The Portrait (and the devil) by Gogol

IMG_6640

Fame can give no pleasure to him who has stolen it, not won it.

The Portrait (1835) is said to be the least Gogolian of all of Gogol’s works. It follows a more traditional pattern. It’s almost a classic ghost story, in the tradition of Hoffman and Poe. It’s also more autobiographical than you would think.

A mysterious portrait

It’s the story of a young artist, Chartkov, who buys a mysterious portrait in a shop in Saint Petersburg. Curiously, the eyes of the portrait seem to be alive, they have an evil stare. That same night the portrait comes to life and the stranger steps out of the frame. He starts counting money on the terrified Chartkov’s bed. Lots of money. The next day the frame breaks accidentally and it turns out that there was a large amount of golden coins hidden in the frame.

Money and fame

In my previous post I wrote that Gogol’s characters are not subject to personal development. In this story they are. When we first meet Chartkov he is a penniless artist who only cares about his art en developing his artistic skills. But as soon as Chartkov has money, everything changes: before he dressed like someone so preoccupied with his work that he pays no attention to his dress and now he dresses in fine clothes. He rents the first fancy apartment on the Nevski Prospect that he sees, and his shabby assistent Nikita is never heard of again. He buys newspaper reviews to get clients. And he turns into an artist who only paints what his clients want him to paint so that he can make easy money.

Possessed by the devil

This change, Gogol suggests, is the effect of the mysterious portrait, that seems to be inhabited by the devil himself. Gogol was very religious, for him the devil was as real as his neighbour. The devil plays a (main) part in the majority of his work. In his work he tried to make the devil less important by making fun of him. Not in this story. He lived at times in a real fear that his work might be(come) possessed by the devil, and this is what The Portrait is about. By keeping the portrait and by taking the money, Chartkov makes a pact with the devil. Chartkov’s name even sounds like the word for ‘devil’ in Russian, ‘chort’.

Insight

Although it takes Chartkov many, many years, he does eventually come to an insight. This happens when he sees a painting by a fellow artist; the work has a device quality to it. Its beauty moves Chartkov to tears. He realises that he has been driven by financial gain instead of aiming for artistic development. He tries to paint again like before, but it’s already too late. Out of jealousy he starts to destroy the most beautiful paintings he can buy at auctions. Luckily for the art world he dies soon. Here is another parallel with Gogol’s own life; he used to burn his own work regularly, for fear of it not being good enough, or, indeed, possessed by the devil.

The painter of the portrait and the portrayed

In the second part of the story it is revealed that the portrait depicted an evil loanshark, the personification of the devil. Every person who loaned money from him changed dramatically for the worse. The portrait was so lifelike, that the evil spirit of the loanshark transferred into the portrait. Because the loanshark dies, the painter is stuck with the portrait and soon starts to feel its’ evil influence. He tries to destroy it, but a friend buys it from him instead. The painter then flees to a monastery to cleanse his soul. There he lives a reclusive life and finally manages to regain himself. He aks his son to find the painting and to destroy it. He has heard that the painting still exists and that people still get under its’ evil influence. The son does find it at an auction. But when he is about to buy it, it suddenly disappears and that’s the end of the story.

The devil in Saint Petersburg

In Gogol’s earlier Ukrainian works the devil is a tangible figure; in Saint Petersburg he is disincarnate, and all the more scarier for it! He now operates in a much less conspicuous manner. 

The Portrait is unmistakably from Gogol, and even if it’s not his most Gogolian work, it’s still a devilish good one!

°°°°°

By Authors Possessed: The Demonic Novel in Russia – Adam Weiner

Het Portret – Gogol (the by Gogol revised version from 1842), translated by Karel van het Reve

Text and photo collage © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61my/contents.html

  

Advertisements

Gogol’s Plays

fullsizeoutput_215

Russian Literature is well known for its lifelike characters who usually go through some ordeal and achieve personal growth through that. The base of many a novel, but Russian literature particularly excels in it. The reader is swept along and en passant gains some experience himself. Who has read War and Peace knows that whatever happens, normal life will always take its course again, and happiness will return. Not with Gogol. In his work the end situation is the same as the beginning, the characters are not particularly sympathetic and no-one has learned anything. Yet he is considered one of the founders of the great 19th century Russian literature, together with Pushkin.

Details

Gogol had a particular talent for characterising his protagonists, big and small. We all know the people who walk around in Gogol’s fictional world: frauds, vain creatures, people with big plans that never materialise, scroungers and misers. Surely somewhere a miserable civil servant is dreaming of having a bigger car than his boss. But however recognisable they may be, that are the product of Gogol’s rich fantasy. He took a character trait and built a character around it.

Gogol wrote three plays, all three are still being performed: The Government Inspector, The Gamblers and Marriage.

The Government Inspector

The Government Inspector (1836) is the best known of the three. In a small provincial town a high ranking inspector is expected. The officials in the town are terrified that their deplorable state of affairs will be discovered and they mistake a young man staying in the local inn for the inspector. As soon as he realises that he can profit from the situation, the young man plays along, not hindered by any lack of fantasy, accepting bribes from everyone. After he disappears it soon becomes clear that he was not the real inspector, and everyone tries to shift the blame for the mistaken identity to each other.

The Gamblers

In The Gamblers (1840) a card sharp becomes the victim of a cunning scam himself. He has just won a lot of money and arrives in a new town hoping to make some more. Unfortunately he meets a couple of clever conmen and he loses all his money even quicker than he had made it.

Marriage

In Marriage (1832) the protagonist is planning to get married. He has hired a matchmaker to help him find a suitable bride. She finds him several candidates, but Podkolyosin is terribly indecisive. In order to speed things up his friend forces him to to visit the latest candidate with him. There they find several suitors, but the friend manages to close the deal. They are supposed to get married that same evening, the friend will arrange everything. While the bride gets dressed, Podkolyosin climbs out of the window and goes home as fast as he can.

Moral intentions

Gogol had intended to not just entertain the audience with his plays, he also wanted to confront them with what was wrong in society. The audience, however, saw only the satire and humor of the plays and even the tsar himself had a good laugh when he saw The Government Inspector. Gogol was disillusioned. But the society that he depicted was the product of his imagination. He had never visited a Russian provincial town, he wasn’t a civil servant. Hardly a reliable witness exposing all kinds of wrongs.

Memorabilty

If we forget about Gogol’s moral intentions, we are left with highly enjoyable pieces of literature. Gogol has a unique sense of humor and his characters are as alive today as when he created them many years ago. He has shown his descendants the importance of details when it comes to characterisation. It’s the details that make the character universal, alive, and memorable. A young man passing through a provincial town is unremarkable, but a young man who has squandered away all his money and is sitting in his room in the inn with an empty stomach and an obstinate servant promises entertainment.

°°°°°

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy

IMG_4404

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:-)

Turgenev’s Smoke

fullsizeoutput_129

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.

fullsizeoutput_12a

Text en photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Smoke – Turgenjev 

Turgenev, His Life and Times – Schapiro

Toergenjev’s Liefde – Schmeltzer 

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

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

 

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

 

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/