Typically Lermontov

Lermontov (1814-1841) is generally considered to be Russia’s greatest poet bar Pushkin and his prose is as least as good as his poetry. His most important work A Hero of Our Time is regarded as the first psychological, Russian Realist novel and so Lermontov built a bridge between the Romantic and the Realist era in Russia. The impact was enormous when it was first published in 1840.

Small legacy

Lermontov was able to leave only a small legacy in his short life. It is usually split into two parts: a juvenile and a grownup part. A selection of poems, a few narrative poems, a couple of plays and A Hero of Our Time, that’s all. Thematically Lermontov belongs in the Romantic era: the Caucasus is used as a background for most of his work, the protagonist often goes on a journey and falls in love with some exotic beauty. Lermontov himself was a romantic hero too, growing up without his parents, travels and exiles to the Caucasus, a military career and duels being part of his life.

Pechorin, a superfluous man

Actually A Hero of Our Time is not really a novel: it’s a collection of short stories that can be read independently. They’re connected by the same protagonist, Pechorin. Pechorin is the prototype of the superfluous man, this apparently careless man leaves a trail of destruction behind him wherever he goes.The narrative prospect of the stories is very interesting, there are fragments from Pechorin’s diaries, and some of the stories are memoirs of people who knew him. This gives the reader a complete picture. The stories are not told chronologically, which highlights Pechorin’s mysterious character.

Psychological novel

Not only does Lermontov provide us with the picture of an embittered protagonist, he also investigates how it’s possible that such a young man is already tired of life. He comes to the conclusion that society is to blame for Pechorin’s character. Hence the title of the novel. It is the psychological background of Pechorin, that makes A Hero of Our Time the first psychological, Russian Realist novel. Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, Turgenev’s Bazarov and Tolstoy’s Olenin, they all have a little bit of Pechorin in them.

The Demon

His other masterpiece (and life’s work!) is The Demon. An epic poem, like we know from Pushkin. Here too Lermontov uses his beloved Caucasus as a backdrop for the story. A fallen angel roams the earth eternally. When he falls in love with a living girl, Tamara, he hopes that she can release him, but she dies after he has kissed her. The poem is of an unearthly and unequalled beauty; it is really not without good reason that Lermontov had the great honour of being called Pushkin’s heir. The Russian painter Vrubel made a fantastic series of illustrations for the poem that capture the atmosphere wonderfully.

Writing style

What makes Lermontov so unique is his musical and descriptive style of writing. Not surprising, since Lermontov was also a gifted musician and painter. Where Pushkin is elegant and cheerful, Lermontov is melancholic. His writing is doubtlessly as beautiful as the Caucasusian landscape. Or the Scottish landscape, where his ancestors came from, now misty and mysterious, then sparkling and fresh.

 

Fragment from The Demon:

“What is this eternity to me without you?

What is the infinity of my domains?

Empty ringing words,

A spacious temple — without a divinity!”

Read more from this unique writer here:

http://faculty.washington.edu/jdwest/russ430/demon.pdf

http://www.eldritchpress.org/myl/hero.htm

© Elisabeth van der Meer

Photos by me (book and Scotland) and from Wikipedia (Portrait of Lermontov and aquarel by Vrubel)

 

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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 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.

******

Photo: Wikipedia