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March 23, 2015


7 Comments leave one →
  1. kaggsysbookishramblings permalink
    March 23, 2015 8:39 am

    Thanks for the link and also for pointing me to the review of Petersburg – I definitely am a fan of McDuff’s translation of this book!

  2. March 23, 2015 10:40 am

    But contrasting Vel’tman’s “clever plot construction and examination of identity and deception” to “a thousand mournful accounts of the sufferings of downtrodden peasants” is a straw man if ever there was. Drably mournful accounts may exist, but don’t A Sportsman’s Sketches, Oblomov, Troubled Seas, War and Peace, “The Last One” [Последыш], “The Sealed Angel,” and even “The Toupée Artist” do a bit more than wallow in peasant suffering?

    With respect, you’re ignoring the vital issue of Sturgeon’s Law. I never said there were no good accounts of downtrodden peasants — I’m as fond of Turgenev, Goncharov, and Tolstoy as anyone — but unlike you (and pretty much everyone else), I’ve been immersing myself in the prose of the 1840s en bloc, not just reading the successes cherry-picked by posterity, and I assure you that my “thousand mournful accounts” may be a slight exaggeration but is no straw man. Suffering peasants were very much the in thing; I recommend trying, say, Grigorovich’s «Антон Горемыка» for a more representative sample. The problem is not A Sportsman’s Sketches, the problem is that the same impulse that led Turgenev to write it and the reading public to acclaim it led to a flood of much less accomplished works, and my objection is not to their existence — people need crap as well as greatness, including me — but to the fact that the new popularity of realism (or “realism”) drove everything else out of the market. Compare the effect of Star Wars on American cinema; I loved it when it came out, but if I’d known it would mean a deluge of interchangeable fantasy adventures and the end of the era of movies like Chinatown and The Conversation, I’d have happily gone back in time and destroyed the negative before any prints could be made.

    You needn’t be defensive about the great realist works of 19th-century Russia; I couldn’t dent their popularity even if I wanted to, which I don’t. I’m simply trying to make the case for an alternative tradition which has been forgotten in the enthusiasm for Tolstoy & Co. Surely there’s room for more than one story about Russian literature?

    • March 23, 2015 12:29 pm

      There’s absolutely room for more than one story, and I’m grateful to you for making me aware (over your series of Vel’tman posts, and Senkovskii posts, and others) of a whole story I didn’t know about. I guess what I meant to say is that I don’t think it was the Grigoroviches who pushed Vel’tman to the fringe of the canon, at least in the long term. In terms of Sturgeon’s Law, for some reason generations of readers put Vel’tman in the 90% pile, and to get into the 10% he’d have to climb over someone not named Grigorovich. The people who squeezed him out were Pushkin, Gogol, and Lermontov on one side and Turgenev, Goncharov, Dostoevskii, Tolstoi, Nekrasov, Tiutchev, Fet, and Ostrovskii on the other. It was some (arbitrary or fair) selection of “greats” who ended up with their piece of the culture, not the writers who best conformed to 1840s/50s/60s ideas about what to write about and how. Grigorovich and the Decembrist Bestuzhev-Marlinskii don’t do so much better than Vel’tman or Elena Gan, while I think Lermontov is admired more or less continuously, and Fet always has his supporters.

      I probably shouldn’t try to argue these things in a sentence or two in a links post, and I also shouldn’t forget about your chronological march through literature. I was tying your line about the mournful accounts of peasant suffering to your dismissal of Chernyshevskii at the beginning of your post (and thinking it was a caricature, since What Is to Be Done? isn’t even about peasants), when I should have been thinking of people writing in the 1840s like Grigorovich.

      (Our exchange is a bit like Rohan Maitzen’s post linked above, where her friend is laid up and says she’s been listening to lots of Victorian novels about invalids — which sounds like something there must be a lot of — but Maitzen asks with mild skepticism “oh yeah? Which novels are those?” And then her friend names some. That is, I had the urge to push back on a characterization I’ve heard before but couldn’t think of that many examples of, and got more examples.)

  3. March 23, 2015 5:29 pm

    Grigorovich and the Decembrist Bestuzhev-Marlinskii don’t do so much better than Vel’tman or Elena Gan

    Oh, I think they do. To take a representative and reasonably modern survey, The Cambridge History of Russian Literature devotes three pages to Grigorovich and four to Bestuzhev-Marlinsky; Veltman and Gan each get less than a paragraph (on consecutive pages, as it happens) — Gan gets a brief summary of “Ideal” (“the story is improbable and the style sententious”) and a little more about her life, and Veltman gets a slightly longer description of “Erotida,” with nary a mention of any of his novels. While the good Prince Mirsky doesn’t devote much attention to any of them, he does shine a brighter light on Bestuzhev and Grigorovich than on “Hahn” and “Weltmann” (!); as I wrote here, “Mirsky gave him the wrong first name, rendered his last name as ‘Weltmann,’ and was off by ten years in his death date.” I don’t expect him to get the kind of space and attention I think he deserves unless and until views of Russian literature undergo a thorough overhaul, but even if one accepts the dominance of the realist tradition, he certainly deserves more than the cursory mentions he gets.

    I probably shouldn’t try to argue these things in a sentence or two in a links post

    Oh, heck, sure you should — this kind of back-and-forth is very useful for sparking off trains of thought, and it’s fun to boot!

    • March 23, 2015 7:29 pm

      Oh, I think they do. To take a representative and reasonably modern survey, The Cambridge History of Russian Literature devotes three pages to Grigorovich and four to Bestuzhev-Marlinsky; Veltman and Gan each get less than a paragraph

      I take your point. I looked in Isabel Hapgood’s old survey of Russian literature thinking it might be a counterexample, and at first I thought Grigorovich was only mentioned in a list of writers in Belinskii’s circle, but then I realized that I was in the wrong chapter and the next section was called “Seventh Period: Gontcharóff. Grigoróvitch. Turgéneff.” What she writes supports everything you say about writers’ reputations (and probably confirms your feelings about Hapgood too): “Another of the men who made his mark at this time was Dmítry Vasílievitch Grigoróvitch (born in 1812), who wrote a number of brilliant books between 1847-1855. His chief merit is that he was the first to begin the difficult study of the common people; the first who talked in literature about the peasants, their needs, their virtues, their helplessness, their misfortunes, and their sufferings. Of his early short stories, ‘Antón Goremýka’ (wretched fellow) is the best…” (p. 163). So I concede I was overstating the case and Grigorovich and Bestuzhev-Marlinskii are indeed given more attention than Vel’tman and Gan (who I don’t think Hapgood gives a word). But it’s still a question of degree of minorness: none of the four make the real cut, which I think you think Vel’tman should make.

      FWIW the Terras Handbook of Russian Literature (the second most Vel’tman-friendly thing I’ve read, after your blog) gives almost a full column to Vel’tman, slightly closer to a full column to Grigorovich, just over a column to Bestuzhev-Marlinskii, and about a quarter of a column to one paragraph on Gan.

      this kind of back-and-forth is very useful for sparking off trains of thought, and it’s fun to boot!


  4. March 24, 2015 8:46 am

    Let me put it this way: I would be shocked if a course on 19th-Century Russian Lit didn’t mention Grigorovich and Bestuzhev-Marlinsky (though I wouldn’t expect students to be assigned any of their works); I would be very pleasantly surprised if it mentioned Veltman (and probably expire from delight if it went into his career and works in any detail).

    Here’s what I don’t get. We don’t approach 20th-century lit the same way; there’s no felt need to choose either the Realists (Bunin, Sholokhov, Grossman, Solzhenitsyn, etc.) or the Formalists, those whose primary interest is in form and language rather than making points about society and history (Bely, Nabokov, Venedikt Erofeev, Sorokin, etc.). Why can’t the same eclectic mix-and-match approach be used for the previous century? Why does appreciating Tolstoy mean you have to ignore Veltman? (I’m not saying this is a conscious choice anyone makes, but it certainly seems to be how it works.) It’s as if we can’t break the magic spell cast by generations of Belinskyite/Soviet socially conscious critics.

    • March 24, 2015 10:05 am

      I think what you’re describing in the 20th century isn’t exactly an eclectic mix-and-match approach. People study Bely as part of Symbolism or Modernism, or Nabokov as part of émigré literature, or Solzhenitsyn as part of dissident Soviet literature, or Aksenov as one of the shestidesiatniki, and so on — the exact groupings may vary, but in the 20th century or the 19th, it helps to be seen as part of a larger movement or group of writers. Vel’tman’s problem may be partly that he стоит особняком. To the extent that Realists push out other writers from the 1840s or 1850s to the 1880s, I don’t think it’s any different from the way the Romantics dominate people’s attention from the 1810s to the 1830s, or the various Modernist movements do from the 1890s to the 1920s (Leonid Andreev probably suffers because of this, while Bely, Blok, Briusov, Remizov, et al. gain).

      I know Bestuzhev-Marlinskii was mentioned in my courses many times. I think Grigorovich was talked about a little, but I think I heard more about Druzhinin and Polin’ka Saks, and not much about him. I can’t say for sure if anyone mentioned Vel’tman. Except for Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol, I’m not sure I had to read any prose from the 1830s at all for the courses I took.

      One thing about Vel’tman: he doesn’t get the same treatment as Vladimir Benediktov, who was intensely and briefly popular around the same time (mid-late 1830s) and also fell from popularity very quickly. But Benediktov was enthusiastically parodied and made fun of once people stopped thinking of him as a real poet, and now professors talk about him as a “literary phenomenon” rather than a writer. Vel’tman, it seems, either gets ignored or is called unjustly forgotten and ripe for revival.

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