Turgenev’s Smoke

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In its own time a political novel, in our time a love story.

Smoke was first published in 1867 in the Russian Messenger, the famous literary magazine in which Crime and Punishment and War and Peace were also published. The political message of the novella made it very controversial at the time. Its pro western sentiment was perceived as being anti Russian, and the satirical depiction of the Russian aristocracy in Baden Baden was not appreciated by that same aristocracy either; after publication Turgenev received considerably less dinner invitations.

Social responsibilities

It was the ‘job’ of the nineteenth century Russian realist writer to address social and political issues, and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev succeeded extremely well in conveying both their message and writing a great story around it. It is thanks to that, that we can nowadays still enjoy their works, whether or not we have a background knowledge of Russian history.

A Love Story

When we leave the political message out of Smoke, we are left with a love story. A typical Turgenev love story with autobiographical elements. The novella takes place in Baden Baden in Germany. Baden Baden was a popular destination for the Russian aristocracy at the time. Dostoevsky too visited it several times, once with his young bride Anna. At the time he was still addicted to gambling and he gambled away everything they owned in the casinos of Baden Baden, down to the wedding rings.

Turgenev was no gambler; he tried his best his whole life to take as few risks as he possibly could. Marriage comes with risks. If it’s a happy marriage, there’ll be no more inspiration for writing. If it’s a bad marriage, there’ll be inspiration, but whether it’ll be worth it remains to be seen. And actually, he writes to his friend Leontiev, he doesn’t understand how a young girl can evoke passion in a man. A married woman is much more interesting, because of her experience.

Pauline

Turgenev was in love with the same married woman his whole life: Pauline Viardot. Pauline was a celebrated singer, and when he saw her perform in 1843 in St Petersburg, he was sold for life. When her career took her to Baden Baden, Turgenev followed and even moved into the house next-door to the Viardots. To love and follow a married woman may sound extreme, but for Turgenev it was a safe choice. She would never leave her husband and it doesn’t seem as if Turgenev would have wanted her to. He was happy with every scrap that she threw at him.

Olga

In 1854 he was temporarily back in Russia and during the summer he met his remote cousin Olga. She was eighteen and he was thirty-six. A romance blossomed and for a while it looked like he was going to get married. But when it came down to it, he didn’t choose domestic happiness, but instead, as he described it in a letter to countess Lambert, a gypsy existence abroad, following Pauline wherever she goes, and that shall be his fate. Fate, he said, was invented by weak characters, so that they would not have to take responsibility for the way their lives turned out. 

Ménage à Trois

In Smoke the protagonist Litvinov is in Baden Baden to meet up with his fiancé Olga and travel back to Russia with her. While he is waiting for her to arrive, he unexpectedly meets his first love, Irina. Ten years ago the two of them were going to get married, but Irina broke with him when she had the opportunity to get into the highest social circles in St Petersburg through a wealthy relative. Now she is married to some important person. After a few meetings their old love blossoms up again and they have an affair.

Irina tells him she is willing to give up her luxury life for him, and when the sweet, good and wise Olga finally arrives in Baden Baden, Litvinov breaks off the engagement. Then he receives a letter from Irina: she is not going to leave her husband after all and offers Litvinov the opportunity to become her lover. Litvinov does something that Turgenev never did: he thanks for the honour and returns to Russia alone. In the epilogue Turgenev writes that Litvinov did meet Olga again some years later and that she forgave him, suggesting that they may have gotten married.

What if…

Turgenev was not unhappy in his strange relationship with Pauline, but here he appears to have been thinking “what if…” Politics may be controversial, love is universal.

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Text en photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Smoke – Turgenjev 

Turgenev, His Life and Times – Schapiro

Toergenjev’s Liefde – Schmeltzer 

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Denisov, the good guy from War and Peace

The writer Boris Akunin once said in an interview that Tolstoy’s characters are as real to him as, and sometimes even more real than, real people. I absolutely agree, and I enjoy exploring the various characters. So for those who also agree, here’s yet another War and Peace blog post. About Denisov this time. A favorite of many readers, and one of those characters who one would have liked to have had a bigger part.

The opposite of Dolokhov

Denisov is the complete opposite of Dolokhov. Where Dolokhov is described as handsome, with piercing blue eyes and without moustache, Denisov is hairy, with a disheveled moustache, and eyes as black as coal. Dolokhov usually wins when playing cards (albeit cheating) and Denisov usually loses.

Their personalties couldn’t be more opposed either: although Tolstoy describes a rogue who drinks heavily and curses heartily when he introduces Denisov, from the way his eyes light up when he sees Nicholay it is immediately clear that he is a good guy.

Denisov has some endearing characteristics: he can’t pronounce the letter ‘r’. Everyone in the army calls him ‘Waska’, a rather childish diminutive of Wasili. He only makes an effort with his appearance when going into battle or in the company of ladies, making it clear where his priorities lie. Although we never find out much about Denisov’s background, he has an uncle with a high rank and that’s all, he is clearly from the same background as Nicholay, and has for instance had dancing lessons at the same place as all of the young Rostovs. Although he is short, he looks like a fine fellow on horseback and when dancing.

Denisov’s mazurka

There are four epic dance scenes in War and Peace: the old count Rostov, dancing like an ‘eagle’; Natasha’s Russian dance at Uncle’s house; Natasha’s dance with Andrey and then there is Denisov’s mazurka. He dances such a dazzling mazurka with Natasha, that she nearly falls in love with him. But she is only fifteen then, and Denisov is at least ten years older, practically an old man!

Denisov is, as he puts it himself, bewitched by Natasha and adores the whole family. When he proposes to Natasha, he doesn’t just propose to her, but to her whole family. Dolokhov takes revenge on Nicholay after Sonya has refused him; Denisov loves Nicholay more after Natasha’s refusal. At some point we can hear him mutter with a choked voice “Ah, what a mad bweed you Wostovs are!”. And when he finds Petya Rostov dead, bystanders can hear a yelp like of a dog coming from him.

A heart of gold

Denisov is driven by his care for others. He would give his life twice for any of the Rostovs and risks serious repercussions when he steals a food supply for his starving soldiers. His soldiers in turn like him, and show it by building him an extra nice ‘house’ during their exploits. He gets gloomy when bored and almost depressed when in hospital, but when he goes into action he is clearly in his element. His bravery does not require recognition from superiors, he would rather be respected by his equals and subordinates. The ones that are lucky enough to be loved by him, can count on his (albeit somewhat sentimental) devotion.

Beneath his rough exterior, but not very deep beneath it, Denisov has a heart of gold.

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019

Book: War and Peace – Tolstoy – the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation

Pierre’s Duel with Dolokhov

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It is one of the most memorable scenes in War and Peace: the duel between Pierre and Dolokhov. Tolstoy builds up the tension steadily. The scene is told from Pierre’s perspective, so that the reader really feels Pierre’s hurt feelings and damaged pride from a front row position.

Hélène

Pierre had married Hélène against his better knowledge. He knew that there was something strange about her, he had heard something about her improper relationship with her brother Anatole, but still he married her. It doesn’t take long for Hélène to show her true nature, but for now Pierre ignores his problems.

Rumours

Even when there are rumours going around that Hélène has an affair with Dolokhov, his friend whom he has offered a place to stay, has lent money and knows only too well, he does not want to believe them. Bottled up feelings, however, have the nasty habit of bursting out at the most inopportune moments.

The dinner

The old count Rostov gives a grand dinner, in true Moscow style, meaning that no expense or trouble is spared, in honour of general Bagration. Both Pierre and Dolokhov are present and they sit opposite each other. Because of the rumours about his wife, Pierre is in a bad mood and eats and drinks too much. At his wife’s command he is not wearing his spectacles (does she command him to see nothing?), but he is constantly rubbing the bridge of his nose (does he miss his spectacles and wishes to see better?). Pierre is becoming more and more convinced that the rumours must be true. Dolokhov’s insolence, sitting there across the table, merrily, is starting to annoy him more and more. He knows him better than anyone and he knowns that sadistic side of him, and he sees it in Dolokhov’s eyes right now. 

Pierre has finally had enough

He feels something terrible and monstrous rising in his soul. Dolokhov must be hoping for some kind of escalation, because he makes a toast “to the health of all lovely women, Peterkin—and their lovers!”. The terrible and monstrous feeling now takes complete possession of Pierre.  He rises, and as we know, he is big, and shouts at Dolokhov. All except Dolokhov are scared. Pierre challenges him.

The duel

The next morning they meet in a forest clearing and it turns out that Pierre has never even held a pistol. Dolokhov is an experience duelist and officer. All five people present know that this is murder. Neither Pierre nor Dolokhov apologises and the duel takes place. Pierre is willing to die and Dolokhov is willing to kill. Pierre is holding his left hand behind his back, because he knows it is not done to hold the pistol with both hands. He shoots first and is very surprised when he discovers he has hit Dolokhov in the chest, and he starts to sob. Dolokhov falls down into the snow, bites into the snow and raises his pistol. He refuses to give up. The seconds shout at Pierre to cover himself with his gun, but Pierre just stands with his feet apart, broadly. Everyone closes their eyes, Dolokhov shoots and… misses. Pierre lives!

When he comes home, Hélène makes a terrible scene and Pierre gets so angry with her, that he nearly kills her. 

Philosophy

The duel can be seen as a small scale version of the Napoleonic wars: Tolstoy even uses the same words here: “(…) the affair (…) was taking its course independently of men’s will”. Precisely the big idea behind the novel, history takes its’ course, in spite of our individual efforts to influence it.

The consequences 

The bear in Pierre has woken up. He is no longer the nearsighted and fat rich man that everybody takes advantage of and who is ordered around by his wife and used by his friend. He surprises even himself. He takes control of his life and tries to find himself. It will be a long journey, with plenty of hardship, but he’ll get there. 

Hélène has one lover after another and dies of the consequences of an abortion. Here too is an analogy with a bigger dispute, the Trojan wars in this case. This Helen may not have caused a thousand ships to launch, but she too was the cause of quarrel and bloodshed.

And Dolokhov? He survives and has learnt nothing. If anything he is even more bitter and cruel than before. He continues on his path of death and destruction. Except when he’s with his angel mother of course!

Tolstoy – War and Peace, part 4, chapters 3,4,5,6.

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019

A Russian Affair is four years old!

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A Russian Affair is four years old!

And still going strong. The followers of this blog know that in 2018 I have moved from the Netherlands to Finland to live with the love of my life. Moving countries is no small feat, but Finland seems to agree with me and I’m settling in well. The (next) best thing about Finland is of course the beautiful nature, I love to go out and enjoy it! 

Meanwhile there was plenty going on at A Russian Affair as well: I wrote about War and Peace again, about Russian horror stories, about Finns in Russian literature and the wives of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy also got some well deserved attention. Your favourite blog post was Russian Ghost Stories, one that I particularly enjoyed making. I had great fun reading all those stories again and making the photos for the post.

All time favourites by far are still Fyodor Dolokhov – the Bad Guy from War and Peace and Is there really an incestueus relationship in War and Peace?

But I’m not finished with War and Peace yet (will I ever be?): I’m going to write something about Denisov and about Pierre’s duel. I would also like to talk about Turgenev’s Smoke and to tell you something about Russian plays. Chekhov was of course a famous playwright, but Gogol and Turgenev wrote plays as well.

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I get inspired by whatever comes across my path and often by your commentary and blogs, so who knows what else the year will bring.

I wish you all a wonderful blog year!

x

text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

Six Degrees of Separation – From A Christmas Carol to War and Peace

Inspired by fellow blogger An Argumentative Old Git, I decided to make a #6degrees blogpost too. The idea is that each month there is another book as a starting point, and this month it’s A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. From there you can connect to six other books. The meme is hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best.

So we start with A Christmas Carol (1843), the classic Christmas story. 

fullsizeoutput_6f.jpegScrooge is visited by three ghosts, showing him the past, the present and the future. Scrooge quickly understands that he needs to better his life. The Undertaker by Pushkin (1831) features an un-Dickensian undertaker with a Scrooge-like disposition. He too is visited by ghosts, a whole party of them: they are his dead clients, accusing him of ripping of their next of kin. Unlike Scrooge, Prokhorov does not seem inclined to better his life the next morning; he simply orders tea and calls his daughters. And we can almost hear him think “Bah! Humbug!”.

IMG_3931.JPGThere’s a ghostly party in The Master and Margarita (1940) by Bulgakov too. In this satirical novel Satan himself himself has come to Stalinist Moscow to organise a ball on Walpurgis night. The guests are all dead and they have all committed a crime that has sent them to hell. Among the guests are famous people and notorious criminals. They arrive at the party through the fireplace. Sounds familiar, right? But we’re not going there. The novel’s most famous quote is “Manuscripts don’t burn”.

IMG_3923.JPGIn 1852 Gogol famously burned most of the manuscripts containing the second part of Dead Souls shortly before he died in sad circumstances, suffering from depression. Dead Souls (1842) is, contrary to the title, a lively tale. A satire about an aspiring noble man traveling around Russia and the people he meets. Chichikov is accompanied by a faithful servant, Petrushka, who likes a drink and smells peculiarly, but is devoted to his master.

fullsizeoutput_5d.jpegThat brings us to another devoted servant: Zakhar. The interfering, lazy, complaining and gossiping servant of Oblomov. Oblomov has perfected the art of procrastinating and famously does not get out of bed for the first 150 pages of the novel. Oblomov was written by Goncharov in 1858, as an example of a ‘superfluous man’. Oblomov simply refuses to worry about things that everybody else already worries about, and does not like it when ‘things’ are expected of him. His home is his safe haven.

fullsizeoutput_6cFrom that save haven on Gorokhovaya Street we take stroll to Stolyarny Alley, to the humble quarters of another famous Petersburg hero: Raskolnikov. The protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) doesn’t just dream and scheme; he acts out his plan and murders an old pawnbroker. With her money he wants to help the poor, but he becomes consumed by guilt.

fullsizeoutput_6eCrime and Punishment was first published in episodes in the famous Russian magazine The Messenger. If you were a subscriber to that magazine, you were in for a real treat each month; just imagine, in 1866 it also ran Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Of course the reader already knew how the war with Napoleon ended, but what about Natasha, was she going to be reunited with prince Andrey?! The novel is full of cliffhangers and the reason is precisely that: the monthly episodes.

Dickens was immensely popular in Russia, and both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy admired him and were influenced by him. Where would A Christmas Carol lead you?

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

Books read: all of the above and an article from The Dickens Magazine by George Gorniak about Tolstoy, sent to me by Roger W. Smith 

Russian Ghost Stories

img_0648Now that the evenings are getting longer again, it’s the perfect time to read ghost stories. And there were plenty of ghosts, witches and other scary things around in 19th century Russian literature! With the greatest pleasure I emptied my book shelves and (re)read some, in fact most, of the following examples.

Pushkin

Pushkin‘s Queen of Spades (1833) is without a doubt the best known Russian ghost story. It is also the best, even if it’s not the scariest. Written in a masterly way, Pushkin gradually builds up the tension. The young officer Hermann wants to extract a secret from an old Countess. It’s a combination of cards that will guarantee you to win at Faro, a betting cards game. The Countess, however, doesn’t just give away her secret… A story as fresh as if it was written yesterday and highly readable any day of the year.

Lermontov

And what to think of Lermontov’s Shtoss (1841)? Shtoss is a cards game similar to Faro. The hero Lugin keeps hearing a voice in his head repeating an address in St Petersburg. A friend advises him to investigate, and the address exists and is up for rent. He moves in, but it turns out there lives a ghost who likes to play Shtoss… The story ends with an open question and it is unclear whether the story is finished or not, and whether Lermontov was serious about it or not. In any case, Lermontov died shortly after writing it.

A.K. Tolstoy

A.K. Tolstoy, a remote cousin from Leo, wrote several classic horror stories. The Vampire was published in 1841 as well, under the nom de plume Krasnorogsky. This highly entertaining and original novella features a female vampire: an old woman who is after the blood of her (obviously attractive) granddaughter. The hero of the story, Runevsky, tries to protect her from her loving grandmother. Elegantly written horror with a healthy dose of humour.

Gogol

And that brings us to Gogol: the writer who knew all about (Little) Russia’s legends and superstitions. They feature in many of his stories, particularly in those from Evenings on a Farm near Dikanka and Mirgorod. Gogol had a vivid imagination and the coffins and witches almost fly off the pages. His heroes are not in the least surprised; they do not doubt that witches and sorcery exist. Viy (1835) is the scariest, but May Night and A Terrible Vengeance aren’t for the faint hearted either.

Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky, who did have a contagious sense for the absurd like Gogol’s, also wrote a ghost story: Bobok (1873). It’s a short and funny story about a certain Ivan Ivanovich, who one day happens to hear the dead chat amongst each other under their gravestones. What are the consequences of dying and what do dead people talk about? I had a good laugh reading this story!

Odoevsky

The inspiration for Bobok came from Odoevsky’s The Live Corpse (1838), an amusing story about a man who finds out he has died, but has a hard time accepting that. Other, more serious, mysterious tales from this Russian nobleman are The Salamander, Cosmorama and The Sylph. Odoevsky was, among many other things, interested in science and his works feature metaphysical, occult, gothic and romantic elements. Harry Potter fans will recognise a thing or two.

Turgenev

Even though he was a firm Realist who didn’t believe in God, Turgenev wrote numerous ghost stories: the best known being Klara Milich (1883); a great Turgenev story, that due to its almost claustrophobic atmosphere has a Dostoevskian feel to it. The recluse student Aratov literally becomes possessed of a young female singer who commits suicide while performing. His dear old aunt Platosha is worried sick about him, and not without reason…

Chekhov

The last of the great Russian Realists was of course Chekhov. The Black Monk (1893) is one of his best works. Chekhov, who was actually a doctor, considered it primarily a case study of a young man suffering from megalomania, but in a literary sense the novella could be categorised as a supernatural tale. Kovrin is a brilliant student who leaves for the countryside to rest his overworked brain. Once there, however, he starts getting visions of a black monk… Chekhov at his understated best!

*****

Hopefully I have inspired you with this diverse lineup. Did you read any of these stories, are you going to, did I miss something or would you simply like to share your favourite ghost story? Let me know in the comments…

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

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

 

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/

More Russian horror stories here

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

 

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