The Portrait (and the devil) by Gogol

IMG_6640

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

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

A mysterious portrait

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

Money and fame

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

Possessed by the devil

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

Insight

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

The painter of the portrait and the portrayed

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

The devil in Saint Petersburg

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

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

°°°°°

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

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

Text and photo collage © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

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

  

Advertisements

Gogol’s Plays

fullsizeoutput_215

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

Details

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

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

The Government Inspector

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

The Gamblers

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

Marriage

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

Moral intentions

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

Memorabilty

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

°°°°°

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

The Kreutzer Sonata by Tolstoy

IMG_4404

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

A Crime Passionel

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

Confessions of a murderer

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

Fiction

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

How was it received? 

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

Is it autobiographical?

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

So what did Sophia make of it?

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

Conclusion

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

Prinet_-_Kreutzer_Sonata

Text en photo © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

Painting by Prinet from Wikipedia

Books read: see photo

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

Turgenev’s Smoke

fullsizeoutput_129

In its own time a political novel, in our time a love story.

Smoke was first published in 1867 in the Russian Messenger, the famous literary magazine in which Crime and Punishment and War and Peace were also published. The political message of the novella made it very controversial at the time. Its pro western sentiment was perceived as being anti Russian, and the satirical depiction of the Russian aristocracy in Baden Baden was not appreciated by that same aristocracy either; after publication Turgenev received considerably less dinner invitations.

Social responsibilities

It was the ‘job’ of the nineteenth century Russian realist writer to address social and political issues, and Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Turgenev succeeded extremely well in conveying both their message and writing a great story around it. It is thanks to that, that we can nowadays still enjoy their works, whether or not we have a background knowledge of Russian history.

A Love Story

When we leave the political message out of Smoke, we are left with a love story. A typical Turgenev love story with autobiographical elements. The novella takes place in Baden Baden in Germany. Baden Baden was a popular destination for the Russian aristocracy at the time. Dostoevsky too visited it several times, once with his young bride Anna. At the time he was still addicted to gambling and he gambled away everything they owned in the casinos of Baden Baden, down to the wedding rings.

Turgenev was no gambler; he tried his best his whole life to take as few risks as he possibly could. Marriage comes with risks. If it’s a happy marriage, there’ll be no more inspiration for writing. If it’s a bad marriage, there’ll be inspiration, but whether it’ll be worth it remains to be seen. And actually, he writes to his friend Leontiev, he doesn’t understand how a young girl can evoke passion in a man. A married woman is much more interesting, because of her experience.

Pauline

Turgenev was in love with the same married woman his whole life: Pauline Viardot. Pauline was a celebrated singer, and when he saw her perform in 1843 in St Petersburg, he was sold for life. When her career took her to Baden Baden, Turgenev followed and even moved into the house next-door to the Viardots. To love and follow a married woman may sound extreme, but for Turgenev it was a safe choice. She would never leave her husband and it doesn’t seem as if Turgenev would have wanted her to. He was happy with every scrap that she threw at him.

Olga

In 1854 he was temporarily back in Russia and during the summer he met his remote cousin Olga. She was eighteen and he was thirty-six. A romance blossomed and for a while it looked like he was going to get married. But when it came down to it, he didn’t choose domestic happiness, but instead, as he described it in a letter to countess Lambert, a gypsy existence abroad, following Pauline wherever she goes, and that shall be his fate. Fate, he said, was invented by weak characters, so that they would not have to take responsibility for the way their lives turned out. 

Ménage à Trois

In Smoke the protagonist Litvinov is in Baden Baden to meet up with his fiancé Olga and travel back to Russia with her. While he is waiting for her to arrive, he unexpectedly meets his first love, Irina. Ten years ago the two of them were going to get married, but Irina broke with him when she had the opportunity to get into the highest social circles in St Petersburg through a wealthy relative. Now she is married to some important person. After a few meetings their old love blossoms up again and they have an affair.

Irina tells him she is willing to give up her luxury life for him, and when the sweet, good and wise Olga finally arrives in Baden Baden, Litvinov breaks off the engagement. Then he receives a letter from Irina: she is not going to leave her husband after all and offers Litvinov the opportunity to become her lover. Litvinov does something that Turgenev never did: he thanks for the honour and returns to Russia alone. In the epilogue Turgenev writes that Litvinov did meet Olga again some years later and that she forgave him, suggesting that they may have gotten married.

What if…

Turgenev was not unhappy in his strange relationship with Pauline, but here he appears to have been thinking “what if…” Politics may be controversial, love is universal.

fullsizeoutput_12a

Text en photos © Elisabeth van der Meer 

Smoke – Turgenjev 

Turgenev, His Life and Times – Schapiro

Toergenjev’s Liefde – Schmeltzer 

Denisov, the good guy from War and Peace

The writer Boris Akunin once said in an interview that Tolstoy’s characters are as real to him as, and sometimes even more real than, real people. I absolutely agree, and I enjoy exploring the various characters. So for those who also agree, here’s yet another War and Peace blog post. About Denisov this time. A favorite of many readers, and one of those characters who one would have liked to have had a bigger part.

The opposite of Dolokhov

Denisov is the complete opposite of Dolokhov. Where Dolokhov is described as handsome, with piercing blue eyes and without moustache, Denisov is hairy, with a disheveled moustache, and eyes as black as coal. Dolokhov usually wins when playing cards (albeit cheating) and Denisov usually loses.

Their personalties couldn’t be more opposed either: although Tolstoy describes a rogue who drinks heavily and curses heartily when he introduces Denisov, from the way his eyes light up when he sees Nicholay it is immediately clear that he is a good guy.

Denisov has some endearing characteristics: he can’t pronounce the letter ‘r’. Everyone in the army calls him ‘Waska’, a rather childish diminutive of Wasili. He only makes an effort with his appearance when going into battle or in the company of ladies, making it clear where his priorities lie. Although we never find out much about Denisov’s background, he has an uncle with a high rank and that’s all, he is clearly from the same background as Nicholay, and has for instance had dancing lessons at the same place as all of the young Rostovs. Although he is short, he looks like a fine fellow on horseback and when dancing.

Denisov’s mazurka

There are four epic dance scenes in War and Peace: the old count Rostov, dancing like an ‘eagle’; Natasha’s Russian dance at Uncle’s house; Natasha’s dance with Andrey and then there is Denisov’s mazurka. He dances such a dazzling mazurka with Natasha, that she nearly falls in love with him. But she is only fifteen then, and Denisov is at least ten years older, practically an old man!

Denisov is, as he puts it himself, bewitched by Natasha and adores the whole family. When he proposes to Natasha, he doesn’t just propose to her, but to her whole family. Dolokhov takes revenge on Nicholay after Sonya has refused him; Denisov loves Nicholay more after Natasha’s refusal. At some point we can hear him mutter with a choked voice “Ah, what a mad bweed you Wostovs are!”. And when he finds Petya Rostov dead, bystanders can hear a yelp like of a dog coming from him.

A heart of gold

Denisov is driven by his care for others. He would give his life twice for any of the Rostovs and risks serious repercussions when he steals a food supply for his starving soldiers. His soldiers in turn like him, and show it by building him an extra nice ‘house’ during their exploits. He gets gloomy when bored and almost depressed when in hospital, but when he goes into action he is clearly in his element. His bravery does not require recognition from superiors, he would rather be respected by his equals and subordinates. The ones that are lucky enough to be loved by him, can count on his (albeit somewhat sentimental) devotion.

Beneath his rough exterior, but not very deep beneath it, Denisov has a heart of gold.

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer 2019

Book: War and Peace – Tolstoy – the Louise and Aylmer Maude translation

A Russian Affair is four years old!

fullsizeoutput_8a.jpeg

A Russian Affair is four years old!

And still going strong. The followers of this blog know that in 2018 I have moved from the Netherlands to Finland to live with the love of my life. Moving countries is no small feat, but Finland seems to agree with me and I’m settling in well. The (next) best thing about Finland is of course the beautiful nature, I love to go out and enjoy it! 

Meanwhile there was plenty going on at A Russian Affair as well: I wrote about War and Peace again, about Russian horror stories, about Finns in Russian literature and the wives of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy also got some well deserved attention. Your favourite blog post was Russian Ghost Stories, one that I particularly enjoyed making. I had great fun reading all those stories again and making the photos for the post.

All time favourites by far are still Fyodor Dolokhov – the Bad Guy from War and Peace and Is there really an incestueus relationship in War and Peace?

But I’m not finished with War and Peace yet (will I ever be?): I’m going to write something about Denisov and about Pierre’s duel. I would also like to talk about Turgenev’s Smoke and to tell you something about Russian plays. Chekhov was of course a famous playwright, but Gogol and Turgenev wrote plays as well.

fullsizeoutput_83

I get inspired by whatever comes across my path and often by your commentary and blogs, so who knows what else the year will bring.

I wish you all a wonderful blog year!

x

text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer, 2019

Married to a Genius

The married lives of Anna Dostoevskaya and Sophia Tolstoya

The ladies Dostoevskaya and Tolstaya were most probably too young and inexperienced to judge correctly what they were in for at the moment they said “yes” to to their husbands. Both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy were already successful and celebrated writers, and in spite of the considerable age differences, all parties involved were in love. Both ladies kept diaries during their marriages, so that we have a clear picture of what they had to endure from their husbands.

Anna Snitkina

Anna Snitkina was twenty years old when she started work as a stenographer for the forty four year old Dostoevsky. He had made a deal with a publisher on terrible conditions and with an impossible deadline in order to pay off his gambling debts. A friend had suggested that he should hire a stenographer, so that the writing would proceed faster. With Anna’s help a schedule was made and the novella The Gambler was written. But when the deadline approached, Dostoevsky realised that he would miss Anna terribly after their work was finished. Because he had no idea if she felt the same, he devised a plan: he asked her advice on a story he was working on. In this story a middle aged artist fell in love with his young assistant. Was it possible, from Anna’s female perspective, that this love was mutual? After Anna’s reply that it was very well possible, Fyodor felt confident enough to ask her and not much later they were married.

 

It soon became clear to Anna that Dostoevsky’s debts were not caused by gambling alone; he took financial care of the whole family of his deceased brother and of his spoiled stepson from his first marriage. On top of that he was legally obliged to take over the debts that his deceased brother had. As soon as any money arrived, a whole crowd stood on his doorstep, and it disappeared again in no time. To get a break from all those people, the couple travelled abroad, to Baden Baden. Where the famous casino was. And Dostoevsky started gambling again. He gambled away everything: the wedding rings, Anna’s jewellery, her clothes, their travel money, everything. Dostoevsky had to ask his publisher for an advance, and the morning it arrived, he went out to buy their things back. In the evening he came home crying: that money had been gambled away as well.

 

The saintly Anna kept forgiving and believing in her husband. The few desperate outbursts she had, were confined to the pages of her diary, and even so she found herself a bad person for giving in to them. She blamed Dostoevsky’s epilepsy for all his problems. Thanks to her practical mindset, Dostoevsky managed eventually to get rid of both his gambling addiction and his debts. Anna took on all financial affairs and dealt with the publishers herself.

 

During their marriage Dostoevsky wrote masterpieces such as The Idiot, Demons and The Brothers Karamazov.

Sophia Behrs

Sophia Behrs was the daughter of a doctor friend of Tolstoy. She was eighteen when she married the thirty four year old Tolstoy. Tolstoy was very much in love and tried to make that clear to her in a way he later described in Anna Karenina: he wrote down the first letters of the words of a long sentence and made her guess the sentence. She succeeded, and a lifetime of working out her husband’s handwriting and unpredictable character would follow.

 

Although Tolstoy clearly had the upper hand in the marriage, the first years together were really happy. Sophia played an important role in her husband’s writing: she edited and copied out his manuscripts, so that they were ready for the publisher. She helped Tolstoy with his female characters, and most importantly she gave him the peace and space he needed to write.

 

According to Tolstoy a woman’s calling was to give birth to and breastfeed children, and although Sophia had had enough of that after five children, she would give birth to another eight. With each child came more worries and her life became more confined to the nursery. From the thirteen children eight would make it to adults and she had to bury five. Later in his life Tolstoy preached sexual abstinence, even while Sophia was pregnant again, which she found terribly embarrassing.

 

Most of her married life she lived on Tolstoy’s simple, almost spartan, country estate Yasnaya Polyana. Sophia grew up in the centre of Moscow and missed the pleasures of the city. She constantly had to adjust to her husband’s latest obsession and that caused more and more friction. Tolstoy wanted to give away the rights of his novels, give up his aristocratic title, and developed a close friendship with the Tolstoyan Chertkov. Sophia became more and more jealous, sad and desperate. She felt the gap between her and her husband widening, and wanted even to take her life in a cry for attention. Eventually Tolstoy found the situation so unbearable, that he ran away from Yasnaya Polyana and Sophia, in the middle of the night, aged eighty two. He would die ten days later.

 

No doubt Sophia had imagined her life as Countess Tolstaya to be completely different.

 

During their marriage Tolstoy (to mention just a few things) wrote two of the greatest novels ever written, learned Ancient Greek in five months, learned to ride a bicycle and play tennis, got excommunicated from the church, raised a record amount of money for charity, tried to fight the widespread illiteracy, got followers called “Tolstoyans”, wrote with Gandhi about non-violent resistance and became a vegetarian.

 

*****

Text and photo © Elisabeth van der Meer

Tolstoy – A Russian Life, Rosamund Bartlett

Dostoevsky – A Writer in His Time, Joseph Frank

 

Gogol’s Horror Story ‘The Viy’

In his unique style Gogol wrote down the story of The Viy. It’s a horror story in the style of E.T.A. Hoffmann, but Gogol infused it with humour and irony: horses that out of habit stop at every inn; drunken Little-Russians* that kiss each other noisily when drunk; an old woman trying to seduce a student. Never a dull moment!

The King of the Gnomes

Gogol wrote several horror stories, partly inspired by old folk legends and partly springing from his own rich imagination. This is a folk legend according to Gogol, who describes Viy as a colossal being, with eyelids that hang down to the floor, he’s the king of the gnomes. But since no evidence was ever found of a legend starring a certain “Viy”, we have to assume that he was a figment of Gogol’s imagination. His name he most likely deduced from the Ukrainian word for eyelid: poviko.

A short summary:

The protagonist Khoma spends the night in the stables of an old woman. She turns out to be a witch, leaps on his back and makes him fly through the night. Luckily Khoma remembers his prayers and spells and manages to reach the ground again. Once landed, he takes a piece of wood and beats the witch. She collapses and turns into a beautiful girl. Frightened, Khoma flees back to Kiev. There he soon forgets his scary adventure, until one day he is summoned to the village of a rich Cossack, whose daughter came home one morning more dead than alive. On her deathbed she has requested that Khoma reads the prayers for her soul three nights in a row. Khoma doesn’t want to and tries to escape several times, but the Cossacks who came to get him manage to get him to the village anyway. There he sees the father and the by now deceased girl, who he recognises as the witch. Again he tries to escape, but can’t. He is locked into the church with the corpse for the first night. He reads the prayers, but suddenly the dead girl gets up from her coffin and starts to wander around with outstretched arms. Khoma draws a circle around himself and the girl can’t get to him. When the first rooster crows she retreats to her coffin. The second night is even scarier: the girl summons demons. They fly around the church flapping their wings and screech on the windows with their claws. The third night they even come inside the church and the girl summons Viy. Viy arrives, requests his eyelids to be lifted and sees Khoma. Khoma looks back at Viy, ignoring his inner voice. Once he does, all the demons throw themselves at him and he dies of fear.

Romanticism and Realism

Gogol crosses the boundaries between Romanticism and Realism. The Viy contains elements of both literary movements. The witch and the demons; the flight with the witch; the three nights in the church, they are romantic components that are described in a realistic manner. Gogol repeatedly alternates between the supernatural and the ordinary. This creates contrasts between day and night, ordinary people and supernatural beings, Christianity and magic, and idyllic and horror scenes.

A real Cossack isn’t afraid

Khoma is a Cossack, and Cossacks aren’t easily scared. When the old woman rides on his shoulders, he isn’t scared, he just thinks “aha, so you’re a witch!” and does what one does in such cases: say prayers and spells. To punish her for taking him for a ride, he beats her. It’s only when she turns into a beautiful girl that he gets scared. But even that doesn’t last long: he just needs a good meal to get over it. When he is asked to say prayers for the Cossack’s daughter’s soul, he doesn’t even connect her story with his. But the witch has trapped him, he can’t escape because suddenly his legs feel like they’re made of wood, or his long coat appears to be nailed to the ground. The witch doesn’t want prayers, she wants revenge.

The moral conclusion

Evil was able to conquer because the faith of the people wasn’t firm enough. Khoma doesn’t always follow the rules of the church, and swears a lot. He has a rather fatalistic disposition. And then there’s his name, Khoma, the Ukrainian equivalent of Thomas, as in Doubting Thomas. The church of the rich Cossack has been seriously neglected and it is placed on a remote edge of the village. It’s literally a god forsaken place, where evil was able to reign freely.

*****

*In Gogol’s time the Ukraine was called Little Russia, and the story is set there.

The Viy is one of the Mirgorod stories and I read the Dutch translation by Aai Prins. You can read it in English online and/or watch the fantastic 1967 Russian film version, links below.

https://youtu.be/1OhQMVvgENM

https://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/g/gogol/nikolai/g61v/

More Russian horror stories here

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

Natasha’s Russian Dance at Uncle’s House

In which Natasha shows that she has pure Russian blood running through her veins

At Uncle’s

After the hunt the young Rostovs come along with Uncle to his authentic Russian wooden house. Uncle isn’t married and from an impoverished branch of the family. He lives alone with his serfs. As soon as he gets home, he changes into a Cossack coat, blue trousers and boots. Nicholas and Natasha are so full of expectations and in such a happy mood, that they can only look at each other and burst out laughing. Now that the hunt is finished, Nicholas can act normally again with his sister. Petya has fallen asleep on the sofa. The housekeeper Anisya brings in the most delicious dishes, all prepared by herself. From her countenance Natasha and Nicholas soon conclude that she is not just Uncle’s housekeeper.

 

The young Rostovs savour the local dishes while someone in the background is playing on the balalaika. Uncle asks Anisya to bring his guitar and it turns out that he can play very well. His Russian notes hit Nicholas and Natasha straight in the heart. Every time a song finishes, Natasha begs Uncle to play another. The music becomes livelier, and Uncle gets up and challenges Natasha: he expects her to dance Russian style. But Natasha was raised by a French governess and learned to dance at Iogel’s*…

 

Nonetheless she dances as if she has always danced like that, conveying with every movement that Russian feeling, that is inimitable, that you have to have inside you, and that Natasha apparently breathed in together with the Russian air, in spite of her foreign upbringing. Anisya, who is watching from the door opening with the rest of the staff, is moved to tears. “Well, little countess, that’s it – come on!” cries uncle with his favourite expression. After the dance there’s more singing, but soon, much too soon, the carriage arrives to take the Rostovs home.

 

On the way home Petya is still sleeping, and Natasha and Nicholas discuss their evening at Uncle’s and both agree that it was an excellent evening. Nicholas thinks that that Natasha of his is his best friend, and that he wishes that she wouldn’t get married and that they could stay together forever. Natasha thinks that that Nicholas of hers is a real darling.

Domestic happiness and being authentic

This scene revolves around two main themes: domestic happiness and authenticity. Uncle shows the young Rostovs that happiness doesn’t mean having a lot of money and status. Real happiness can be found in a pleasant home, comfortable clothes, simple but excellent Russian food, Russian music and dance, and even in a relationship with a simple housekeeper. All those frills that Nicholas and Natasha were raised with don’t really matter.

 

Natasha likes being unconventional: she has been on horseback the whole day, like a man, and at Uncle’s house she has shown her true Russian spirit. And although Uncle, Nicholas and Anisya all adore her like this, it remains to be seen if Andrew, her fiancé, appreciates this deeply rooted aspect of her character. Natasha enjoys her position in the Rostov family very much. She realises only too well that the happiness that she feels now won’t last and that she has to enjoy it now. At the same time she dreams of her future happiness, but it’s the circumstances of her engagement that make her doubt: she is separated from Andrew by the war, and his despotic father is against the marriage. It seems that Nicholas isn’t a fan of Andrew either. The Rostov family is close knit and warm; the Bolkonski’s (Andrew’s family) are distant towards each other and live according to strict protocol.

Most readers will have understood immediately that Natasha won’t fit in, but we can certainly understand her getting carried away and thinking perhaps that she can change him. During the course of the novel we follow Natasha from being a thirteen year old to being a married woman with children. There are many defining moments in her young life, but we can be sure that she’ll always remember this evening with particular fondness.

This is definitely one of my favourite scenes in War and Peace. What’s yours?

*Iogel was a famous dance teacher who held popular balls for the young people. Natasha is one of his favourite pupils, but she certainly didn’t learn any folk dances from him.

 

*****

 

Photos and text © Elisabeth van der Meer

Tolstoy’s War and Peace as translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude

 

The Hunting Scene in War and Peace

In which Nicholas wants to show that he is a grown-up, but instead proves that he’s still a boy.

Financial problems

Nicholas Rostov has quit the order and clarity of the army and returned home to the chaos of family life, where his mother expects him to sort out the financial problems of the family. In order to save some money, the family has moved to their country estate. Because their financial struggles are partly his own fault for losing a fortune to Dolokhov, Nicholas makes a serious effort, but it soon becomes clear that he is as good with money and business as his father is, and he quickly gives up. He tries instead to fulfill his position as Count Rostov and eldest son in a more pleasant way.

Planning to go hunting

One fine morning in September he organises a hunting trip*. He summons the main huntsman Daniel and together they make a plan. Although this Daniel looks scornfully at Nicholas, Tolstoy reassures us that that’s just part of the hunter’s careless air and that Nicholas knows that Daniel is his serf. The first real flaws in his authority appear when he’s unable to stop Natasha and Petya from coming along on the hunt. The discussion he has with them in his study in front of the perplexed Daniel appears to come straight out of the nursery:

Nicholas, carelessly: We are going, but only wolf hunting: it would be dull for you.

Natasha, outraged: It’s not fair, you are going by yourself, are having the horses saddled and said nothing to us about it.

Petya, shouting: No barrier bars a Russian’s path – we’ll go!

And so the hunting party, consisting of around 130 dogs and 20 horsemen, they have to cut down on their spending, after all, sets off.

Uncle

They go to the Otrodnoe enclosure, where they intend to hunt an old wolf**. On the way there they meet ‘Uncle’, a neighbor and distant relative, who is also going hunting. They decide to join up. Uncle also doesn’t like to combine the serious business of hunting with frivolities: “Only mind you don’t fall of your horse, little countess”, he warns Natasha. Everybody is appointed a strategic position, Natasha and Petya are put somewhere where the wolf can’t possibly appear.

The old Count

The old Count Rostov has also come along, looking “like a schoolboy on an outing”. Although he knows the rules of the hunt very well, he’s not as obsessed as Nicholas. Sitting on his horse he starts to daydream about his children and how proud he is of them. Smiling he takes out his snuffbox. The wolf appears and he lets it slip by, much to the anger of Daniel. Now the Count looks like “a punished schoolboy”. The roles appear indeed to have reversed…

Nicholas prays

Although… Nicholas, meanwhile, is also prone to childish behaviour, praying to God to make the old wolf come his way and to let his dog catch the wolf. When the wolf does come his way, he forgets everything else, it’s just him, his horse, his dogs and the wolf and when they do eventually get the wolf, it’s the happiest moment of his life. He wants to kill the entrapped wolf, but Daniel suggests that they take it alive. The hunt is a success.

Good intentions

It is clear that Nicholas is not yet the man he so wants to be. He came home to sort out the finances, but gave up after the first hurdles, and instead of getting advice, he goes and spends more money. In that respect he is a lot like young Tolstoy himself: a lot of plans and good intentions that usually nothing comes from.

The hunting scene, in which the family relations, traditions and values of the Rostov family are underlined, is written by Tolstoy with a particularly loving hand and a lot of humour.

*The magnificent hunting scene in War and Peace was according to Maude very much influenced by a hunting trip that Tolstoy had made with a neighbor. I’m certainly no hunting expert, so I’m sticking to what I know from Russian literature and that describes basically two different types of hunting: the Turgenev kind; a man and a dog, sleeping rough and hunting mainly fowl for the dinner table; and the War and Peace kind (Tolstoy describes a Turgenev hunt in Anna Karenina): a huge party of noblemen, servants, grooms, horses and dogs, hunting for wolves, foxes and hares. In the first case the dogs retrieve and in the second they scent, chase and kill. The dogs used in the second kind, hounds and borzois, are often very expensive and highly treasured by their owners. In both cases the hunter needs to have a careless appearance, he’s preferably dressed in rags.

**In ancient Russian folklore the wolf symbolises darkness, evil and foreignness. Superstitious Russians were afraid to call the wolf upon themselves by saying its name, and called it by various nicknames like ‘shaggy’ instead. Here you could say that the wolf symbolises Napoleon. At this moment in the book Napoleon and Alexander are allies, so he is for now not a threat. In the book too, Napoleon is often not called by his name, but referred to as ‘the Antichrist’.

*****

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

War and Peace – Tolstoy, translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude