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Mogilianskii on The Masons

July 9, 2020

I started reading Mogilianskii’s book to see what he had to say about The Masons (Масоны, 1880), and I’ve finally got to that part. I absolutely agree with his reading of Zverev and Sverstov and Chentsov and I think Marfin too. And I was pleasantly surprised that he considers it Pisemskii’s best novel! If I had to rank them today, I’d put it second, after Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), but ahead of In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871), Men of the Forties (Люди сороковых годов, 1869), and A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858). I still need to read The Bourgeois (Мещане, 1877). But I definitely agree that The Masons wins for “artistic unity.” Here is Mogilianskii:


The Masons is as massive and varied as Men of the Forties, but more unified

It’s obvious at first glance that The Masons is different from Pisemskii’s three previous novels, and further study only strengthens that impression (143). In the Whirlpool and The Bourgeois had both been tightly limited in place and time (143). The Masons is like Men of the Forties in that it covers a massive area, chronologically, spatially, and otherwise (143). But unlike Men of the Forties, the parts of The Masons are held together in a complex unity (143).

A philosophical novel with historical and sociological aspects

The complexity and uniqueness of The Masons aren’t evident at the beginning (144). In the early chapters, physiological (and almost zoological) elements predominate over the ascetic Masonic beliefs of the main character, Marfin (144). Later in the novel the ascetic/Masonic element gets more prominent, but it will both have a dialectical self-negation in itself and it will be defeated on purely philosophical grounds (144).

The Masons is thus a philosophical novel, but this doesn’t prevent Pisemskii from also addressing philosophical/historical questions, and to some extent sociological ones which occasionally take on a political flavor (144). These questions are worked out in the novel through a detective fiction–like element of the plot (144). Pisemskii successfully used the criminal plotline to develop both the Masonic theme and the philosophical/historical and political ones (144).

Important elements: a detective story, Masonic and anti-Masonic views, Marfin’s asceticism, and the appearance of real historical figures as characters

In part 1, chapter 7, new characters are introduced in connection with the murder of the merchant’s agent (kupecheskii prikazchik) Vasilii, who had been transporting a large sum of money to Nizhny Novgorod (144). The most important is Dr. Sergei Nikolaevich Sverstov, who plays a major role in solving the murder and also in resolving the Masonic and anti-Masonic philosophical themes (144).

Another key part of the novel is the development of the contrast between the ascetic Marfin and his Don Juan of a nephew, the spendthrift Chentsov (144). This doesn’t go in the expected direction, and the tragedy of Chentsov’s death is a major component of the part of the novel that could be called “the philosophy of life” (144). Also important in the philosophy-of-life part of the novel is Aggei Nikitich Zverev, who is important for the Masonic theme, and the theme of Marfin’s asceticism, and the solving of the murder (144). Zverev’s unusual and contradictory personality means that he can interact with a wide variety of other characters, from the grasping Miropa Zudchenko to Vibel’, the imperturbable Mason (144).

One more element we should include in our enumeration is the fact that The Masons is a historical novel where historical figures appear as characters, including the brilliant and progressive government official Mikhail Speranskii and the reactionary Prince Aleksandr Golitsyn (144–45).

What makes The Masons different from Pisemskii’s other works is the number of different things he is doing at once and the way all the different ingredients are connected to each other (145). This makes Pisemskii’s last finished work particularly important and substantive (145).

Marfin’s asceticism is critiqued by the sympathetic Dr. Sverstov

The historical layer of The Masons is primarily the story of the Masonic movement after it was outlawed (145). For this reason a number of historical figures who had played significant roles in the earlier legal Masonic movement are introduced (145). The main character, Marfin, is based on Fedor Nikolaevich Glinka (145). F. N. Glinka also appeared in The Bourgeois, and as is often the case with Pisemskii, Marfin is based not only on Glinka, but is rather a composite of several figures (145n156). Glinka also appears in The Masons directly, as the author of religious/mystical poems, which were written by Vladimir Solov’ev to be included in the novel (145).

Marfin’s asceticism, including his decision to have a platonic marriage, is central to the semantic structures of The Masons (145). The failure of his first attempt to get married, which ends with the death of Liudmila Ryzhova at the beginning of part 2, did not stop him (145). He pursues Liudmila’s younger sister Susanna, using Speranskii’s suggestions to guide her in her reading (145). Marfin does marry Susanna, and their platonic marriage becomes the focus of the novel (145). Pisemskii traces in detail the married Susanna’s attraction to the young Uglakov, which takes up much of part 4 (145). The attention paid to Susanna and Uglakov fits with the philosophical message of the entire novel, which is against religion, mysticism, and idealism in general (145). It is significant that when Dr. Sverstov (the author’s favorite character) finds out about the mutual attraction between Susanna and Uglakov, he says it’s a law of nature and there’s nothing one can do about it (145). Sverstov had earlier in the novel had an argument with Marfin about asceticism; the doctor called it “egoism personified and practically idiocy”; after Marfin’s death and Susanna’s quick remarriage to Terkhov [Uglakov had also died by this point], Sverstov again says something ironic about Marfin’s platonic marriage, citing the authority of “all physiologists” (146).

Masonic ideas are also critiqued, but not by Sverstov

The author’s sympathy for Sverstov comes out of Sverstov’s democratic leanings: Sverstov wants to spread Masonry to the peasants (146). He has Sverstov criticize Marfin’s asceticism and platonic marriage (146). But he leaves criticism of Masonic ideas to another character: “What does Masonry mean today…? An empty word without any content!” [in the text a non-Mason bishop, whom Marfin is visiting to plead the case of a priest who is a Mason, seems to say those words with a look, while saying something else out loud, and it’s not clear this is the authorial position—EM] (146). Besides this, a character named Batenev (that is, Iurii Nikitich Bartenev, already known to the reader from Troubled Seas) critiques Masonry from a pro–natural sciences position, ending with “Когда Ванька поет, так уж Машка молчи!,” meaning that when Van’ka, who represents the natural sciences that are making major discoveries all the time, is singing, then Mashka, representing “all religions and abstract philosophies” including the Masons’, should be silent (146).

Sverstov solves the murder of Vasia Tuluzov

Thus the novel exposes Masonry to a devastating critique, but the ever objective Pisemskii found positive characters among the Masons too, first among them Sverstov (146). This is why Sverstov is given the most important role in solving the murder of Vasia Tuluzov; Sverstov was the doctor called on by the police to examine the young man’s dead body (146). The beginning of the novel, with talk of Halley’s Comet and rumors of prophets and catastrophes, puts the reader in a mystical frame of mind, independent of Masonic ideas (146–47). Sverstov, impelled by an internal feeling and by the mood generated by this atmosphere of mystery and doom, resolves to catch the murderer who killed Tuluzov (147). This can’t happen until many other events take place: Chentsov commits suicide, and his widow, Catherine Krapchik, is seduced by her estate manager (who had a hand in Chentsov’s separation from Catherine and, indirectly, his death) and marries him (147). Sverstov learns that Catherine’s second husband goes by the name Vasilii Tuluzov and springs into action as a detective (147).

The cases of Tuluzov and Liab’ev show the worthlessness of the pre-reform Russian judicial system

The murder of Tuluzov is immensely important in the novel, and it is contrasted to the case of Liab’ev (based on the composer Aliab’ev), who is wrongly accused of murdering Count Indobskii during a card game (147). Through these two murder cases Pisemskii shows his contempt for the pre-reform Russian judicial system (147). Liab’ev’s sentence is called barbaric, and the impostor Tuluzov is never sentenced for killing the real Tuluzov at all; this leads to Pisemskii’s refrain that “there is no place for decent people in government service” (147). In this case it is supplemented by “it is getting impossible to live any kind of life,” which anticipates the revolutionary M. K. Tsebrikova’s letters to Alexander III that were published abroad illegally (147). Though Sverstov is a positive character, the narrator remarks on his naivete for thinking he can get justice through the Russian courts (147).

Characters are complicated: even the worst characters can be sympathetic, and even the best ones do bad things

The world of injustice revealed by the cases of Tuluzov and Liab’ev are one of the most important aspects of the novel after its anti-Masonic philosophical thrust (147). But the novel does not deal in absolute Good and Evil: Marfin, who tries to get justice for the murdered Tuluzov, is far from an ideal character, and the pseudo-Tuluzov who uses the dead man’s passport displays ability and intelligence, including in matters that are for the good of the people (narod) (147). But the relativity of ethical categories and the complexity of human behavior are given particular attention in the characters of Valer’ian Chentsov and Aggei Zverev (147).

Valer’ian Chentsov: a cynical and debauched nobleman who kills himself over love for a peasant woman

Chentsov is a variation on familiar themes, and his life could be summarized in a few unflattering words (147–48). Though he is good-natured, his cynicism and immorality are extreme (148). That said, his psychological makeup ends up not being entirely compatible with his lifestyle of constant vice (148). After he marries Catherine Krapchik for money, he has an affair with a married peasant woman, Aksin’ia (148). He is forcibly separated from Aksin’ia by his now ex-wife Catherine and kills himself (148). This is the third variation on the theme of A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859), after Troubled Seas and Former Falcons (Бывые соколы, written 1865, published in part 1868, in full 1886) [what about Implev and Plavin from Men of the Forties? Is it a question of house slaves vs. field slaves?EM?] (148). Like A Bitter Fate but unlike Troubled Seas and Former Falcons, in The Masons the married peasant woman voluntarily has a sexual relationship with a nobleman (148). But Chentsov and Aksin’ia’s relationship is otherwise nothing like the one in A Bitter Fate (148). It seems disgusting to the reader in the beginning: the worst form of slaveholder debauchery, aided by an experienced procuress (148). Malan’ia, the first peasant woman Chentsov found through the procuress, disgusted him with how obviously she wanted money, but the second, Aksin’ia, impressed him by being unusual and disinterestedly attracted to him: she was from a well-to-do peasant household and did not love her husband, whom she hadn’t seen in three years (148). She is nothing like Lizaveta from A Bitter Fate, but then, Chentsov isn’t anything like Cheglov-Sokovin either (148).

Captain Aggei Zverev: he represents Russian and real life, but love leads him to commit crimes

Captain Aggei Nikitich Zverev is like no other character in Pisemskii’s works, unlike the superficially banal Chentsov (148). Marfin is formally the main character of The Masons, but Aggei Nikitich is the true main character; his functions in the novel are numerous and complex (148). Zverev has all the features of (Pisemskii’s idea of) a typical Russian nature and of real life in general (148). He is above all a seeker who is driven by a spiritual thirst (148). But he is overcome by an ordinary love that leads him to criminal acts (148). He is overcome by life as such, but this does not turn him into an ordinary, unremarkable person (148). On the contrary, he is quite distinctive, which makes it hard to give a brief description of him (148). In The Masons as a philosophical novel, Aggei Nikitich symbolizes life (148). His character is drawn in an optimistic way, and this gives the whole novel a feeling of optimism (148).

Other characters: a priest who leaves Masonry for science, a highly moral German Mason, and the latter’s Polish wife, who brings another language into the text

What has been said here does not exhaust the complexity and depth of PIsemskii’s last novel (148). We have not even mentioned so important a character as the priest Vasilii, who leaves Masonry and finds his place in science (148–49). Nor have we said anything about the moral grandeur of the German apothecary Vibel’ or his Polish wife, who brings a memorable strain of colloquial Polish into Pisemskii’s multilingual novel (149). S. Khoroshevskii’s memoirs say that Pisemskii put a good deal of thought into the Polish passages as he worked on The Masons: Severnyi krai, 1900, no. 19, p. 3 (149n158).

The Masons as Pisemskii’s best novel, despite the decline in other areas of his life and works in his final years

We can rightfully speak of Pisemskii’s last novel as the peak of his novelistic art (149). On the one hand this seems improbable, as the writer’s physical and moral strength was waning (149). In his dramatic works, he clearly declined after Baal, to the point that he couldn’t even finish A Domestic Pool (Семейный омут, also called Old Accounts or Старые счеты, 1876–80) (149). But we don’t see any similar decline in The Masons: it is his most complex and deep work and at the same time the one that reflects the most varied spheres of life while retaining a great artistic unity (149).

See chapter 10, “Последние романы [The Last Novels]” in A. P. Mogilianskii, Pisemskii: Zhizn’ i tvorchestvo (Leningrad, 1991), pp. 136–149.

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