Odoevsky’s The Salamander

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A Finnish Legend

A few weeks ago I moved from beautiful Amsterdam to beautiful Finland. A leap of faith, yes, but one that I have every faith in that it will turn out very well. It was love at first sight, both with the man and the country, and that love has blossomed into something profound. I look forward to getting to know Finland and its people better and wonder with a big smile what the future has in store for me.

Finnish Characters in Russian literature

Finland is of course neighbors with Russia, and Russian literature features many Finnish characters. I thought it would be interesting to investigate this subject a bit more and came across The Salamander, a gothic story by the romantic writer Odoevsky. I had never read Odoevsky, and was pleasantly surprised.

Odoevsky

Vladimir Fyodorovich Odoevsky (1803-1869) was an impoverished nobleman, like Tolstoy descending from the highest branch of aristocracy in Russia: the Rurik dynasty. He worked for the Russian government until he died, and was extremely interested in literature, music, education, philosophy, science and the occult. His house was a regular meeting place for writers like Pushkin, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, to name but a few. Together with Pushkin he founded the famous magazine The Contemporary. On his Wikipedia page it says that he even predicted blogging and e-readers. So definitely a remarkable character!

He is not exactly widely read nowadays, overshadowed by those aforementioned giants, but I found him captivating and genuinely enjoyed reading his stories.

The Salamander

The Salamander (1841) is a complex tale that combines several legends and influences. It tells the story of Finnish Yakko and his sister Elsa, children of a poor fisherman. Yakko makes a good career in Saint Petersburg under the care of Peter the Great. Elsa, who has clairvoyant powers, initially stays behind in Finland. Her wealthy brother brings her to Russia, but she dislikes the Russians and they, in turn, think her beautiful but very strange and suspect her of witchcraft. The story continues to take us on a journey full of legends, superstition, sorcery, greed, and alchem, and it ends eventually with a haunted house in Moscow.

The Kalevala

The story starts with a mythological description of Finland that echoes the great Finnish epic, the Kalevala*. The Kalevala was first published in Finland in 1836 and had not yet been translated into Russian in 1841. Elias Lönnrot had based it on the Karelian legends he had collected. The Russian Yakov Grot, who was a friend of Odoevsky, had however accompanied Lönnrot on several of his research journeys, and had published articles about the Kalevala and Finnish people and customs in The Contemporary. This explains Odoevsky’s detailed knowledge of the subject.

Pushkin

Another major source of inspiration was his friend Pushkin: the primitive Finnish lad being educated by Peter the Great reminds the reader of course of The Moor of Peter the Great (1837) and the image of the poor Finnish fisherman and the flooding of Saint Petersburg seem to come straight from The Bronze Horseman (1833). Yakko’s frenzied greed in the second part of the story is very similar to that of Hermann in Queen of Spades (1834). As I’ve explained before, this was not considered plagiarism, but was seen more as a tribute.

Finns versus Russians

So how are the Finnish portrayed compared to the Russians? The Finnish are portrayed as half wild compared to the educated and advanced Russians. They have a splendid city, and an army, whereas the Finns live in primitive huts and are forced to fight the wars of other nations. Clearly the Russians considered themselves superior. But there is also a (romantic) admiration of their pure soul, simple customs, and closeness to nature. In his introduction Odoevsky describes the Finns as “kind, patient, obedient to the authorities, attached to their obligations, but distrustful and so cunning that, when they see a stranger, they can opportunely pretend not to understand him. Once annoyed, their vengeance knows no bounds”.

Well! Forewarned is forearmed!

*******

*The Kalevala is the Finnish national epic poem, the Finnish equivalent of Homer’s Odyssey. Elias Lönnrot compiled it from legends and songs he collected in the Karelia region (nowadays partially in Finland and Russia). This epic has been of immense importance for the shaping of the Finnish identity.

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

Sources used:

The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales – Vladimir Odoevsky

Empire and the Gothic / The Politics of Genre – A. Smith & W. Hughes

To whom does the Kalevala belong? – Timo Vihavainen

The north in Russian romantic literature – Otto Boele

Rekonstruoidusta kansaneepoksesta Lönnrotin runoelmaksi – Kalevala Venäjällä – Kalevala maailmalla. Helsinki: SKS. 2012 – Mirja Kemppinen ja Markku Nieminen

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vladimir_Odoyevsky

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Lermontov’s Fatal Duel

“Если бы этот мальчик остался жив, не нужны были ни я, ни Достоевский – If that young man had stayed alive, neither I, nor Dostoevsky, would have been necessary” – Tolstoy

 

At 7 o’clock in the evening of July 27th 1841, somewhere at the foot of mount Mashuk near Pyatigorsk, in the midst of a fierce mountain thunderstorm, the young poet Lermontov was shot dead in a duel with his old comrade Martynov.

 

Since that fatal moment, there have been plenty of people who suspected a plot to murder Lermontov. Sadly there are not many reliable accounts of the events that took place on that fatal evening. So what do we know?

 

Lermontov was staying in Pyatigorsk to ‘take the waters’, to recover from an illness before he went to rejoin his regiment. Pyatigorsk was a popular spa town in the Caucasus (on the Russian side) where many wealthy Russians came to get cured. There were also many military men there, who were on (sick) leave from their duties in the Caucasian War, like Lermontov. Lermontov knew many of the people there, including Martynov, who he had known since military school.

 

In the morning the ‘patients’ would have to bathe in the mineral springs and drink several glasses of disgusting water. In the afternoons there were picnics in the mountains and in the evening dinner parties and balls were organised. At one of those parties Lermontov made one joke too many at the expense of his old comrade, calling him ‘the highlander with the big dagger’, mocking Martynov’s Circassian outfit and weapon. Martynov replied that he had repeatedly asked him not not make fun of him in the company of ladies. The next day they met again and Martynov again expressed his dissatisfaction, and a date and place for a duel were fixed.

 

Duels were illegal; both participants and seconds would not get off lightly. As a result duels were held in secret, but there were clear rules. The participants needed at least one second each, in this case they each had two. There also had to be a doctor present, and there had to be a cart to take away the dead or injured. The seconds had to try to dissuade the participants in advance and organise the pistols and a doctor.

Until the last moment Lermontov appeared nonchalant, thinking that they would call off the duel, embrace and go for dinner together. The seconds thought so too. They made an attempt to get a doctor, but even though there were obviously plenty of doctors in Pyatigorsk, they all refused to be present at an illegal duel. They didn’t bring a cart either.

 

Only one of the seconds, Vasiltchikov, wrote about the events later. The others, and Martynov too, kept silent. Tolstoy tried later in vain (unfortunately!) to persuade another second, Stolypin, to talk. According to Vasiltchikov, Lermontov had told the seconds that he would fire in the air. At the moment suprême the contestants faced each other. Lermontov pointed his gun upwards and supposedly said that he was not going to shoot at that ‘fool’ and at that Martynov aimed and fired.

 

The bullet pierced Lermontov’s heart and he fell down without even grasping his injury. Although he was clearly dead, a doctor was called. This time they had difficulty getting one to come because of the weather. One of the seconds, Glebov, stayed with the body, in the dark forest in the pouring rain until help arrived. The dead Lermontov was taken to his lodgings and Martynov and the seconds were arrested.

 

Pyatigorsk was in shock; all the ladies paid their respect and the poet’s body was soon covered in flowers. Death by duel was considered suicide, but after some money was paid, Lermontov got a Christian burial. His devastated grandmother later managed to get his body transferred to the family grave.

 

In the official reports there is no mention of Lermontov’s intention to fire in the air. It would have meant that Martynov had to be tried for murder. It remains strange that his old pal was unable to forgive Lermontov his pranks. Other than that there is no evidence of a coverup. And besides, the authorities may have had reasons to exile him, but not to kill him, although one could argue that sending a man to fight at the front in the Caucasian War is practically murder.

 

Did he perhaps want to die? I don’t think so. He was doing well as a writer, he enjoyed being in the Caucasus, and he had his army career. He did have a certain carelessness about him, a sort of disregard for life, like his character Pechorin from A Hero of Our Time. It is difficult to estimate how much of that was just a pose that comes with the territory of being a romantic poet. With Pushkin it was a different case. He had money problems, was well known to be a hotheaded person and he was clearly trapped. With him I feel it was both suicide and murder.

 

Since the duel could easily have been avoided if Lermontov had apologised for his attitude immediately, my conclusion is that Lermontov himself was mostly to blame for his death.

 

*****

 

Different sources all have slightly different versions of the events. I based this account mostly upon the Laurence Kelly biography, Tragedy in the Caucasus and the following websites: fishki.net and aif.ru.

 

© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos from Wikimedia: Lermontov dying, the memorial in Pyatigorsk and the family grave in Tarkhany.

Also included is Lermontov’s prophetic poem A Dream.

 

Voor mijn Nederlandstalige lezers: alle Nederlandstalige blogposts staan nu op http://www.eenrussischeaffaire.wordpress.com .

 

The Short Life of Mikhail Lermontov

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


First exile to the Caucasus

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


Youth with his grandmother

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


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


Writing career

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


Second exile to the Caucasus

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


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


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


*****



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

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


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


Booklist:

Lermontov, Tragedy in the Caucasus – Laurence Kelly

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

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

Typically Gogol

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


His career


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


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


Great sense of humour


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


Style


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


Influences


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


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


Finally


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


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



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

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

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


*****



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

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

Tolstoy or Dostoevsky?!

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


Know-it-alls


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


Gamblers


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


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

Light and darkness


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


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


Commercial success


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


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


*****


© Elisabeth van der Meer


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

 

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

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

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

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

 

 

Gogol’s Taras Bulba – a milestone

Gogol gave Russian literature its' own identity

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

The Romantic Era

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

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

The story

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

“Oh, steppes, how beautiful you are!”

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

Its' Follow-ups

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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



© Elisabeth van der Meer

The illustrations are from an old Russian edition of Taras Bulba

I read the Peter Constantine translation

 

Typically Chekhov

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

His life

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

Style and content

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

Stanislavski

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

Chekhov’s Gun

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

Influence

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

In short:

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

*****

Books read:

Geschiedenis van de Russische literatuur – Karel van het Reve

Chekhov – Henri Troyat

Several stories, plays, letters and fragments from Chekhov

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

Photos © Elisabeth van der Meer and Wikipedia

Text © Elisabeth van der Meer

 

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

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

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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