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

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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:

 

Typically Turgenev

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

His elegant style

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

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

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

Influence

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

The same pattern

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

Why Turgenev?

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

In short:

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

Further reading:

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

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

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

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

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

Typically Tolstoy

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

The set-up

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

Writing style

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

Research

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

Mise-en-scène

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

Moralistic

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

In short:

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

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Photo: Wikipedia

Pushkin’s Own Duel

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

On January the 27th of 1837 somewhere in a field close to Saint Petersburg, two shots were fired. The first by Georges d’Anthès, the second by Alexander Pushkin. D’Anthès’s bullet hits Pushkin in the stomach and Pushkin’s bullet pierces d’Anthès’s arm and would have entered his chest, were it not for one of his uniform buttons. Two days later Russia’s ’all’ is dead. A tragic and senseless waste of a huge talent.

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

Georges d’Anthès

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

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

Rejected lover

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

The anonymous letters

Obviously Pushkin started to get more and more annoyed with d’Anthès and when in November 1836 anonymous letters, suggesting that d’Anthès and Natasha were having an affair, were going around in Saint Petersburg, he couldn’t take no more. The letters were addressed to several friends of Pushkin, but of course, he got to see them. It has never become clear who was behind them, Pushkin blamed van Heeckeren, but it was more likely the work of two well known pranksters from Saint Petersburg.

The challenge

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

The duel

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

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

The death of the poet

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

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

After his death

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

-Quote from Eugene Onegin

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

-Literature consulted:

Pushkin, A Biography van T.J. Binyon

and

Mumu – A Quiet Protest

 

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

Summary

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

The old widow and the deaf-mute yard-keeper

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

Round story

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

True story

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

The Russian People

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

Turgenev's Protest

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

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

Mumu – Turgenev, translation by Anthony Briggs

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

 

Three wise lessons from War and Peace

Seize the moments of happiness, love and be loved! That is the only reality in the world, all else is folly.

“Лови минуты счастия, заставляй себя любить, влюбляйся сам! Только это одно есть настоящее на свете — остальное всё вздор.”

Above all War and Peace is a celebration of life. Tolstoy wrote it in the realistic era, and as such life is depicted in all it’s aspects: happiness and sadness, love and hate. The book makes you cry and it makes you laugh. And that is price wisely the effect that Tolstoy wished to have upon his readers.

Mikhail Shishkin's Letterbook (not yet translated into English) made me cry so much when I read it a couple of years ago, that I wondered why I liked it at all. I came to the conclusion that when we experience emotions with the characters in the book that we read, it has a cathartic effect on us. While reading we relive past sorrows, and brace ourselves for horrible things yet to come. It helps us to realise that no matter how bleak things may seem, there will be good times again. Because that’s what life is all about!

 

Drain the blood from men’s veins and put in water instead, then there will be no more war!

As the title* suggests, without war there is no peace. Life is full of contradictions, and that is what gives it it’s flavour. War does not only bring out the worst in people, it can also bring out the best in people. This is beautifully illustrated by Natásha. When the Rostòv family has to flee Moscow because Napoleon is approaching fast, she forgets about her own problems and convinces her parents to not only let wounded soldiers stay in their abandoned house, but also to leave material things behind in order to make room for some seriously injured soldiers and take them with them to the countryside. ”The eggs… the eggs are teaching the hen… muttered the count through tears of joy (…)”.

All, everything that I understand, I understand only because I love.

True love conquers all. Our first love is rarely our true love. Most of us need to make a few mistakes first, so that we can really appreciate the one we end up with. This was particularly true for Pierre and Natásha. Pierre married the cold but beautiful Hélène, under social pressure. Natásha was first in love with Boris, then with Andrey, then (big mistake!) with Anatole, before realising that she had always loved Pierre.

 

While there is life there is happiness

We all make mistakes and we all struggle with certain life questions, but the trick is to accept that there isn't always an answer and to move on. Nicholas loses a lot of money to Dòlokhov, and for a briefmoment contemplates suicide. Hearing his sister singing when he returns home, reminds him that there are still things that can make you happy and he faces the music, tells his father and moves on. He never gambles again.

Natásha lets herself be seduced by Anatole, she is mortified, doesn't want to see anyone and is certain her life is over. But at the end of the novel there is no happier wife and mother than Natásha.

Pierre looks for answers with the free mascons, but he finally finds them when he is emprisoned by the French and left without his powers as a wealthy man. After he has been liberated, he returns home a new man.

Enjoy War and Peace and above all enjoy life!

 

 

*In Russian the word for peace ’mir’ also means world, giving the title a double meaning.

**Alle quotes are from War and Peace

Photo by moi

 

Fyodor Dolokhov – the Bad Guy from War and Peace

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

The Tough Guy

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

 

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

The Officer

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

 

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

 

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

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

Fyodor “the Persian” Dòlokhov

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

The Cheater

It is the people who are good to Dòlokhov who bring out the worst in him. The young and naive Nicholas Rostòv adores him, but Dòlokhov makes him lose 43.000 roubles, cheating him with cards. Dòlokhov had set the number 43 in advance, as that was the sum of his and Sonya’s ages. He had asked Sonya to marry him, but she declined because she was in love with Nicholas. After Nicholas loses terribly the Rostòvs get into serious financial trouble.

The Bastard

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

 

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

 

 

Book: War and Peace from Tolstoy

Photos: the BBC and liveinternet.ru

Denisov – the good guy from War and Peace

 

Love in War and Peace 2

The rise and fall and rise of Countess Nataly (Natásha) Ilyinichna Rostóva

Natásha. Out of all 580 characters she captivates us perhaps the most. Although Tolstoy depicts her as particularly sweet and attractive, she devours no less than four men in the course of her young life. The reader experiences a whole range of emotions with her. Now you're shouting out loud to her and in the next book you're reaching for the tissues. Natásha. Such a character!

Boris

Her first love at the age of thirteen is Boris Drubetskoy. The love evaporates when Boris is at the front.

Prince Andrey

In 1808 she meets Prince Andrey Nikolayevich Bolkonski (an at least ten years older widower, who's wife Lise died giving birth) for the first time. At Natásha's first important ball in 1809 they dance together and Andrey is charmed by her. They get engaged, but Andrey's father insists they wait a few years before they get married. Andrey has to go back to the army and leaves Natásha alone for an indefinite period.

Anatole Kurágin

Then we come to the bit that upsets us the most: in a turn of events least expected, Natásha lets herself be seduced by that obnoxious Anatole Kurágin. Our dear, sweet, honest Natásha!

Anatole has seen Natásha for the first time at that same important ball and looks at her “as one looks at a wall”(!). Countess Hélène Bezúkhov (Pierres unfaithful wife, also suspected of incestuous relations with Anatole) introduces Anatole to the still happily engaged Natásha in 1811. Anatole immediately makes it clear to her that he finds her attractive and wants to start an affair with her.

With help from scoundrel Dòlokhov, Anatole decides to abduct Natásha. He tells her that they will get married, even though that is impossible, because he is already married, but only (Count) Pierre (Bezukhov) and Dòlokhov know that. In a fit of complete and utter insanity Natásha agrees to this idiotic plan and breaks off her engagement with Andrey. Because she knows very well that her family would has different opinion about Anatole, she keeps it a all secret. Anatole, meanwhile, obviously only wants to sleep with her.

Dumbfounded. Yes, I wasn't Andrey's biggest fan either. He comes across as rather arrogant. But they were in love, and Natásha appeared to have a positive effect on him, while she became more serious.

Thanks to Sonya, Anatole is found out. When Pierre hears about it, he gets so angry that he gives both his wife and Anatole a piece of his mind. He sends Anatole to St Petersburg and tries to keep the scandal in Moscow to a minimum.

Reunion with Andrey

Natásha is ill (depressed) for a long time and Andrey becomes his former satirical self again. In 1812 he gets seriously wounded in action and fate reunites him with Natásha. She looks after him and the two of them still have feelings for each other. Soon they are dreaming of a future together again. It is not to be, Andrey dies and again Natásha is alone and heartbroken.

“When she smiled doubt was no longer possible, it was Natásha and he loved her.”

Luckily Pierre returns in 1813. He has been through the wars in every sense (imprisoned and Hélène has died from an abortion). The moment he sees Natásha again he feels certain that she is the one and he wants to marry her as soon as possible. For Natásha too life gets it's meaning back again. They get married and live happily ever after.

Why?!

So why did Natásha allow herself to be seduced by that repulsive Anatole?! Already in the beginning Andrey warns Pierre about the Kurágins. Undoubtedly he has also mentioned his feelings to Natásha. When Pierre asks Natásha if she loved Anatole, she has no answer. Apparently Natásha, of whom Tolstoy says more than once that her intuition is infallible, was completely blinded by the attention she got from Anatole. She was after all still very young, and probably got tired from all that waiting (she had to wait for a very long time, not knowing even if he was still alive) for Andrey, whereas Anatole offered her excitement.

But there is also a prosaic explanation: if Pierre and Natásha, who liked each other from the start, had gotten married without any further obstacles, War and Peace would not be the wonderful, all-embracing and compelling novel it is now.

 

Photos from the BBC

War and Peace by Tolstoy, of course!