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Winged and wingless realists

July 24, 2020

Which of Pisemskii’s works would you expect to see translated into English first?

There are a few that made a good impression on contemporary audiences and critics and later scholars, mainly A Thousand Souls (Тысяча душ, 1858) and A Bitter Fate (Горькая судьбина, 1859).

There are the early “peasant” stories that gave Pisemskii “the false reputation of being primarily a chronicler of peasant life” (54). and you might see a translation of a popular one like “The Carpenters’ Guild” (Плотничья артель, 1855).

There are his later plays, of which Mogilianskii singles out Former Falcons (Бывые соколы, written 1865, published in part 1868, in full 1886), Fledglings of the Last Flight (Птенцы последнего слета, written 1865, published 1886), and Baal (Ваал, 1873).

I personally would prioritize translating his later long novels like Troubled Seas (Взбаламученное море, 1863), which was something of a succès de scandale, and In the Whirlpool (В водовороте, 1871), a favorite among contemporary readers.

And mostly this is indeed what you see, though the translation of the peasant stories has been scattered, A Bitter Fate and Baal are the only plays of his that exist in English, and A Thousand Souls the only one of the six long novels. But one of the main Pisemskii translators and scholars, Maya Jenkins, also translated “Nina“ (Нина, 1848) and “The Comic Actor” (Комик, 1851). Why those?

Jenkins doesn’t like the view that Pisemskii was “a ‘wingless’ realist who was skeptical of all idealistic aspirations and deliberately avoided any manifestation of life’s beauty and poetry” (12). Beauty and poetry meant “the perfect world of art” or “the beauty of nature” or “the realm of pure love,” which mattered to Pisemskii’s most sympathetic characters and gave them “an escape from life’s drab reality” (12). Jenkins sees evidence of this throughout Pisemskii’s career, with examples from Troubled Seas and The Masons, but she chose to translate “Nina,” “The Comic Actor,¨ and “An Old Man’s Sin” (Старческий грех, 1861) to prove her thesis and show English-speaking readers another side of Pisemskii, the side that wished he could write more like Turgenev (13).

“Nina” was Pisemskii’s first published story and was mangled by a journal editor so badly that the author turned his back on it forever, but Jenkins thinks it can tell us something about Pisemskii anyway (13). The narrator is in love with Nina and shares with Nina’s father a love for art as well. But, Jenkins says, Nina disappoints him:

“It is not for this world that you were destined!” thinks the young man of Nina. In characteristic romantic fashion he envisages trials and sorrows in her life, which he fears begin to take shape when the local “lion” Mazurin, with whom Nina becomes infatuated, tires of her company. But Nina does not die of grief. Instead, she marries a fat and rich suitor and becomes a nagging, gossiping young matron, fully satisfied with her worthless existence. On seeing her after an absence of several years, the narrator comes to the painful realization that this was the real Nina, and that her heavenly, “otherworldly” aura had been created entirely in his imagination. (14)

So far, so pessimistic, and the story has been read as anti-Romantic, a clear-headed bursting of idealistic bubbles. But for Jenkins the main thing is the narrator’s plea at the end, “May God grant me the ability to make mistakes like this all my life and imagine people to be better than they really are!” (Дай мне Бог так ошибаться весь век и видеть человека лучшим, нежели он в самом деле!) Jenkins sees this as “sympathy for a disillusioned romantic,” not “derision for a superficial one” (15).

Jenkins also argues there was a “kinship of talent” between Pisemskii and Gogol (17, 19), unlike Mogilianskii, who would later argue that Gogol’s comic influence was a false path Pisemskii had to learn not to take.


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