A Russian Affair is Three Years Old!

A Russian Affair is three years old!

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

Google

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

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?

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

Inspiration

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

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

Love, Elisabeth

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

© Elisabeth van der Meer – text and photo

Thanks to:

https://glamourprin.com

https://walkcheerfullyblog.wordpress.com

https://rogersgleanings.com

https://chasingart.com

https://carrierubin.com

https://pointblankphoto.wordpress.com

https://johannasuomela.com

https://inesemjphotography.com

https://linguafennica.wordpress.com

https://aquileana.wordpress.com

https://daveastoronliterature.com

 

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The Who’s Who of Anna Karenina

One of biggest hurdles for people just starting to read Russian literature is the large amount of characters and their complicated Russian names. I thought that it would be handy to make a Who’s Who of Anna Karenina. Because that's an excellent novel to start with and it would be a huge shame if you didn't finish it because of the names. I'll give a short description of each character and their (nick)name and I'll try not to give too much away.

Oblonsky

Stiva, Prince Stepan Arkadyevitch Oblonsky. He is Anna's brother and Dolly’s husband. His first name is Stepan, but intimates call him Stiva. His father's name was Arkady, hence the patronymic Arkadyevitch. Tolstoy usually refers to him as Oblonsky, and sometimes as Stiva or Stepan Arkadyevitch. Oblonsky is a central character in the novel, he connects all the other characters. He knows everyone and is on friendly terms with everyone. His closest friend is Levin. He’s a real bon vivant.

Dolly

Dolly, Princess Darya Alexandrovna Oblonskaya, née Shtcherbatskaya. She’s Kiity’s sister. At that time it was fashionable to have an English nickname. Her patronymic and last name take the female form: Alexandrovna Oblonskaya. She is usually called Dolly, but also Darya or Darya Alexandrovna, but never Oblonskaya. The Oblonskys form a hectic family with lots of children. They live above their means and it's Dolly who keeps things together.

Anna

Anna, Anna Arkadyevna Karenina, née Oblonskaya. She has the same father as Stiva and thus the same patronymic. She is married to Karenin. Anna is probably the best known character from Russian literature. She is the personification of the double standard: her brother has an affair and gets away with it; she does the same and is shunned by society. Her turbulent life never ceased to captivate readers.

Levin

Levin, Konstantin Dmitrievitch Levin. The hero of the novel. Tolstoy adorned him with many autobiographical character traits. He’s considered a bit of an eccentric, because he prefers to live in the countryside instead of in the city. Those who know him well, know he has a heart of gold. He’s in love with Kitty. Like the Shtcherbatskys, the Levins are an old aristocratic family from Moscow. He’s fairly rich.

Kitty

Kitty, (the young) Princess Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shtcherbatskaya, also called Katya. In spite of what the title suggests, Kitty is the real heroine of this novel. She’s the youngest daughter and after some confusion she finds her true love, and has a fairytale wedding (Harry & Meghan, move over!). She too has a heart of gold and quickly becomes the reader’s favourite.

Vronsky

Vronsky, Count Alexey Kirillovitch Vronsky. A very handsome and very wealthy officer. This eligible bachelor has a bossy mother. The reader can never quite see through him, but his overall impression is not so good.

Karenin

Karenin, Alexey (yes, there are two Alexeys) Alexandrovitch Karenin, Anna's husband and a very important politician in Petersburg. Alexey Alexandrovitch cares a lot about his good name. He is distant, a workaholic and extremely religious. In other words: a total bore.

The Shtcherbatskys

The old Prince and Princess, the Shtcherbatskys. Although they bicker all the time, they are loving parents and it's a warm and close family.

Brothers

Levin’s brothers, Nikolay Dmitrievitch Levin and Sergey Ivanovitch Koznishev. Nikolay is an alcoholic who's in poor health, he lives with Masha. Their half brother Sergey is a famous writer and intellectual. Although Levin feels closer to Nikolay, he doesn't see Nikolay as often as Sergey, due to Nikolay’s problems.

The Lvovs

The Lvovs, Natalia Alexandrovna Lvova and Arseny Lvov. Natalia is Dolly and Kitty’s sister. She and her husband, a diplomat, have two children.

Vronsky's mother

The old countess Vronskaya, Vronsky’s bossy mother and Vronsky’s brother Alexander. Vronsky is not exactly close with his family, he is as polite with them as with complete strangers, if not even more so.

Yashvin

Yashvin, described by Tolstoy as “a gambler and a rake, a man not merely without moral principles, but of immoral principles,” he's Wronsky’s closest friend in the regiment, which of course says a lot about Wronsky.

Countless countesses

Countess Betty, she's Wronsky’s aunt and Anna’s friend. Countess Lidia, she's Karenin’s friend. Both countesses like to gossip, but Lidia belongs to the highest Petersburg circles. And then there's Kitty’s friend Countess Nordston.

Agafea Mihalovna

Agafea Mihalovna, Levin’s old nurse. Until Levin is married she's his housekeeper. And that doesn't mean that she's the cleaning lady, but it means that she runs the household at Levin’s country estate. Nurses had a very special position in Russian aristocratic families, they were often looked after until they died, in return for their selfless devotion to the children.

Varenka

Mademoiselle Varenka, Varvara Andreevna. She keeps the elderly Madame Stahl company and helps poor and ill people. She becomes Kitty’s good friend. Not to be confused with Princess Varvara, one of Anna's friends.

Veslovsky

Vassenka Veslovsky, a distant cousin of the Shtcherbatskys. A cheerful and enthusiastic young man with the tact of an hippopotamus.

Children

Children: Anna's: Seryozha and Annie. The Oblonskys’: Grisha, Tanya, Nikolinka, Masha, Vassya. Levin’s: Mitya.

Staff

The staff: Annushka, Anna's maid; Kapitonitch, the Karenins’ porter and Seryozha’s great friend; Matvey, Oblonsky’s valet; Korney, Karenin’s valet; Lizaveta Petrovna, the midwife.

Dogs

And finally the dogs: Laska, Levin’s dog and Krak, Oblonsky’s dog. They are clever and loyal hunting dogs and because Tolstoy employs the omniscient narrator technique, we know exactly what they are thinking. As a matter of fact you'll think that Tolstoy had a pensieve so that he could look inside your head too. This is a novel to be enjoyed by men just as much as by women, it is not without reason that it always ends up in the top 10 of the best books ever. Happy reading!


© Elisabeth van der Meer – text and photo

 

Typically Lermontov

Lermontov (1814-1841) is generally considered to be Russia’s greatest poet bar Pushkin and his prose is as least as good as his poetry. His most important work A Hero of Our Time is regarded as the first psychological, Russian Realist novel and so Lermontov built a bridge between the Romantic and the Realist era in Russia. The impact was enormous when it was first published in 1840.

Small legacy

Lermontov was able to leave only a small legacy in his short life. It is usually split into two parts: a juvenile and a grownup part. A selection of poems, a few narrative poems, a couple of plays and A Hero of Our Time, that’s all. Thematically Lermontov belongs in the Romantic era: the Caucasus is used as a background for most of his work, the protagonist often goes on a journey and falls in love with some exotic beauty. Lermontov himself was a romantic hero too, growing up without his parents, travels and exiles to the Caucasus, a military career and duels being part of his life.

Pechorin, a superfluous man

Actually A Hero of Our Time is not really a novel: it’s a collection of short stories that can be read independently. They’re connected by the same protagonist, Pechorin. Pechorin is the prototype of the superfluous man, this apparently careless man leaves a trail of destruction behind him wherever he goes.The narrative prospect of the stories is very interesting, there are fragments from Pechorin’s diaries, and some of the stories are memoirs of people who knew him. This gives the reader a complete picture. The stories are not told chronologically, which highlights Pechorin’s mysterious character.

Psychological novel

Not only does Lermontov provide us with the picture of an embittered protagonist, he also investigates how it’s possible that such a young man is already tired of life. He comes to the conclusion that society is to blame for Pechorin’s character. Hence the title of the novel. It is the psychological background of Pechorin, that makes A Hero of Our Time the first psychological, Russian Realist novel. Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Turgenev’s Bazarov and Tolstoy’s Olenin, they all have a little bit of Pechorin in them.

The Demon

His other masterpiece (and life’s work!) is The Demon. An epic poem, like we know from Pushkin. Here too Lermontov uses his beloved Caucasus as a backdrop for the story. A fallen angel roams the earth eternally. When he falls in love with a living girl, Tamara, he hopes that she can release him, but she dies after he has kissed her. The poem is of an unearthly and unequalled beauty; it is really not without good reason that Lermontov had the great honour of being called Pushkin’s heir. The Russian painter Vrubel made a fantastic series of illustrations for the poem that capture the atmosphere wonderfully.

Writing style

What makes Lermontov so unique is his musical and descriptive style of writing. Not surprising, since Lermontov was also a gifted musician and painter. Where Pushkin is elegant and cheerful, Lermontov is melancholic. His writing is doubtlessly as beautiful as the Caucasusian landscape. Or the Scottish landscape, where his ancestors came from, now misty and mysterious, then sparkling and fresh.

 

Fragment from The Demon:

“What is this eternity to me without you?

What is the infinity of my domains?

Empty ringing words,

A spacious temple — without a divinity!”

Read more from this unique writer here:

http://faculty.washington.edu/jdwest/russ430/demon.pdf

http://www.eldritchpress.org/myl/hero.htm

© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos by me (book and Scotland) and from Wikipedia (Portrait of Lermontov and aquarel by Vrubel)

 

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 .

 

The Short Life of Mikhail Lermontov

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


First exile to the Caucasus

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


Youth with his grandmother

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


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


Writing career

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


Second exile to the Caucasus

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


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


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


*****



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

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


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


Booklist:

Lermontov, Tragedy in the Caucasus – Laurence Kelly

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

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

Tolstoy and Homer

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

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

Typically Homer

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

Fascination with war

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

Contrast with home

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

To die heroically

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

Fate

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

“As when the smith an hatchet or large axe

Temp’ring with skill, plunges the hissing blade

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

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

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

Books in my suitcase:

George Steiner – Tolstoy or Dostoevsky

Homer and Tolstoy

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


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

Typically Gogol

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


His career


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


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


Great sense of humour


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


Style


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


Influences


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


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


Finally


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


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



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

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

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


*****



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

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

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?!

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


Know-it-alls


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


Gamblers


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


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

Light and darkness


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


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


Commercial success


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


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


*****


© Elisabeth van der Meer


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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

Gogol’s Taras Bulba – a milestone

Gogol gave Russian literature its' own identity

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

The Romantic Era

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

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

The story

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

“Oh, steppes, how beautiful you are!”

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

Its' Follow-ups

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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



© Elisabeth van der Meer

The illustrations are from an old Russian edition of Taras Bulba

I read the Peter Constantine translation

 

Typically Chekhov

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

His life

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

Style and content

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

Stanislavski

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

Chekhov’s Gun

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

Influence

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

In short:

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

*****

Books read:

Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Chekhov – Henri Troyat

Several stories, plays, letters and fragments from Chekhov

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

Photos © Elisabeth van der Meer and Wikipedia

Text © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

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