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“He approaches any enthusiasm with a subtle and polite tinge of irony…”

May 9, 2015

The generational conflict in Goncharov’s An Ordinary Story (Обыкновенная история, 1847) mostly boils down to

Тогда вы все узнаете, —
Как глуп я прежде был,
Мечтал, как вы мечтаете,
Душой в эфире жил,
Бежать хотел в Швейцарию, —
И как родитель мой
С эфира в канцелярию
Столкнул меня клюкой,
(Nekrasov, “The Talker” [Говорун, 1845])

but with an uncle instead of a father yanking the young Aduev out of the ether and into a practical office. After reading so much about the generational conflict of the nihilist 1860s, jumping back to 1847 feels not just different, but backwards. The young nephew is not an indefatigably rational champion of science and progress, but a series of Romantic poses: the dreamer, the man disenchanted with life. And the uncle is not just an experienced player of the game who’s figured out how to go about making a fortune and a career in St. Petersburg. He’s also the one who gets to throw around the key words for Belinskii’s followers in the 1840s and 1850s, like дельный ‘practical, efficient, useful.’ From an 1860s point of view, it seems like young people should be the ones who care about everything being дельный. The uncle also uses гражданин ‘citizen’ in one of his speeches to his nephew:

Why did you imagine what does not happen? Didn’t I tell you plainly that up to now you have been trying to live a kind of life that’s never possible? According to you a man’s only business was to be a lover, a husband, father…. and of anything else you won’t even hear. Man is something beyond this; he is a citizen [гражданин] as well, and has a calling, an occupation of some kind—he’s an author, a landowner, a soldier, an official, or a manufacturer. You have read novels, and listened to your auntie out there in the wilds, and have come up here full of these ideas. You still imagined—a sublime passion.
(part 1, chapter 6, trans. Constance Garnett)

Here’s what Pisarev had to say in 1861 in “Pisemskii, Turgenev, and Goncharov”:

Read Goncharov from beginning to end, and in all probability you will never be carried away, nor fall into any reveries; you will not begin a heated argument with the author, nor will you call him either a reactionary or a fiery progressive. As you close the final page, you will say with perfect calm that Mr. Goncharov is a very intelligent and thoroughly rational man. Goncharov has no hobbyhorse, no pet idea; any sort of Utopia is quite uncongenial to him; he approaches any enthusiasm with a subtle and polite tinge of irony; he is a skeptic who does not carry his skepticism to extremes; he is a practical man and materialist capable of living harmoniously with the dreamer and idealist; he is an egoist who does not choose to accept the logical extremes of his world view and expresses his egoism in a tepidly warm attitude toward common ideas or even, when possible, in the ignoring of human and civic interests. This egoism shows through in all his works. Anyone who has read The Frigate Pallas or Oblomov will not find my opinion surprising. Ever tranquil, never carried away, our novelist brashly walks up to the convoluted problems of the public and private life of his heroes and heroines; without passion or prejudice he examines the situation, giving himself and the reader a most clear and detailed account of its minor idiosyncrasies, adopting the point of view of each of the characters in turn, without manifesting a strong sympathy for any of them, but understanding all of them in his way. He picks apart the situation and the qualities of his characters, but always refrains from pronouncing a final verdict. After reading An Ordinary Story, the reader cannot say the author is sympathetic to the elder Aduev, nor can he say that he considers him wrong. Nor does one observe any sympathy for the younger Aduev, either at the moment when he is the exact opposite of his uncle, or at the moment when he comes to resemble him. Consequently, while finishing the final page of the novel, the reader feels unsatisfied. An Ordinary Story produces the kind of impression that a superbly painted but dimly lit picture might produce. We feel that the author of the novel is an intelligent man, who is observant and capable of making sense of his observations; this man speaks to us about the phenomena of our life, describes them in detail for all to see; he depicts the influence these phenomena have on a young person who is becoming acquainted with life, but he depicts all this in a purely external way, only enumerating the symptoms of the changes taking place within his hero.

Pisarev goes on to complain that the narrator never takes a stand, that we never hear learn what he thinks of the people he is describing. He doesn’t want stories with a moral (“God forbid! That’s even more dull!”), but he says it’s impossible to tell a story without knowing why you’re telling it unless you’re “an idle prattler or a doddering old man,” and you should try harder to make sure the readers get their money’s and time’s worth.

It’s true that the voice of the narrator doesn’t really take the uncle’s or nephew’s side by commenting directly on them, but the author, in the sense of the architect of the plot, takes more of a stand than Pisarev gives him credit for. What seemed to be foreshadowing pointed to several possible endings that didn’t actually happen. In particular, I thought there were rather heavyhanded suggestions that Aduev the nephew and his uncle’s wife, both in their 20s, were going to fall in love; she had had a chance to see through her 50ish husband’s tactical approach to love. The older Aduev’s practicality would be revealed as useless; he needed the spark of youth, and didn’t have it either in himself or in the young wife he thought he had acquired. But the author has her remain true to her husband.

In the actual ending, the once naive nephew becomes the kind of man his uncle advised him to become, but more so. He marries for money and pushes himself forward in his career through blackmail and by asking for money and favors from powerful friends.

I think Pisarev’s right that the authorial point of view is that of a skeptic, but wrong to think it’s wishy-washy. The final verdict, as I read the novel, is that the nephew and uncle are both wrong, at nearly every stage. The uncle’s calculated way of materially getting the most out of life works, but the luxuries and prestige it gets him (and, ultimately, the nephew too) aren’t important. The nephew’s early commitment to Love and Friendship, like his belief in his artistic Talent, was play-acting: he failed to recognize real friendship because it didn’t follow the script he’d learned from books, while men who weren’t his friends could play the role he wanted them to play in order to get money from him. Every so often you can see a spark of humanity in the young or the old (in the uncle’s wife before she retreats into the book of household expenses; in the way women are drawn to the nephew, not because he has learned the art of attracting them, but because of something in him; in the extensive interest the uncle takes in his nephew without any hope for personal gain), but it is obscured or put out altogether by the uncle’s and nephew’s commonplace but incorrect ways of living their lives.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. May 10, 2015 8:21 am

    Poor Pisarev, wanting a novelist to draw conclusions for him! What did he make of Flaubert, I wonder?

    • May 10, 2015 9:02 pm

      He certainly had no trouble drawing his own conclusions, and from what I’ve read of him he seemed like a thoughtful reader (unlike, say, Antonovich), albeit with strong opinions. I wish we knew what he would have been like if he’d lived to be 80 or even 30.

  2. May 11, 2015 8:22 am

    Oh, I certainly didn’t mean to imply he wasn’t capable of drawing his own conclusions, and from what I’ve read (which so far doesn’t include his own stuff) he was an intelligent guy. But I have a Nabokovian chip on my shoulder about people who expect novelists to draw conclusions about life, to tell us how to think about politics or morality or (hi, Lev Nikolaevich!) history. As you know, I think that obsession had a deleterious effect on Russian criticism for generations (and I’m pleased to see that Peschio appears to have a similar take on things — I’ve been reading the free sample of his book Amazon sent me).

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