Married to a Genius

The married lives of Anna Dostoevskaya and Sophia Tolstoya

The ladies Dostoevskaya and Tolstaya were most probably too young and inexperienced to judge correctly what they were in for at the moment they said “yes” to to their husbands. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were already successful and celebrated writers, and in spite of the considerable age differences, all parties involved were in love. Both ladies kept diaries during their marriages, so that we have a clear picture of what they had to endure from their husbands.

Anna Snitkina

Anna Snitkina was twenty years old when she started work as a stenographer for the forty four year old Dostoevsky. He had made a deal with a publisher on terrible conditions and with an impossible deadline in order to pay off his gambling debts. A friend had suggested that he should hire a stenographer, so that the writing would proceed faster. With Anna’s help a schedule was made and the novella The Gambler was written. But when the deadline approached, Dostoevsky realised that he would miss Anna terribly after their work was finished. Because he had no idea if she felt the same, he devised a plan: he asked her advice on a story he was working on. In this story a middle aged artist fell in love with his young assistant. Was it possible, from Anna's female perspective, that this love was mutual? After Anna's reply that it was very well possible, Fyodor felt confident enough to ask her and not much later they were married.


It soon became clear to Anna that Dostoevsky's debts were not caused by gambling alone; he took financial care of the whole family of his deceased brother and of his spoiled stepson from his first marriage. On top of that he was legally obliged to take over the debts that his deceased brother had. As soon as any money arrived, a whole crowd stood on his doorstep, and it disappeared again in no time. To get a break from all those people, the couple travelled abroad, to Baden Baden. Where the famous casino was. And Dostoevsky started gambling again. He gambled away everything: the wedding rings, Anna's jewellery, her clothes, their travel money, everything. Dostoevsky had to ask his publisher for an advance, and the morning it arrived, he went out to buy their things back. In the evening he came home crying: that money had been gambled away as well.


The saintly Anna kept forgiving and believing in her husband. The few desperate outbursts she had, were confined to the pages of her diary, and even so she found herself a bad person for giving in to them. She blamed Dostoevsky’s epilepsy for all his problems. Thanks to her practical mindset, Dostoevsky managed eventually to get rid of both his gambling addiction and his debts. Anna took on all financial affairs and dealt with the publishers herself.


During their marriage Dostoevsky wrote masterpieces such as The Idiot, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov.

Sophia Behrs

Sophia Behrs was the daughter of a doctor friend of Tolstoy. She was eighteen when she married the thirty four year old Tolstoy. Tolstoy was very much in love and tried to make that clear to her in a way he later described in Anna Karenina: he wrote down the first letters of the words of a long sentence and made her guess the sentence. She succeeded, and a lifetime of working out her husband’s handwriting and unpredictable character would follow.


Although Tolstoy clearly had the upper hand in the marriage, the first years together were really happy. Sophia played an important role in her husband’s writing: she edited and copied out his manuscripts, so that they were ready for the publisher. She helped Tolstoy with his female characters, and most importantly she gave him the peace and space he needed to write.


According to Tolstoy a woman's calling was to give birth to and breastfeed children, and although Sophia had had enough of that after five children, she would give birth to another eight. With each child came more worries and her life became more confined to the nursery. From the thirteen children eight would make it to adults and she had to bury five. Later in his life Tolstoy preached sexual abstinence, even while Sophia was pregnant again, which she found terribly embarrassing.


Most of her married life she lived on Tolstoy’s simple, almost spartan, country estate Yasnaya Polyana. Sophia grew up in the centre of Moscow and missed the pleasures of the city. She constantly had to adjust to her husband’s latest obsession and that caused more and more friction. Tolstoy wanted to give away the rights of his novels, give up his aristocratic title, and developed a close friendship with the Tolstoyan Chertkov. Sophia became more and more jealous, sad and desperate. She felt the gap between her and her husband widening, and wanted even to take her life in a cry for attention. Eventually Tolstoy found the situation so unbearable, that he ran away from Yasnaya Polyana and Sophia, in the middle of the night, aged eighty two. He would die ten days later.


No doubt Sophia had imagined her life as Countess Tolstaya to be completely different.


During their marriage Tolstoy (to mention just a few things) wrote two of the greatest novels ever written, learned Ancient Greek in five months, learned to ride a bicycle and play tennis, got excommunicated from the church, raised a record amount of money for charity, tried to fight the widespread illiteracy, got followers called “Tolstoyans”, wrote with Gandhi about non-violent resistance and became a vegetarian.


*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer

Tolstoy – A Russian Life, Rosamund Bartlett

Dostoevsky – A Writer in His Time, Joseph Frank

 

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Gogol’s Horror Story ‘The Viy’

In his unique style Gogol wrote down the story of The Viy. It's a horror story in the style of E.T.A. Hoffmann, but Gogol infused it with humour and irony: horses that out of habit stop at every inn; drunken Little-Russians* that kiss each other noisily when drunk; an old woman trying to seduce a student. Never a dull moment!

The King of the Gnomes

Gogol wrote several horror stories, partly inspired by old folk legends and partly springing from his own rich imagination. This is a folk legend according to Gogol, who describes Viy as a colossal being, with eyelids that hang down to the floor, he's the king of the gnomes. But since no evidence was ever found of a legend starring a certain “Viy”, we have to assume that he was a figment of Gogol's imagination. His name he most likely deduced from the Ukrainian word for eyelid: poviko.

A short summary:

The protagonist Khoma spends the night in the stables of an old woman. She turns out to be a witch, leaps on his back and makes him fly through the night. Luckily Khoma remembers his prayers and spells and manages to reach the ground again. Once landed, he takes a piece of wood and beats the witch. She collapses and turns into a beautiful girl. Frightened, Khoma flees back to Kiev. There he soon forgets his scary adventure, until one day he is summoned to the village of a rich Cossack, whose daughter came home one morning more dead than alive. On her deathbed she has requested that Khoma reads the prayers for her soul three nights in a row. Khoma doesn't want to and tries to escape several times, but the Cossacks who came to get him manage to get him to the village anyway. There he sees the father and the by now deceased girl, who he recognises as the witch. Again he tries to escape, but can't. He is locked into the church with the corpse for the first night. He reads the prayers, but suddenly the dead girl gets up from her coffin and starts to wander around with outstretched arms. Khoma draws a circle around himself and the girl can't get to him. When the first rooster crows she retreats to her coffin. The second night is even scarier: the girl summons demons. They fly around the church flapping their wings and screech on the windows with their claws. The third night they even come inside the church and the girl summons Viy. Viy arrives, requests his eyelids to be lifted and sees Khoma. Khoma looks back at Viy, ignoring his inner voice. Once he does, all the demons throw themselves at him and he dies of fear.

Romanticism and Realism

Gogol crosses the boundaries between Romanticism and Realism. The Viy contains elements of both literary movements. The witch and the demons; the flight with the witch; the three nights in the church, they are romantic components that are described in a realistic manner. Gogol repeatedly alternates between the supernatural and the ordinary. This creates contrasts between day and night, ordinary people and supernatural beings, Christianity and magic, and idyllic and horror scenes.

A real Cossack isn't afraid

Khoma is a Cossack, and Cossacks aren't easily scared. When the old woman rides on his shoulders, he isn't scared, he just thinks “aha, so you're a witch!” and does what one does in such cases: say prayers and spells. To punish her for taking him for a ride, he beats her. It's only when she turns into a beautiful girl that he gets scared. But even that doesn't last long: he just needs a good meal to get over it. When he is asked to say prayers for the Cossack’s daughter’s soul, he doesn't even connect her story with his. But the witch has trapped him, he can't escape because suddenly his legs feel like they're made of wood, or his long coat appears to be nailed to the ground. The witch doesn't want prayers, she wants revenge.

The moral conclusion

Evil was able to conquer because the faith of the people wasn't firm enough. Khoma doesn't always follow the rules of the church, and swears a lot. He has a rather fatalistic disposition. And then there's his name, Khoma, the Ukrainian equivalent of Thomas, as in Doubting Thomas. The church of the rich Cossack has been seriously neglected and it is placed on a remote edge of the village. It's literally a god forsaken place, where evil was able to reign freely.

*****

*In Gogol’s time the Ukraine was called Little Russia, and the story is set there.

The Viy is one of the Mirgorod stories and I read the Dutch translation by Aai Prins. You can read it in English online and/or watch the fantastic 1967 Russian film version, links below.

https://youtu.be/1OhQMVvgENM

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61v/

 

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

Natasha’s Russian Dance at Uncle’s House

In which Natasha shows that she has pure Russian blood running through her veins

At Uncle’s

After the hunt the young Rostovs come along with Uncle to his authentic Russian wooden house. Uncle isn’t married and from an impoverished branch of the family. He lives alone with his serfs. As soon as he gets home, he changes into a Cossack coat, blue trousers and boots. Nicholas and Natasha are so full of expectations and in such a happy mood, that they can only look at each other and burst out laughing. Now that the hunt is finished, Nicholas can act normally again with his sister. Petya has fallen asleep on the sofa. The housekeeper Anisya brings in the most delicious dishes, all prepared by herself. From her countenance Natasha and Nicholas soon conclude that she is not just Uncle’s housekeeper.

The young Rostovs savour the local dishes while someone in the background is playing on the balalaika. Uncle asks Anisya to bring his guitar and it turns out that he can play very well. His Russian notes hit Nicholas and Natasha straight in the heart. Every time a song finishes, Natasha begs Uncle to play another. The music becomes livelier, and Uncle gets up and challenges Natasha: he expects her to dance Russian style. But Natasha was raised by a French governess and learned to dance at Iogel’s*…

Nonetheless she dances as if she has always danced like that, conveying with every movement that Russian feeling, that is inimitable, that you have to have inside you, and that Natasha apparently breathed in together with the Russian air, in spite of her foreign upbringing. Anisya, who is watching from the door opening with the rest of the staff, is moved to tears. “Well, little countess, that’s it – come on!” cries uncle with his favourite expression. After the dance there’s more singing, but soon, much too soon, the carriage arrives to take the Rostovs home.

On the way home Petya is still sleeping, and Natasha and Nicholas discuss their evening at Uncle’s and both agree that it was an excellent evening. Nicholas thinks that that Natasha of his is his best friend, and that he wishes that she wouldn’t get married and that they could stay together forever. Natasha thinks that that Nicholas of hers is a real darling.

Domestic happiness and being authentic

This scene revolves around two main themes: domestic happiness and authenticity. Uncle shows the young Rostovs that happiness doesn’t mean having a lot of money and status. Real happiness can be found in a pleasant home, comfortable clothes, simple but excellent Russian food, Russian music and dance, and even in a relationship with a simple housekeeper. All those frills that Nicholas and Natasha were raised with don’t really matter.

Natasha likes being unconventional: she has been on horseback the whole day, like a man, and at Uncle’s house she has shown her true Russian spirit. And although Uncle, Nicholas and Anisya all adore her like this, it remains to be seen if Andrew, her fiancé, appreciates this deeply rooted aspect of her character. Natasha enjoys her position in the Rostov family very much. She realises only too well that the happiness that she feels now won’t last and that she has to enjoy it now. At the same time she dreams of her future happiness, but it’s the circumstances of her engagement that make her doubt: she is separated from Andrew by the war, and his despotic father is against the marriage. It seems that Nicholas isn’t a fan of Andrew either. The Rostov family is close knit and warm; the Bolkonski’s (Andrew’s family) are distant towards each other and live according to strict protocol.

Most readers will have understood immediately that Natasha won’t fit in, but we can certainly understand her getting carried away and thinking perhaps that she can change him. During the course of the novel we follow Natasha from being a thirteen year old to being a married woman with children. There are many defining moments in her young life, but we can be sure that she’ll always remember this evening with particular fondness.

This is definitely one of my favourite scenes in War and Peace. What’s yours?

*Iogel was a famous dance teacher who held popular balls for the young people. Natasha is one of his favourite pupils, but she certainly didn’t learn any folk dances from him.

*****

Photos and text © Elisabeth van der Meer

Tolstoy’s War and Peace as translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude

 

Pushkin House Blog — Pushkin House

Exciting news: I wrote a piece for the Pushkin House blog! You can read it if you click on the link below.Russian Cultural centre in London. Politically independent, Registered UK
Charity, owned and run by the Pushkin House Trust. Pushkin House hosts a
varied programme of Russian literature, poetry, art, cinema, music, theatre
and dance, history, philosophy and current affairs.
— Read on www.pushkinhouse.org/blog/

The Hunting Scene in War and Peace

In which Nicholas wants to show that he is a grown-up, but instead proves that he’s still a boy.

Financial problems

Nicholas Rostov has quit the order and clarity of the army and returned home to the chaos of family life, where his mother expects him to sort out the financial problems of the family. In order to save some money, the family has moved to their country estate. Because their financial struggles are partly his own fault for losing a fortune to Dolokhov, Nicholas makes a serious effort, but it soon becomes clear that he is as good with money and business as his father is, and he quickly gives up. He tries instead to fulfill his position as Count Rostov and eldest son in a more pleasant way.

Planning to go hunting

One fine morning in September he organises a hunting trip*. He summons the main huntsman Daniel and together they make a plan. Although this Daniel looks scornfully at Nicholas, Tolstoy reassures us that that’s just part of the hunter’s careless air and that Nicholas knows that Daniel is his serf. The first real flaws in his authority appear when he’s unable to stop Natasha and Petya from coming along on the hunt. The discussion he has with them in his study in front of the perplexed Daniel appears to come straight out of the nursery:

Nicholas, carelessly: We are going, but only wolf hunting: it would be dull for you.

Natasha, outraged: It’s not fair, you are going by yourself, are having the horses saddled and said nothing to us about it.

Petya, shouting: No barrier bars a Russian’s path – we’ll go!

And so the hunting party, consisting of around 130 dogs and 20 horsemen, they have to cut down on their spending, after all, sets off.

Uncle

They go to the Otrodnoe enclosure, where they intend to hunt an old wolf**. On the way there they meet ‘Uncle’, a neighbor and distant relative, who is also going hunting. They decide to join up. Uncle also doesn’t like to combine the serious business of hunting with frivolities: “Only mind you don’t fall of your horse, little countess”, he warns Natasha. Everybody is appointed a strategic position, Natasha and Petya are put somewhere where the wolf can’t possibly appear.

The old Count

The old Count Rostov has also come along, looking “like a schoolboy on an outing”. Although he knows the rules of the hunt very well, he’s not as obsessed as Nicholas. Sitting on his horse he starts to daydream about his children and how proud he is of them. Smiling he takes out his snuffbox. The wolf appears and he lets it slip by, much to the anger of Daniel. Now the Count looks like “a punished schoolboy”. The roles appear indeed to have reversed…

Nicholas prays

Although… Nicholas, meanwhile, is also prone to childish behaviour, praying to God to make the old wolf come his way and to let his dog catch the wolf. When the wolf does come his way, he forgets everything else, it’s just him, his horse, his dogs and the wolf and when they do eventually get the wolf, it’s the happiest moment of his life. He wants to kill the entrapped wolf, but Daniel suggests that they take it alive. The hunt is a success.

Good intentions

It is clear that Nicholas is not yet the man he so wants to be. He came home to sort out the finances, but gave up after the first hurdles, and instead of getting advice, he goes and spends more money. In that respect he is a lot like young Tolstoy himself: a lot of plans and good intentions that usually nothing comes from.

The hunting scene, in which the family relations, traditions and values of the Rostov family are underlined, is written by Tolstoy with a particularly loving hand and a lot of humour.

*The magnificent hunting scene in War and Peace was according to Maude very much influenced by a hunting trip that Tolstoy had made with a neighbor. I’m certainly no hunting expert, so I’m sticking to what I know from Russian literature and that describes basically two different types of hunting: the Turgenev kind; a man and a dog, sleeping rough and hunting mainly fowl for the dinner table; and the War and Peace kind (Tolstoy describes a Turgenev hunt in Anna Karenina): a huge party of noblemen, servants, grooms, horses and dogs, hunting for wolves, foxes and hares. In the first case the dogs retrieve and in the second they scent, chase and kill. The dogs used in the second kind, hounds and borzois, are often very expensive and highly treasured by their owners. In both cases the hunter needs to have a careless appearance, he’s preferably dressed in rags.

**In ancient Russian folklore the wolf symbolises darkness, evil and foreignness. Superstitious Russians were afraid to call the wolf upon themselves by saying its name, and called it by various nicknames like ‘shaggy’ instead. Here you could say that the wolf symbolises Napoleon. At this moment in the book Napoleon and Alexander are allies, so he is for now not a threat. In the book too, Napoleon is often not called by his name, but referred to as ‘the Antichrist’.

*****

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer


War and Peace – Tolstoy, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude



Odoevsky’s The Salamander

A Finnish Legend

A few weeks ago I moved from beautiful Amsterdam to beautiful Finland. A leap of faith, yes, but one that I have every faith in that it will turn out very well. It was love at first sight, both with the man and the country, and that love has blossomed into something profound. I look forward to getting to know Finland and its people better and wonder with a big smile what the future has in store for me.

Finnish Characters in Russian literature

Finland is of course neighbors with Russia, and Russian literature features many Finnish characters. I thought it would be interesting to investigate this subject a bit more and came across The Salamander, a gothic story by the romantic writer Odoevsky. I had never read Odoevsky, and was pleasantly surprised.

Odoevsky

Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky (1803-1869) was an impoverished nobleman, like Tolstoy descending from the highest branch of aristocracy in Russia: the Rurik dynasty. He worked for the Russian government until he died, and was extremely interested in literature, music, education, philosophy, science and the occult. His house was a regular meeting place for writers like Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to name but a few. Together with Pushkin he founded the famous magazine The Contemporary. On his Wikipedia page it says that he even predicted blogging and e-readers. So definitely a remarkable character!

He is not exactly widely read nowadays, overshadowed by those aforementioned giants, but I found him captivating and genuinely enjoyed reading his stories.

The Salamander

The Salamander (1841) is a complex tale that combines several legends and influences. It tells the story of Finnish Yakko and his sister Elsa, children of a poor fisherman. Yakko makes a good career in Saint Petersburg under the care of Peter the Great. Elsa, who has clairvoyant powers, initially stays behind in Finland. Her wealthy brother brings her to Russia, but she dislikes the Russians and they, in turn, think her beautiful but very strange and suspect her of witchcraft. The story continues to take us on a journey full of legends, superstition, sorcery, greed, and alchem, and it ends eventually with a haunted house in Moscow.

The Kalevala

The story starts with a mythological description of Finland that echoes the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala*. The Kalevala was first published in Finland in 1836 and had not yet been translated into Russian in 1841. Elias Lönnrot had based it on the Karelian legends he had collected. The Russian Yakov Grot, who was a friend of Odoevsky, had however accompanied Lönnrot on several of his research journeys, and had published articles about the Kalevala and Finnish people and customs in The Contemporary. This explains Odoevsky’s detailed knowledge of the subject.

Pushkin

Another major source of inspiration was his friend Pushkin: the primitive Finnish lad being educated by Peter the Great reminds the reader of course of The Moor of Peter the Great (1837) and the image of the poor Finnish fisherman and the flooding of Saint Petersburg seem to come straight from The Bronze Horseman (1833). Yakko’s frenzied greed in the second part of the story is very similar to that of Hermann in Queen of Spades (1834). As I’ve explained before, this was not considered plagiarism, but was seen more as a tribute.

Finns versus Russians

So how are the Finnish portrayed compared to the Russians? The Finnish are portrayed as half wild compared to the educated and advanced Russians. They have a splendid city, and an army, whereas the Finns live in primitive huts and are forced to fight the wars of other nations. Clearly the Russians considered themselves superior. But there is also a (romantic) admiration of their pure soul, simple customs, and closeness to nature. In his introduction Odoevsky describes the Finns as “kind, patient, obedient to the authorities, attached to their obligations, but distrustful and so cunning that, when they see a stranger, they can opportunely pretend not to understand him. Once annoyed, their vengeance knows no bounds”.

Well! Forewarned is forearmed!

*******

*The Kalevala is the Finnish national epic poem, the Finnish equivalent of Homer’s Odyssey. Elias Lönnrot compiled it from legends and songs he collected in the Karelia region (nowadays partially in Finland and Russia). This epic has been of immense importance for the shaping of the Finnish identity.

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

Sources used:

The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales – Vladimir Odoevsky

Empire and the Gothic / The Politics of Genre – A. Smith & W. Hughes

To whom does the Kalevala belong? – Timo Vihavainen

The north in Russian romantic literature – Otto Boele

Rekonstruoidusta kansaneepoksesta Lönnrotin runoelmaksi – Kalevala Venäjällä – Kalevala maailmalla. Helsinki: SKS. 2012 – Mirja Kemppinen ja Markku Nieminen

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Odoyevsky

Greed and Prejudice

Pushkin’s The Undertaker and Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Fiddle

Two very different stories with at least two common themes. I read these stories for the first time in university and they’ve stayed with me ever since, Pushkin’s story (one of the wonderful Belkin Tales) because of the humour and Chekhov’s story because of the melancholy.

If the undertakers that were created by Shakespeare and Walter Scott were jolly characters, the ones created by Pushkin and Chekhov were anything but. Always grumpy, suspicious and waiting for people to die; that sums up the Russian undertaker.

The Undertaker

The Undertaker* (1831) is about Adrian, an undertaker who has just moved from one area in Moscow to another with his daughters and his business. In the new area there are apparently a lot of German tradesmen. One of them invites Adrian and his daughters over for a party. The party is very jolly, Adrian drinks and eats, his daughters are above such behaviour, and there is one toast after another. The only Russian official at the party, a Finnish watchman called Yourko, suggests that Adrian make a toast to his clients, the dead. Adrian doesn’t think that’s funny at all and goes home in a bad mood. He vows that instead of inviting his new neighbors to a party as he had intended, he shall indeed invite his dead clients. The next day he gets a lucrative job and when he comes home in the evening, he finds a party going on in his house. All the corpses that were once his clients are there. They reproach Adrian for charging too much for the coffins and for ripping off their next of kin. When he wakes up the next day, he realises that he has been asleep since he came home drunk from the neighbor.

Rothschild’s Fiddle

In Rothschild’s Fiddle (1894) there’s a different kind of humour. A melancholic humour. The old undertaker Yakov lives in a small town full of old people who refuse to die. Yakov always counts his losses: people who die elsewhere, holidays when he can’t work, etc. The only thing that makes him happy and comforts him, is his violin. He sometimes gets asked to play in a Jewish wedding orchestra, but only in case of emergency, because he always argues with the Jews, especially with a certain Rothschild. One evening his wife gets ill and she dies the next day. Her sudden death slowly makes Yakov realise that his life has not been about material missed opportunities, but about the immaterial things that he missed out on because of his behaviour. In his own way he makes up with Rothschild and leaves him his violin when he dies.


Greed and prejudice

Both stories deal with misplaced xenophobia and greed. Adrian only seems to befriend his German neighbor because he expects free food and drink. At the party he is quick to make friends with the Finnish watchman, because he can be of use to him. But when they make a joke at his expense, they’re all heathens. While Adrian was sleeping and cursing his new friends, those same friends stop by his house to invite him again. We don’t know if Adrian has learned anything from his nightmare, but judging by the fact that he has tea as if nothing happened when he wakes up, I fear not.


Yakov does realise after the death of his wife and before his own, that he has always been wrong, that it was completely unnecessary to treat his wife and Rothschild badly. His wife is already dead, but he can still make up for it with Rothschild. He leaves Rothschild his most prized possession; his violin and something immaterial: a song. It’s a sad song that makes people cry, but they always ask Rothschild to play it again.


© Elisabeth van der Meer – text and photo (The Fiddler (1913) – by Chagall at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)


*There’s a scene in the story where “Before the door of the house in which the deceased lay, the police had already taken their stand, and the trades-people were passing backwards and forwards, like ravens that smell a dead body”. Tolstoy apparently borrowed this scene for War and Peace, when Pierre’s father dies: “While he was getting down from the carriage steps two men, who looked like tradespeople, ran hurriedly from the entrance and hid in the shadow of the wall. Pausing for a moment, Pierre noticed several other men of the same kind hiding in the shadow of the house on both sides.”


******

Walking with Turgenev

It's as if you're walking through a forest. All around you it's quiet and calm. Until you start to listen and look carefully. You can hear a wood warbler sing, and the buzzing of bees and mosquitoes. And if you look closely you can see ants and beetles busying about on the forest ground. A world opens up in front of you in the silence. You loose your sense of time and forget you daily problems. Your heart is singing and you're drinking in the fresh air. What's that? Did you just see a deer?! Yes, yes, you can just see it's white behind disappear into the forest. Now that's Turgenev. Nothing much happens in Turgenev’s work. But actually a lot happens.

Nature plays an important role; the best known example is of course A Sportsman’s Sketches, but in his other works too nature is very much present. Turgenev was a passionate hunter, and although we tend to frown upon hunting nowadays, it was his passion for nature that attracted him to it in the first place: “Who but the sportsman knows how soothing it is to wander at daybreak among the underwoods?” (Epilogue of A Sportsman’s Sketches)

Sometimes it's purely about the beauty of nature, but often natural phenomena symbolise feelings and moods. And then there is the enchantment of nature, it can get you under its spell. Nature evokes feelings of passion, happiness, bliss, boundless possibilities. And in Russia, where they have plenty of nature, it is also suffused with superstition: there are water nymphs, Rusalki, who lure you into the water and drown you. All this is in sharp contrast with the city, where people aren't free and out of touch with their hearts.

Bezhin Lea

In Bezhin Lea (one of the Sketches) the hunter gets lost in the dark and ends up in a meadow called Bezhin Lea. A group of peasant boys is spending the night there to let the horses graze. The hunter decides to spend the night there and lays down under a bush. Pretending to sleep he listens to the boys. Around their fire they're telling stories about Rusalki and forest spirits. Every unexpected sound of the night startles them, while the hunter is quietly enjoying their talk. And the next morning: “All things began to stir, to awaken, to sing, to flutter, to speak. On all sides thick drops of dew sparkled in glittering diamonds.” The enchanting night has been replaced by an enchanting morning.

Torrents of Spring

In Torrents of Spring there's a scene in which Sanin is seduced by the wife of his (homosexual) friend. This whole scene consists for at least eighty percent of nature descriptions. Sanin and Maria ride on horseback into a forest, deeper into the shade, past a rather narrow gorge, the smell is drowsy, and “through the clefts of the big brown rocks came strong currents of fresh air” and “He really was bewitched. His whole being was filled full of one thing . . . one idea, one desire. Maria Nikolaevna turned a keen look upon him”. They go further and further into the forest until they reach a “tumbledown little hut”. They return home four hours later. In 1871 explicit sex scenes were not done, but Turgenev can easily do without.

No, Turgenev is anything but boring. Just like a walk in the forest isn't boring. As long as you open up your senses. It's time for Turgenev.

У природы нет плохой пагоди

Photos by me, for the quotations I used the Constance Garnett translations.

© Elisabeth van der Meer


 

Should Sonya have married Dolokhov?

In Tolstoy’s famous novel War and Peace bad guy Dolokhov proposes to good girl Sonya. She refuses him, but one of the readers of this blog wondered if she should have married him after all. So let’s try to analyse this romantic affair.

Sonya

Sonya is a poor orphan cousin living with Rostovs. Tolstoy describes her as a promising kitten at the beginning of the novel. She’s very pretty, loyal, sweet and has a strong sense of justice. She’s her cousin Natasha’s best friend and this little kitten is very much in love with her cousin Nicholas.

Dolokhov

Dolokhov is a good looking officer, notorious gambler and duelist. He has no connections or money. Most people consider him a cruel and cold hearted person. In fact the only person who thinks he has a heart of gold is his mother. Dolokhov is an enigmatic character. He seems disappointed in the world and feels a strong need to revenge himself.

Sacrifice

Dolokhov tells Nicholas that he will sacrifice anything for the people he loves, but we don’t see any proof of that; au contraire, he claims to be Nicholas’ friend but not much later tries to steal his girl, and when she rejects him, he punishes Nicholas by cheating him out of 43000 (precisely 43000, because 43 is the combined age of him and Sonya) roubles in a game of cards.

Sonya really does make sacrifices: she risks her friendship with Natasha in order to prevent Natasha from eloping with Anatole. Later she writes Nicholas to forget his promise to marry her, so that he is free to marry Mary.

Does Dolokhov love Sonya?

So why does Dolokhov propose to Sonya? I’m mostly inclined to say out of jealousy. In his mind people like Pierre and Nicholas get all the good things in life because of their name, connections and money, and for the same reasons they get away with anything. Perhaps he has heard or sensed that Sonya loves Nicholas and he wants to take her from Nicholas, who, after all, already has so much good luck*.

When he is recovering from the injuries he suffered in his duel with Pierre he confides in Nicholas, telling him that he is looking for “divine purity and devotion” in women; he needs a woman who will “regenerate, purify and elevate” him. It is technically possible that he saw those qualities in Sonya, and that that’s why he proposed to her.

The refusal

Either way, Sonya was right to refuse Dolokhov. His mother may have been blind to his faults, but our Sonya is a smart girl, guided by a strong sense of right and wrong. She inadvertently uses Nicholas as an excuse, probably thinking optimistically that Dolokhov will at least be happy for his friend. Her euphoric state immediately after the refusal speaks volumes; she made the right choice.

In 19th century terms Dolokhov would have been a good match for Sonya; the old countess, who disapproves anyway of a marriage between Nicholas and Sonya, clearly thinks that Sonya should have accepted him. But Sonya is to remain single and together with the old countess she’s going to live with Nicholas and Mary. Like a cat, Tolstoy writes, she had attached herself not to the people but to the home.

And as for Dolokhov’s need to be purified, regenerated and elevated? Well, he shouldn’t rely on a woman to better his life, let alone a sweet seventeen year old girl. He shows his true colours and punishes Nicholas severely for his cousin’s love: first by making him lose a fortune and then by not preventing the death of his little brother Petya. Tolstoy doesn’t tell us if he ever found the wife of his dreams.


*In the beginning of War and Peace, Dolokhov, Pierre and Anatole tie a bear to a policeman and throw them in the river. For this ‘prank’ Dolokhov gets reduced in rank to soldier. Anatole, who is rich and well connected, remains an officer. Pierre is a civilian, but doesn’t get any punishment because of his dying (and extremely wealthy) father. Nicholas, similarly, seems to have everything going for him, he’s a count, wealthy, makes a dashing career in the army, everyone likes him, and he comes from a warm and loving family. He too is protected by his family name: For being Dolokhov’s second in the duel, he ought to have gotten punished. Instead he gets a promotion.

Have you read War and Peace? And if so, what are your feelings about Sonya and Dolokhov? Should Sonya have married Nicholas?



© Elisabeth van der Meer / illustration from War and Peace


See also:

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/03/15/fyodor-dolokhov-the-bad-guy-from-war-and-peace/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/01/24/love-in-war-and-peace-1/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/02/07/love-in-war-and-peace-2/

The Shot and The Fatalist – When Fiction turns into Reality

A comparison of Pushkin’s story The Shot (The Belkin Stories – 1830) with Lermontov’s story The Fatalist (A Hero of Our Time – 1838).

On the eve of the anniversary of Pushkin’s death 181 years ago, I thought it’d be interesting to see how Pushkin wrote about fate and death and to compare one of his most famous stories with a strikingly similar story by Lermontov.


Fate and death in fiction

Now I don’t know if any of you have read both The Shot and The Fatalist? If so, I challenge you to recollect to which story ‘the Serb’ belongs and to which story a certain ‘Silvio’. Both men are outsiders with a passion for cards and pistols. One of them ended up in a duel and the other played Russian roulette…

Yes, both stories are about as Russian as it gets. There’s a regiment stationed in a small village and the officers play cards together every evening. Both Silvio and the Serb like to ‘hold bank’. Both stories feature a cap with a bullet hole. Both have an anticlimax in the middle and fate is the main subject in both stories. But that’s where the similarities end.

In Pushkin’s The Shot, Silvio gets insulted by a young officer, whom he challenges to a duel. The young officer arrives at the scene carelessly eating cherries and Silvio decides that he can’t get satisfaction from shooting someone who doesn’t care for life and postpones his turn to shoot. Silvio practices shooting every day for years until he finally hears that his opponent is about to get married. He goes to see the young man and take his turn to shoot, but his conscience intervenes: he can’t shoot at an unarmed man, so instead he organises a new duel. The young man, now more mature and really nervous, misses, piercing a painting on the wall. His wife comes in terrified and throws herself at Silvio’s feet. Silvio, seeing the real fear in his opponent’s face, is now satisfied and shoots a hole in the same painting instead, right next to the other hole.

In Lermontov’s Fatalist, the Serb claims that you can’t die, unless it’s your destined time to die. He makes a bet with Pechorin and to prove it he takes a random pistol from the wall of their host, points it at his own head and shoots. Even though the pistol turned out to be loaded, it misfires. He wins the bet. Pechorin, the fatalist, however, was certain that he saw in the Serb’s face a sign that he would die soon (having been in the army already for a long time, he is familiar with death) and right enough, the Serb gets in the way of a drunken idiot that same night and gets killed. Pechorin decides to put his own theory to the test and certain that it’s not yet his time to die, captures the dangerously drunken Cossack.

Pushkin lets Silvio take control of fate; he had the chance and (by law of honour) every right to shoot his opponent on two occasions and being the best shot the narrator has ever encountered, he would certainly have killed his opponent if he had done so. The young opponent realises this only too well. This is very much a story about honour, respect and satisfaction.

Lermontov lets fate take control. Pechorin happily bets with the Serb, who puts his life in danger for a bet, and Pechorin doesn’t feel any guilt about it, even though, or perhaps because, he sees death written on the face of the Serb that evening. This story is about predestination. Pechorin can be more courageous because he is a fatalist.


Fate and death in real life

It makes you wonder how both writers felt about fate and death when they themselves came face to face with a bullet that had their name on it.

Lermontov thinking until the last moment that the duel would be called off; nonchalantly going to the appointed place, we can almost picture him eating cherries, but getting himself killed anyway, after all his outrage after Pushkin’s death, and being regaled as Pushkin’s heir. Did he see death in his own face when he looked in the mirror that fatal day?

Pushkin feeling out of control of the situation, feeling forced to fight a duel with a trained military man, fully aware that he might die, leaving a wife and four children behind. He too practiced shooting. His bullet hit d’Anthès, but fate blocked it with a mere metal uniform button, and d’Anthès lived. Pushkin was hit in the abdomen and died two days later, having had plenty of time to reflect on death on the leather sofa in his study.


In 2010 forensic experts found bloodstains on the leather sofa in Pushkin’s study, proving that it was indeed the sofa that he had died on. Moments before he died he told his friend Dal: “I was dreaming we were climbing these books you and I, high on these shelves, and I got dizzy.”


© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos: illustrations from both stories combined by me; the waistcoat that Pushkin wore during the duel from Wikipedia; the couch in his study from The Moscow Times.

Books read: the two stories and Pushkin’s Button by Serena Vitale.

You can read these wonderful and short stories online here:

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/p/pushkin/aleksandr/p98sh/

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/l/lermontov/mikhail/l61h/book4.html

And more about the final moments of these two great writers here:

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2017/10/15/lermontovs-fatal-duel/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/06/29/pushkins-own-duel/