Six Degrees of Separation – From A Christmas Carol to War and Peace

Inspired by fellow blogger An Argumentative Old Git, I decided to make a #6degrees blogpost too. The idea is that each month there is another book as a starting point, and this month it’s A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. From there you can connect to six other books. The meme is hosted by Kate of Books are my Favourite and Best.

So we start with A Christmas Carol (1843), the classic Christmas story. 

fullsizeoutput_6f.jpegScrooge is visited by three ghosts, showing him the past, the present and the future. Scrooge quickly understands that he needs to better his life. The Undertaker by Pushkin (1831) features an un-Dickensian undertaker with a Scrooge-like disposition. He too is visited by ghosts, a whole party of them: they are his dead clients, accusing him of ripping of their next of kin. Unlike Scrooge, Prokhorov does not seem inclined to better his life the next morning; he simply orders tea and calls his daughters. And we can almost hear him think “Bah! Humbug!”.

IMG_3931.JPGThere’s a ghostly party in The Master and Margarita (1940) by Bulgakov too. In this satirical novel Satan himself himself has come to Stalinist Moscow to organise a ball on Walpurgis night. The guests are all dead and they have all committed a crime that has sent them to hell. Among the guests are famous people and notorious criminals. They arrive at the party through the fireplace. Sounds familiar, right? But we’re not going there. The novel’s most famous quote is “Manuscripts don’t burn”.

IMG_3923.JPGIn 1852 Gogol famously burned most of the manuscripts containing the second part of Dead Souls shortly before he died in sad circumstances, suffering from depression. Dead Souls (1842) is, contrary to the title, a lively tale. A satire about an aspiring noble man traveling around Russia and the people he meets. Chichikov is accompanied by a faithful servant, Petrushka, who likes a drink and smells peculiarly, but is devoted to his master.

fullsizeoutput_5d.jpegThat brings us to another devoted servant: Zakhar. The interfering, lazy, complaining and gossiping servant of Oblomov. Oblomov has perfected the art of procrastinating and famously does not get out of bed for the first 150 pages of the novel. Oblomov was written by Goncharov in 1858, as an example of a ‘superfluous man’. Oblomov simply refuses to worry about things that everybody else already worries about, and does not like it when ‘things’ are expected of him. His home is his safe haven.

fullsizeoutput_6cFrom that save haven on Gorokhovaya Street we take stroll to Stolyarny Alley, to the humble quarters of another famous Petersburg hero: Raskolnikov. The protagonist of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) doesn’t just dream and scheme; he acts out his plan and murders an old pawnbroker. With her money he wants to help the poor, but he becomes consumed by guilt.

fullsizeoutput_6eCrime and Punishment was first published in episodes in the famous Russian magazine The Messenger. If you were a subscriber to that magazine, you were in for a real treat each month; just imagine, in 1866 it also ran Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Of course the reader already knew how the war with Napoleon ended, but what about Natasha, was she going to be reunited with prince Andrey?! The novel is full of cliffhangers and the reason is precisely that: the monthly episodes.

Dickens was immensely popular in Russia, and both Dostoevsky and Tolstoy admired him and were influenced by him. Where would A Christmas Carol lead you?

Text and photos © Elisabeth van der Meer

Books read: all of the above and an article from The Dickens Magazine by George Gorniak about Tolstoy, sent to me by Roger W. Smith 

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Greed and Prejudice

Pushkin’s The Undertaker and Chekhov’s Rothschild’s Fiddle

Two very different stories with at least two common themes. I read these stories for the first time in university and they’ve stayed with me ever since, Pushkin’s story (one of the wonderful Belkin Tales) because of the humour and Chekhov’s story because of the melancholy.

If the undertakers that were created by Shakespeare and Walter Scott were jolly characters, the ones created by Pushkin and Chekhov were anything but. Always grumpy, suspicious and waiting for people to die; that sums up the Russian undertaker.

The Undertaker

The Undertaker* (1831) is about Adrian, an undertaker who has just moved from one area in Moscow to another with his daughters and his business. In the new area there are apparently a lot of German tradesmen. One of them invites Adrian and his daughters over for a party. The party is very jolly, Adrian drinks and eats, his daughters are above such behaviour, and there is one toast after another. The only Russian official at the party, a Finnish watchman called Yourko, suggests that Adrian make a toast to his clients, the dead. Adrian doesn’t think that’s funny at all and goes home in a bad mood. He vows that instead of inviting his new neighbors to a party as he had intended, he shall indeed invite his dead clients. The next day he gets a lucrative job and when he comes home in the evening, he finds a party going on in his house. All the corpses that were once his clients are there. They reproach Adrian for charging too much for the coffins and for ripping off their next of kin. When he wakes up the next day, he realises that he has been asleep since he came home drunk from the neighbor.

Rothschild’s Fiddle

In Rothschild’s Fiddle (1894) there’s a different kind of humour. A melancholic humour. The old undertaker Yakov lives in a small town full of old people who refuse to die. Yakov always counts his losses: people who die elsewhere, holidays when he can’t work, etc. The only thing that makes him happy and comforts him, is his violin. He sometimes gets asked to play in a Jewish wedding orchestra, but only in case of emergency, because he always argues with the Jews, especially with a certain Rothschild. One evening his wife gets ill and she dies the next day. Her sudden death slowly makes Yakov realise that his life has not been about material missed opportunities, but about the immaterial things that he missed out on because of his behaviour. In his own way he makes up with Rothschild and leaves him his violin when he dies.

 

Greed and prejudice

Both stories deal with misplaced xenophobia and greed. Adrian only seems to befriend his German neighbor because he expects free food and drink. At the party he is quick to make friends with the Finnish watchman, because he can be of use to him. But when they make a joke at his expense, they’re all heathens. While Adrian was sleeping and cursing his new friends, those same friends stop by his house to invite him again. We don’t know if Adrian has learned anything from his nightmare, but judging by the fact that he has tea as if nothing happened when he wakes up, I fear not.

 

Yakov does realise after the death of his wife and before his own, that he has always been wrong, that it was completely unnecessary to treat his wife and Rothschild badly. His wife is already dead, but he can still make up for it with Rothschild. He leaves Rothschild his most prized possession; his violin and something immaterial: a song. It’s a sad song that makes people cry, but they always ask Rothschild to play it again.

 

© Elisabeth van der Meer – text and photo (The Fiddler (1913) – by Chagall at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam)

 

*There’s a scene in the story where “Before the door of the house in which the deceased lay, the police had already taken their stand, and the trades-people were passing backwards and forwards, like ravens that smell a dead body”. Tolstoy apparently borrowed this scene for War and Peace, when Pierre’s father dies: “While he was getting down from the carriage steps two men, who looked like tradespeople, ran hurriedly from the entrance and hid in the shadow of the wall. Pausing for a moment, Pierre noticed several other men of the same kind hiding in the shadow of the house on both sides.”

 

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