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

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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/

A visit to the enchanting ballet ‘Onegin’

Amsterdam, March 29th 2017

Onegin

Dutch National Ballet


”I am writing to you… need I say more?

Is there more I can say?

I realize you’re free now

to punish me with your contempt.”

In 1833 Alexander Pushkin’s novel in verse Eugene Onegin was published for the first time. It turned out to be an inexhaustible source of inspiration. In 1879 Tchaikovsky’s opera Eugene Onegin premiered and in 1965 the ballet Onegin by John Cranko followed.

On March 29th 2017 the opening night of the ballet performed by the Dutch National Ballet took place in Amsterdam, and I had to see it, of course!

The famous choreographer John Cranko first got the idea for the ballet in 1952 when he did the choreography for the dances in the opera Eugene Onegin, but it wasn't until 1965 that he was able to realise his dream, when he was working with the Stuttgart Ballet. And what a delightful ballet it has turned out to be! The tricky relationship between Onegin and Tatyana is wonderfully translated into dance, especially when they dance together in Tatyana’s dream in the second act. The folk dances in the first act are super contagious and a joy for the eye. A real masterwork.

Although the music is from Tchaikovsky, it isn't the same music as in the opera Eugene Onegin. The German composer Kurt Heinz Stolze arranged the musical score from different compositions by Tchaikovsky, glueing them together with leitmotifs. If you didn't know any better you would never suspect that, it was done so skilfully. Tchaikovksy’s music is, as always, magical, dramatic and vivacious.

The story is split into three acts:

In the first act the arrogant and bored St Petersburg dandy Onegin finds himself in the countryside. His friend Lenski introduces him to the sisters Olga and Tatyana. Olga is Lenski’s fiancee. The sweet and dreamy Tatyana falls head over heels for Onegin. She writes him a love letter.

In the second act Onegin tears up the letter. He is not interested in the simple and romantic Tatyana. To annoy Lenski, and a little bit out of boredom too, he tries to seduce Olga instead. Lenski challenges him to a duel and gets killed.

In the third act Onegin meets Tatyana again for the first time in years. Now she is married and the shining star of the St Petersburg society. He falls in love, he regrets the past, writes her a letter.. but now it’s Tatyana’s turn to tear up the letter and so Onegin is punished for his arrogance.

In order for the ballet to work, Pushkin’s story has been shortened and simplified. However, Tchaikovsky’s music and the artistic interpretation of the dancers, who have clearly studied their characters well, add an extra dimension.

The principals of the ballet were Anna Tsygankova as Tatyana, Jozef Varga as Onegin, Qian Liu as Olga en Remi Wörtmeyer as Lenski. I thought Qian Liu was absolutely adorable as Olga, I loved her expression and the apparent effortlessness with which she danced, no flew, across the stage.

The Dutch National Ballet is fantastic, so is the Ballet Orchestra and Onegin is an enchanting night out.

The photos are from bolshoirussia.com.

The fragment is from Tatyana's letter and was translated by Roger Clarke.

http://www.operaballet.nl/en/ballet/2016-2017/show/onegin

Would you like to read more about Pushkin? Click on the 'pushkin' tag below.

 

Typically Goncharov

Goncharov (1812-1891) is perhaps not the most famous nineteenth century Russian writer, but he is most certainly one of the great Realists. He didn’t write much; some stories, a travel journal and three novels. One of those novels made him world famous, and according to some people it is the ultimate novel in Russian literature: Oblomov.

 

Oblomov

Oblomov is a man in his thirties, he lives with his servant Zakhar and his cook Anisha in a St Petersburg apartment. He spends most of his time sleeping or daydreaming in bed. His favourite piece of clothing is his robe, and although Zakhar polishes his boots every day, it’s the slippers that are always exactly there where his feet land when he finally gets up, that he prefers to wear. Oblomov refuses to make a fuss and dreads anything that could possibly endanger his peace and quiet.

His estate Oblomovka, situated in the far east of Russia, needs urgent attention, but Oblomov can’t even get himself to reply to a letter that his neighbour sent him, let alone travel all the way to Oblomovka. As a result of his indecisiveness and generosity people take advantage of him. His peasants lie about the earnings of his estate and his friends, and even Zakhar, steal from him. His good friend Stolz tries (in vain) to bring Oblomov back to life.

What is Oblomovism?

Stolz calls it ’Oblomovism’. It’s the result of an extremely idyllic childhood in Oblomovka, and Oblomov tries very hard to recreate that carefree idylle in the present time. Immediately after the novel was published in 1859, Oblomovism became a household term in Russia and abroad. If you look it up in the Oxford dictionary you’ll find that it means ”sluggish or languorous inertia; supineness, indecision, procrastination”.

”What is Oblomovism” is a famous essay that literary critic Dobrolyubov wrote in 1859. He stated that Oblomovism was a social problem, it stood for the ancient aristocracy that was afraid of reforms such as the abolition of serfdom. Stolz, being half German, doesn’t catch the contagious Oblomovism and stands for progress and modernisation. Contrary to the superfluous man (of which Oblomov is the ultimate example) he is decisive and takes responsibility for his own life. Oblomovism is often seen as symbolic for the slow and ancient Russian society, some even go as far as to call it Russia’s national disease.

 

Style

Goncharov uses the third person narrator. He uses mainly dialogue to characterise the characters and almost doesn’t let the narrator judge. Goncharov is at his best in describing domestic scenes. The personal environment is also used to characterise. He writes with a fantastic sense of humour that gives his work a light and airy quality. Because of this his work is rarely sentimental.

 

Masterwork

Oblomov is an undisputed masterwork. Thanks to its layers it can be read at several levels; if you (don’t want to) know nothing of the social problems in nineteenth century Russia, you simply read an amusing character study of an eternal procrastinator. Many of the issues in the novel are still relevant, xenophobia for instance.

 

Influence

The impact of the novel was enormous. Goncharov had been working on it since 1847, but it was finished and published in 1859, on the eve of major reforms, like the abolition of serfdom in 1861. The timing was perfect, because the sluggish society was a hot topic in 1859.

 

In short

Goncharov uses a sense of humour to address social issues, and that is a whole lot more palatable than the methods that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky used. His dreamy writing style is pleasant, but he doesn’t take you to the highs and lows that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky take you to.

We can easily say that Oblomov had a ’Stolz-effect’ on society. But if we are to believe Goncharov there is no cure for such deeply ingrained Oblomovism…

 

 

Books used:

Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Geschiedenis van de literatuur in Rusland 1700-2000 – Emmanuel Waegemans

Oblomov – Ivan Goncharov

 

Photos from Wikipedia and Eldritchpress

“Ждун” – a modern example of Oblomovism

 

Typically Pushkin

Pushkin (1799-1837) is the Mozart of the literary world. He is light footed, crystal clear and highly musical. Everything is just as it should be. Even his sporadic imperfections are charming. Pushkin is from the Romantic era, like Byron, Scott and the Russian Lermontov.

Exotic relations

On his father’s side of the family he stems from ancient Russian nobility. His mother’s side of the family is exotic: his great grandfather, an Ethiopian, was given to Peter the Great as a present in 1704. Peter took a liking to the little Abraham, and gave him the patronymic Petrovich, after himself, and a proper military education. Abraham eventually became a general and took on Hannibal as a last name, a definite sign that he was no slave. The Empress Elizabeth gave him a country estate to thank him for his services, Mikhailovskoe. Pushkin would get banned to it at some point in his career. Abraham married a Swedish woman, and that makes Pushkin just as much Swedish as Ethiopian.

Father of Russian literature

Pushkin is generally considered to be the father of Russian literature. He adjusted the archaic Russian language to his own needs and created a modern language, suitable for both modern poetry and prose. With this modernised language he expressed himself in a wide variety of literary genres: stories, drama, narrative poems, poetry, novellas, fairy tales and a novel in verse. The novel in verse, Eugene Onegin, is typical for Pushkin’s innovative style.

Style and works

His stories and novellas are sheer perfection, everything is right: the subject choice, they are light, there is humour and there is mystery. Many Russian writers took them as a starting point for their own writings. As I have written before, that is considered a big compliment in Russian literature. As a result there are numerous stories that are called The Snowstorm, but Pushkin wrote the original. The novellas Queen of Spades and The Captains Daughter are true masterpieces.

His poetry is legendary. He started to write poetry at school, with a preference for patriotic, satirical or amorous subjects. These subjects remained with him throughout his career. Most Russians know at least one of his poems by heart. Pushkin’s own favourite work was Eugene Onegin. A unique work with an innovative rhyme scheme that became known as the Onegin Stanza. It’s a cheery tale, thanks to this rhyme scheme, in spite of the romantic subject. Tatyana is a typical romantic heroine, a pale and dreamy girl, who spends her nights staring out the window at the moon. Onegin is one of those superfluous men, a poet who is bored with life. Pushkin infused the story with a rich humour, folklore and fantasy.

Influences

His work did not only influence other writers, but also numerous composers. Tchaikovsky turned Eugene Onegin into an opera that is, at least in the western world, probably better known than the book. Mussorgsky, Rachmaninov and Rimsky-Korsakov were also inspired by the works of Pushkin.

So who was Pushkin influenced by? His dear old nurse, Arina Rodionovna, apparently. She narrated all the fairy tales and legends she knew to him, and even when he was already grown up, he loved to listen to her (she stayed at Mikhailovskoe until she died). His maternal grandmother, who looked after little Alexander and his sister more than their mother, told him all about the origins of his family and sparked his interest in history.

Translating Pushkin

Because his works are so playful and musical, he is notoriously difficult to translate*. Nabokov wrote two fat volumes about the translation of Eugene Onegin, and still his translation doesn’t work for me. The two volumes themselves are super informative, though.

Debt and exile

Like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, Pushkin had to write to pay his debts. The lifestyle that was required of him was more expensive than he could afford. His often razor sharp pen earned him a couple of banishments.

In short

It’s not difficult to recognise Pushkin, like Mozart he has a unique style. Seemingly effortless, fluent and happy. He likes to converse with his reader too. Because he was not a Realist like Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, there are no moral issues that he wants to force upon his reader. Almost two centuries later his work does not appear outdated in the least. You can pick up any of his works at any time of the day and enjoy it like listening to Mozart, or a fantastic wine. So lean back in a comfortable chair and enjoy, perhaps even all three simultaneously.

 

Booklist:

Pushkin by T.J. Binyon

Photos © by me, the illustrations are from a old book that I picked up at a book market.

*Before you buy, it’s probably wise to read the first page to see if the translation works for you. In English I really like Roger Clarke, he seems to hit the right balance and gets the right feeling across. His comments and notes are also very entertaining.

https://m.youtube.com/watch?feature=youtu.be&v=0hOT2QtLhhk

*******

 

A Russian Affair is two years old!

Two years ago I wasn't sure if the world was waiting for a blog about Russian literature, but hey, I'm the kind of girl who reads Nabokov's comments on Pushkin's Eugene Onegin for fun, so it was only natural that if I was going to have a blog, that that should be the subject.

My aim was to keep it as accessible as possible. I regularly hear people say that they find Russian literature daunting, even intimidating, before they've even read one page! So I took it upon myself to use this corner in cyber space to take away that prejudice. And judging by the comments I have already convinced some of you.

Inspired by the fantastic BBC series War and Peace, I wrote several posts about that epic Tolstoy novel. People were particularly interested to find out about the relationship between brother and sister Hélène and Anatole and Is there really an incestuous relationship in War and Peace? (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-4L) became by far the most popular post on my blog. Another favourite was Fyodor Dolokhov – the Bad Guy from War and Peace (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-5t).

Undoubtedly the most fun to make was In the Footsteps of Tolstoy and Turgenev in Paris (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-4F). For two days I wandered through Paris with Google Maps, searching the addresses where the two writers lived. I was particularly keen to see the house where Turgenev had lived for many years with the Viardot family. Nowadays there is an authentic French patissier on the ground flour of the house on the Rue de Douai. They serve a delicious breakfast and I thoroughly enjoyed sitting there and watching tout l'arrondissement buy their pain quotidien there.

The most interesting blog post to make was Turgenev's birds (http://wp.me/p5zzbs-7h). It was a spontaneous post inspired by another blogger. It showed beautifully why Turgenev was such an accomplished writer. Fathers and Sons is a masterpiece, and it features many subtle details that make it very atmospheric. Unconsciously our brain makes all kinds of associations while reading, even if you don't pick up on it. By focussing on a seemingly small detail, birds in this case, I managed to show that that detail was put into the novel with a purpose.

In 2016 I have started a series of “Typically …”. So far we've had Tolstoy, Turgenev and Dostoevsky. In 2017 I shall write about Gogol, Chekhov, Goncharov, Pushkin and Lermontov. But you can also expect spontaneous blog posts like In the Footsteps and Turgenev's Birds.

My goals for my blog remain the same: to show you how fascinating, rich and most of all fun Russian literature really is!

Reactions, questions and requests are always welcome. Happy reading!

*** Photos by me, except Anatole and Hélène from the BBC's War and Peace.

 

Typically Dostoevsky

Russian literature from the second half of the nineteenth century aims to describe and analyse life in all its aspects. This literary movement is called Realism. Next to Tolstoy and Turgenev the third giant in this genre is Dostoevsky (1821-1881) of course.

Literary History

The start of his career as a writer is legendary: after the military academy he knew that a military career was not for him and he started writing seriously as soon as possible. He gave his first novella, Poor Folk, to his friend Grigorovich to read. Grigorovich read it together with Nekrasov, the most influential critic at the time. They finished reading it at four in the morning. Their enthusiasm was such, that they went straight to Dostoevsky and woke him up. They congratulated him Russian style on his literary talents, and the rest is history…

Influences

Dostoevsky was mostly influenced by gothic and romantic writers such as Walter Scott, Ann Radcliffe, Dickens, Schiller, Pushkin and Karamzin. He, in turn, influenced writers like Kafka, Sartre, Bulgakov, Gide and Nietzsche. To name but a few. His most famous novel, The Brothers Karamazov, was and is a favourite of Stalin, Camus, Joyce and Putin. It was lying on Tolstoy's nightstand when he died.

Before and after Siberia

Dostoevsky's work can be devided into two parts: before and after Siberia. In 1849 he was sentenced to four years of forced labour and another four years of exile in Siberia, due to his political engagements. His works from before Siberia are perhaps a bit more sentimental, more romantic. From this period we have Poor Folk, White Nights, The Double and Netochka Nezvanova. After Siberia he wrote The Player, The Idiot, The Possessed, Crime and Punishment and, of course, The Brothers Karamazov. These works are darker and more thought provoking.

Great psychological insight

Dostoevsky is well known for his psychological character studies. His characters often personify one of his ideas, like Raskolnikov (Crime and Punishment) represents his theory that a select group of people could decide what's right and wrong for the majority, even murdering a bad person to save other people. His character seems contradictory at first sight; gentle and compassionate, but at the same time calculating and cold. Naturally both sides are necessary to carry out the theory. Another major Dostoevskian idea is spiritual regeneration through suffering. Raskolnikov is torn by remorse and doubt after his horrible deed. He is sentenced to a prison camp in Siberia and finally after a few years he starts to feel regenerated.

Ordinary people, small talk and everyday situations? There's none of that with Dostoevsky. You will meet a whole lot of pawn brokers, prostitutes, failures, misfits, nihilists, religious fanatics, gamblers, murderers and hysterical women, sometimes combined into one character. Recurring themes are religion, redemption, the mighty rouble, the innocence of children, lost honour, suicide, alcoholism and epilepsy.

Punishment in Siberia

His involuntary stay in Siberia influenced him tremendously and Dostoevsky's work contains many autobiographical elements. In those days the labour camp was mixed, the political prisoners sat together with the criminals. The circumstances were almost unbearable and he learned a lot about people. He observed murderers from close by.

Style

His writing style is very enthusiastic. He talks to the reader, draws him into his exciting and scandalous story, and demands him to think about the big questions in life. He often had to finish his books before a certain deadline, to earn money to pay off his gambling debts. As a result his style is a bit hasty. He did not take the time, like Tolstoy, to endlessly revise. Most of the action takes place in the course of a few days and in a room full of people. As Nabokov has pointed out, this and the lack of background details, make his novels feel more like a play. He thinks Dostoevsky would have been better as a playwright.

In short

It's easy to recognise Dostoevsky; not a normal person in sight and everyone is in a heightened state of excitement. His novels are mostly written in the classical detective style. No detailed natural descriptions such as Turgenev wrote, only the most necessary. His characters don't go through any psychological growth, like Tolstoy's Pierre. But it's not all misery with Dostoevsky, he had a great sense of humour. He often gave his characters appropriate names; a 'raskolnik' for instance, is someone who separates himself, a nonconformist.

 

Dostoevsky is not for everyone, and not for every day either, but boring he is definitely not. Virginia Woolf described his work as follows:

 

“We open the door and find ourselves in a room full of Russian generals, their stepdaughters and cousins, and crowds of miscellaneous people who are all talking at the top of their voices about their most private affairs.”

 

Books read: Geschiedenis van de Russische Literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Lectures on Russian Literature – Vladimir Nabokov

Photos and dates from Wikipedia

 

Turgenev’s Birds

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

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

 

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

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

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A Short Summary of Fathers and Sons

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

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

1 Chicken

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

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

 

2 Dove

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

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

 

3/4 Skylarks and Rooks

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

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

 

5 Snipe

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

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

 

6 Long-tailed Siskin

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

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

 

7 Quail

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

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

 

8 Swallows

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

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

 

9 Nightingale

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

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

 

10 Telling a bird from its flight

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

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

 

11 Fledgling Hawk

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

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

 

12 Falcon

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

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

 

13 Sparrows

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

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

 

14 Chaffinch

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

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

 

15 Jackdaw

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

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

 

16 A wee grouse hen

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

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

 

17 A Crowing Cock

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

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

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

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

Bibliography

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

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

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

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Listen here to the chaffinch singing casually: