Tag Archives: 19th century Russian Literature

The Prank: Chekhov

Leave it to New York Review Books to present The Prank: the Best of Young Chekhov, in its first ever English translation. This collection of 12 stories shows early Chekhov still maturing, still seeking his style. In the introduction, translator Maria Bloshteyn explains that in 1882, Chekhov “decided to gather together what he deemed to be the best of these early exuberant stories between a single cover,” but thanks to the censor Federov, the stories were not published. Following the assassination of Alexander II the year before in 1881, came a “massive political clampdown,” and while these humourous stories seem mild, there’s enough criticism of Russian society here for the stories to fall short of the censor’s approval. Two of the stories are parodies of Jules Verne and Victor Hugo, and as Maria Bloshteyn points out, the stories are a “critique of the triumphal follies of Russian imperialism.”

the prankHere’s a list of the contents:

  • Artists’ Wives
  • Papa
  • St Peter’s Day
  • Chase Two Rabbits, Catch None
  • A Confession, or Olya, Zhenya, Zoya
  • A Sinner from Toledo
  • The Temperaments
  • Flying Islands by Jules Verne
  • Before the Wedding
  • A Letter to a Learned neighbor
  • In the Train Car
  • 1001 Passions, or, a Dreadful Night

If there’s a general theme to be found here in most of the stories, then that theme would be Russians Behaving Badly in their personal relationships. Artists Wives (Translated … from the Portuguese) is set in Lisbon’s Hotel of the Venomous Swan and it’s clear to see that this farcical story isn’t really supposed to be about the Portuguese but instead parodies Russian bohemians. We see the domestic lives of various artists who live in the same hotel. These artists–a painter, a writer, a sculptor and a musician may be suffering for their art, but their wives are suffering a great deal more. Here’s the painter Francesco Butronza trying to persuade his poor German wife, Carolina to pose in the nude “for the sake of art.”

“I clean his brushes, his palettes, his rags. I soil my dresses against his painting, I give lessons so that I can  feed him, I sew costumes for him, I put up with the small of hemp oil, I model for him days on end, I do everything, but …naked. Naked? I can’t!!!”

“I’ll divorce you, you red-haired she-harpy! shouted Butronza.

“But where am I to go?” gasped Carolina. “Give me enough money to get to Berlin, from where you’ve taken me, and then divorce me!”

“Fine, I’ll just finish Susanna and I’ll send you right back to that Prussia of yours, the land of cockroaches, spoiled sausage, and roundworm!” shouted Butronza

Papa has no small degree of domestic farce with the wife of the family seeking to talk to her husband about their son’s grades. The maid who’s been sitting on the husband’s lap, must spring off and hide behind the curtains. This may be a 19th c story, but when it comes to parenting, some things apparently never change, so we see parents (including a father with a comb-over) stressing about their son’s success in school.

A Confession, or Olya, Zhenya, Zoya is the story of a man who failed to find lasting love in his life, and St Peter’s Day contains scenes of cruelty towards animals so once I hit that, I dropped the story.

Chase After Two Rabbits, Catch None is a story of domestic strife with Major Shchelkobokov, married to a much younger woman asking for marital advice from his “valet, hairdresser and floor scrubber” Panteley. A Sinner from Toledo is another story of twisted marital relations.

The Prank shows a different Chekhov than most of us are familiar with. In some of these stories, I saw shades of the zaniness of Gogol. Translator Maria Bloshteyn explains that “anthologies of humorous stories were selling well at the time” Chekhov wrote the stories in this collection, so he was writing to sell, and he was writing for a definite audience. Readers intimidated by 19th century Russian literature need not fear–these energetic, funny stories are very accessible and are written to entertain. For Chekhov fans, the book is well worth catching but they cannot compare to The Duel, for example. This is a young Chekhov before he matured into the incredible writer whose legacy grants him a firm place on the list of the greatest Russian writers.

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Filed under Chekhov, Fiction

The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel 1847-1920: From Serfdom to Bolshevism (part II)

In an earlier post about The Memoirs of Baron N. Wrangel, I selected a scene from Nikolai Egorovich’s childhood. Nikolai’s mother died when he was four years old, and she left 7 children behind. He has a fairly miserable childhood marked by benign neglect but full of interesting incidents and observations. In one section, he notes visiting his uncle, a commandant of a fortress. The name of the fortress isn’t given but I’m wondering if it is the Peter and Paul Fortress as Wrangel tells us that the Decembrists were kept there until they were executed or exiled. Wrangel glimpses an unknown prisoner held captive during Catherine’s reign and still there sixty years later through the reigns of three tsars.  I thought right away of the Man in the Iron Mask–he was a prisoner for 34 years.

Wrangel seeds his memoirs with commentary about Russian society. For example he notes how each landowner was required to deliver serf “recruits” for the army, and these poor devils were then expected to serve for twenty-five years.

More was demanded of a man than he could possibly do. They were beaten and treated like dogs, and many died under the lash. The method was to kill three if necessary, in order to train one man.

The people themselves looked on the conscript as a man condemned to death, and on his departure as the equivalent of a funeral. As soon as the choice was made, the man chosen by his master was immediately handcuffed, imprisoned and guarded to prevent his committing suicide. The whole village gathered about his prison, and he would be given spirits to console him.

And then there’s a particularly despotic landowner, Count Visaur, murdered by a couple of his serfs. Wrangel makes a visit with his father to the dead man’s estate. It’s for sale:

Instead of one big house he had six or seven fairly roomy small ones, each built in a different style. According to his steward, each had contained a harem of women recruited from the wives and daughters of his serfs. They were all dressed to match their surroundings–in Chinese costume in the Chinese house, in Spanish dress in another house, and so on. The Count lived first in one house, then in another.

These houses were surrounded by a beautiful garden containing flower beds, canals with gondolas floating on them, artificial pools and statues. However the statues were no longer there and only their pedestals were there to be seen. The count’s old steward explained their absence telling us they were working in the fields. In the dead proprietor’s time the statues were living men and women, stripped naked and painted white. They had to stay motionless in their poses for hours at a time, when the Count was sailing in his gondola or walking in the garden. He even showed us the torture house–a torture chamber would not have been enough. It contained everything–whips, the boot–I cannot remember them all now. Being neither an executioner nor a victim, the names of these things did not interest me.

The Count’s death was quite as fantastic as his mode of life. One day when he was strolling past a group representing Hercules and Venus, the two statues jumped down from their pedestal; Venus threw sand in his eyes, and Hercules broke his neck with his club.

They were tried and condemned to the knout. Venus died under it and Hercules was sent to Siberia.

Later,in 1859,  a formative, traumatic incident takes place which illustrates the sorry lot of some poor educators who have the misfortune to work for the nobility, but I can’t say that the incident is exclusive to Russia as it’s a scene that could very well take place in a Thomas Hardy novel. It’s a scene that Nikolai witnesses, puts two and two together, and comes up with the correct, sordid conclusion.  A failed attempt at suicide ends with Nikolai requesting to be sent to Switzerland, and his father agrees.

This is a wonderful time for Nikolai, and he quickly adapts to the free spirited society in which he mingles. He meets Dumas and Princess Metternich but rather disappointingly doesn’t give us his impressions of the former. Meanwhile, back in Russia, Alexander II abolishes serfdom, Geneva is swarming with nihilists and anarchists, and Wrangel has time for neither. An anecdote concerning Bakunin sounds third hand.

Wrangel returns to Russia and then he sees the reforms for himself. The serfs can now marry as they please and it is illegal to beat them (that doesn’t stop Wrangel’s father), but the abolishment of serfdom has backfired in ways that no one predicted:

These months which I spent in the new Russia gave me an impression which I cannot describe. A new era had begun. Serfdom, which is an obstacle to all progress, no longer existed, but its abolition had not yet had the results which one was entitled to expect.

Neither the lords nor the former serfs could keep pace with the new order. The former, accustomed to forced labour which cost them nothing, thought themselves ruined, let their land go to the devil, turned everything they could into money by cutting down their woods wholesale, and by selling their property to speculators who did not buy with the intention of working the estate, but held it in the hope of a rise in land value.

The serfs, trained in obedience, and as yet incapable of looking after themselves, used their liberty to have a good time and drink as much as they could hold.  Meanwhile agriculture and the land fell into decay.

The Russia of the past had vanished, and that of the future was yet to come.

That’s Wrangel’s version of the reforms, and it’s patronizing towards the serfs, who according to Wrangel, seem to see life as one big party, and without a master to ‘guide’ their decisions, they have become degenerates.  He doesn’t mention that household serfs, who used to work as free labour, now were to be paid, so the landowners learned (or tried to learn) to manage with less, so many former serfs were simply cast adrift. The land serfs–now peasants–were so deeply harnessed with debt for the over-priced, usually poorer quality land they’d been allocated, they were working harder than ever trying to dig their way out of impossible debt.  The former serfs were to repay the debt as ‘redemption payments’ over a period of 49 years.

Now that landowners had to pay wages, they discovered that they had to cut back their lavish lifestyles:

“I’ve made some reforms too” said my father. “I’ve only got twelve carriage horses in the stables now, and five saddle horses; one for myself, two for your sisters, and two for visitors. It’s quite enough. Nobody comes to the country anymore. The kennels are done away with, the hot houses are shut up, and there are only eight gardeners left. Manners change with the times. You’ve got to put a check on your fancies nowadays.”

Translated by Brian and Beatrix Lunn


Filed under Non Fiction, Wrangel Baron N

Notes from a Dead House: Dostoevsky Part II

Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House  is a philosophical work. While it’s an intense, incredible read, it’s also, due to its basic thematic format, a surprisingly accessible–and by that I mean it’s not as extensive or as heavy as Dostoevsky’s multi plot later works: Demons or Crime and Punishment. One of the book’s themes is the impact of punishment on human nature, and since Dostoevsky spends some time detailing the crimes and circumstances which have sent men to the camp, this is also a document of social criticism.

So here’s one of my favourite scenes which talks about Orlov “the famous brigand,” a “runaway soldier.” There are many former soldiers mentioned by Dostoevsky as inmates of the prison and they’re there for various things ranging from hitting an officer to killing one. Anyway Orlov, a man whose fearsome reputation precedes him, sticks in Dostoevsky’s mind as seen through the thinly veiled disguise of his narrator Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a former nobleman sentenced to the Siberian prison for 10 years for the murder of his wife. Orlov is about to be punished.

One summer day rumor spread through the prisoners’ wards that in the evening the famous brigand Orlov, a runaway soldier, was to be punished, and after the punishment he would be brought to the ward. Waiting for Orlov, the sick prisoners affirmed that he was to be cruelly punished. They were all in some agitation, and, I confess, I also awaited the famous brigand’s appearance with great curiosity. I had long been hearing wonders about him. He was an evildoer such as few are, who put his knife cold-bloodedly into old people and children–a man with a formidable strength of will and a proud consciousness of his strength. He pleaded guilty to many murders and was sentenced to run the gauntlet. It was already evening when he was brought. The ward was dark, and candles had been lit. Orlov was nearly unconscious, terribly pale, with thick- disheveled, pitch-black hair. His back was swollen and of a bloody blue color. The prisoners tended to him all night, changed the water for him, turned him from side to side, gave him medicine, as if they were caring for some near and dear one, or some benefactor. The very next day he came fully to his senses and paced up and down the ward a couple of times! That amazed me: he had been so weak and exhausted when he arrived in the hospital. He had made it at one go through half the total number of rods he was sentenced to. The doctor had stopped the punishment only when he saw that to continue it threatened the inevitable death of the criminal. Besides, Orlov was a small man and of weak constitution, and what’s more he had been worn out by being kept on trial for a long time.

The narrator is extremely curious about Orlov and contrasts him with another brigand:

I can say positively that I have never in my life met a man of stronger, more iron character than he. Once, in Tobolsk, I saw a celebrity of this kind, the former chief of a band of brigands. He was a wild beast in the fullest sense, and standing next to him and not yet knowing his name, you sensed instinctively that you had a frightful creature beside you. But for me the horrible thing in him was his spiritual torpor. The flesh had won out over all his inner qualities so much that from the first glance you could see by his face that the only thing left in him was one savage craving for physical gratification, sensuality, fleshy indulgence. I am sure that Korenev–the name of this brigand–would even have lost heart and trembled with fear in the face of punishment, though he was capable of killing without even batting an eye. Orlov was the complete opposite of him. This was manifestly a total victory over the flesh. You could see that the man had limitless control over himself, despised all tortures and punishments, and had no fear of anything in the world. You saw in him only an infinite energy, a thirst for activity, a thirst for revenge, a thirst for attaining a set goal.

Drive is of course one of the human characteristics under observation. Some men will kill without compunction for very little gain while others are provoked or stretched beyond endurance before a crime is committed.  Dostoevsky’s narrator (clearly a very thinly veiled Dostoevsky) makes his observations about these two brigands: both very frightening, violent individuals–but one is an example of the triumph of the spirit over the flesh. We see Dostoevsky marveling at Orlov, and finding much to admire in spite of the fact that Orlov is a murderer.

notes from a dead houseDostoevsky is clearly fascinated by the subject of murder & what drives a person to commit this extreme act, yet at the same time, he realizes that one murder cannot necessarily be compared to another, and this is illustrated by the story of Baklushin, one of the many unforgettable characters in the book. Baklushin’s crime was a crime of passion; he murders an annoying German who’s about to marry the woman Baklushin loves.  Another murderer, Gazin, “a terrible creature,” would torment and then knife children “with enjoyment.

That evening, already in the dark, before they locked the barracks, I wandered near the fence, and a heavy sadness fell on my soul, and never again did I experience such sadness in all my prison life. It was hard to endure the first day of imprisonment, wherever it might be: in a prison, in a fortress, at hard labor. But I remember being occupied most of all by one thought, which afterwards constantly pursued me during all my life in prison– a partly insoluble thought, insoluble for me even now: about the inequality of punishment for the same crime. True, crimes cannot be compared with each other, even approximately. For instance, two criminals each killed a man; the circumstance of both cases are weighed, and both end up with the same punishment. Yet look at the difference between the crimes. One, for instance, put a knife into a man just like that, for nothing, for an onion; he came out on the high road, put a knife into a muzhik, and all the man had was an onion. “Look, man! You sent me out to rob: so I put a knife in a muzhik and all I found on him was an onion.” “Fool! An onion’s a kopeck! A hundred men–a hundred kopecks. There’s a rouble for you!” (A prison legend.) But another killed defending the honor of his bride, his sister, his daughter from the lust of a tyrant. One killed as a vagrant beset by a whole regiment of pursuers, defending his freedom, his life, often dying of hunger; another cuts little children’s throats for the pleasure of it, to feel their warm blood on his hands, to enjoy their fear, their last dove-like trembling under his knife. And what then? They both go to the same hard labor. True, there are variations in the length of the sentences. But these variations are relatively few; while the variations in one and the same crime are a numberless multitude. For each character there is a variation. But suppose it’s impossible to reconcile, to smooth over this difference, that it’s an insoluble problem–sort of like squaring the circle–let’s suppose so!

But murder isn’t the only crime under scrutiny here. The narrator notes how one man steals from him–even though he likes him–just because he can. There are others, according to Dostoevsky’s narrator who “are simply destitute by nature.” The narrator explains these “certain strange persons, placid and not at all lazy, who are destined by fate to remain eternally destitute.” In prison, these types pop up to offer their cheap services, and as they exist on the bottom rung of humanity, they are misused and underpaid. Another type noted by the narrator are those who “are born with one idea, which unconsciously moves them here and there all their lives; so they rush about all their lives until they find something they really want to do; then they are ready to risk their necks.” Illustrating that some crimes are committed under a unique set of circumstances, he notes that one man who killed his “superior for striking him,” will “lie down so unprotestingly under the rods … as if he acknowledged that he deserved it.”

The narrator also describes daily life in the prison along with its complicated economic system (from the moneylenders to the invalids) and the significance of alcohol. Prison life–a life that teaches patience–has its highs and its lows. Christmas is a particularly poignant time for the prisoners, and at one point, the prisoners put on a play. The importance of work is also scrutinized:

It occurred to me once that if they wanted to crush, to annihilate a man totally, to punish him with the most terrible punishment, so that the most dreadful murderer would shudder at this punishment and be frightened of it beforehand, they would only need to give the labor a character of complete, total useless and meaningless … if he were forced, for instance, to pour water from one tub into another and from the other into the first, to grind sand, to carry a pile of dirt from one place to another and back again–I think the prisoner would hand himself after a few days, or commit a thousand crimes, to die rather than endure such humiliation, shame, and torment.

The narrator observes the often irrational lengths men will go to “to put off the moment of punishment,” the kindness of the doctors, how the prisoners’ verbal altercations rarely escalate into violence, how some prisoners live for the next alcohol binge, and how “blood and power intoxicate.”  While Dostoevsky’s observations about human nature are incredibly detailed, he is never clinical; he never forgets that the prisoners–in spite of the many degradations of their living conditions–are beings whose humanity must be recognized.

Even the much hated major loves his poodle.

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

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Filed under Dostoevsky, Fiction

Notes from a Dead House: Dostoevsky Part I

The narrator of Dostoevsky’s Notes from a Dead House is Alexander Petrovich Goryanchikov, a former nobleman now serving a ten year sentence for the murder of his wife. This is a very thinly sketched fictional narrative for Dostoevsky, and the entire spousal murder never really convinces. It exists, as translator Richard Pevear explains, as “a mask for the censors: the notes of a man serving a sentence for a common-law crime were more likely to be passed for publication than the notes of a political criminal.”

In Lermontov: Tragedy in the Caucasus author Laurence Kelly argues that 19th century Russia literature was one of the only avenues for social protest for the times, but that criticisms had to be obscured or layered with double-meaning–even then it was still dodgy. Dostoevsky had to tread very carefully with Notes From a Dead House. This was a book that couldn’t be seen to be social protest, and yet when describing the conditions and punishments, there’s a clear strand of questioning the underlying institutional and loose judicial philosophy at work. Yet even more than the underlying expose of daily life in a prison camp in Siberia, Dostoevsky’s target here is the examination of human nature: how human nature suffers from imprisonment, how we endure punishment, the nature of guilt & sin, and significantly how imprisonment causes some to revert to their basest selves while others overcome their venal passions. Notes from a Dead House is Dostoevsky’s seminal work and one which contains all the themes of his later novels. Interestingly Dostoevsky never finished Netocha Nezvanova, the novel he was working on when he was arrested, and this implies a ‘before and after’ mindset.

notes from a dead houseIn April 1849, Dostoevsky was just 27 years old when he was arrested for ‘revolutionary activities’ and his involvement in the Petrashevksy Circle. He was charged with reading and circulating a letter written by literary critic Belinsky and also of “attempting to set up a clandestine printing press.” Tsar Nicholas I, considered the most reactionary ruler of Russia, did not tolerate anything he considered radical intellectualism, and his rule was marked by extreme censorship and a network or spies and informers. But back to Dostoevsky and his fellow Petrashevksy Circle members who were arrested, imprisoned and then suffered a staged mock execution before being shipped off for their various destinations. Dostoevsky was stripped of his status as a nobleman, given a sentence of eight years of exile and hard labor in a prison in Omsk, Siberia to be immediately followed by compulsory military service. The sentence was later commuted to four years and in 1854, Dostoevsky served as a private in Kazakhstan.

As translator Richard Pevear states, Notes from a Dead House was the first published account of life in the Siberian hard-labor camps. It initiated the genre of the prison memoir.”  But in addition to the book’s significance for that particular genre, the book also marked a shift in Dostoevsky as a writer. Dostoevsky formed Notes from a Dead House from notes gathered during his four years of imprisonment and rather than a novel, the book takes a more thematic approach with sections which cover the celebration of Christmas in the camp, a play performed by the prisoners and the elaborate distribution of alcohol amongst the inmates. Throughout the book, Dostoevsky, struggling with health issues, and recovering from the initial shock of being flung into the company of murderers, brigands and thieves, clearly shows an overriding fascination with human behaviour. There is no other way that Dostoevsky could possibly have written this book without the first hand exposure to a Siberian prison, for it’s here, amongst the prisoners, in this human crucible, that Dostoevsky is exposed to the psychology behind crime, punishment, sin and guilt.

more to follow…

Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky

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Filed under Dostoevsky, Fiction

Anna Karenina: the ball scene

“The ball had just begun when Kitty and her mother stepped on to the central staircase, which was bathed in light and embellished with flowers and powdered footmen in red livery. From the interior came a steady rustle of movement which filled the rooms like bees buzzing in a hive, and while they adjusted their hair in front on a mirror between the potted plants on the landing, the delicately clear sounds of the violins in the orchestra could be heard striking up the first waltz in the ballroom. An old gentleman in civilian dress who had been adjusting his grey whiskers in front of another mirror, and exuded the smell of cologne, bumped into them on the staircase and stood aside, clearly admiring Kitty, whom he did not know.”

While a reread is sometimes a disappointing mistake, picking up Anna Karenina again was a rich experience, and this time I appreciated the novel’s cinematic qualities. But first a word on the initial structure. The novel, in a new translation from Rosamund Bartlett, opens with a family in chaos due to the discovered infidelity of the father, Oblonsky, Anna Karenina’s brother. Is Tolstoy telling us that there’s something wrong, a bit of moral code missing in Oblonsky and his married sister, the beautiful Anna Karenina? We can imagine that it may have been perfectly normal and acceptable in society for an affluent, upper class married man to maintain a mistress or have the occasional affairs, but Oblonsky really went over the top when he carried on with his children’s governess under his own roof. Oblonsky’s wife, Dolly, is deeply humiliated and while Oblonsky knows he was ‘wrong, ‘ he’s wrong on his terms:

‘And the worst thing of all is that the blame is all mine, all mine, and yet I’m not to blame. That’s the whole tragedy of it.’


He had even thought that, as a worn-out ageing, no longer pretty woman, wholly unremarkable, ordinary, simply the good mother of a family, she ought by rights to be indulgent.

Enter Anna to the rescue–that respectably married woman-a woman who married for status and is playing her role as the wife of the much-older Karenin well. She sweeps into her brother’s home and with a few token phrases of understanding, she swiftly restores order to the marriage. So we’re back to ‘happy families again’ –a phrase that is so important to this particular novel. When Anna arrives at her brother’s home, she’s already met Vronsky, of course. They set eyes on each other at the train station, their hearts are racing, the chemistry is undeniably there, and Anna’s obvious fluster whenever she sees the dashing Vronsky just adds to the steam.

Vronsky, we’re told, is a bit of a player. He flirts with young society girls and gives their families reason to think he’s serious, and this is exactly the situation involving Kitty and her silly mother; both of them misunderstand Vronsky’s intentions; they think he’s about to propose and he thinks his attentions to Kitty are just fun and enjoyable. But then again, perhaps there’s something wrong with Vronsky’s moral compass too. After all, his mother had a scandalous number of love affairs during her marriage.

Onto the ball–that fatal ball in which Kitty’s hopes are dashed and Anna and Vronsky are magnetically drawn towards each other. I didn’t like Anna much at this point because of Kitty who’s about to have a complete meltdown, and for her part, Kitty adores Anna. Kitty begged Anna to wear lilac; it was a naïve request, for Anna knows the colour that showcases her beauty.

Slowing his step now, Korunsky waltzed directly over to the crowd in the left corner of the ballroom, repeating ‘Pardon, mesdames, pardon, pardon, mesdames,’ and after navigating through the sea of lace, tulle, and ribbons without catching on a single feather, he spun his partner round sharply, exposing her slender legs in their lacy stockings, and causing her train to spread out like a fan and cover Krivin’s knees. Korunsky bowed, straightened out his shirt-front, and proffered his arm in order to escort her to Anna Arkadyevna. Blushing deeply, Kitty removed her train from Krivin’s lap and looked round for Anna, her head spinning a little. Anna was standing talking, surrounded by ladies and men. She was not in lilac, which Kitty had so set her heart on, but in a low-cut black velvet dress, revealing her curvaceous shoulders and bosom like old chiseled ivory, rounded arms, and tiny slender hands. The entire dress was trimmed with Venetian lace. On her head, in her black hair, which was not augmented by any extension, was a small garland of pansies, and there was another on the black ribbon of her sash, between pieces of white lace. Her hair arrangement was inconspicuous. Only those obstinate little locks of curly hair constantly escaping at the nape of her neck and on her temples were conspicuous, and they enhanced her beauty. There was a string of pearls around her strong, chiseled neck.

Kitty had seen Anna every day, was in love with her, and had pictured her definitely in lilac. But now she had seen her in black, she felt she had not understood the full extent of her charm. She now saw her in a completely new and unexpected light. She realized now that Anna could not have worn lilac, and that her charm consisted precisely in the fact that she always stood out from what she wore, that what she wore could never be noticeable on her. The black dress with its sumptuous lace was indeed not noticeable on her; it was just a frame, and all that was visible was her simple, natural, elegant, and yet also light-hearted and vivacious self.


And here’s the same passage from translator Joel Carmichael:

And Korsunsky waltzed off directly toward the throng in the left corner of the room, slowing down and repeating “pardon, mesdames, pardon, pardon, mesdames,” tacking about in the sea of lace, tulle, and ribbons; and without touching a feather, he turned Kitty round so sharply that her slender ankles in their openwork stockings were exposed as her train spread out like a fan and covered Krivin’s knees. Korsunsky bowed, squared his open shirt front, and held his arm out to take Kitty over to Anna. Kitty flushed and took her train off Krivin’s knees; a little dizzy, she looked around in search of Anna. Anna  was not in lilac, which Kitty had set her heart on, but in a black, low-cut velvet dress that showed off her full shoulders and bosom, which looked carved out of old ivory, her rounded arms and tiny slender hands. Her dress was completely trimmed in Venetian lace. In her black hair, all her own, she wore a small garland of pansies, which were also in the black band of her sash, among the white lace. Her coiffure did not catch the eye; the only thing noticeable about it were the willful little tendrils of curly hair that always escaped at her temples and the nape of her neck, and added to her beauty. There was a string of pearls around her sturdy, chiseled neck.

Kitty had been seeing Anna every day, was in love with her, and invariably imagined her in lilac. But now, when she saw her in black, she felt she had never realized her full charm before. She saw her now as something completely new and unexpected. Now she realized that Anna could never be in lilac, and that her charm consisted of just that–she always stood out from her dress; it was never conspicuous. The black dress with its rich lace was also unnoticeable on her: it was merely a frame, what was visible was only herself, simple, natural, elegant, and at the same time gay and full of life.

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Filed under Fiction, Tolstoy, Leo

Anna Karenina: Leo Tolstoy

Rereading Anna Karenina in a new translation from Rosamund Bartlett was a marvelous experience. I had thought that I’d remembered the novel well, but for this read, so many fresh elements of the plot and the exquisite intricacies of the characters surged to the surface. In the introduction, Bartlett mentions an interesting point when she discusses how our feelings towards some of the central characters shift:

Rather than take responsibility for her own actions, Anna alights on omens–the accident at the railway station, her recurrent dreams–and prefers to blame fate. Just as there are times when Karenin is not an unsympathetic character (as when he is filled with compassion after the birth of Anna’s daughter, for whom he feels a tender affection), there are times when the reader’s identification with Anna is challenged by her wilful and egotistical behaviour. If Tolstoy’s characters change during the course of the novel, it was because his attitude towards them changed as his own thinking developed. It is, therefore, not wholly surprising that Anna Karenina can be seen ‘as an array of readings that contradict and diverge from each other, and that cluster around an opposition between personal truths and universal truths’ as Vladimir Alexandrov has shown in his examination of the novel’s many possible meanings.

I’m not going to talk about the plot; if you don’t know it, read the book, but instead I’m going to concentrate on a couple of scenes as, for this read, the thing that hit me the most, is what an amazingly cinematic novel Anna Karenina really is.

anna kTime and time again, Tolstoy creates the most breathtaking scenes. Whether it’s domestic discord, episodes of gastronomic excess, the first stirrings of sexual attraction, the frantic tension of a horse race, or the excitement of a ball, Tolstoy’s words paint, with bold strokes, the incredible world of human emotions exposed through the social interactions between a dazzling array of wonderful characters.

Early in the novel, Anna’s married brother, bon vivant Stepan Arkadych Oblonsky dines at a Moscow restaurant with his friend Levin. Meanwhile Oblonsky’s home is in an uproar over the discovery of Oblonsky’s affair with his children’s’ governess. How perfect that the novel began by showing how an extra-marital affair destroys the harmony of the Oblonsky home and the subsequent desperate necessity to restore order. It’s also through Oblonsky’s affair we see how extra marital relationships can be tolerated if they are discreet. Just as Oblonsky cannot pass over a plate of rich food, he could not pass over the pretty little governess, and while he realizes that this was bad form, and he feels a tinge of regret, he also thinks that his wife, whose looks are fading, should understand.

So here we have a man of robust appetites; we know he couldn’t control his sexual appetite under his own roof, and then we see his appetite for food in a scene with the aesthete, Levin. Oblonsky owes money to his two favourite restaurants, the Angleterre and the Hermitage, but choses the former as that’s where he owes the most. An interesting choice as it tells us a lot about Oblonsky who considers it “bad form to avoid that hotel.” So with his hat on a “jaunty angle” he enters the dining room “giving out orders to the obsequious Tatars carrying napkins who were dressed in tails.”  Oblonsky is the sort of man who lives lightly and is popular with his peers and underlings; he’s a man whose privilege and position suit him.

Poor, lovesick Levin, who’s in Moscow to propose to Kitty is about to discover that there’s a formidable rival, Vronsky, on the scene. Levin would prefer to eat “cabbage soup and buckwheat kasha,” but Oblonsky, whose appetite isn’t dampened by moral matters, orders up enough gourmet food to feed an army:

“I’ll say! Whatever you say, it is one of life’s pleasures.” said Stepan Arkadych. “So, my good fellow, we’ll have two dozen oysters, or maybe that’s not enough–let’s say three-dozen, some vegetable soup…”

“Printenière,” prompted the Tatar. But Stepan Arkadych clearly did not want to give him the pleasure of naming the dishes in French.

“Vegetable soup, you know? Then turbot with a thick sauce, then … roast beef: but make sure it is good. And capons, I think, and some fruit salad too.”

Remembering Stepan Arkadych’s practice of not naming dishes according to the French menu, the Tatar did not repeat what he said, but gave himself the pleasure of repeating the whole order from the menu: “Soupe printanière, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, Poularde á l’estragon, macèdoine de fruits…’ and then, as if on springs, he managed in the blink of an eye to put down one bound menu, pick up another, the wine menu, and present to Stepan Arkadych.

“And what shall we have to drink?”

“I’ll have whatever you want, but not too much, maybe some champagne,” said Levin.

“What do you mean? To begin with? Actually maybe you’re right. Do you like the one with the white seal?”

“Cachet blanc,” prompted the Tatar.
“Well, give us some of that with the oysters, and then we’ll see.”

“Certainly, sir. What table wine would you like?”

“Let’s have some Nuits. No, a classic Chablis would be even better.”

“Certainly, sir. Would you like your cheese?”

“Oh yes, Parmesan. Or is there another that you like?”

“No, I don’t mind what we have,” said Levin, unable to repress a smile.

And the Tatar hurried off with his coat-tails billowing out over his wide haunches, only to sprint back five minutes later with a plate of shucked oysters in their pearly shells, and a bottle between his fingers.

Stepan Arkadych crumpled up his starched napkin, tucked it into his waistcoat, rested his arms comfortably, and made a start on the oysters.

“They’re not bad, he said, prising the slippery oysters from their pearly shells with a small silver fork, and swallowing one after the other. “Not bad,” he repeated, looking up with moist and shining eyes, first at Levin and then at the Tatar. Levin ate the oysters too, although the white bread and cheese was more to his liking. But he was in awe of Oblonsky. Even the Tatar, after uncorking the bottle and pouring the sparking wine into shallow, slender glasses, was looking at Stepan Arkadych with a distinct smile of pleasure as he straightened his white tie.

And here’s the same quote in a translation from Joel Carmichael:

“I should hope so! No matter what you say that’s one of life’s pleasures,” Oblonsky said. “Well then, my good fellow, let us have two–no, that’s too little–three dozen oysters, vegetable soup—“

“Printanier,” murmured the Tatar, but it was plain that Oblonsky had no desire to give him the pleasure of naming the dishes in French.

“–vegetable, you know, then the turbot with a thick sauce, then roast beef, but make sure it’s all right, and then capon, eh?” Oh yes, and stewed fruit, too.”

The Tatar, taking note of Oblonsky’s way of not referring to the dishes according to the French menu, did not repeat what he said, but gave himself the satisfaction of repeating the whole order according to the menu: “potage printanier, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, poularde  á l’estragon, macédonie de fruits…” then instantly, as though on springs, he put aside one menu in a cardboard cover and took up another, the wine list, which he held out to Oblonsky.

“What should we have to drink?”
“Whatever you please, but not too much–champagne!” said Levin.

“What, to begin with? But of course, please, let’s. D’you like the white seal?”

“Cachet blanc,” the Tatar chimed in.

“Well, let’s have that with the oysters, then we’ll see.”

“Yes, Sir. And the table wine, sir, what would you like?”

“Let’s have the Nuits. No, the classic Chablis–that would be better.”

“Yes sir. And your own special cheese, sir?”

“Why yes–the parmesan. Or would you like something else?”
“No, it doesn’t matter at all,” said Levin, who couldn’t help smiling.

The Tatar darted off, his coattails flying; five minutes later he flew back with a dish of opened oysters in their pearly shells and a bottle between his fingers.

Oblonsky crumpled his starched napkin, put it inside his waistcoat, and settling his arms comfortably on the table set about the oysters.

“Not bad at all,” he said, tweaking the quivering oysters out of their pearly shells with a silver fork and gulping them down one after another. “Not bad at all,” he repeated, raising his moist, glistening eyes first toward Levin, then toward the Tatar.

Levin ate the oysters, though he liked white bread and cheese more. But he was admiring Oblonsky. Even the Tatar, as he adjusted his white tie after drawing he cork and pouring the sparkling wine into the thin, wide glasses, looked at Oblonsky with a smile of obvious pleasure.

I read a few comments about yet another translation of Anna Karenina being on the market, but personally, I think it’s wonderful that publishers are still printing new translations. But apart from that I much preferred the Rosamund Bartlett translation to the one I had on my shelf. In the quote, the personality of the Tatar seeps through. Another scene to follow…

Review copy


Filed under Fiction, Tolstoy, Leo

Spring Torrents: Turgenev

Turgenev (1818-1883), one of the giants of 19th century Russian literature, is the master at creating fictional male characters who engage in relationships with women only to experience the destructive nature of passion. Perhaps a Turgenev character will lose love from a failure to commit or perhaps he will discover that the woman has another game even as he’s drawn in deeper and deeper. Bitter regret and love go hand in hand in Turgenev’s fiction.  Spring Torrents, published in 1872,  is short–only 176 pages in my Penguin Classics edition, and it’s superb quintessential Turgenev.

spring torrentsThis is a frame story, and the novel opens with a middle-aged man, Dimitry Pavlovich Sanin, now in his 50s, who, after an evening’s entertainment, feels a vague disgust and discontentment with his life. He reminisces about his past and his loves, and this brings us to Sanin at age 23, thirty years before. It’s 1840.

Sanin has inherited a little money, and he decided to use it travelling before returning to Russia and “putting on the harness of employment in a government department.” He has just left Italy, and is now in Frankfurt with just enough money to return to Russia. He has reserved a seat in a coach, the last coach leaving that night at 10 o’clock. So his life is arranged, or appears to be. Then fate sends him into an Italian patisserie for a glass of lemonade, but just as he arrives, a young boy, the son of the owner has collapsed. Urged by a beautiful young Italian girl to save her brother, Sanin steps in and revives the boy.

This dramatic event is the beginning of Sanin’s relationship with the Roselli family. Signora Leonora Roselli, the owner of the patisserie, is a widow with two children, Emilio, a young boy who does not appear to have the best health, and his gorgeous sister, Gemma. Sanin misses his coach, but no matter, he can’t take his eyes off of the beautiful Gemma. Sanin is treated as one of the family, and very quickly becomes involved with the Rosellis. He even serves in the shop a few times, and finds that playing shopkeeper is rather enjoyable. But as much as he’s charmed by the Rosellis, it’s really Gemma who draws his attention. Too bad she’s already engaged to Herr Karl Klueber, a man Sanin dislikes:

It may well be supposed that, at that time, in all the shops in all Frankfurt there was not to be found another such courteous, well-mannered, grave, and polite chief assistant as Herr Klueber. His immaculate dress was of the same high level as the dignity of his demeanour and the elegance of his manners–a little prim and stiff, it is true, in the English fashion (he had spent two years in England)-but beguiling elegance for all that. It was evident at a glance that this good-looking, somewhat stern, exceedingly well brought-up and superlatively well-washed young man was in the habit of obeying his superiors and of issuing orders to his inferiors. The sight of such a man behind his counter was indeed bound to inspire respect even in the customers. There could not be the slightest doubt that his honesty surpassed all natural limits–why, one only had to look at the points of his stiffly starched collar.

Spring Torrents examines the issue of sexuality, attraction, infatuation, obsessive passion and love. These are elements easily confused, and we see Sanin attracted to Gemma and then he’s falling in love. This all happens very quickly, and Senora Roselli expects Sanin to marry Gemma and stay in Frankfurt. He impetuously agrees to sell his Russian estates and invest his money in the patisserie, and there are hints that Sanin is naïve. At one point as Sanin works in the shop, he feels “ready to stand behind the counter for all time dealing in sweets and orgeade” as long as he has Gemma by his side, and then there’s the haste with which he finds himself engaged. After all, “he had had no thought of marriage in his mind” and had just “surrendered himself to the driving force of passion.” Now he’s planning on returning to Russia to wind up his affairs, move permanently to Frankfurt and become a shopkeeper when fate intervenes in Sanin’s life again, and he is drawn into a dark, destructive passion.

The women in the novels of Turgenev are always memorable, strong & vibrant characters–possibly a reflection of Turgenev’s incredibly tough mother, Varvara Petrovna.  In Spring Torrents, we see two very different women, and through them, two different types of passion. As readers, we ask ourselves what does Sanin really want or is he just swept along by “the driving force of passion” once again? How many times are we confronted by situations in which the image of the person we’d like to be is challenged by the reality of who we really are?

Spring Torrents delves into the stages of sexual passion, and while sex is not mentioned, several scenes vibrate with sexual possibility:

Sanin seized those listless hands as they lay, palms upwards, and pressed them to his eyes, to his lips … This was the moment when the curtain, which he had kept seeing the day before, swept up. Here it is, happiness with its radiant countenance!

He raised his head and looked at Gemma boldly, straight in the eyes. She was looking at him too–with a slightly downward glance. There was scarcely any lustre in her half-closed eyes: they were flooded with shining tears of joy. But her face was not smiling…No! It was laughing, with soundless laughter that was also the laughter of bliss.

He wanted to draw her to his breast, but she resisted him, and still laughing silently, shook her head. ‘Wait,’ her happy eyes seemed to be saying.

By the time the end of the novel arrives, it’s impossible to read about Sanin without drawing parallels to Turgenev’s life. Turgenev fell in love with the married opera singer, Pauline Viardot and followed her around Europe–not that Turgenev suffered the humiliations heaped upon Sanin, but nonetheless, Turgenev was completely absorbed by the Viardot family in a situation that alarmed his friends. Turgenev is highly recommended by this reader and he’s certainly the 19th century Russian author to read for any readers out there who feel slightly intimidated by this period.  While I preferred Nest of the Gentry, Spring Torrents is marvelous.

Translated by Leonard Schapiro


Filed under Fiction, Turgenev

The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense ed. by Otto Penzler

Given my interest in Russian literature, it should come as no surprise that I was delighted to receive a review copy of The Greatest Russian Stories of Crime and Suspense. The introduction written by Otto Penzler includes some interesting observations about the existence of detective fiction in a society in which individualism does not flourish, and notes that Russian crime and suspense fiction contains a “pervasive darkness” that “rivals the relatively new fiction genre that is often termed noir.”

Most of us will be familiar with some of the Great Names of 19th Century Russian literature, but what is interesting is that we get lesser titles by some of those big names. Here’s a breakdown of the contents:

Boris Akunin Table Talk

A chapter from Dostoevsky’s Crime & Punishment

Vil Lipatov Genka Paltsev, Son of Dimitri

Nikolai Gogol The Portrait

Anton Chekhov The Swedish Match

Anton Chekhov Sleepy

Anton Chekhov The Head Gardener’s Story

Anton Chekhov The Bet

Alexander Pushkin The Queen of Spades

Lev Sheinin The Hunting Knife

Ivan Bunin The Gentleman from San Francisco

P. Nitikin The Strangler

Vladimir Nabokov Revenge

Nikolai Lyeskov The Sentry

Maxim Gorky A Strange Murderer

Boris Sokoloff The Crime of Doctor Garine

Nikolai Gogol The Overcoat

Leo Tolstoy God Sees the Truth, but Waits

Leo Tolstoy Too Dear

Bunin’s story The Gentleman from San Francisco is considered to be one of the best pieces he wrote, and of course, Pushkin’s Queen of Spades appears in many collections. Gogol’s story The Portrait, a story of an artist who trades in his integrity for fame morphs into the tale of a portrait with special powers. This story contained unexpected shades of German Romanticism, and so it was entirely different from Dead Souls. Some of the stories were humourous: The Swedish Match (very funny) or had a witty ironic edge. While some of the names are familiar, included in the collection are some names that were new to me:Vil Lipatov, Lev Sheinin, Boris Sokoloff, & P. Nitikin.

With the authors and choices in this collection, it wasn’t easy to narrow down some favourites, but since I’d read a couple  of the stories before, I’m selecting stories that are new-to-me. This brings me to Chekhov’s The Bet (1889), a story I didn’t really expect from Chekhov (although I know he’d written masses of short stories) and a story which reminds me of no small degree of Dostoevsky.

During a dinner party, a group of men talk about capital punishment:

The majority of the guests, among whom were many journalists and intellectual men, disapproved of the death penalty. They considered that form of punishment out of date, immoral, and unsuitable for Christian States. In the opinion of some of them the death penalty ought to be replaced everywhere by imprisonment for life.

The host, an extremely wealthy banker argues for the death penalty:

 I have not tried either the death penalty or imprisonment for life, but if one may judge a priori, the death penalty is more moral and more humane than imprisonment for life. Capital punishment kills a man at once, but lifelong imprisonment kills him slowly. Which executioner is the more humane, he who kills you in a few minutes or he who drags the life out of you in the course of many years?

A lively, passionate debate ensues with a 25-year-old lawyer stating that if he had to choose, he’d choose imprisonment for life over execution. The banker challenges the lawyer to a wager, and he bets the lawyer that he cannot stay in solitary confinement for five years. In a few seconds, five years becomes 15, and the banker bets two million against the lawyer being able to stay locked up for 15 years.

And this wild, senseless bet was carried out! The banker, spoilt and frivolous, with millions beyond his reckoning, was delighted at the bet. At supper he made fun of the young man and said:

“Think better of it, young man, while there is still time. To me two millions are a trifle, but you are losing three or four of the best years of your life. I say three or four, because you won’t stay longer. Don’t forget, you unhappy man, that voluntary confinement is a great deal harder to bear than compulsory. The thought that you have the right to step out in liberty at any moment will poison your whole existence in prison. I am sorry for you.”

Of course, in this speech, tinged with a condescending manner, the banker is really egging the young man on, and he takes the bait. The banker realises that this meaningless bet will not “prove that the death penalty is better or worse than imprisonment for life,” and that the bet is “the caprice of a pampered man, and on his part simple greed for money….” 

But does the banker underestimate the lawyer? They are, after all, locked in a contest of will.

The lawyer agrees to confinement in one of the lodges owned by the banker. There “under the strictest supervision” he is to remain for 15 years.

It was agreed that for fifteen years he should not be free to cross the threshold of the lodge, to see human beings, to hear the human voice, or to receive letters and newspapers. He was allowed to have a musical instrument and books, and was allowed to write letters, to drink wine, and to smoke. By the terms of the agreement, the only relations he could have with the outer world were by a little window made purposely for that object. He might have anything he wanted–books, music, wine, and so on–in any quantity he desired by writing an order, but could only receive them through the window.

Will the lawyer sweat out his 15 years of solitary? Will he go insane or will he break free one day when he can stand it no longer?

A number of the stories in the collection are concerned with punishment (The Head Gardener’s Story), and that’s no doubt a reflection of the society in which they were written. Tolstoy’s story–a parable of sorts– Too Dear, explores the nature of punishment solely through its cost to the king who demands punishment.

Boris Sokoloff’s The Crime of Doctor Garine (1927) is a strange story and one I enjoyed a great deal-even though the ending didn’t answer all the questions the story raised. Doctor Garine admits murdering his wife in the most brutal manner but refuses to explain himself. There seems little doubt that he committed the crime, and since he freely admits it, motivation is the key element, and the motivation is gradually spun out through the details of the trial. During the trial and the appearance of various witnesses, Garine is calm, controlled and mostly unemotional. As the testimony builds, we see how the importance of why the crime is committed is paramount, and how this sensational trial is fundamentally society’s way of trying to understand what happened. The Crime of Doctor Garine is especially interesting for its emphasis on psychological motives; indeed a psychologist is even called to talk to Garine who mocks his profession.

Otto Penzler notes that the Russian approach to detective fiction is different to the western approach while discussing the shifts in the genre through the 20th century and modern writers of Russian detective fiction such as Victor Dotsenko and Aleksandra Marinina.

Among Russian writers, detective novels have flourished, and readers in the former Soviet U.S.S. R. have made them their preferred choice of reading matter. In a reader survey taken in 1995, more than 32% of men and 24% of women named “detektivy” as their favorite type of book.

Russian Radio Kultura regularly plays readings of British detective novels–including some obscure titles from Georgette Heyer & Agatha Christie.

One criticism of the collection that I’ve read is that it focuses too much on the 19th century, but that, surely, just begs for volume two. My complaint is reserved for the comment about Sophia (Sofya) Tolstoy. The intro to God Sees the Truth, but Waits says that Tolstoy, “tired of his life as a libertine, [he] married in 1862 and in, an effort at candor, showed his wife his diaries, leading to lifelong distrust and jealousy.”  Tolstoy’s diaries contained details of his sexual relationships with women–hardly the romantic, tactful or sensitive reading one would give to a virgin bride on a wedding night. Tolstoy was a genius as a writer, but left a lot of room for improvement in the husband department, and while he may have told himself that giving Sophia his diaries which included his sexual conquests of prostitutes and peasant women was an act of “candor,” that’s open to idle speculation & debate. Who knows what motivates people, but in my book, Sophia had the patience of a saint.


Filed under Bunin Ivan, Chekhov, Dostoevsky, Fiction, Gogol, Nikolai, Gorky Maxim, Leskov, Nikolai, Nabokov, Pushkin, Tolstoy, Leo

from Eugene Onegin by Pushkin

Ah, much, much has fate snatched away!

blest who left life’s feast early,

not having to the bottom drained

the goblet full of wine;

who never read life’s novel to the end

and all at once could part with it

as I with my Onegin.

(Translated by Vladimir Nabokov)


Filed under Fiction, Nabokov

Humiliated and Insulted by Dostoevsky

“There’s a peculiar gratification to be derived from the sudden tearing-down of a mask, from the cynicism of not deigning to betray any sense of shame in suddenly exposing oneself to another indecently.”

I wanted to read Dostoevsky’s novel Humiliated and Insulted after watching a Russian biopic television series about this incredible writer. Apparently this novel, first published in 1861 in the magazine Vermya, isn’t read much these days, and after finishing it, I can see why. The novel lacks the lively humour and craziness of Notes from Underground, and it also lacks the magnificent sense of impending doom found in Demons. In fact, I’d have to say that more than anything else, Humilated and Insulted reminded me of Dickens –a St Petersburg version, of course, but the Dickens influence seems present nonetheless. Dostoevsky was an admirer of Dickens and read David Copperfield and The Old Curiosity Shop during his time at a penal colony in Siberia.  Dostoevsky travelled to London in 1862 and there’s some speculation whether he met Dickens during his eight day stay in England.

But what of Humiliated and Insulted? This is a new translation by Ignat Avsey and this edition from Oneworld Classics comes with a number of pictures of the important people in the author’s life along with a couple of the book’s original illustrations.   

The novel is narrated by a writer, Vanya (Ivan Petrovich), and the story begins with Vanya looking for lodgings in the cheaper areas of St Petersburg. Needless to say the writer is very poor, but he’s also feeling ill when he spots a skinny old man followed by an equally skinny old dog. The writer is intrigued by the sight of such abject misery and follows the decrepit pair, dog and owner, into a coffee house. Later he follows the man into the street and witnesses his death. It seems fated that Vanya will rent the room now left unoccupied by the old man. There’s a great deal of mystery about the circumstances the old man lived in, but his death seems to be the end of the thread. It isn’t, of course.

The book starts off very strongly indeed with Vanya and the last mysterious words of the old man, and then we discover that Vanya is in love with Natasha (Natalya Nikolayevna) the only daughter of a minor landowner named Ikhmenev. Vanya, who was orphaned, was unofficially adopted by Ikhmenev, and so naturally Vanya and Natasha grew up with a close bond but they were separated when Vanya went off to boarding school. Since we’re told that Ikhmenev took in Vanya, we know that he’s a good man, but he’s also had a troubled past:

Nikolai Sergeich Ikhmenev came of a good family which had long since been reduced to poverty. However, after his parents’ death he came into possession of a sizeable piece of property with some hundred and fifty souls. At about the age of twenty he decided to enlist in the Hussars. Everything went well until one disastrous evening in the sixth year of his commission when he gambled away his whole fortune at cards. He didn’t sleep that night. The next evening he again turned up at the gaming table and staked his horse–his last possession–on one card. He won, then a second time, then a third, and half an hour later he had recouped one of his hamlets, Ikhmenevka, an estate which at the last census had numbered some fifty souls.

Apparently Ikhmenev knew to stop while he was ahead, so he resigned from the Hussars and retired to his small country estate. He never gambled again. Ikhmenev married a “dowryless” woman and carefully tended his estate. His reputation as an excellent manager grew to the extent that the visiting owner of the adjoining estate, Vasilevskoye “which numbered nine hundred souls,” a certain prince Pyotr Alexandrovich Valkovsky begins to cultivate a friendship with Ikhmenev and his wife. Although the Prince has a nasty reputation, Ikhmenev and his wife, Anna find him charming, and this is partly due to the fact that Valkovsky appears to single them out for attention. Then Valkovsky fires his German steward and offers the job to Ikhmenev, and he unfortunately accepts….

One of the book’s themes is the inability of good, honest people (the humiliated and insulted) to cope with truly evil characters, and this is apparent through several relationships in the book. Valkovsky is an evil man, and just how evil becomes apparent as the plot plays out.

Most of the plot gravitates around two situations: Vanya takes Nelly, a filthy epileptic orphan girl under his wing and saves her from being pimped to a pedophile, and part of the plot concerns the mystery of her background. Another huge chunk of the plot concerns Natasha, the daughter of Ikhmenev and her love affair with an emotionally immature nobleman, Alyosha. 

Dostoevsky’s narrator has a problematic role. He’s a bystander for a huge chunk of the plot, and so he sees and relates the events that take place. There are many scenes of Vanya running over to see Natasha who’s in tears (again) thanks to the latest neglect from her lover. Then the lover appears and dashes off again only to disappear for another 4 days or so.  This cycle is repeated several times. A large chunk of the book appears to have very little forward motion as it hovers on Natasha’s stagnant love affair. Another fault can be found in the fact that Vanya is a bit slow to catch on to the true story behind the orphan’s mysterious past, and as a narrator, he isn’t particularly savvy.

But this is still Dostoevsky, and in my book, he’s untouchable. It’s not his best of course, but still well worth reading. One of the interesting aspects of the book is its look at sexual depravity:

There used to be a mentally sick clerk in Paris–he was confined to an asylum after he was finally pronounced unbalanced. Well then, during his bouts of madness this is how he used to amuse himself: he’d undress at home, stark-naked as the day he was born, down to his shoes, throw a large, ankle-length cloak over his shoulders, wrap himself up in it and, affecting a grand and self-important air, step out into the  street. To look at he was just like anyone else. A man in a large cloak strolling for his pleasure. But no sooner would he see some lone passer-by ahead with no one else about than he’d walk straight towards him, with the most serious and profound expression on his face, stop in front of him suddenly, fling his cloak open and expose himself in all his… glory. He’d stand for about a minute in silence, then cover himself up again and, keeping a straight face and with perfect composure, glide past the thunderstruck observer regally, like the ghost in Hamlet. He’d do that to everybody–men, women, children–and that’s all he needed to keep him happy.

While there are some shady and flawed characters, the Prince, who is unleashed in the final section, is the nastiest and also the most interesting character in the book. He’s a supreme pervie, and Dostoevsky’s frank approach to these sexual matters was refreshing for the 19th century:

Ideals I have none and have no wish to have any, never having missed them anyway. One can survive in this world so comfortably, so nicely without them…

The poverty and vice connection combined with the condemnation of a flawed social system that allows evils to thrive reminded me strongly of Dickens, and Dostoevsky’s novel also contains the sort of sentimentality found in Dickens through its two female victims, the orphan and Natasha. Here’s a speech made to Nelly  from a woman who sells children to wealthy pedophiles:

“Oh you damned bloodsucker, you louse, you!” The woman screamed, letting out an unpuncuated stream of abuse, gasping but not pausing for breath, “so this is how you repay me for all my care, you shaggy wretch! I send her off for some gherkins and off she sneaks! I knew it in my heart when I sent her she’d slope off. I felt it in me bones, I did! Last night I practically scalped her for it and today she’s up to the same old trick! Where’ve you been, you strumpet, where? Who could you go running to, you damned freak, you poisonous wretch, who? Tell me, you bog-trotting vermin, or I’ll strangle you on the spot!” 


Filed under Dostoevsky, Fiction