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“Why didn’t he marry her? That isn’t even explained.”

August 29, 2014

Characters in 1860s Russian fiction like to discuss George Sand. Here it’s a married couple and the husband’s soon-to-be lover arguing about the morality of her Leone Leoni (1833):

“Well? Did you like the book?” asked the countess.

I replied that I had.

“Oh, comme vous êtes romanesque! In my opinion that book is simply indecent.” She turned to her husband, “I mean, the hero isn’t married! What do you think, could a well-brought-up woman fall in love with anyone but her husband? And this woman even travels all over Europe with her lover! — Why didn’t he marry her? That isn’t even explained.”

Permskii jumped up from his chair.

“Tell me, my dear,” he asked, “where did you get all this commentary? Is it from Karl Fedorych? But even he wouldn’t say that a decent upbringing will stop a woman from falling in love.”

The countess was offended, since even before that she had been out of sorts; I started to feel sorry for her and inserted myself into the conversation.

“Countess,” I said, “the novel’s principal goal is to prove that a woman’s devotion knows no bounds. You’re right: I don’t understand why G. Sand didn’t have Leoni get married. Her goal would have been accomplished just the same.”

When the countess considered herself insulted by her husband, she tried to get her revenge with insinuations.

“Aha! That’s just it!” she replied. “And what was I just saying? If Léoni were married to the heroine, well, then I’d understand how she could love him so much. How could one fail to love such a husband? — He takes care of her and spoils her in every possible way, and even steals so he can buy her clothes. — He is prepared to defile his soul just so she can enjoy herself.” (21-22)

The “I” here is the title character of Ol’ga N.‘s “Liza” (Лиза, 1864). The center of “Liza” is a contrast between Count Permskii’s love for Liza, as told in an inserted narrative by Liza herself (18-24), and the main narrator’s love (?) for Liza, as revealed in the part of the story he tells (1-18, 24-26). Neither man will love her forever, but Liza prefers the count’s reckless love (first revealed when he gives her a copy of Leone Leoni after the conversation above) to the narrator’s cautious love. The narrator thinks it would be unfair to her and himself if he slept with her knowing he didn’t want to marry her, but Liza finds this no sort of love at all, and would rather have the pleasure and subsequent pain of the count’s temporary love than have neither.

The narrator and Liza don’t trust people who “never make mistakes,” like the narrator’s sisters, who grew up with him in a house where “women’s life was dedicated only to duty and prayer” (6), and unlike the count (9). In the end the narrator proves to be such a person himself.

Two of the three stories I’ve read by Ol’ga N. have a female character who is too fond of clothes and has no sensibility to great art or true love (the countess here, Anna in “Live Not As You Like, But As God Commands” [“Не так живи, как хочется, а так, как Бог велит,” 1854]). Two of the three show the life of a woman through a rather generic but apparently well-born male narrator (this one and “Martha: A True Story” [Марфа. Быль, 1876]). In both cases that man remarks that the main female character is хорошо сложена ‘nicely put together.’

She wrote a lot, and I shouldn’t rush to judgment, but based on one story from the 1850s, one from the 1860s, and one from the 1870s, there seems to be a trend in Ol’ga N.’s approach to narration. In “Live Not As You Like,” I think the third-person narrator commented often on what the main male and female characters did or should feel. Here in “Liza,” we mostly see the main woman through the eyes of a man who misunderstands her, but the flashback about Permskii is told in her voice, as the narrator memorized those 1,774 words “word for word” (18). And in “Martha,” most of the story is what a priest tells the narrator, who then tells us, while a little is what the narrator sees of Martha directly; we hear her say a few things, but never tell her own story. More and more, we see women through what men fail to see.

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