Gogol’s Taras Bulba – a milestone

Gogol gave Russian literature its' own identity

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

The Romantic Era

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

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

The story

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

“Oh, steppes, how beautiful you are!”

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

Its' Follow-ups

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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



© Elisabeth van der Meer

The illustrations are from an old Russian edition of Taras Bulba

I read the Peter Constantine translation

 

First Love, Acia and Torrents of Spring

Love in Turgenev’s work

 

Turgenev (1818-1883) remained a bachelor throughout his life. His mother was a cold and fickle woman and his father had married her for her money. As a child Turgenev witnessed the constant arguments between his parents and swore to himself that he would never marry. And he didn’t. Most of his adult life he was in love with Pauline Viardot, a married woman. He adored her, but apparently happily accepted that he could never have her completely (see http://wp.me/p5zzbs-1R ).

His mother and Pauline keep popping up in his work. Let’s have a look at three of his well known love stories: First Love (1856), Acia (1858) and Torrents of Spring (1872). All three are more or less autobiographical and in all three stories the narrator looks back on an episode in his youth. This construction is know as a ”frame story”, a technique that Turgenev uses a lot, and it gives the reader the feeling that he is reading in Turgenev’s memoirs.

 

Fear the love of woman; fear that bliss, that poison…

First Love is probably the most famous of the three stories. The 16 years old Volodya is head over heels in love with Zinaïda, a beautiful, cheerful, proud and somewhat cruel girl of 21. She has numerous admirers. In the course of the story she changes and becomes pale and depressed. It turns out that she is having an affair with a married man, not with one of her admirers, but with Volodya’s father! Of course the affair leads to arguments between Volodya’s parents and soon they move to another house. Volodya sees Zinaïda once more: when he is out horse riding with his father, his father suddenly disappears. Volodya follows him and sees him talking to Zinaïda. At some point his father lashes her arm with his whip and the shocked Volodya sees her kiss the red streak that the blow has made. ”That’s love (…)” Volodya concludes, ”that’s passion!”. Shortly afterwards his father dies and a few years later Zinaïda dies as well.

The way in which Zinaïda treats her admirers reminds us of Pauline, who let Turgenev sit down on a paw of a giant polar bear rug lying at her feet; the only paw that wasn’t already occupied.. First Love was Turgenev’s personal favourite and he said that it was loosely based on true events. It's remarkable that Volodya isn't jealous when he finds out that is father has an affair with Zinaîda; he understands that she chose his handsome father.

Happiness has no tomorrow, no yesterday…

Acia is set idyllically in Germany. During his travels there the narrator N.N. meets a Russian brother and sister; Gagin and Acia. They get along well and soon they are spending every day together. N.N. likes Acia, but can’t figure her out; one day she is a simple Russian girl, the next she is reckless and passionate. Gagin tells him that that is the result of her childhood. She is the daughter of his father and a serf woman. Acia falls in love with N.N. and he with her. He decides to propse to her, but when he goes to their house it turns out that they have gone away without saying good-bye to him. He unsuccessfully tries to find them. Looking back the narrator admits that he wasn't sad for very long and that a marriage with such a fickle girl would probably not have been very happy.

Acia’s story has similarities with that of Turgenev’s own daughter with a serf woman; Paulinette. Acia’s dark appearance and tiny figure must have been inspired by Pauline.

I am going where you will be, and will be with you till you drive me away…

Torrents of Spring is also set in Germany. Sanin falls in love with the beautiful, Italian Gemma, who is engaged to a solid German. During a day trip in the mountains Gemma gets insulted by an officer and when her fiancee fails to react, Sanin challenges the officer to a duel. The duel ends with both men missing their shot. When Gemma finds out about the duel, she breaks off her engagement. Not long after Sanin proposes to her himself. In order to raise money for the wedding, he will have to sell his estate in Russia. By chance he meets an old school friend who also happens to be in Germany. This friend suggests that his wife Maria might be interested in buying the estate. Maria, however, makes a bet with her (gay) husband that she will be able to seduce Sanin within a couple of days. She wins the bet in a masterly described scene and instead of returning to Gemma with the money, Sanin follows Maria to Paris. He sends Gemma a lame letter, breaking off the engagement.

Only the beginning of this story really happened, in Frankfurt Turgenev met a pretty Jewish girl and her family, but he saw them only once and the rest of the story he made up. The end, of course, echoes his relationship with Pauline, following her around Europe. Although he was perhaps never Pauline’s lover.

 

 

The eternal admirer

Three completely different girls, but three very similar love stories. It all starts in high spirits; the weather is ’magnificent’ and ’unusually good for the time of the year’ and the surroundings are idyllic. The sudden appearance of an exceptionally pretty girl surprises the narrator. He falls in love, but he never gets the girl, and remains a bachelor. Again and again Turgenev describes being in love, but he never dares to let it blossom into a relationship, nor in his stories, nor in real life.

*****

Books read:

Eerste Liefde, Asja and Lentebeken, lovingly published by van Oorschot, parts 2 en 3, translated by Carl en Rebecca Ebeling and Wils Huisman

The Gentle Barbarian – V.S. Pritchett

 

All three stories are available for reading online:

http://www.eldritchpress.org/ist/torrents.htm

http://www.eldritchpress.org/ist/lear.htm#acia

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/t/turgenev/ivan/first/complete.html