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Pisemskii on peasant life

June 16, 2020

Mogilianskii’s chapter on Pisemskii’s short fiction about peasant life is making me want to read more of those stories.

He begins at a distance: in Russian culture the depiction of peasants (including serfs) started in painting and theater (in the mid–eighteenth century), appearing later in prose (the 1840s and 1850s) and still later in lyric poetry (36). In 1854 the critic Pavel Annenkov wrote in The Contemporary about a set of works on peasant themes by Grigorovich, Potekhin, Avdeev, and Pisemskii, and he put forward “categorical demands for the obligatory idealization of peasant life in light of the impossibility of simultaneously attaining artistry and truth in this sphere” (36). Pisemskii disagreed with Annenkov: he didn’t think peasants had to be idealized, and he didn’t think it was fair to lump his truthful depictions of peasants in with Grigorovich’s literary inventions (36–37).*

Here’s what Mogilianskii has to say about the individual stories (spoilers ahead):

  • “The Petersburger” (Питерщик) was the only one of Pisemskii’s works of 1852 that was “entirely without that inclination to comedy and slapstick that was unnatural for the writer” (37). It also anticipates Pisemskii’s [1856] change in worldview (37). In it he describes specific details of a particular district in a manner like the ethnography of the 1840s Natural School; it’s like Turgenev’s “Khor and Kalinykh” (Хорь и Калиныч, 1847), but more (37–38). After the ethnographic section we get the story of one local serf that works as a story but doesn’t even hint at Pisemskii’s future anti-slavery views; cf. the last two stories in this post (38). After this we get the story of Klementii, an enserfed Petersburger, in three parts, the first two of which are not formally separated (38). Part one: the author arrives; we meet Klementii and his second wife Dar’ia; Klementii talks about his past. This still feels introductory, but it’s also a demonstration of a mature talent: this kind of realistic narration about peasants was innovative in 1852 Russia, and it feels fresh even today (38–39). Part two: Klementii tells the story of his meeting Palageia Ivanovna, with the author playing a less prominent part in their dialogue than in part one (39). The story is dark and features unexpected psychological reactions (39–40). Klementii suffers a major catastrophe, but in the epilogue the narrator sees Klementii apparently rich and thriving: “rejoicing in the Petersburger’s success, I also rejoiced for the Russian in general represented by him” (40). Languagehat posted about “The Petersburger” back in 2016.
  • “The Wood Demon” (Леший, 1853) is like eighteenth-century literature: when something goes wrong in the Russian countryside, it is not the local landowner or the system of serfdom that is to blame, but a bad estate manager (40–41). Chernyshevskii, reviewing a collection that brought together “The Petersburger,” “The Wood Demon,” and “The Carpenters’ Guild,” criticized Pisemskii as naive for his idealized ispravnik (district police officer) Ivan Semenovich Shamaev (40). “The Wood Demon” shows how primitive the serfs in a remote area of Kostroma Province were and as such is the opposite of “The Petersburger” (41). Musorgskii considered writing an opera based on “The Wood Demon” (41). (This is the only story in this set I’ve read so far; I mentioned it in this 2013 post.)
  • Pisemskii used Shamaev again in “The Braggart” (Фанфарон, 1854), this time having him tell a story about his nephew Dmitrii Shamaev, who was “a new variation on the character Shamilov, who had first appeared as long ago as the 1844 version of Pisemskii’s novel Is She to Blame?” (41). Dissatisfied with “A Rich Fiancé” (Богатый жених, 1851–52), Pisemskii told a similar story using a different narrative technique (41). This is Pisemskii’s first story set in a noble environment without his artificial comic manner, perhaps because it “budded off the stories of peasant life” (41). This abandoning of the 1850–52 manner was not a return to 1848–49, but a “new synthesis” of his comic and melodramatic modes (41–42). “The Braggart” had the subtitle “One of Our Snobs,” and it’s in the original journal version of this story that Pisemskii proclaimed Thackeray as a model.
  • The story “An Old Man’s Sin” (Старческий грех, 1861), where the main character visits a series of neighboring landowners like Gogol’s Chichikov, shows that Pisemskii had on some level realized he was not like Gogol and should not attempt a humorous approach to literature (42). That part of the plot and the use of a low-ranking civil servant character, Ferapontov, suggest that Pisemskii wanted to compete with Gogol and Dead Souls (42). The (seemingly carefully considered) structure of the story, where digressions on Ferapontov’s past (chapters 2–4) and his series of visits (chapters 9–10) take up nearly as much space as the main plot (chapters 5–8 and 11–14), shows how important these competing-with-Gogol aspects of the story were (42–43). “An Old Man’s Sin” is in some ways like part 4 of A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858) (43). It is filled with a democratic pathos that includes the narrator unfavorably comparing a Russian landowner with a reputation for honesty to “some planter from the southern states” (43). This story was translated into English by Maya Jenkins in 1987.
  • “The Carpenters’ Guild” (Плотничья артель, 1855) was “always the most famous of all Pisemskii’s stories of peasant life” and was admired by Gor’kii and, reportedly, Tolstoi (43–44). However, it shows signs of the same Natural School–influenced forced attempts at ethnographic description as “The Wood Demon” (44). It anticipates later works in having Pisemskii appear by name in the text of the story, along with all the members of his family including his young children (44). LH posted about this story and interesting words in it in 2016.
  • Pisemskii’s post-1856 opposition to serfdom is obvious in “The Old Proprietress” (Старая барыня, 1857), which doesn’t have peasant characters but does have enserfed house servants (44). The story is about a feudal-minded landowner, Ekaterina Evgrafovna Pasmurova, and her granddaughter Ol’ga Nikolaevna, but the main thing is how it’s told (44). The main narrator is Pasmurova’s butler, Iakov Ivanov, whose mindset is entirely servile, but his point of view contrasts with those of the more independent and feisty Grachikha and the butler’s own wife, who is meek and whose position is intermediate, but who “makes up her mind to object to what her grand husband says” on a few occasions (44). Iakov Ivanov acts as the older Pasmurova’s advocate, and when she seems to be to blame for bad things happening, he has trouble even telling the story (45). Chernyshevskii praised “The Old Proprietress” and suggested changes that Pisemskii incorporated into a later version (45). There is an abridged English translation of this story, possibly by Leo Wiener.
  • The pinnacle of Pisemskii’s achievements in this area, according to Mogilianskii, is his last story of peasant life, “The Father” (Батька, 1862). It exposes crimes committed by the author’s own parents, who appear in the story under their actual names; in its “vicious drive toward unfettered truth it in a way approaches Dostoevskii’s extremes” (45). The author appears in the story as a twelve-year-old boy who is curious and observant but “understands almost nothing,” which means that until a certain point the reader doesn’t understand very much either (45). The author’s father owns a serf family where there is a conflict between father and son; out of self-interest, the noble father takes the serf father’s side and has the serf son beaten; it becomes clear that the serf father has had problems with all three of his sons; eventually the serf son sets fire to the serf father’s house, and it comes out that the serf father was practicing snokhachestvo all along, forcing himself on his daughters-in-law (45–46).

See chapter 3, “Роль крестьянской темы [The Role of the Peasant Theme],” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 36–46.

* Charles A. Moser describes “a famous encounter between [Pisemsky] and Grigorovich, a dandified type who had made his literary reputation in the late 1840’s and early 1850’s through sentimentalized depictions of the peasantry. One day Pisemsky backed Grigorovich into a corner of a St. Petersburg bookshop and begin berating him: ‘You really should give up writing about the peasants (muzhiki). Why should you gentlemen do this sort of thing? Leave this to us; this is our area, I’m a peasant myself!’” (39). Pisemskii seems to have both come by naturally and played up for effect his quasi-peasant persona; he had a strong Kostroma Province accent, belched loudly and often at public readings in fancy salons, and disgusted Panaeva when he, “in the course of giving readings in polite society in the presence of ladies, would leave the room and then return still adjusting his clothing” (38–39).

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