Skip to content

“Chernyshevsky’s monotone reading technique, interspersed with continuous ‘nu-s’ and ‘da-s,’ also had many emulators”

January 29, 2014

I’ve heard bits and pieces about the public readings in Russia under Alexander II: how Pisemskii loved reading his works aloud as much as his characters and thought he was as good an actor as a writer; how Nekrasov read poems with a voice destroyed by illness, thought by the public to be the result of nights on the street after he was evicted in a St. Petersburg winter in the late 1830s, but actually the result of a venereal disease; or how in 1880 Dostoevskii “prayerfully” read the late Nekrasov’s “When, out of the darkness of error” (Когда из мрака заблужденья, 1845), which the Underground Man had so bitterly mocked. But I hadn’t thought much about the readings as a phenomenon before Raffaella Vassena’s article on the vogue for public readings in the early 1860s.

The first readings were just authors reading their own work in their several styles:

[…] contemporaries wrote that the voice of Turgenev was able to portray the different characters via infinite degrees of intonation, and they described how his face could turn dangerously pale during the most dramatic parts of the recital, yet come back to life in the more entertaining parts. Ostrovsky read very slowly, as if intent on hearing every nuance of his own voice. Goncharov read in an impeccable yet excessively detached and formal manner. Nekrasov had a feeble, almost ghost-like voice which was so impressive that it became the fashion to read à-la Nekrasov. Chernyshevsky’s monotone reading technique, interspersed with continuous “nu-s” and “da-s,” also had many emulators. Pisemsky was considered an expert at bringing to life the different accents of the characters. Polonsky, however, sometimes employed excessively solemn and artificial vocal tones, while Pleshcheev enchanted the audience with his mellifluous and delicate voice. (54-55)

They came to include more kinds of performance, including a production of Gogol’s Inspector General (Ревизор, 1836) with this cast: “Dostoevsky the Postmaster joined by Pisemsky in the role of [the Governor], Veinberg as Khlestakov, F. A. Koni (Ostrovsky’s understudy) as Abdulin the merchant, and Turgenev, Maikov, Druzhinin, Kraevsky, and Dmitry Grigorovich in the roles of the merchants” (53). Petr Veinberg remembered it like this:

When the curtain rose and the audience set eyes on Pisemsky, the hall was filled with thunderous clapping and applause which lasted for several minutes; the same thing happened when Dostoevsky took to the stage. […] The fervor and enthusiasm of the audience were more than justified! Turgenev’s appearance alone merited such passion with his pince-nez, the sugar loaf he carried in his hand and his long frock coat. (53)

Audiences at the beginning reacted with vigor, applauding madly when Maikov was about to get to a line that mentioned freedom (51) and treating everything as a daring political message, even when it wasn’t (59-60). Then they stopped coming and the readings became fewer. Why that happened is interesting.

In 1864 a contributor to Library for Reading argued along the lines that the “reciprocal exchange between literature and journalism had gone too far […] and the public, bored with progressive slogans and tedious political meetings, once again yearned for literature” (57). (The first major public reading happened on January 10, 1860.) The public readings had had a very political atmosphere in the exciting early days of the Great Reforms. Not only that, Chernyshevskii and others had tried to politicize the activities of the Literary Fund — the charity for “needy writers and scholars” that organized the public readings — by insisting “that funding should be granted mostly to students and to democratic and revolutionary writers” (57). The idea of the tyranny of the radical critics doesn’t come out of nowhere.

Vassena doesn’t agree with that 1864 analysis, though, claiming instead that “the reason for the drop in the number of public readings could not be put down so much or only to a sudden lack of interest on the part of the public, but rather to the growing reaction of the government, which was busy dealing with the increasingly tense atmosphere caused by the peasant riots of 1861, the protracted student demonstrations, the arsonist fires started in St. Petersburg in May 1862, and the Polish insurrection of 1863” (57). And so the government exiled Platon Pavlov for the way he delivered a speech on history that had been pre-cleared with the censor (58-59), put the secret police in charge of issuing permits for public readings  (61), and sent spies to the few readings that still did happen (62).

In 1860 Turgenev had been reading from A Sportsman’s Sketches (Записки охотника, 1847-52) and Nekrasov poems like “Blessed is the unspiteful poet” (Блажен незлобивый поэт, 1852) and “Whether I drive down a dark road at night” (Еду ли ночью по улице темной, 1847). In 1864 “Nekrasov introduced the reading of [Red-Nosed Frost] ‘Moroz, krasnyi-nos’ (1863) with a short preamble, in which he specified that no tendentious message was to be looked for in his poem, while Turgenev chose to read a work devoid of any ideological intentions, the fantasy story Phantoms ([Призраки,]1864)” (62).

At this point the readings wind down, but they will have a separate boom in popularity in the late 1870s (63).

See Raffaella Vassena, “‘Chudo nevedomoi sily’: Public Literary Readings in the Era of the Great Reforms,” The Russian Review 73.1 (2014): 47-63 (abstract and gated pdf).

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 29, 2014 8:41 am

    I suspect I would have liked Goncharov’s readings; a “detached and formal manner” is fine with me, and I intensely dislike overly actorly readings (whether by actors or not), with melodramatic pauses, emphases, etc. Let the prose do its own work, say I. And needless to say I would love to have been at that production of Ревизор (when was it?) — what a cast!

    • January 29, 2014 9:37 am

      Vassena says the performance of Ревизор was on April 14, 1860.

      Contrasting volunteer-made Librivox audiobooks with professional recordings has made me appreciate how good actors read, though of course if it seems actorly or melodramatic they’re doing it wrong. I think I would have found Chernyshevskii’s unartful way of reading just as distracting as the overdone kind.

  2. January 29, 2014 10:13 am

    Aha, and with that date I have found Joseph Frank’s lively description of the event:

    In April 1860, Dostoevsky himself came into public view as a participant in some amateur theatricals organized by the Literary Fund. Pisemsky had hit on the idea of presenting plays with celebrated literary figures filling the roles, and Dostoevsky was invited to join the fun in the role of the postmaster Shpekin in Gogol’s The Inspector-General. The evening was a howling success; all cultivated Petersburg turned out to see the notorious lions of literature disporting themselves behind the footlights. So much laughter was provoked by the appearance of Turgenev, Kraevsky, and Maikov—arrived to present their “gifts” to the supposed inspector-general and to complain about the depredations of the governor—that those who wished to enjoy the play protested publicly against the unseemly uproar. Among these indignant spectators was the Grand Prince Konstantin Nikolaevich, the brother of the tsar, who was known to have worked behind the scenes in favor of the abolition of serfdom, and who had also come to catch a glimpse of the literary luminaries. “I do not believe,” writes the journalist Peter Weinberg (with whom Dostoevsky would soon cross swords), “that anyone familiar with Feodor Mikhailovich in the last years of his life could possibly imagine him as a comic . . . knowing how to stimulate a pure Gogolian laughter; but it was really so, and Dostoevsky-Shpekin was . . . faultless.”

  3. January 29, 2014 10:15 am

    That was shortly after his return from Siberian exile, and I imagine he relished the chance to have some comedy for a change.

    • January 29, 2014 2:14 pm

      Yes, and Vassena quotes Veinberg saying that Dostoevskii was the first writer to sign up because he wanted to get back in the public eye after his years away.

      Thanks for the Frank quote. I was thinking of his book with this article too – there was a reading on March 2, 1862 with the lineup Dostoevskii, Nekrasov, Chernyshevskii, Pavlov (the last getting exiled for his speech). That seemed to fit with Frank’s thesis (if I remember right) that during this period Dostoevskii saw himself and was seen as another radical writer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: