in the morning the exciseman’s wife had already walked through all her rooms several times and found that nothing was any good. Stopping in the middle of the tidy and well-furnished living room, she cried out in despair, “No, I’m damned if I know what this is! This is exactly like the Porokhontsevs’ and the Dar’ianovs’ and the postmaster’s, in short like everyone’s house, and even much better, probably! The Porokhontsevs don’t have a clock on the mantel, for instance. In fact, they don’t even have a fireplace. But let’s say a fireplace is all right, hygiene demands it; but why do we have these sconces, why do we have these dolls, why, in the last place, do we have this clock when there’s a clock in the hall…? And in the hall? Lord! There’s a fortepiano there, and sheet music… No, this is quite impossible, and I don’t want any new men to get the wrong idea of me because of these trifles. I don’t want Termosesov to be able to write a letter like the one clever Masha wrote to her fiancé in that clever novel A Living Soul. He lived in a nice house and drank tea from a silver samovar. That clever girl wrote to him straight out that “it’s all finished between us after what I saw at your house.” No, I don’t want that. I know how political types should be received! The one frustrating thing is that I don’t know quite what their places in Petersburg are like…? Most likely they just have bad things there, that is, I meant to say, wonderful things… no… that is, bad… Damned if I know. Yes! But what am I to do with all this stuff? Surely I can’t throw it all out? That would be a shame. It would get ruined, and it all costs money, and what use is it to throw things out when all around, wherever you look… over there in the bedroom there are lace curtains… let’s say that’s the bedroom, where the guests won’t go… but what if they do look in there…! It’s terribly disgusting. And then the children are so well dressed…! But then they won’t be shown to the guests, they can just stay where they are; but still… it’s a shame to throw it all out! No, the best thing is just to redo my husband’s room. (book 2, chapter 6)

Her comic agitation goes on and on, as she brusquely orders her reluctant servants not to be obsequious, rubs dirt into her fingernails, and pretends to be running a school for poor boys. It reaches slapstick when she tries to surreptitiously push a flowerpot out an open window. The punchline is that her ostentatiously scruffy, self-denying nihilists are out of date: the current crop has no problem with material comfort and has harnessed the old nihilist ideas about rational self-interest to even older ideas about personal gain. When he arrives, Termosesov sees through everything she’s done and makes fun of her, even making a dismissive allusion to Vera Pavlovna from Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done?

A Living Soul (Живая душа, 1868) by Marko Vovchok came out in Nekrasov’s National Annals during the long period when Leskov was publishing parts of Cathedral Folk. I haven’t read it. Totubalin’s I. Z. Serman’s footnotes to No Way Out Cathedral Folk say the exciseman’s wife’s version of the letter doesn’t appear in the novel, but it sounds like it’s more parody than invention. Apparently Masha really does turn a man down “because she finds his wealth incompatible with service to progressive ideas” and writes “I do not and never shall agree to be your wife. You are very dear to me, but not right for me. I feel this, I know this, and nothing can be done about it.”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. January 3, 2014 9:24 am

    I haven’t read Vovchok either, but from what I’ve read about her, it sounds like her stories of peasant life, told in “a lilting idiom that stylizes peasant speech and oral tradition,” make better reading than her turgid-sounding satirical/realist novels.

  2. January 3, 2014 12:49 pm

    Maybe so. I’m not sure if “lilting idiom” is more likely to describe something brilliant or something tedious – I guess I’ll have to read her and find out. It’s interesting that she also wrote in Ukrainian (and French, per Wikipedia) – like Leskov she was born in Oryol Province and spent time in Kiev, but she’s remembered first as a Ukrainian writer. According to McLean, Leskov knew and admired her first husband Markovich (the one whose last name suggests her pseudonym) and thought it unjust that she was more famous than he was.

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