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The 1829-1834 craze for historical novels, and how Vel’tman was different

April 23, 2014

According to Boris Bukhshtab, all significant Russian novels from 1829 to 1834, not just Vel’tman’s, were historical novels. Some stuck very close to history and were very dry, like Bulgarin’s Dmitry the Pretender (Дмитрий Самозванец, 1830), where the main character and the supporting cast are actual historical figures, and the plot strings together their conversations about historical events. A larger set of novels by Lazhechnikov, Masal’skii, Zotov, and others had characters who were imagined rather than known historical figures, and the historical events described have little to do with the story involving the imaginary characters (34-35). In 1833 the following aphorism was so much the conventional wisdom that you could find it in a textbook: “One may make a very important observation that applies to all Historical Novels, that in them the History has no connection to the fiction” (35). Zagoskin wrote a kind of novel of manners where historical events faded into the background and the main thing was a series of separate scenes illustrating the manners of a particular time, but there were two problems: the manners were those of Zagoskin’s own time, not of the past he purported to be describing (according to contemporary critics), and the alternating scenes of manners and weak historical plot got in each other’s way (35-36).

Vel’tman finds an effective way of combining history and fiction. He fills Koshchei up with the names of obsolete things (but does not describe them, cf. Bestuzhev-Marlinskii) and reconstructs, inventing as necessary, a complete world of old-time everyday life (36-38). His narrator uses many long-gone words, but as quotations, and plays openly with the difference in his and the reader’s perspective and that of the characters. “Vel’tman considers the description of historical events in the novel to be purely a retardation device and plays on this.” There is some history, then the narrator breaks in with “But what do we care about this? Where is Koshchei the Deathless? Where is Iva?” (36).

It sounds like Vel’tman is to Bestuzhev-Marlinskii what Kuzmin will later be to Briusov, in that he artfully declines to explain realia the modern reader can’t be expected to know. And perhaps Vel’tman is not just like Kuzmin, but like the playful Kuzmin of Venetian Madcaps (Венецианские безумцы, written 1912), which is set in eighteenth-century Venice but has more than an occasional wink from the twentieth-century author.

See B. Ia. Bukhshtab, “Pervye romany Vel’tmana,” in Fet i drugie: Izbrannye raboty (St. Petersburg, 2000), 25-56 (originally published in 1926; see this overview and this post on Vel’tman’s language).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. April 24, 2014 9:08 am

    This is really strange. It reminds me again – reading about Chernyshevsky I am repeatedly reminded – how small the Russian intellectual and artistic world was. “[A]ll significant” novels were historical novels! And such tedious-sounding novels. I can’t imagine a response like this anywhere else.

  2. April 24, 2014 10:19 am

    The Russian intellectual world really was small, but the novel was also only starting to take off. Leading up to 1829, the action was mostly in poetry and drama. The famous example is Pushkin’s “descent into prose,” where after making his name with things like Ruslan and Liudmila and Eugene Onegin he feels compelled to write The Tales of Belkin, “The Queen of Spades,” and “The Captain’s Daughter” in the 1830s. But it’s not just him — even people who are remembered only for the prose they wrote starting in the 1830s, like Gogol and (the not quite so well remembered) Vel’tman, started out trying to write poetry. It would be harder to generalize about “all significant novels” from a later 5-year period.

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