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“…the prose is not as bad as I’d heard it was.”

April 10, 2014
Illustration by Petr Naumovich Pinkisevich (1925-2004) of Vera Pavlovna's sewing cooperative

Illustration by Petr Naumovich Pinkisevich (1925-2004) of Vera Pavlovna’s sewing cooperative

You may remember that Tom at Wuthering Expectations is having a readalong of  Chernyshevskii’s What Is to Be Done? (Что делать?, 1863). I think the typical blog post about the novel is going to be one explaining why, when the novel is so badly written in so many ways, it’s nevertheless worthwhile. For one thing, as Tom says, “people read it and then write masterpieces.”

Novelist and blogger Scott G. F. Bailey has a lot more answersWhat Is to Be Done? is “preachy and digressive and the prose is not great, but the prose is not as bad as I’d heard it was. I’m actually having a pretty good time with it.” He makes it sound fun even when he’s making fun of it:

Vera wishes to escape from the corrupt home of her parents. Her options are all pretty bleak. She can marry the landlord (a cad who falsely claimed to his pals that he’d already made Vera his mistress) although she’s refused his offers many times already. She can become a governess, but certainly not in one of the better families if she’s running away from an engagement. She can throw herself out the window and end it all. Or, she can marry romantic hero Dmitri Lopukhov, a medical student who tutors Vera’s young brother Fedya once a week. Dmitri is in love with Vera, just as Vera is in love with Dmitri, this love springing suddenly forth when they talk briefly about egalitarian utopianism at a dance. Yes, you feel the heat pulsing on the page in that scene, Reader. Later there is a Socratic dialogue about materialism that made my palms quite damp.

A couple generations of Russian women read Chernyshevskii’s novel as a how-to guide for bringing radical egalitarianism to this world, not the next. Maybe I’m exaggerating, but Zinaida Gippius, one of the great early twentieth-century Russian poets, and her husband, Nobel Prize–winning -nominated writer Dmitrii Sergeevich Merezhkovskii, modeled their marriage on Vera Pavlovna and Dmitrii Sergeevich Lopukhov from What Is to Be Done? However, Bailey finds a scene that he reads convincingly as showing that “Chernyshevsky intends an egalitarian, feminist propaganda with this book, but he can’t help seeing women as sort of cute and frivolous.” That’s all still from this post at Six Words for a Hat. And then there’s another whole post where Bailey tries to put his finger on what he likes but keeps describing weaknesses. There’s no sense of the 1850s St. Petersburg setting; there’s only one metaphor, and it’s overdone; and when it comes to characterization,

Chernyshevsky does a lot of what’s called telling in the novelist’s trade. “What kind of woman was Marya? I will tell you…” and then he does, you know. At some length. At some clumsy repetitive length. A length of time will be spent clumsily expositing upon Marya’s character. You will learn about Marya, who is similar, in many ways, to the landlady’s mother. Et cetera. Very little of this has any life to it, any kick […]

I could keep quoting these posts all day, but instead you should click through and read them, and also Bailey’s first “base camp” post, and Tom’s announcement of the readalong from January. I’m rereading the novel too, though I keep getting distracted by other things. But these blog posts are spurring me on to read more, and so are the comments, like this, again from Bailey:

It’s like this book was written by an alien. “Sewing collective,” Chernyshevsky says. “That sounds good. I wonder what ‘sewing’ is? Well, it can’t be important, can it? The collective is what matters.” Dickens would give us all the dresses, the needle-pricked fingertips and the names of the clients and seamstresses, and we’d even know what the inside of the shop looked like.

9 Comments leave one →
  1. between4walls permalink
    April 10, 2014 10:35 pm

    Yes, those posts are most excellent.

    Merezhkovsky never won the Nobel Prize, though he was nominated a huge number of times. (Back when I was reading up on Julian the Apostate, I got burned on Merezhkovsky by a particularly bad bit of a novel he wrote on the subject. Gratuitous rape scenes are one thing, historically-out-of-character gratuitous rape scenes are another.)

  2. April 15, 2014 2:23 am

    between4walls: thanks, I guess that I didn’t take that spousal rape episode to heart – it’s not so much melodramatic or satanic as it is formulaic, in terms of character types and their language. Historically, it’s probably OOC, but it’s not out of place in Merezhkovsky’s work. Helena is a flesh-averse ultra-pious Christian who’s not unlike an Old Believer girl from Merezhkovsky’s Petr and Alexey (I haven’t read P&A so the girl is my invention, but I bet you will find the type in the novel). In Greek Orthodox monastic literature – popular reading in pre-Petrine (and increasingly, in present-day) Russia – demons impersonating real people, and various other ghosts are nothing unusual. An educated Russian reader would immediately recognize a familiar religious type in Helena.

    • between4walls permalink
      April 15, 2014 8:08 am

      Thanks for giving that bit some context- I came across it while googling randomly, totally out of context, so didn’t know much about Merezhkovsky’s other work and how it fits in with that.

      • between4walls permalink
        April 15, 2014 8:15 am

        Still don’t like that scene, though.

    • between4walls permalink
      April 15, 2014 8:15 am

      Since you’ve read the rest of the novel, how is it? Worth reading? Interesting historically or just religiously?

      • April 16, 2014 12:49 am

        Interesting if you’re interested in Merezhkovsky. I read it by chance – I stumbled on a pre-1917 copy among my wife’s books.

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