Lermontov’s Fatal Duel

“Если бы этот мальчик остался жив, не нужны были ни я, ни Достоевский – If that young man had stayed alive, neither I, nor Dostoevsky, would have been necessary” – Tolstoy

 

At 7 o’clock in the evening of July 27th 1841, somewhere at the foot of mount Mashuk near Pyatigorsk, in the midst of a fierce mountain thunderstorm, the young poet Lermontov was shot dead in a duel with his old comrade Martynov.

 

Since that fatal moment, there have been plenty of people who suspected a plot to murder Lermontov. Sadly there are not many reliable accounts of the events that took place on that fatal evening. So what do we know?

 

Lermontov was staying in Pyatigorsk to ‘take the waters’, to recover from an illness before he went to rejoin his regiment. Pyatigorsk was a popular spa town in the Caucasus (on the Russian side) where many wealthy Russians came to get cured. There were also many military men there, who were on (sick) leave from their duties in the Caucasian War, like Lermontov. Lermontov knew many of the people there, including Martynov, who he had known since military school.

 

In the morning the ‘patients’ would have to bathe in the mineral springs and drink several glasses of disgusting water. In the afternoons there were picnics in the mountains and in the evening dinner parties and balls were organised. At one of those parties Lermontov made one joke too many at the expense of his old comrade, calling him ‘the highlander with the big dagger’, mocking Martynov’s Circassian outfit and weapon. Martynov replied that he had repeatedly asked him not not make fun of him in the company of ladies. The next day they met again and Martynov again expressed his dissatisfaction, and a date and place for a duel were fixed.

 

Duels were illegal; both participants and seconds would not get off lightly. As a result duels were held in secret, but there were clear rules. The participants needed at least one second each, in this case they each had two. There also had to be a doctor present, and there had to be a cart to take away the dead or injured. The seconds had to try to dissuade the participants in advance and organise the pistols and a doctor.

Until the last moment Lermontov appeared nonchalant, thinking that they would call off the duel, embrace and go for dinner together. The seconds thought so too. They made an attempt to get a doctor, but even though there were obviously plenty of doctors in Pyatigorsk, they all refused to be present at an illegal duel. They didn’t bring a cart either.

 

Only one of the seconds, Vasiltchikov, wrote about the events later. The others, and Martynov too, kept silent. Tolstoy tried later in vain (unfortunately!) to persuade another second, Stolypin, to talk. According to Vasiltchikov, Lermontov had told the seconds that he would fire in the air. At the moment suprême the contestants faced each other. Lermontov pointed his gun upwards and supposedly said that he was not going to shoot at that ‘fool’ and at that Martynov aimed and fired.

 

The bullet pierced Lermontov’s heart and he fell down without even grasping his injury. Although he was clearly dead, a doctor was called. This time they had difficulty getting one to come because of the weather. One of the seconds, Glebov, stayed with the body, in the dark forest in the pouring rain until help arrived. The dead Lermontov was taken to his lodgings and Martynov and the seconds were arrested.

 

Pyatigorsk was in shock; all the ladies paid their respect and the poet’s body was soon covered in flowers. Death by duel was considered suicide, but after some money was paid, Lermontov got a Christian burial. His devastated grandmother later managed to get his body transferred to the family grave.

 

In the official reports there is no mention of Lermontov’s intention to fire in the air. It would have meant that Martynov had to be tried for murder. It remains strange that his old pal was unable to forgive Lermontov his pranks. Other than that there is no evidence of a coverup. And besides, the authorities may have had reasons to exile him, but not to kill him, although one could argue that sending a man to fight at the front in the Caucasian War is practically murder.

 

Did he perhaps want to die? I don’t think so. He was doing well as a writer, he enjoyed being in the Caucasus, and he had his army career. He did have a certain carelessness about him, a sort of disregard for life, like his character Pechorin from A Hero of Our Time. It is difficult to estimate how much of that was just a pose that comes with the territory of being a romantic poet. With Pushkin it was a different case. He had money problems, was well known to be a hotheaded person and he was clearly trapped. With him I feel it was both suicide and murder.

 

Since the duel could easily have been avoided if Lermontov had apologised for his attitude immediately, my conclusion is that Lermontov himself was mostly to blame for his death.

 

*****

 

Different sources all have slightly different versions of the events. I based this account mostly upon the Laurence Kelly biography, Tragedy in the Caucasus and the following websites: fishki.net and aif.ru.

 

© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos from Wikimedia: Lermontov dying, the memorial in Pyatigorsk and the family grave in Tarkhany.

Also included is Lermontov’s prophetic poem A Dream.

 

Voor mijn Nederlandstalige lezers: alle Nederlandstalige blogposts staan nu op http://www.eenrussischeaffaire.wordpress.com .

 

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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

Turgenev’s Birds

Turgenev's Birds – An Ornithologist's Guide to Fathers and Sons

This post is dedicated to Roderick Hart, who dedicated a delightful post about Turgenev and his birds to me. He had listed all the birds in the novel Fathers and Sons. It inspired me to read the novel again (and I loved, loved, loved it!) and to make an analysis of the way Turgenev used birds as a leitmotif in this novel. As Rod has pointed out, Turgenev liked to shoot birds, but they are also regular visitors in his work. The final page of Fathers and Sons provides the ultimate confirmation of the important role that he gave to the birds:

 

“There is a small village graveyard in one of the remote corners of Russia. Like almost all our graveyards, it presents a wretched appearance; the ditches surrounding it have long been overgrown; the grey wooden crosses lie fallen and rotting under their once painted gables; the stone slabs are all displaced, as though some one were pushing them up from behind; two or three bare trees give a scanty shade; the sheep wander unchecked among the tombs…. But among them is one untouched by man, untrampled by beast, only the birds perch upon it and sing at daybreak. An iron railing runs round it; two young fir-trees have been planted, one at each end. Yevgeny Bazarov is buried in this tomb.”

So only birds are allowed to sit on the grave of one of the greatest heroes of Russian literature..

***

A Short Summary of Fathers and Sons

Arkady and Bazarov are friends, Bazarov is a nihilist, believing in nothing but science. Arkady is a bit younger and follows Bazarov's ideas. Together they visit first Arkady's father and later Bazarov's parents. The parents adore their sons and are extremely happy to have them visit, but the sons are easily bored and don't stay long. During the summer they drift apart; Arkady gives up his nihilist ideals and gets engaged. Bazarov returns to his parents and helps his father, who is a doctor, with his practise. One day in town he assists in dissecting a peasant who has died of typhus and accidentally cuts himself, gets infected and dies soon after.

***

Now let's attempt to analyse the wide variety of birds that Turgenev introduces in this short novel, using Rod's blog post as a guidance. The symbolic meanings of birds varies widely on both time and region, so I tried to use only the most common meanings and characteristics, that I could find on the internet.

1 Chicken

“A plump young chicken in motley plumage strutted self-importantly along them, tapping away firmly with its large yellow claws.”

– This is the scene as father Nikolai waits impatiently for son Arkady. A chicken symbolises a need for shelter and protection. Father is anxious for his son to get home, so that he can keep an eye on him again, even though his son is already big. Bazarov calls Arkady a chicken a couple of times later on.

 

2 Dove

“A large grey dove flew down on to the road and hurriedly set about drinking from a puddle beside the well. Nikolai Petrovich started watching it and then his ear caught the sound of approaching wheels.”

– Same scene, Nikolai is still waiting. The dove is of course a symbol of peace, and more significantly, in biblical terms: a messenger of peace and deliverance. Indeed, Nikolai's mind can rest at ease, no sooner has he seen the bird, or his son arrives. Ancient Slav beliefs say that the soul of the dead goes into the dove, so the dove could also be Arkady's mother, who has died a long time ago, especially since Nikolai was just thinking of her.

 

3/4 Skylarks and Rooks

“Everywhere skylarks poured out their song in unending, resonant streams. Lapwings cried as they circled above the low-lying meadows or ran about silently among the tufts of grass. Rooks wandered about, darkening beautifully among the soft green of the low spring wheat and disappearing in the rye, which was already beginning to whiten, their heads showing here and there among its smoky waves.”

– This is the scene that greets Arkady and Bazarov as they drive to Nikolai's house. The skylark, lapwing and rook are all three strongly associated with spring in Russia, optimistic, cheerful spring. The skylark also symbolises the divine, flying up to heaven singing. There are several sayings in rural Russia concerning the rook, and most of them are about farming. Nikolai has recently turned his estate into a 'farm', a company with paid employees. It is not doing very well yet.

 

5 Snipe

“‘You’ve got a bit of marshland there, by a grove of aspens. That’s where I started up half-a-dozen snipe. You can go and kill them, Arkady.’ ‘You’re not a hunter yourself?’ ‘No.’”

– Bazarov has gone for an early morning walk and tells his friend Arkady at breakfast about the snipes he saw. He uses the word 'killing', clearly he does not agree with his friend's hobby. Snipes are notoriously difficult birds to hunt, due to their erratic flight pattern.

 

6 Long-tailed Siskin

“From the ceiling, on a long cord, there hung a cage containing a short-tailed siskin; it ceaselessly chirruped and jumped about and the cage ceaselessly rocked and shook and hemp seeds pattered down on to the floor.”

– This cage hangs in Fenitchka's room. She is Nikolai's unofficial wife; Nikolai is a widower, but he now has a child with the young Fenitchka, the daughter of his former housekeeper. Later he marries her, but at this point he is still embarrassed about the relationship. The siskin is a typical Russian bird, and Fenitchka is a typical Russian girl, with all the qualities generally associated with that.

 

7 Quail

“Dunyasha would gladly giggle at him and give him sidelong, significant looks as she ran past him all aflutter like a little quail.”

– Dunyasha is a servant girl in Nikolai's house and she has taken a liking to grumpy Bazarov. She tries to attract his attention. In Russia the quail symbolises a young woman.

 

8 Swallows

“Swallows flew high above; the wind had quite died;”

– Actually you can already tell by that short sentence that it is a warm summer evening. Nikolai is outside thinking about his love for nature and poetry and the generation gap between him and his son, who thinks poetry is nonsense. The swallow stands for freedom. Nikolai worries too much about what others think, and thinks himself old, but he is only in his forties, and independent, free to marry Fenitchka. Several swallows flying above you is a good omen, Nikolai shall be happy.

 

9 Nightingale

“And now I hope, Arina Vlasevna, having sated your mother’s heart to the full, you’ll think about sating our dear guests because, as you know, even nightingales can’t live on songs alone.’”

– Long lost son Bazarov has returned home to his delighted and adoring parents, together with his friend Arkady. Father tells mother to stop crying over his return and arrange dinner instead, because literally it says “it won't do to feed nightingales fables”, thus Bazarov and Arkady are nightingales. Nightingales are generally considered poetic birds, valued for their beautiful and varied song. I should think here that father means quite literally that his wife should stop crying and feed those clever nightingales. Nightingales are always considered a good omen.

 

10 Telling a bird from its flight

“‘Have it your way, please,’ responded Vasily Ivanovich with a friendly grimace. ‘I may be put on the shelf now, but I’ve also been about the world a bit and I can tell what a bird is from its flight.”

– Bazarovs father thinks that Arkady is a spoiled youth, accustomed to luxury, Arkady denies that, but clearly the father doesn't believe him. What he probably thinks is that Arkady could never be a real nihilist like his son Bazarov, because he comes from an aristocratic family. This is the second time that Vasili uses an expression with a bird.

 

11 Fledgling Hawk

“Somewhere high above in the tips of the trees the unceasing screech of a fledgling hawk rang out plaintively.”

– Bazarov and Arkady are lying in a haystack, talking and in the background you can hear a hawk and also cocks crying at each other. Their talk ends in a quarrel. An aggressive person can be referred to as a hawk, and cocks are also known for their aggression. This is one of the first signs of the friends drifting apart.

 

12 Falcon

“‘There’s nothing for it, Vasya! Our son’s cut off from us. He’s a falcon, like a falcon he wanted to come and he flew here, then he wanted away and he flew away. But you and I, we’re just a couple of old mushrooms, we are, stuck in the hollow of a tree, sitting side by side and never moving. Except that I’ll always remain the same for you for ever and ever, just as you will for me.’ Vasily Ivanovich took his hands away from his face and suddenly embraced his wife, his true friend, more tightly even than he’d been used to embrace her in his youth, for she had comforted him in his misery.”

– A typical and brilliant Turgenev piece of writing; in a way it summarises the whole book, capturing the difference between the generations. In Russian fairytales the falcon stands for a young man: fearless, courageous and fast. It also symbolises the boundless energy of the youth, often bordering on madness. So it is up to the young to conquer the world, and Arina and Vasily are doing the right thing by leaving their little falcon (I have noticed that Turgenev sometimes uses 'falcon' as a term of endearment) free. Here it's Bazarov's mother who uses and expression with a bird in it.

 

13 Sparrows

“He held in his hand a half-opened book while she picked out of a basket some last crumbs of white bread and threw them to a small family of sparrows which, with their characteristic cowardly impudence, jumped about twittering at her feet.”

– Arkady is sitting in the garden with Katya, about to declare his love for her. She is feeding sparrows, widely associated with marriage in Russian folk tradition. This scene clearly suggests she is ready to get married.

 

14 Chaffinch

“‘I suppose,’ he began again in a more excited voice, just as a chaffinch in the birch foliage above him launched casually into song, ‘I suppose it’s the duty of any honest man to be entirely candid with those … with those who … with people close to him, I mean … and so I, er, intend …’”

– The next day Arkady wants to propose to Katya, and chaffinch 'casually' starts to sing. The male bird (casually!) sings to attract a mate, but Arkady is feeling anything but casual. Chaffinches are monogamous birds and thus Katya and Arkady can expect a happy and harmonious relationship.

 

15 Jackdaw

“‘Goodbye, old mate!’ he said to Arkady when he’d already climbed into the cart and, pointing to a pair of jackdaws sitting side by side on the stable roof, added ‘There’s a lesson for you! Learn from them!’ ‘What’s that mean?’ asked Arkady. ‘What? You can’t be all that poor at natural history! Or have you forgotten that the jackdaw is the most respectable family bird? Let them be your example! Farewell, signor!’”

– Here Bazarov even explains the superstitious meaning to us; jackdaws are indeed mates for life and in some cultures a pair sitting on a roof predicts a new arrival. Jackdaws looking at a traveller (Bazarov is already in the carriage!) is, however, a very bad omen indeed…

 

16 A wee grouse hen

“Arina Vlasevna was so flustered and ran about the house so much that Vasily Ivanovich compared her to ‘a wee grouse-hen’ and the docked tail of her short blouse actually did give her rather a bird-like look.”

– Bazarov has returned home again and his mother is in all states. Turgenev uses the visual image of a grouse hen to bring the scene to life. We can certainly imagine her running about like a wee grouse hen.

 

17 A Crowing Cock

“Everyone had long faces and a strange quiet descended. A noisily crowing cock was removed from the yard and carted off to the village, quite unable to understand why it was being treated in this way.”

– When Bazarov gets ill they remove a noisy cock from the yard. Bazarov's fighting spirit has left him too, he is going to die.

***

Legend has it that the original last page of Fathers and Sons was full of tear stains. Well, I certainly cant read it without crying, so it's probably true. Read and weep, dear readers..

“Often from the little village not far off, two quite feeble old people come to visit it—a husband and wife. Supporting one another, they move to it with heavy steps; they go up to the railing, fall down, and remain on their knees, and long and bitterly they weep, and yearn and intently gaze at the dumb stone, under which their son is lying; they exchange some brief word, wipe away the dust from the stone, set straight a branch of a fir-tree, and pray again, and cannot tear themselves from this place, where they seem to be nearer to their son, to their memories of him…. Can it be that their prayers, their tears are fruitless? Can it be that love, sacred, devoted love, is not all-powerful? Oh, no! However passionate, sinning, and rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers growing over it peep serenely at us with their innocent eyes; they tell us not of eternal peace alone, of that great peace of 'indifferent' nature; tell us too of eternal reconciliation and of life without end.”

 

Bibliography

-Fathers and Sons by Turgenev. I read the Dutch translation by Karen van het Reve and the Constance Garnett English translation. The 17 bird quotes are from the Oxford edition, translated by Richard Freeborn, that Rod read. Here's the link to his post:

https://reinholdsite.wordpress.com/2016/11/14/ivan-turgenev-and-his-birds/

The photo of the skylark is from Wikipedia and the painting is from V.G.Perov, “The old parents at the grave of their son”.

***

Listen here to the chaffinch singing casually:

 

Typically Turgenev

Russian literature from the second half of the nineteenth century aims to describe and analyse life in all its aspects. This literary movement is called realism. Turgenev was one of the three big names in this movement. How does he distinguish himself from Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky?

His elegant style

Turgenev was well read and well educated. He was a linguistic virtuoso. His writing style is simple, gracious and elegant. His unhappy childhood with his tyrannical mother were the proverbial goldmine for most of his work. In spite of that his work is not exactly depressing; it is sometimes sad, but more often full of hope and joy. He clearly took great pleasure in describing characters and situations.

Turgenev’s nature descriptions are unparalleled and for me the most attractive aspect of his work. The way in which he describes the moment just before daybreak in spring, or a summer morning in July, or the forest in late autumn is so contagious, that you want to leave the house as soon as possible to go and explore these natural wonders for yourself! It is so full of joie de vivre. And written straight from the heart. You can smell the forest, feel the sunshine and hear the larks singing.

Turgenev uses the frame construction in most of his stories and novels. The narrator looks back on an episode from his past. This gives his work a personal and sentimental quality, and makes it appear genuine.

Influence

We owe the literary term ‘superfluous man’ to Turgenev, although the most famous superfluous men, Pechorin and Onegin, already existed before Turgenev’s Diary of a Superfluous Man (1850). His most famous character is without a doubt the nihilist Bazarov from Fathers and Sons, who became the subject of heated political discussions. His Sportman’s Sketches have made a substantial contribution to the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, something that he was justifiably proud of.

The same pattern

Yes, many of Turgenev’s stories and novels are similar: the hero falls in love with the heroine and the heroine with the hero. And there is never a happily ever after. The hero gets cold feet, the heroine becomes a nun, or someone dies. Its probably much wiser to love nature instead and go hunting with your loyal dog. And that brings us to the second leading theme in his work: the narrator loves nature and hunting and during his rambles he meets a variety landowners and peasants. In these stories he questions the existing system of serfdom.

Why Turgenev?

Turgenev has always been overshadowed by Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. But I cannot emphasise it enough: that is completely unjustified. Turgenev is never a sentimental tearjerker like Dostoyevsky or an annoying know-it-all like Tolstoy. He wraps his message subtly and simply, but he gets it across, without getting carried away for pages and pages. Au contraire! Turgenev wrote mostly stories and his novels are only about 150 pages thick.

In short:

Not a lot happens in Turgenev’s works. The situation at the beginning is more or less the same as the one in the end. All that remains is memories and what-ifs. The reader has to content himself with plenty of beautiful atmospheric scenes and contemplations. Even in translation you stumble over one beautiful sentence after another. You read Turgenev with your heart. His works allow you to dream away to another place and time and that makes Turgenev the ultimate bedtime novelist.

Further reading:

http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1R – Turgenev’s Eternal Love

http://wp.me/p5zzbs-6L – First Love, Acia and Torrents of Spring

http://wp.me/p5zzbs-6d – Mumu – A Quiet Protest

http://wp.me/p5zzbs-28 – A Sportsman’s Sketches by Turgenev

Photo of Turgenev from Wikipedia, other photo and text by me.

Typically Tolstoy

Russian literature from the second half of the nineteenth century aims to describe and analyse life in all its aspects. This literary movement is called realism. And realism fits Tolstoy like a glove!

The set-up

The set-up of Tolstoy’s novels and stories is usually simple: there are good and bad people and after the necessary struggles the good win and the hero and heroine end up together. The, often internal, struggle between good and bad is the main subject, but other themes like war, love, discrimination, adultery and happiness feature regularly too.

Writing style

Tolstoy’s writing is uncomplicated. Dutch slavist Karel van het Reve even went so far as to say there there is not a single sentence in War and Peace that a twelve-year-old wouldn’t be able to understand. He doesn’t use difficult words either, keeping his writing as clean as possible. He does, however, frequently use French, as that was the spoken language of the gentry at the time, but in English translations the French is often translated into English as well. Another difficulty is the vast amount of characters (with long Russian names) that Tolstoy introduces. He often uses the omniscient narrator technique: the narrator knows what goes on in Napoleon’s mind on the eve of the battle and what Natásha talks about with her mother before she goes to sleep.

Research

Tolstoy took his writing extremely seriously. He rewrote War and Peace seven (!) times before he was completely happy with it. His research was so extensive that he went to Borodino (W&P) to see where the sun came up on the morning of the battle of Borodino. To make his characters as real as possible, he often sought inspiration within his own family. The Bolkonski family (W&P) was based on his mother’s family, the Volkonskis, and the Rostovs are based on the Tolstoys. For realistic female characterisation Tolstoy consulted his wife.

Mise-en-scène

Tolstoy knows how to bring a scene to life. In Hadji Murad there is a scene in which four soldiers are keeping watch at night. An ordinary writer would have stated the fact and that would have been that. Not Tolstoy. He describes all their little habits, their conversation and the silences in between, giving the reader that fly-on-the-wall experience. These soldiers are not relevant in the story, but their story helps to make the story, it gives it the necessary couleur locale.

Moralistic

As he got older Tolstoy’s work became more and more moralistic. In War and Peace (1869) his reflections are still of a philosophical nature, but by the time he writes Hadji Murad (1904) he is explicitly against the war and interference in the Caucasus. Towards the end of his life he wrote less and less literature and more moralistic and religious essays.

In short:

You can recognise Tolstoy by his (numerous!) extraordinarily lifelike and recognisable characters, his great psychological insight, his superior descriptions, his clear writing and unpretentious vocabulary and his warning finger. Books such as Anna Karenina and War and Peace are unrivalled classics that will, once read, remain with you throughout your life.

******

Photo: Wikipedia

Pushkin’s Own Duel

Imagine that you’ve shot dead,
a young friend of your own,
because after a drink he offended you
with an impudent look or remark
or in some other trifling way –
or perhaps, his own honour slighted, in a blaze of anger
he challenged you to a duel.
Just imagine him lying on the ground before you
motionless, death spelt out on his brow,
his body slowly rigidifying:
desperately though you call him
he neither hears nor answers…
Tell me: what feeling now
will overwhelm your heart?

On January the 27th of 1836 somewhere in a field close to Saint Petersburg, two shots were fired. The first by Georges d’Anthès, the second by Alexander Pushkin. D’Anthès’s bullet hits Pushkin in the stomach and Pushkin’s bullet pierces d’Anthès’s arm and would have entered his chest, were it not for one of his uniform buttons. Two days later Russia’s ’all’ is dead. A tragic and senseless waste of a huge talent.

Duels were a recurrent theme with Pushkin, and he himself had taken part in more than one. The poet was quite a hotheaded guy. His wife Natasha was known as perhaps the most beautiful woman in Russia. They had four children and were fairly happily married. Pushkin was proud of his pretty wife and would have been disappointed indeed if other men hadn’t paid attention to her.

Georges d’Anthès

Georges d’Anthès was a young Frenchman* who served as an officer in the prestigious Imperial Guard. He lived with his rich adoptive father, the Baron van Heeckeren, Dutch ambassador in Saint Petersburg. Van Heeckeren was a homosexual and it seems more than likely that his relationship with d’Anthès was intimate. There were certainly rumours in that direction. But the biggest gossip in town was van Heeckeren himself, and he cunningly spread a rumour that d’Anthès was the illegitimate son of the Dutch king, William I, apparently preferring to slander his king than himself. D’Anthès didn’t seem to care much and happily spent his rich papa’s money, acting like a dandy and a womaniser.

In May 1834 Pushkin, together with his friend Danzas, met d’Anthès for the first time. The three of them had at that time no idea of the circumstances under which they would meet again in January 1837.

Rejected lover

D’Anthès fell in love with Natasha. He became obsessed with her, his avances quickly became more and more improper. The young and innocent Natasha didn’t know how to deal with him and d’Anthès convinced himself that she loved him too. In letters to van Heeckeren he even begs his adoptive father to try to convince Natasha, to lie to her, saying that d’Anthès is dying of his love for Natasha, begging her to leave or betray her husband**. D’Anthès even told Natasha that he would kill himself if she didn’t give in!***

The anonymous letters

Obviously Pushkin started to get more and more annoyed with d’Anthès and when in November 1835 anonymous letters, suggesting that d’Anthès and Natasha were having an affair, were going around in Saint Petersburg, he couldn’t take no more. The letters were addressed to several friends of Pushkin, but of course, he got to see them. It has never become clear who was behind them, Pushkin blamed van Heeckeren, but it was more likely the work of two well known pranksters from Saint Petersburg.

The challenge

The next morning Pushkin challenged d’Anthès to a duel. Because d’Anthès wasn’t home due to his officer’s duties, van Heeckeren accepted in his name and at the same time managed to arrange a fortnight’s delay. In those two weeks d’Anthès got engaged to Natasha’s sister Yekaterina. This was a big surprise for everyone and no doubt van Heeckeren had instructed d’Anthès to do so. Pushkin, however, thought it was a scheme of d’Anthès and van Heeckeren; by marrying the sister d’Anthès would have unlimited acces to Natasha. Pushkin was probably right. He refused to attend the wedding, but he saw himself forced to cancel the duel.

The duel

In spite of the marriage the rumours and avances continued and Pushkin challenged d’Anthès again for a duel only weeks after the marriage.

On Januari the 27th Pushkin leaves his house to go to the appointed place. Natasha knows nothing. On the threshold he turns around to go back inside and put on a warmer coat, the worst thing he could do; according to Russian superstition the threshold brings bad luck, and Pushkin was extremely superstitious. On his way he still has to find a second**** and finally finds one in Danzas, his old schoolfriend. The duel takes place and a couple of hours later Pushkin is carried over the threshold of his house again, seriously injured.

The death of the poet

He wants to be taken into his study. They lie him down on the sofa and send for a doctor. The first doctor they find is an obstetrician, who can’t do much, but later the tsar’s own doctor, Arendt comes to see him. He concludes that the injuries are fatal. Pushkin writes to the tsar and asks him for forgiveness, and for Danzas too. He also asks him to look after Natasha and the children. The tsar writes back, not to worry, he will look after Natasha and the children as if they were his own. Pushkin kisses the letter. He assures Natasha that she is not to blame in any way, tells her to remarry, but not with a scoundrel! He says farewell to his children and best friends.

For two days he lies on that sofa. It must have seemed an eternity. He suffers tremendously, he can’t bear to have others touch his wound and changes the dressing himself. At a quarter to three in the afternoon of January the 29th 1837 he complains that he is suffocating and dies.

After his death

Natasha and the children were taken care off. Nicholas kept his promise and paid the allowances and even paid off all of Puhkin’s debts. When the period of mourning was over, Natasha became maid-of-honour for the tsarina. She remarried and had four more children.

After an angry letter from Nicholas to William II, van Heeckeren was called back to the Netherlands. D’Anthès had to go to jail and was forced to leave Russia a few months later, his officer’s rank was taken away from him. He went to France where van Heeckeren and Yekaterina were waiting for him. Danzas got away with only a small sentence.

*Technically d’Anthès was of Dutch nationality after the adoption.

**On October the 17th d’Anthès writes a letter to van Heeckeren in which he begs him to speak to Natasha alone and to tell her that his son is dying of love for her and that he fears for his life.

***On November the 2nd d’Anthès tricks Natasha into a meeting alone with him and tries to convince her to betray her husband, threatening to kill himself if she doesn’t.

****Duelling was against the law. Participants and seconds risked even the death penalty. It was the seconds’ duty to not only make sure that everything went according to the rules, but most importantly to try to stop the duel from taking place at all. You could, for obvious reasons, refuse to be a second. Danzas, however, was asked by Pushkin at the very last moment (others had already refused) and as his old schoolfriend, he felt he couldn’t refuse. Because he did not have time to stop the duel, he got off lightly, he wasn’t to blame.

*****http://the-newspapers.com/2016/06/04/pushkins-blood-was-needed-to-confirm-the-authenticity-of-the-sofa

-Quote from Eugene Onegin

-Photos from Wikipedia (the fatal duel, Natasha, d’Anthès and the waistcoat Pushkin was wearing at the time of the duel) and from me

-Literature consulted:

Pushkin, A Biography van T.J. Binyon

and

Mumu – A Quiet Protest

 

Mumu is one of Turgenev’s best known stories, beautifully and subtly constructed. At first sight a touching story of the love between a serf and his dog, cruelly disrupted by the jealousy of his mistress. Written in 1852, when it was not exactly customary to write about a simple serf and his feelings. Turgenev was never politically outspoken, but his prose speaks for itself.

Summary

The deaf-mute Gerasim is an appreciated and hard working peasant in one of the villages of his wealthy old mistress until one day she decides to make him yard-keeper at her Moscow mansion. Poor Gerasim finds it hard to adjust and finishes his city work for the day in half an hour. After a year he falls in love with laundry girl Tatyana, but she is scared of him and the mistress wants Tatyana to marry the drunken shoemaker Kapiton. A year later the couple is sent off to a remote village. After Gerasim has seen them off, he rescues a small dog from drowning. The dog recovers and Gerasim calls her Mumu, the only sound he can make. They simply adore each other. A year later the mistress sees Mumu and wants to have her, but Mumu clearly doesn’t like her. The vexed mistress orders to have Mumu drowned, claiming the dog keeps her awake with her barking. Gerasim is heartbroken, but drowns Mumu himself (yes, keep your hankies ready!). After that heartbreaking scene he returns to his room, takes his belongings and walks back to his birth village in two days.

The old widow and the deaf-mute yard-keeper

The widow is alone, her children are married and “the evening of her life was blacker than night”. She owns thousands of serfs, but no one spends time with her voluntarily. She is bitter and cannot stand to see other people happy, so she rips families apart and uproots her serfs constantly. Gerasim is alone too, especially in the city. People are scared of him and he is isolated because of his handicap, ”for him the noisiest day was more silent and soundless than the softest night” But he accepts his fate, works hard and is capable is kindhearted, as he shows with Mumu. When he strides back to the countryside ”an infinite number of stars” light his way.

Round story

It is a very neat and round story. Gerasim is taken from and returns to his village. Mumu is saved from drowning and drowned by Gerasim. Everything takes place in the course of three years at summertime, the first year Gerasim gets used to the city, the second he falls in love with Tatyana and the third he looks after Mumu.

True story

Turgenev's mother Warwara (1787-1850) was the cruel mistress, and Gerasim's real name was Andrey. The only difference is in how the story ends, Turgenev lets Gerasim make a statement by returning to his village. That was an unheard of act of defiance, but he gets away with it, and therefore the story ends with a small victory of serf over mistress. Gerasim keeps his dignity. In real life Andrey loyally stayed with his mistress.

The Russian People

Gerasim stood for the Russian people, their sensible character, work lust, and faithful nature. Faithful to even the most cruel master or mistress. The serfs might as well be mute, like Gerasim, because they were an ignored class. With this story Turgenev gave a voice to the serfs.

Turgenev's Protest

When Turgenev wrote Mumu in 1852 he was in exile because of the obituary of Gogol that he wrote. He suspected that it had more to do with his Sportsman's Sketches, which had somehow slipped through the strict censure. In this light Mumu can be seen as a protest against the censure. Mumu is finally published in1884.

All photos by me except the portrait of Turgenev's mother Warwara (Wikipedia)

Mumu – Turgenev, translation by Anthony Briggs

You can read Mumu online: http://www.online-literature.com/turgenev/1972/

 

Fyodor Dolokhov – the Bad Guy from War and Peace

Tolstoy loosely based the character of Fyodor Dòlokhov in War and Peace on his cousin, Fyodor “the American” Tolstoy, who was in his time notorious throughout Russia. A careless and hot-headed guy, who fought duel after duel, had a serious gambling addiction and cheated with cards as if his life depended on it. I wrote about him in my blog ( http://wp.me/p5zzbs-2n ) once.

The Tough Guy

Dòlokhov we get to know as a rather tough guy, who lives with the rich Anatole Kurágin. Dòlokhov himself has no money or connections and appears to take advantage of Anatole. Tolstoy, however, leads the reader to believe that without Dòlokhov, Anatole would be boring and uninteresting, and that as such, Dòlokhov is the one being used. (Tolstoy frequently uses this method of inversion with great success, it makes his characters real and convincing, think of Nicholas rescuing Mary, which turned out to be Mary rescuing Nicholas). Dòlokhov takes advantage of his other friends and fellow officers by cheating with cards.

 

Nonetheless Dòlokhov is greatly admired in this circle of young rich men and officers for his courage, the way he holds his liquor, his dare and his carelessness. He lives his life without giving a shit what other people think, and who wouldn't want to do that? In short, a party in St Petersburg wasn't a party without Dòlokhov.

The Officer

In the army Dòlokhov does well because of his courage, but his recklessness earns him several downgrades from his rank as officer.

 

“As if tired of everyday life he had felt a need to escape from it by some strange, and unusually cruel, action.”

 

Pierre Bezúkhov considers Dòlokhov his friend too, and lets himself be seduced by him. Later, after rumours of an affair with his wife Hélène, he sees him as a ruthless murderer, who takes pleasure in hurting other people, precisely because they have been (too) good to him. Because of that (an affair wasn't generally a good enough reason to challenge someone) Pierre challenges Dòlokhov to a duel.

Although Pierre has never before fired a gun and Dòlokhov has had plenty of experience, Dòlokhov ends up seriously injured after the duel. Years later, on the eve of the Battle of Borodino, the two meet again. Apparently Dòlokhov has understood what the rest of the world didn't: Pierre is not to be taken for a fool. He asks Pierre to forgive him.

Fyodor “the Persian” Dòlokhov

Like the American, Dòlokhov disappears from Russia for a while. When he returns he is dressed as a Persian and wild rumours of his actions in Persia circulate.

The Cheater

It is the people who are good to Dòlokhov who bring out the worst in him. The young and naive Nicholas Rostòv adores him, but Dòlokhov makes him lose 43.000 roubles, cheating him with cards. Dòlokhov had set the number 43 in advance, as that was the sum of his and Sonya's ages. He had asked Sonya to marry him ( http://wp.me/p5zzbs-4T ) but she declined because she was in love with Nicholas. After Nicholas loses terribly the Rostòvs get into serious financial trouble.

The Bastard

Years later the youngest Rostòv, Petya, by now also an officer, has a fatal meeting with Dolokhov. He too admires him no end. His hunger for action in the war against Napoleon is enormous, and he is convinced that he will find it there where Dòlokhov is. Against all orders he hurtles himself into a gunfight to prove to Dòlokhov that he is a real man. He gets shot by the French and Dòlokhov's cold reaction is merely “Done for!”, as if the utterance of these words afforded him pleasure. And so, once more, the Rostòv family becomes the victim of the ruthless Dòlokhov.

 

Fyodor “the American” Tolstoy married his gypsy girl, paid a high price for his crimes and led a quiet life ever since. If the same can be said of Fyodor “the Persian” Dòlokhov, we will never know.

 

 

Book: War and Peace from Tolstoy

Photos: the BBC and liveinternet.ru

 

Tolstoy and the Caucasus

Unlike Pushkin and Lermontov Tolstoy (1828-1910) went to the Caucasus voluntarily. He had accumulated considerable gambling debts in Moscow. Gambling addiction was a big problem with the Russian aristocracy, and the stakes could get really high. The Tolstoy family was no exception. Remember the American( http://wp.me/p5zzbs-2n )? When he couldn’t pay his debts anymore, he contemplated suicide, but his gypsy girlfriend gave him the money and saved him. The wild stories about Leo’s illustrious great uncle circulated in Moscow for years after his death in 1846.

Good intentions

In order to escape from his troubles in Moscow, Leo decided to join his brother Nikolay, who was positioned with the Russian army in the Caucasus. In their enthusiasm the brothers forgot to take into consideration the well known fact that the average Russian officer loves a game of cards. In no time at all Tolstoy was 850 roubles in debt again and was forced to sell off more of his inheritance. His other good intentions didn’t come to much either; he had gypsy girl after Cossack girl.

The start of his writing career

Tolstoy stayed in the Cossack village Starogladkovskaya for two and a half years. This period turned out to have a positive influence on his writing at least. He even started his writing career in the Caucasus. His war experiences there were used for War and Peace and several of his stories, like The Cossacks and Hadji Murad are situated in the Caucasus.

“He admired the Cossacks”

The novella The Cossacks (1862) is Tolstoy’s first masterpiece and it was Turgenev’s favourite. It starts like any Romantic story. The hero Olenin leaves his troubled past behind to start a new life in the Caucasus. Tolstoy himself, having read Pushkin and Lermontov, must have felt like that too when he made that journey. Tolstoy, however, is not a Romantic writer and Olenin is no Pechorin. Where Pechorin left a trail of destruction behind him, Olenin leaves no impression at all, he doesn’t get the girl and before he’s even out of sight he’s forgotten. This is a technique that Tolstoy uses frequently, making the familiar strange. Ironically Tolstoy needed the proceeds from this work to pay off more gambling debts.

Tolstoy’s final piece of fiction

At the end of his life, between 1896 and 1904, Tolstoy wrote his last masterpiece: Hadji Murad. At that time he wrote mainly religious and pacifist texts and had already declared that literature was a waste of time. As a result he felt guilty working on it. Perhaps we owe it to Turgenev’s deathbed plea that Tolstoy did once more what he was so extraordinarily good at: writing superb fiction. The story is based on a piece of Caucasian history from 1851, precisely the year that Tolstoy went to the Caucasus.

“This Hadji Murad was Shamil’s naïb”

It’s a typical Tolstoy story, actually a mini version of War and Peace. It tells the story of the dilemma that Hadji Murad, Chechen rebel leader and hero, faced in the final year of his restless life. We see Hadji Murad through the eyes of the Russians, who admire but also distrust him. We see him through the eyes of his own people, through women’s eyes and finally as a father whose family is being held hostage. It’s a bloody war story and to clear his conscience Tolstoy warns us at regular intervals: war is evil. Feel free to skip these passages and enjoy the great Tolstoy at his best. Tolstoy knew very well why people wage wars and why people like reading fiction. After all he was only human himself.

Hadji Murad in 1851 (Wikipedia)

The quotes are from The Cossacks and Hadji Murad.

The books I used were:

Tolstoy, A Russian Life by Rosamund Bartlett

Tolstoy by A.N. Wilson

Lermontov and the Caucasus

In the second part about the Caucasus we're going to talk about another authority on that subject: Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841). He visited the region for the first time as a child and got banished to the Caucasus twice.

Pushkin's Heir

Lermontov rose to fame instantly with his poem Death of the Poet, which he wrote after Pushkin's untimely death in 1837. In it he blames Russian society and the government for the loss of Russia's greatest talent. Pushkin's unexpected death shocked Lermontov so much that he even considered challenging d'Anthes (Pushkin's opponent in the fatal duel) to a duel himself. And after reading Lermontov 's outraged poem d'Anthes thought about challenging Lermontov.

More duels

Besides instant fame the poem also earned him his first exile the the Caucasus, for one year. In 1840 Lermontov was banished to the Caucasus for the second time, this time because he had actually taken part in a duel (which his opponent also survived). Apparently the banishment hadn't scared him off sufficiently, because in 1841 Lermontov died in a duel, fought at the foot of Mount Mashuk, which he described so often during his short life.

Romantic environment

The exotic landscape of the Caucasus and it's colourful inhabitants inspired Lermontov, like Pushkin, enormously. Of course, they lend themselves perfectly as a setting for literature in the Romantic genre. Lermontov wrote several works that take place in the Caucasus, A Hero of Our Time (1840) is the best known.

A superfluous man

The hero of the story, Pechorin, is not really a hero in the classical sense. He's a Byronic hero, an anti-hero. In Russian such characters are called a лишний человек, a superfluous man.

Pechorin's character is rather contradictory. On the one hand he is the bored dandy from Saint Petersburg. A dashing young man with expensive trinkets and clothes. On the other hand he is a reckless and unscrupulous daredevil, who appears to fit in effortlessly with the local climate and people.

“I SOMETIMES despise myself… Is not that the reason why I despise others also?…”

At some point in the book Pechorin is determined to have the attractive Circassian Bela. But he has a rival, the Cossack Kazbich. With a cunning scheme Pechorin not only manages to steal the girl from her family, he also robs Kazbich from his most prized possession, his horse. He makes it seem as if the horse was stolen by Bela's family and Kazbich kills Bela's father. And so Pechorin has destroyed a family and ruined a man, all for the sake of a fling with a pretty girl.

“The love of a savage is little better than that of your lady of quality.”

After they have lived together for a while, Pechorin quickly gets bored with Bela. By coincidence Kazbich catches a glimpse of Bela and tries to kidnap her. Pechorin manages to prevent this from happening, but Bela gets fatally injured in the process and dies a few days later. On her deathbed she briefly considers becoming a Christian, so that she will be reunited with Pechorin in the afterlife. She decides however to stay true to her roots. And probably she suspects that Pechorin won't make it there anyway, and that he won't stay alone the rest of his life.

Kismet

Just like Pushkin, Lermontov depicted the locals as noble savages. They rob and murder left and right. But he let Pechorin do the same. Pechorin sees himself as someone who doesn't matter, therefore he appears not to care about the implications his actions have on other people. Also he is obsessed with 'kismet', he firmly believes that you cannot escape your destiny. Lermontov used the rugged and unpredictable, but at the same time impressive, landscape to emphasise Pechorin's character. Nature doesn't care if you fall into a ravine or drown in a river, that's kismet.

 

The books I read:

– A Hero of Our Time – Lermontov

– Russian Literature and Empire – Susan Layton

 

Self portrait by Lermontov, Memorial for Lermontov at the foot of Mount Mashuk, Caucasian landscape by Lermontov – all from Wikipedia.

 

The quotes are from A Hero of Our Time.