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English Gothic novels as read by Pushkin, Dostoevskii, and Saltykov-Shchedrin

January 20, 2014

One thing that feels strange about blogging about a conference (AATSEEL 2014) is that I go to panels on topics I’m interested in, but also to ones where my friends or famous people are presenting. I don’t know that many people in the field personally, but there are a number I’ve worked with, or know from social media, or have asked for a job. I try for сплошной позитив and mostly have good things to say about friends and strangers alike, but I’ll try to be transparent.

On Saturday afternoon I went to “The English Gothic Shadow on Nineteenth-Century Russian Literature.”

“The Stone Guest” (Каменный гость, 1830) one of Pushkin’s “little tragedies,” is a retelling of the Don Juan story (see this old post on Alan Shaw’s recent translation), set in Madrid instead of Seville. Valeria Sobol argued that one explanation for the setting is an intertextual connection to The Monk (1796) by Matthew Lewis. Outside the text, one piece of evidence for the connection is Pushkin’s “self-portrait as a monk tempted by the devil” from 1829, found next to his Don Juan list. The case seemed convincing to me, with the caveat that I haven’t gone back to compare the texts myself.

Gothic author Ann Radcliffe was important to Dostoevskii, and Mark Pettus described how one aspect of his novels resembled hers. As I understand it, Radcliffe’s settings had a sort of infinite extension to them: a character would try to escape the grounds of a castle or estate, and find that one place led to another beyond which was another but never the actual boundary. The same thing happened in Dostoevskii’s cities and apartment buildings, where there was always another stairway, another door, and just more and more of the place one wanted to find the limit of. Dostoevskii borrowed a Bakhtinian chronotope from Radcliffe, or created a new one similar to ones she had used in rural settings. This particular kind of space that gradually comes to appear to be infinite was explained in terms of Kant’s “mathematical sublime,” a new idea for me.

Katherine Bowers told us about a novel where a character is crushed to death by a giant helmet falling from the sky, the “first Gothic novel,” The Castle of Otranto (1764, free e-book from Project Gutenberg) by Horace Walpole. This, and the broader Gothic theme of the fall of a house (Poe and others), she connected to Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Family Golovlev (Господа Головлевы, 1875-80). To my surprise hers was the first of two papers on that novel I heard that day, along with Jaron Castilleja’s “Purgatory and Spirituality in Saltykov-Shchedrin’s The Golovlyov Family.” Bowers’s paper had a lot of fun material to work with and led to a discussion about whether and when Saltykov-Shchedrin is funny. Everyone agrees he’s just outright funny in stories like “The Story of How One Peasant Fed Two Whole Generals” (Повесть о том, как один мужик двух генералов прокормил, 1869), but The Family Golovlev is so wickedly dismal that some readers find it darkly funny and others just dark. Mirsky evidently found it the darkest book in all of Russian literature.

Discussant Kevin Platt said that a certain Russian Dinosaur had been abducted and taken to an abandoned castle and was therefore unable to attend. I think he also said – though here I may be conflating two panels – that the presenters were all to be praised for considering Russian literature in a cosmopolitan way: the main Russian authors of the time read a ton of French and English and German and other books, and to the extent that we pretend they only read other Russians, we blind ourselves to what they were all about. I couldn’t agree more.

I had met Bowers and Pettus before the panel and went both to see their papers and to learn more about the Gothic and nineteenth-century Russian prose (and theater).

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