I’ve finally finished Narezhny’s Российский Жилблаз (A Russian Gil Blas; see this post), and I’m even more struck by what a loss its suppression was for Russian literature. The introduction to the two-volume edition of Narezhny’s works is a long and well-informed essay by Yuri Mann, a Gogol scholar with a fine appreciation of early nineteenth-century Russian writing; he begins by quoting an 1825 article by Vyazemsky mentioning Narezhny’s recent death and lamenting that he had created the Russian novel and yet received little recognition, and says that this remains true to the present day, though far lesser writers are remembered.
Narezhny was born in 1780 into a noble but poor family (they had no serfs and worked their own land) in a village in the Mirgorod uyezd of Poltava guberniya, the same part of Ukraine Gogol was from—but Narezhny was a crucial generation earlier, growing up at a time when there were still people who remembered when the region had been independent. He studied philology and philosophy at Moscow University, where he began writing poetry and historical stories. But upon leaving the university in 1801, he went (for unknown reasons) to Tiflis to take part in the administration of Georgia, a brand-new acquisition of the Russian Empire, remaining there for two years. As Mann says, on the one hand this removed him from the literary journals and the esthetic companionship “so necessary for a young writer,” but on the other it gave him fresh experiences and an acquaintance with an exotic land (as well as with the stupidity of the tsarist administration thereof). In 1803 he went to St. Petersburg, where he held various bureaucratic posts for a decade. At just this time there was a fierce quarrel in literary circles between the reactionary classicism of Shishkov and the sentimentalism of Karamzin, but Narezhny was distant from those circles and took no part in the quarrel (though he made fun of both sides in A Russian Gil Blas). He published some of his own writing, mostly antiquarian in subject, and had success with his Slavenskie vechera (‘Slavonic evenings,’ Ossianic tales set in Ancient Rus), but around 1812 he started something completely different, A Russian Gil Blas.
It’s hard to know how to summarize this sprawling, enjoyable novel. It’s not “great literature”—nobody would put it up against War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov—but it’s a wonderful read (and would make a terrific TV series). Narezhny’s prose rarely rises above the workmanlike, and there is little in the way of characterization (people are either virtuous, wicked, or foolish); his characters do whatever’s needed to advance the plot and reveal more corners of Russian life. The main character, Prince Gavrilo Chistyakov, seesaws between wealth and poverty; when he’s rich, he gives bags of money to people in need, and when he’s poor, people give him bags of money, simply because they’re generous. But it’s not just a random walk: Narezhny has constructed a cunning, complicated plot in which we meet the prince at a late stage of his adventures and his recounting of his past to the Prostakovs (the family with which he comes to stay as the novel opens) is interwoven with his activities in the novel’s now, and the interaction gradually reveals a web of relations between the Chistyakovs, the Prostakovs, and the novel’s villain, Svetlozarov. The more strands are revealed, the more you want to learn about the web, and this carries the reader pell-mell through several layers of narration and shifts of locale from villages to provincial capitals to Moscow and Warsaw. Unfortunately, he never finished the novel (since the censors had forbidden publication, there was not much point), but by the time he quit, the main outlines were clear enough that the reader is not overly frustrated.
But the plot, enjoyable as it is, isn’t the main thing. One reason we read is to hear the voice telling us the story, in some sense to get to know the author, and Narezhny is a supremely likeable fellow. He is the farthest thing imaginable from the wild-eyed popular image of the Russian author, Dostoevsky with his tormented souls and his gambling, Tolstoy with his condemnation of art and renunciation of his own literature, all the brave dissidents and stern moralists. He is essentially an eighteenth-century man, a man of the Enlightenment, amused by humanity’s folly and endless striving for things that ultimately do it no good, and you can tell from the way he treats his characters that he’s been through enough vicissitudes himself that he’s readier to sympathize than to condemn. And (as I said in the earlier post) one of the most striking things about the novel is its entirely favorable portrait of Yanka the Jew, who for a long stretch is Chistyakov’s only friend; it would be remarkable from any gentile writer of the time, but it’s astonishing for a Russian—and of course it appears to have been one of the main factors that got the novel censored and thereby removed from the life of Russian literature, which it would have done so much to leaven. Narezhny wrote more novels (Vyazemsky, in the piece I mentioned at the beginning of the post, writes about the appearance of a posthumous novel by him as even more exciting than the new works by Pushkin and Karamzin), but something went out of him with the catastrophe of A Russian Gil Blas; who knows what would have happened if it had had the success it deserved?
One consequence of its falling into oblivion is the lack of an English translation, which is truly inexcusable considering the amount of socialist-realist garbage that’s been translated over the years. I’m happy to say that this situation may be remedied: Ronald D. LeBlanc, whom I quoted at length in the previous post (and who is one of the very few people who could be called a Narezhny scholar), tells me he is planning to do one himself. If it happens, it could change the picture we now have of nineteenth-century Russian literature, and it would certainly give its readers a great deal of pleasure.