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Pisemskii, Thackeray, and Gogol, and also Lermontov

June 13, 2020

Pisemskii in 1854 explicitly refers to Thackeray (“the great humorist”) and The Book of Snobs (1846–48) as a model he may not be able to live up to (32). Writing about book two of Dead Souls (Мертвые души), which came out in 1855, he also says Gogol should have followed Thackeray’s example (32).

In that 1855 article, Pisemskii compares Fonvizin, Kantemir, and Griboedov, as satirists who simply attacked the less educated, to Gogol, a great humorist who satirized the human soul, whose characters could not be fixed by mere education, who was “in one respect more universally human, and on the other hand more national” than his predecessors (33).

Mogilianskii thinks Pisemskii’s article about Gogol was perceptive, but that he shot himself in the foot by trying to take his own advice and write like Thackeray or Gogol. Being a great humorist wasn’t suitable to his gifts; where he overlapped with Gogol was in the merciless analysis of the “black side of life” that Pisemskii also saw in Gogol’s work (33–34). (Pisemskii can’t say Belinskii’s name in print but transparently praises him in that 1855 article, 34.)

Lermontov’s Pechorin was “not a very attractive individual, but also not very easy to make fun of” (34); Pisemskii tries to mix Gogolian and Lermontovian elements by mocking a provincial imitator of Pechorin in “The Lump” (Тюфяк, 1850) (34). He makes his point competently, but not in a way that makes his Pechorin-imitator, Bakhtiarov, more interesting for the reader, in a chapter dedicated to that character (34). The goal of comically dethroning Pechorin is made more explicit in “M. Batmanov” (M-r Батманов, 1852), which had comic novel–style long chapter titles in its first published version (34–35). But instead of using Gogolian comic techniques to create a humorous novel or a parody of Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (Герой нашего времени, 1838–40), as Pisemskii seems to have intended, the Lermontovian elements of “M. Batmanov” helped him escape the comic manner that didn’t really work for him (34–35).

Batmanov and Bakhtiarov share some features of biography, but the reader doesn’t care about Bakhtiarov and “involuntarily reacts to the tortuous contradictions in Batmanov’s conduct with sympathy and understanding” (35).

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.

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