The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy

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Let’s tackle this weird piece of literature. The most Dostoevskian work by Tolstoy: The Kreutzer Sonata. Why was it written, what did Tolstoy mean with it, and how much of it represents Tolstoy’s own views?

A Crime Passionel

It’s a murder mystery. We know from the start that Pozdnyshev has murdered his wife, but the tension is kept in the story by the question what drove him to it. Instead of the happy family life that Pozdnyshev was expecting, marriage turned out to be nothing more than alternating periods of arguments and lust. Disillusioned, Pozdnyshev becomes more and more desperate and tense. His dispair culminates when he becomes convinced that his wife is deceiving him with a violinist. Unable to cope with the stress any longer, he murders her.

Confessions of a murderer

For most of the novella we are listening to the monologue of Pozdnyshev. And what a monologue it is! He is obsessed with sex, women and doctors. Sex is portrayed by society as something healthy, women only want to look attractive in order to trap innocent men, and doctors are the promotors and facilitators of sex. STD’s are proof that sex is not healthy. Even music is condemned, because it can make people want to have sex. Sex is the root of all evil. 70 pages long.

Fiction

Tolstoy got the idea from a friend who told him an anecdote about a man in the train who had told him all about his unfaithful wife. He started writing the story in 1887, left it for a bit, and finished it in 1889. He re-wrote it nine times with the help of his daughter Masha, who was then 19. When it was finished, interestingly enough, his wife Sofia read it to the older children. She wanted to publish it in the latest part of Tolstoy’s collected works, a project that she had started to generate income for their large family. Tolstoy had by then renounced his copyright and let Sofia and and his friend and follower Chertkov fight over publication. While she was trying to get the novella approved by the infamous censor, illegal copies produced by the Samizdat started circulating, most probably the work of Chertkov. 

How was it received? 

Tsar Alexander III thought it ‘magnificent’, but his wife was shocked. It was banned in America. Chekhov initially praised it, but after his epic journey to Sakhalin he changed his mind and said it was ridiculous. The first illegal copies were the cause for gossip about the marital situation of the Tolstoys. This infuriated Sofia, who did not want the world to think that their marriage was celibate. She managed to get an audience with the tsar in 1891 and she got permission to publish it. In 1893 she wrote her answer to The Kreutzer Sonata: Who is to Blame?.

Is it autobiographical?

No. Tolstoy would not likely choose a madman like Pozdnyshev to voice his opinion. He has also put an anonymous narrator between Pozdnyshev  and the reader. Does it contain autobiographical elements? Yes, like all his work. He was definitely interested in the idea of celibacy. He had devoured a book about celibacy that was sent to him by Dr Alice Stockham, who promoted celibacy within marriages and Tolstoy wrote back to her to say that he agreed on many points. Tolstoy himself has always struggled with his libido. He was able to give up gambling, smoking, drinking, meat, money, his title; but not sex. As he wrote to  Chertkov “I’m a dirty, libidineus old man”. As far as we know, and we know a lot through their diaries, Sofia never had an affair.

So what did Sophia make of it?

If she had believed it to be autobiographical she would hardly have read it to her children and put so much effort into getting it published (although she mostly wanted Chertkov not to publish it). She does not mention anything about disliking the story in her diary. It is apparently only when the story causes gossip about their marriage that she gets upset. In that light we should also see Who is to Blame?. The marriage was not particularly good. They both were to blame. One of the main themes of the story is jealousy, and within the relationship Sofia was more jealous than her husband. She was jealous when Tolstoy let Masha help him with The Kreutzer Sonata, and she was extremely jealous of Tolstoy’s close relationship with Chertkov.

Conclusion

Tolstoy lets his Pozdnyshev explore the darkest, most hidden corners of his mind. Like Dostoevsky he wants to know what drove him to his deed. What did it feel like to murder? The result is disturbing, confronting and it provocative. The conclusion is almost too simple: If Pozdnyshev and his wife had practised abstinence, the crime passionel would not have taken place.

Prinet_-_Kreutzer_Sonata

Text en photo © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

Painting by Prinet from Wikipedia

Books read: see photo

Thanks to Karen from https://kaggsysbookishramblings.wordpress.com for inspiring this post:-)

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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/

A Russian Affair is Three Years Old!

A Russian Affair is three years old!

When I started this blog three years ago I had no idea what to expect. All I knew is that I had plenty of ideas for blog posts. I imagined my reader as someone curious, but not knowledgeable about Russian literature, and Dutch. I only wrote the English version for the sake of my Finnish boyfriend. As it turned out the vast majority of my readers is now American and the rest is literally from all over the world, from Somalia and Iraq to Palestina and Kirghizia.

Google

I have my regular readers, but most people find my blog through a search engine. Most of them want to know if there really is an incestuous relationship in War and Peace, although some of the search terms (Russian can make sex with sibling; sex brother and sister on Russian) used suggested something else! There was one search question that I can definitely try to answer in 2018: Should Sonya have married Dolokhov?

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

My Tolstoy or Dostoevsky post sparked the most discussion. It is fantastic to see that both writers, although they have been dead for ages, are indeed immortal and continue to inspire people to think about life. Many of you expressed your horror after reading about Lermontov's Fatal Duel, a writer that most of you weren't even too familiar with. “My goodness what a life that went to waste because of one bad decision” (@GlamourPrin); “Who doesn't want to know all the delicious details of an author's life?” (@walkcheerfullyblog); “I guess we need to understand the importance it used to have when it came to Honour and Pride” (@Aquileana); “… such a senseless way to leave this world” (@CarrieRubin).

Inspiration

After three years of blog writing I'm coming to the conclusion that Russian literature may be an inexhaustible source of inspiration, but that the readers of this blog are the main inspiration. Your kind comments give me new ideas and tell me that I'm on the right track with this blog. I would like to especially thank @RogerW.Smith for his loyal following, kind comments, sending me interesting articles and pointing out any mistakes I made in English; Markus from @pointblank, who sent me a wonderful annotated copy of Pushkin's Onegin; and dear Amalia from @aquileana for sharing my posts on her huge social media network.

A huge thanks and a super happy and inspired 2018 to all of you!!! Do let me know if there is anything, related to Russian literature that you'd like to know more about, and I'll see what I can do. I'm looking forward to hearing from you and to reading your blog posts as well.

Love, Elisabeth

“All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.” – Lev Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

© Elisabeth van der Meer – text and photo

Thanks to:

https://glamourprin.com

https://walkcheerfullyblog.wordpress.com

https://rogersgleanings.com

https://chasingart.com

https://carrierubin.com

https://pointblankphoto.wordpress.com

https://johannasuomela.com

https://inesemjphotography.com

https://linguafennica.wordpress.com

https://aquileana.wordpress.com

https://daveastoronliterature.com

 

The Short Life of Mikhail Lermontov

When Pushkin died in 1836, Lermontov got so infuriated, that he immediately wrote the poem On the Death of a Poet. In it he blamed, as did many people, the higher circles of Saint Petersburg society for Pushkin's death. The poem was copied out by hand and promptly distributed throughout the city. Lermontov became famous instantly and was received as the heir of Pushkin* in literary circles. A copy of the poem reached Tsar Nicholas and he was not so impressed with the young Lermontov and his criticisms. He got banished to the Caucasus, to serve in the Russian army there.


First exile to the Caucasus

Lermontov (1814-1841) was already serving as a cornet in Saint Petersburg at the time. There is a self portrait of him in 1837, looking the part, clutching a Circassian dagger. As some of you may remember, Lermontov had been to the Caucasus already three times before with his grandmother. He loved it there, so the exile was hardly a severe punishment for him. He was actually sorry when his banishment was over, and he certainly would have stayed, if it wasn't for his grandmother.


Youth with his grandmother

He was raised by his adoring grandmother after his mother died when he was little. Little Mikhail rarely saw his father, a descendant from the Scottish Learmonth family. His grandmother made sure that he received an excellent education. He had a number of foreign tutors, as was the norm for aristocratic families at the time. As a boy he discovered his hero Byron and when he wished he could read him in English, his grandmother hired an English tutor. As a result of this education, he knew English, French and German, could play and compose music and had learned how to draw and paint. Because he suffered from arthritis already as a child, his grandmother took him to the Caucasus, where the climate was better.


The spectacular nature, the fantastic stories he heard there and the exiting (to say the least!) lifestyle had a profound effect on the boy. After such an upbringing how could he not have become an artist? When he returned to the Caucasus as a grown man, he enjoyed spending his spare time drawing and painting the landscapes, but mostly the Caucasus inspired him to write.


Writing career

Back in Saint Petersburg he had more time to write and in 1839 his most famous work A Hero of our Time was published, as was his his beautiful poem The Demon. Both are set in his beloved Caucasus and have a melancholy feeling that is typical for Lermontov. He had now firmly established his name as Pushkin’s successor. Curiously enough** he was challenged to a duel by the son of the French ambassador, Ernest de Barante. Possibly de Barante was offended by Lermontov's poem On the Death of a Poet and the hate against his fellow countryman d’Anthès it expresses. The duel took place at exactly the same place as Pushkin's fatal duel. Luckily neither opponent was seriously hurt this time. Duels were illegal and someone must have betrayed them. De Barante could not be prosecuted due to his diplomatic status, but Lermontov got his second exile.


Second exile to the Caucasus

Again to the Caucasus, but lower in rank, fighting front line now. Lermontov was a free thinker who didn't like to be told what to do, but in the regiment he followed orders and showed extraordinary bravery. His superiors put him up for promotion and several medals, but Nicholas didn't think Lermontov worthy.


Perhaps also as the result of his childhood, Lermontov was a bit strange. Most people didn't like him, and he didn't like most people. He had a childish sense of humour, played pranks and made fun of others. When Lermontov was on sick leave in Pyatigorsk, his old comrade Martynov got enough of Lermontov’s jokes at his expense and challenged him. Until the last moment Lermontov was convinced that they would reconcile, but the duel took place. At the foot of mount Mashuk, so frequently mentioned in Lermontov's work. Lermontov said beforehand that he would fire in the air, and he did, but Martynov aimed directly at him and shot Lermontov dead.


Lermontov died at just 27 years of age, depriving Russia of another fantastic talent, who is in the West highly underestimated and undertranslated.


*****



*Pushkin died young and was already during his lifetime recognised as Russia's greatest, Russia's all. His death, by a foreigner, caused a real feeling of deprivation and despair and it raised two questions: How could things have gotten so out of hand that someone had dared to kill their national poet and who was going to fill his shoes?!

**Obviously there have been many conspiracy theories about this duel too, the similarities were obvious.


© Elisabeth van der Meer – Photos by me and from Wikipedia


Booklist:

Lermontov, Tragedy in the Caucasus – Laurence Kelly

After Lermontov, Translations for the Bicentenary – edited by Peter France and Robyn Marsack (translations by Scottish translators into English or Scottish to honour Lermontov’s Scottish roots:-))

Liever in het Nederlands? http://www.vanpoesjkintotpasternak.wordpress.com

Tolstoy and Homer

As I write this I'm sitting by the Mediterranean Sea, enjoying a view that has been the same for thousands of years. It’s the perfect place to write about the similarities between Homer and Tolstoy.

As I have written before, Tolstoy considered himself equal to Homer. He was so obsessed with the classics, that he taught himself Ancient Greek in a mere couple of months when he was in his forties, so that he could read them in the original. You can find Homeric elements in all his literary works. I say elements and not influences, because they are not in the least bit contrived, far from it. They are the foundation of his writing, his natural instinct.

Typically Homer

The epic poems The Iliad and The Odyssey were written some 2800 years ago, assumedly by Homer. They are about the Trojan War and its aftermath and have been extremely influential. The major themes of the Iliad are glory, honour, wrath and fate. The Homeric hero would rather die honourably and receive eternal glory than be a coward. The war is constantly interfered with by the eternal gods, who use the war to fight their own petty battles with each other.

Fascination with war

Tolstoy may have been a pacifist, but he did like to write about war, often drawing from his own memories; he went to war in the Caucasus as a young man. Going to war for him was like going back to an ancient, primitive world, where men are one with their horses, and where pots are hissing and steaming above the fire at night. It provides a chance to escape from daily life and responsibilities, and to prove yourself. Striving for glory is important. In War and Peace Nicholas and later his younger brother Petya can't wait to go to war. In the Iliad Paris is scorned for his unwillingness to fight. For Hadji Murad there simply is no other way of life, he will fight until the end.

Contrast with home

Nevertheless, both writers contrast life on the battlefield with that that the heroes have left behind: home, family, and working the land. The shield that Hephaestus makes for Achilles is adorned with more peaceful scenes than war scenes. In between battles the hero Hector visits his family, showing his tender side. Hadji Murad’s life had always been rather violent and the Russians regard him as a heroic and legendary figure, but he too gets sentimental thinking about his mother and his family and it's the welfare of his family that motivates him.

To die heroically

When Hector faces Achilles in a man to man fight, he is initially scared, but eventually he faces Achilles and dies a hero. Hadji Murad dies heroically as well, still standing, even though he is mortally wounded; he keeps fighting until he literally falls down. The scene is extremely Homeric and Tolstoyan at the same time: no one can describe the moment of death quite the way Tolstoy can, but the blood streaming into the grass is pure Homer.

Fate

The outcome of wars is decided by the arbitrariness of the gods or the tsar or Napoleon. We humans are mere mortals, without control of our destiny. And because of this the message of these two gigantic writers is that life has to be lived and enjoyed right now.

“As when the smith an hatchet or large axe

Temp’ring with skill, plunges the hissing blade

Deep in cold water, (whence the strength of steel)

So hiss’d his eye around the olive-wood.” (Homer – The Odyssey)

“With a solemn, triumphant march there mingled a song, the drip from the trees, and the hissing of the sabre, “Ozheg-zheg-zheg…” and again the horses jostled each other and neighed, not disturbing the choir but joining in it.” (Tolstoy – War and Peace)

Books in my suitcase:

George Steiner – Tolstoy or Dostoevsky

Homer and Tolstoy

© Elisabeth van der Meer – photos by me and from Wikipedia


Liever in het Nederlands? http://www.vanpoesjkintotpasternak.wordpress.com

Typically Gogol

Just like Pushkin Gogol is considered to be the father of Russian literature. Pushkin provided a modern language for future writers and proved to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration, and Gogol gave Russian literature its’ own identity and he wrote the first Russian novel: Dead Souls. He doesn't quite fit into a genre, his work has both romantic and realistic elements, and one could even say that he was a fantastic realist avant la lettre.


His career


Gogol was born in the Ukraine from Cossack descent. At school the other children called him a ‘mysterious dwarf’, but his mother adored him. When he was nineteen he moved to Petersburg to become either an actor or a writer. At the time folklore was very popular in Petersburg and writing about the Ukraine was easy for Gogol. His first collection of stories, Evenings on a farm near Dikanka (1832), was soon a modest success.


He followed it up with another set of Ukrainian stories, Mirgorod (1835). His first big success came with his play The Government Inspector (1836). It managed to get through the strict censure, even though Gogol parodied the bureaucracy in Russia. The so called Petersburg stories were written between 1835 en 1842. With that first of all great Russian novels, Dead Souls (1842) Gogol’s star was firmly set on the Russian firmament.


Great sense of humour


Gogol was a genius when it came to making ordinary situations comical. Dead Souls, described as an ‘odyssey through the great Russian land’, is riddled with anecdotes and eccentric characters. No one escapes Gogol's satire. There is a hilarious scene where two servants come back to the hotel where their master stays in an apparent state. They need fifteen minutes to conquer the stairs. Once inside they fall asleep immediately and soon the whole hotel is snoring. Quite a funny situation already. But add to that one person who is not asleep, a lieutenant, of absolutely no relevance to the rest of the novel, who has just bought four pairs of new boots and is parading up and down his room in them, admiring them and unable to take them off. That's when we have Gogol's inimitable sense of humour*.


Style


His writing style is rather old fashioned and complicated in Russian. Even though he wrote in Russian, he used a lot of Ukrainian words. He had a great sense of humour, but it is not always clear where he gets serious. His characters are described in detail by their appearance and actions, but unlike Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, Gogol does not provide any psychological insights into their behaviour, nor do his characters develop. And he is terrible when it comes to describing women, probably because he simply didn't know many women.


Influences


Gogol was influenced by his paternal grandmother, who told him all about Ukrainian folklore and superstitions, Cossack legends and taught him the old songs. He corresponded with his contemporary Pushkin and it was he who stimulated Gogol to write, and supposedly gave him the idea for Dead Souls. Dickens’s influence can also be felt, as well as Homer’s and Walter Scott’s.


Gogol, in turn, has influenced all Russian writers after him, particularly Dostoevsky and Bulgakov, who frequently mentioned him in their works. Franz Kafka was a big admirer, and his famous novel, Die Verwandlung, was clearly inspired by Gogol.


Finally


Gogol was rather eccentric himself, with his funny haircut and small physique. He never married, although it is not clear if he was perhaps homosexual. He liked to travel, probably that was his Cossack blood stirring, and was abroad for long periods of time. He died at the age of 42, shortly after famously burning parts of part two of Dead Souls, one of the big mysteries in Russian literature**. He had more or less starved himself to death.


Gogol may not have left a huge legacy on paper, but his legacy in Russian literature is enormous***. At this very moment people all over the world are reading one of his books with tears of laughter rolling down their faces.



*This sense of humour made Pushkin sad, he saw the sadness behind the smile.

**Bulgakov refers to this incident in The Master and Margarita with the well known quote «Рукописи не горят – Manuscripts don't burn».

***See my piece about Taras Bulba https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2017/06/14/gogols-taras-bulba-a-milestone/


*****



© Elisabeth van der Meer / photos by me and from Wikipedia

Liever in het Nederlands? http://www.vanpoesjkintotpasternak.wordpress.com

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?!

As far as we know, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky never met each other. Even though they were contemporaries and moved in the same literary circles. They are often named in the same breath, but there are probably more differences than similarities between these two giants. And that leads us to the eternal question: who is better, Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?


Know-it-alls


They were both pretty full of themselves, especially Tolstoy. Tolstoy considered himself equal to Homer as a writer and better than the rest. He knew better than the tsar how to run the country and better than the church how to interpret the Bible, which didn't lead to any exiles, he was too famous, but it did lead to excommunication; he was to first Russian to get a civil funeral. Dostoevsky too was obsessed with religion. He saw himself as a prophet and warned against an immoral future without God.


Gamblers


Both writers had to deal with lack of money due to their gambling addictions, and were forced to write to pay off their debts. Tolstoy managed to lose the house where he was born and Dostoevsky resorted to terrible contractual conditions to get money. Both were able to overcome their addiction, but Dostoevsky struggled for money most of his life. Unlike Tolstoy he was not from an aristocratic family and had no family estate that raised money.


Dostoevsky would postpone writing until the deadline of his contract was about to expire. In a state of panic he would then resort to hiring a secretary to dictate to, so that he could write faster. This contributed to his somewhat hasty style. Of course he imagined his contemporary in his study at Yasnaya Polyana, meticulously rewriting War and Peace seven times.

Light and darkness


Tolstoy was a healthy and strong figure, always working. In his works life always prevails, a continuing flow of life, a life that needs to be lived. There is a contrast between city life and the countryside. In the countryside his personages can be their true selves. Tolstoy starts his novels somewhere in medias res, and ends them similarly. This emphasises the sense of the eternal circle of life. His message is good, yes, terrible things happen, but the sun also rises again, every day.


Dostoevsky suffered from epilepsy, thought he was going to get shot in what turned out to be a mock execution and was sentenced to several years of forced labour in Siberia. In his works he explores the darkest corners of the mind and the city. His characters are tested to the maximum. Where Tolstoy leaves it at a hint of incest, Dostoevsky makes incest, abuse, murder, money, (mental) illness, prostitution and other moral decline his main subjects. The question of the existence of God is at the core of his writing.


Commercial success


If you have to share your convictions and philosophies with the world and you need money, it helps, of course, to have good commercial insight in order to reach as big an audience as possible. Both writers succeeded extremely well. Dostoevsky weaved his psychological and religious insights into dramatic, blood-curdling murder mysteries, for which he took inspiration from newspapers, the truth often being more fantastic than fiction. Tolstoy incorporated his visions into enthralling novels, life bursting from their pages.


Two very different writers. Both very, very good. The question will always remain open to discussion. I don't believe in God, but I can imagine these two somewhere up there, looking down upon all this and smilingly stroking their long beards…


*****


© Elisabeth van der Meer


As a source of inspiration I read my father's old copy of Steiner’s Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. The photos of Tolstoy’s study and Dostoevsky’s manuscript are from Wikipedia. The others are mine. I'm adding the link to eight other opinions on this question and to my posts about incest in War and Peace and Dostoevsky and Tolstoy for further reading. Thanks for stopping by and until next time!

 

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/01/15/is-there-really-an-incestuous-relationship-in-war-and-peace/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/12/13/typically-dostoevsky/

https://arussianaffair.wordpress.com/2016/09/15/typically-tolstoy/

http://www.themillions.com/2012/04/tolstoy-or-dostoevsky-8-experts-on-whos-greater.html

 

 

Gogol’s Taras Bulba – a milestone

Gogol gave Russian literature its' own identity

Gogol's Taras Bulba (1842) is a milestone in Russian literature. If Pushkin provided a language and inspiration for future Russian writers, than Gogol gave them their own distinct identity. When you're reading Taras Bulba, you recognise so much of what has been written later.

The Romantic Era

Romanticism was the main literary movement in Russia from the end of the eighteenth century until halfway into the nineteenth century. Lermontov and Pushkin are the most famous writers of this period. The industrial revolution sparked an interest in all things pure, natural, past and authentic.

Gogol was an Ukrainian with Cossack blood running through his veins living in Saint Petersburg. When everything to do with Little Russia, as the Ukraine was called back then, became hugely popular there, he cleverly wrote Taras Bulba. The story is full of Ukrainian words, folklore and Cossack customs.

The story

It's a rather violent story. The hero of the story, Taras Bulba, is a Cossack headman, who in order to complete his sons' education, takes them to fight against the catholic Poles. The youngest walks over to the other side for the sake of a Polish girl and for that his father kills him, while the oldest gets tortured to death by the Polish in front of his father. Not for the faint-hearted.

“Oh, steppes, how beautiful you are!”

The story has often been criticised. Historically it's incorrect and the centuries are mixed up. The Cossacks are so violent that they would make the average Isis soldier look away. A Polish servant girl escapes through a secret tunnel from the city that has been besieged by the Cossacks. She wakes up the youngest son to tell him that his sweetheart is among the starving in the city. Together the go through the tunnel into the city, where indeed the people are dying in the streets. Why didn't they just all escape through that tunnel?! The love story is not at all plausible. Gogol talks about the unspoiled Steppe, 'upon which were sprinkled millions of different flowers', and 'the air was filled with the notes of a thousand different birds', and more of this.

Its' Follow-ups

Dostoevsky apparently said once that every Russian writer came from underneath Gogol's Overcoat. He was a huge fan of his work and found him very inspiring. In The Brothers Karamazov (1880) there is a rather painful scene that appears in Taras Bulba too: an emaciated woman with a infant clutched to her dried out breasts. Just like Gogol, Dostoevsky was fascinated by the excesses of human existence.

Turgenev most definitely took inspiration from Taras Bulba. Especially the striking nature scenes resound even more beautifully in Turgenev's work. His Acia (1858) contains many Romantic elements and there too the protagonist falls in love with a lively dark-eyed girl.

And in Tolstoy's Cossacks (1863) too: it starts more or less the same. The protagonist is traveling to the Caucasus and thinks about his past and future. The scene is reminiscent of Taras Bulba departing with his sons, each with their own thoughts. Tolstoy's protagonist is very much attracted by the Cossack way of life and he too falls in love with a spirited dark-eyed girl. Tolstoy's Cossacks are not as violent, though.

Hadji Murat (1904) is most similar. Both stories are named after their hero, and both heroes are exotic leaders, feared and admired by all. It breathes the same atmosphere, we encounter the same freshly plastered walls and the same girls with coins on their necklaces. Tolstoy's last fictional story would appear to be an homage to Gogol.

Conclusion

Gogol used a lot of humour in his work. Although it is not always clear if he meant something as humorous or if he was genuinely exaggerating, I'm more inclined to consider the former. If Taras Bulba slays six enemies with one sway with his sword, surely that is meant to be funny. All in all it's a pretty good story, just like Pulp Fiction is a pretty good film. Is it one of the ten best books ever written, like Hemingway once claimed? No, that really is exaggerated. But it is definitely a milestone well worth reading.



© Elisabeth van der Meer

The illustrations are from an old Russian edition of Taras Bulba

I read the Peter Constantine translation

 

Typically Chekhov

Anton Pavlovich Chekhov (1860-1904) is the last Russian realist and the first modern writer. His plays made him world-famous, but above all his stories are phenomenal. His sincerity and moderation are his biggest accomplishments as a writer and earn him a place among the other giants of Russian literature.

His life

After an unhappy childhood, Chekhov studied medicine, and his medical practice, like the unhappy childhood, turned out to be a great source of inspiration for his literary work. He never made a choice between literature and medicine, as he put it himself: “Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress.”. In 1901 he married actress Olga Knipper, but unfortunately Chekhov died in 1904 from tuberculosis, an illness that he had suffered from for years.

Style and content

Above all Chekhov kept it short, there is not one word too many. Important themes in his work are inner conflict, feelings of nostalgia, a longing for the past or a better future, hopelessness, lack of willpower and powerlessness. His characters wish to escape their current situation, but they are incapable of doing so, even if there is apparently nothing holding them back. The Three Sisters (1901) for instance talk about moving to Moscow all the time, but it’s their own indecisiveness that stops them from actually moving. People (and dogs, like Kashtanka) prefer to remain unsatisfied or unhappy in familiar circumstances than to risk happiness in the mysterious unknown.

Stanislavski

Chekhov wrote the play The Seagull in 1896. When it premiered in Moscow it was not exactly a success and Chekhov decided not to write any more plays; however, when the famous theatre director Stanislavski put it on stage in Moscow, it became a huge success. Stanislavski’s method focused on psychological realism and all the subtle details were done justice to. After this success, Chekhov continued to write Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard, every one of them plays that are still being performed nowadays.

Chekhov’s Gun

Chekhov wrote a lot about writing and his most famous piece of advice is called “Chekhov’s Gun”: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.”. In other words: use only relevant details and use them to create a certain expectation with the reader.

Influence

His work has influenced countless writers. Tennessee Williams, Hemingway, Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Kunio Shimizu; most modern writers were influenced by Chekhov. His contemporary Tolstoy thought he was a genius and was genuinely sad when he died before him. Chekhov himself was influenced by Pushkin, specifically by his Belkin Stories, short stories with a surprising ending.

In short:

Chekhov is a calm and objective story teller. Always an observer and never a preacher. His characters are real, not purely good or evil, often complete with human flaws. He appeals to the sentimental feelings of his reader. He is subtle and often funny. His work is modern and fresh. Chekhov is justifiably considered to be the best short story writer ever.

*****

Books read:

Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Chekhov – Henri Troyat

Several stories, plays, letters and fragments from Chekhov

Practically everything that Chekhov wrote has been translated into English and his collected stories are widely available. Below follows a link to 201 stories in English online. My favourites are Kashtanka and Rothschild’s Fiddle.

Photos © Elisabeth van der Meer and Wikipedia

Text © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

http://www.eldritchpress.org/ac/jr/

Typically Goncharov

Goncharov (1812-1891) is perhaps not the most famous nineteenth century Russian writer, but he is most certainly one of the great Realists. He didn’t write much; some stories, a travel journal and three novels. One of those novels made him world famous, and according to some people it is the ultimate novel in Russian literature: Oblomov.

 

Oblomov

Oblomov is a man in his thirties, he lives with his servant Zakhar and his cook Anisha in a St Petersburg apartment. He spends most of his time sleeping or daydreaming in bed. His favourite piece of clothing is his robe, and although Zakhar polishes his boots every day, it’s the slippers that are always exactly there where his feet land when he finally gets up, that he prefers to wear. Oblomov refuses to make a fuss and dreads anything that could possibly endanger his peace and quiet.

His estate Oblomovka, situated in the far east of Russia, needs urgent attention, but Oblomov can’t even get himself to reply to a letter that his neighbour sent him, let alone travel all the way to Oblomovka. As a result of his indecisiveness and generosity people take advantage of him. His peasants lie about the earnings of his estate and his friends, and even Zakhar, steal from him. His good friend Stolz tries (in vain) to bring Oblomov back to life.

What is Oblomovism?

Stolz calls it ’Oblomovism’. It’s the result of an extremely idyllic childhood in Oblomovka, and Oblomov tries very hard to recreate that carefree idylle in the present time. Immediately after the novel was published in 1859, Oblomovism became a household term in Russia and abroad. If you look it up in the Oxford dictionary you’ll find that it means ”sluggish or languorous inertia; supineness, indecision, procrastination”.

”What is Oblomovism” is a famous essay that literary critic Dobrolyubov wrote in 1859. He stated that Oblomovism was a social problem, it stood for the ancient aristocracy that was afraid of reforms such as the abolition of serfdom. Stolz, being half German, doesn’t catch the contagious Oblomovism and stands for progress and modernisation. Contrary to the superfluous man (of which Oblomov is the ultimate example) he is decisive and takes responsibility for his own life. Oblomovism is often seen as symbolic for the slow and ancient Russian society, some even go as far as to call it Russia’s national disease.

 

Style

Goncharov uses the third person narrator. He uses mainly dialogue to characterise the characters and almost doesn’t let the narrator judge. Goncharov is at his best in describing domestic scenes. The personal environment is also used to characterise. He writes with a fantastic sense of humour that gives his work a light and airy quality. Because of this his work is rarely sentimental.

 

Masterwork

Oblomov is an undisputed masterwork. Thanks to its layers it can be read at several levels; if you (don’t want to) know nothing of the social problems in nineteenth century Russia, you simply read an amusing character study of an eternal procrastinator. Many of the issues in the novel are still relevant, xenophobia for instance.

 

Influence

The impact of the novel was enormous. Goncharov had been working on it since 1847, but it was finished and published in 1859, on the eve of major reforms, like the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The timing was perfect, because the sluggish society was a hot topic in 1859.

 

In short

Goncharov uses a sense of humour to address social issues, and that is a whole lot more palatable than the methods that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky used. His dreamy writing style is pleasant, but he doesn’t take you to the highs and lows that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky take you to.

We can easily say that Oblomov had a ’Stolz-effect’ on society. But if we are to believe Goncharov there is no cure for such deeply ingrained Oblomovism…

 

 

Books used:

Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Geschiedenis van de literatuur in Rusland 1700-2000 – Emmanuel Waegemans

Oblomov – Ivan Goncharov

 

Photos from Wikipedia and Eldritchpress

“Ждун” – a modern example of Oblomovism