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Pisemskii’s first novel

June 12, 2020

Pisemskii had already written several things in the 1840s, but didn’t publish anything until 1848, the year when Nicholas I tightened censorship practices in response to events in Europe. So what was his pre-1848 prose like?

Not his first work, but the first long thing he had high hopes for, was a piece called “Is She to Blame?” (Виновата ли она?) that was written by 1844. Mogilianskii calls “Is She to Blame?” Pisemskii’s first novel, though he quotes Pisemskii himself referring to the early versions of it as a story (повесть). I’m going to give a letter to all the different texts that are thought to be at least partially derived from or related to it.

A. “Is She to Blame?” (Виновата ли она?), 1844 version: never published, now lost

Pisemskii showed his finished manuscript to his professor Stepan Shevyrev, who recommended changes (25).

B. “Is She to Blame?” (Виновата ли она?), 1847 version: never published, now lost

Pisemskii wrote to Shevyrev on March 13th, 1847 that he had “significantly changed” his story (повесть) “Is She to Blame?” according to Shevyrev’s suggestions: “in particular, I softened and ennobled many scenes as best I could; and most importantly, I focused on the character of Van’kovskii (my heroine’s husband) and, if one can put it this way, humanized him: Van’kovskii is no longer able to carry out an investigation on his wife and harm Shamilov; he is prevented by the prince. He gets mad, suffers, drinks, falls ill in consequence of the latter circumstance, and he is now pitiful, if terrible” (25).

C. “Nina” (Нина), published in Son of the Fatherland in 1848

Pisemskii wasn’t happy about changes the editor Masal’skii made to “Nina” and never republished it (25). However, Mogilianskii says Pisemskii used elements of (C) and (B) to keep working on a piece still with the title

D. “Is She to Blame?” (Виновата ли она?), hypothetical 1848 version incorporating text from earlier versions and “Nina”

Next Pisemskii turns to

E. “The Lump,” a.k.a. “The Simpleton” (Тюфяк), published in The Muscovite in 1850

He stopped working on “The Lump” (an English title proposed by Languagehat) for a time in 1849 for unknown reasons, probably some combination of work and family responsibilities, depression, and alcoholism (26). The text of (E) drew on (C) and (D), and everything so far, from (A) to (E), seems to have had a significant autobiographical component (26).

He places the next piece in a St. Petersburg journal:

F. “A Rich Fiancé” (Богатый жених) as published in The Contemporary in 1851–52

This also seems to use a lot of material from (A) and/or (B).

G. “Is She to Blame?” (Виновата ли она?) as published in The Contemporary in 1855

Pisemskii finally publishes something with the title he’d been using since 1844, but (G) isn’t necessarily the text that’s closest to (A) and (B). Some people think the closest text to (B) is

H. “Boiarshchina” (Боярщина), published in Library for Reading in 1858

But Mogilianskii disagrees (29). Then we have revised versions of (F) and (G):

I. “A Rich Fiancé” (Богатый жених) as published in Pisemskii’s Works in 1861

J. “Is She to Blame?” (Виновата ли она?) as published in Pisemskii’s Works in 1861

Mogilianskii wants to use all these published texts from 1848–61, (C) and (E) through (J), to try to get at what the lost texts from 1844–47, (A) and (B), were like, so we have a better idea of Pisemskii’s evolution. As he points out, such an attempt is complicated by Pisemskii’s change in worldview and artistic manner in response to 1848 and his separate change in worldview around 1856 (26). Here’s what he finds:

If we compare (G) to (J), the character Leonid Van’kovskii becomes less religious, indicating a movement away from a hypothetical 1840s religious Romanticism in Pisemskii’s approach (26–27).

In the fiction Pisemskii published from 1850–52 we see a drive to be comic at all costs that we had not seen in earlier texts, as in a ball scene in (E). We also see this approach in works from 1850–52 that aren’t obviously connected to (A) or (B), like “Sergey Petrovich Khozarov and Mari Stupitsyna: A Marriage of Passion” (Сергей Петрович Хозаров и Мари Ступицына: Брак по страсти, 1851). If Pisemskii started writing like this in 1850, then post-1850 texts derived from (A) and (B) are probably closer to the original (A) and (B) if they don’t have this forcefully comic quality (27-28). In particular, (G) doesn’t have this drive toward the comic, which may mean the text of it is substantially similar to (A) and (B) (28).

When he was revising (F) to publish (I), Pisemskii cut 100 passages, removing two characters altogether (except for one mention of Prince Setskii’s estate of Semenovskoe that was preserved by mistake); this was necessary because (H) had been published, and he didn’t want it to look like he was repeating himself (28). Count Sapega’s estate of Kamenko in (H) is a bit like Prince Setskii’s estate of Semenovskoe in (F), but the passages describing them are different enough that Mogilianskii thinks they were written in 1851 and 1857, not carried over from (A) and (B). It’s nevertheless likely that some passages in (F) were taken unchanged from (A) or (B) (28–29).

When Pisemskii was preparing the text of (H) in 1857, he was probably working from three earlier texts: (A), (B), and (F) (29–30).

The character Shamilov was especially important and difficult for Pisemskii. In (F), he went back and forth “between the harsh truth and attempts to give extended scenes that to some extent rehabilitated this weak-willed character” (30). The 1861 version, (I), cuts passages that make Shamilov look better, as well as some that make him look especially bad (30). After Shamilov leaves, in the earlier version, (F), he writes long, affectionate letters, but in (I) he doesn’t write to his fiancée at all (30).

These various versions of Shamilov must be kept in mind when we think about how much the character El’chaninov in (H) differs from Shamilov in (F) and elsewhere (30).

Here is how Mogilianskii characterizes “Pisemskii’s realism of 1847–48” in light of comparing all these texts and versions:

The most characteristic thing about this realism is the clear intention to decisively tear open not just the dark sides of noble life, but its terrible, nightmarish sides, although these are in no way connected to the question of relations between landowners and their serfs. In his first novel, to judge by “Boiarshchina,” only the poor Savelii Molotov is called upon to reconcile the reader at least a little bit with the nobility (not counting Anna Pavlovna, victim of three landowners). In the story “Is She to Blame?” the Van’kovskiis, brother and sister, as well as the narrator himself, serve as such reconciling figures. Pisemskii’s critical attitude toward the nobility is in no way linked to satirical intentions; the question of satire does not even come to mind, just as the comic is alien to him in these works.

Для этого реализма характерно прежде всего отчетливое стремление к решительному вскрытию не только теневых сторон дворянской жизни, но и страшных, кошмарных ее сторон, хотя они ни в какой мере не связаны с вопросом о взаимоотношениях помещиков с их крепостными. В первом романе, если судить о нем по “Боярщине”, один только бедняк Савелий Молотов призван как-то примирить читателя с дворянским сословием (если не считать жертвы трех помещиков — Анны Павловны). В повести “Виновата ли она?” такими примиряющими образами служат брат и сестра Ваньковские и сам рассказчик. Критическое отношение к дворянской среде у Писемского никак не связано с сатирическими намерениями, вопрос о сатире даже не приходит на ум, в той же мере, как ему чуждо в этих произведениях комическое. (31)

See chapter 2, “Судьба ранних произведений [The Fate of the Early Works],” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 24–35.

In 1969 Charles A. Moser cast Pisemskii’s decision to publish (H) as him taking advantage of his position on the staff of Library for Reading to finally publish “his very first work of any significance” and says that he ”recast the story considerably, eliminating what he called its ‘bawdiness’ and patching up the gaping wounds left when he had cannibalized it for stories published earlier in the 1850’s” (81).

2 Comments leave one →
  1. languagehat permalink
    June 12, 2020 8:25 am

    It’s not clear to me from your references to Тюфяк and Сергей Петрович Хозаров и Мари Ступицына: Брак по страсти whether you’ve read them yet; if so, I’ll celebrate! I’ve been so eager for you to finally read something of his I’ve read myself…

    • June 12, 2020 10:21 am

      It’s not by design, but I think we still haven’t overlapped at all! I’m just going through Mogilianskii’s book in order.

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