Vissarion Belinsky‘s “Литературные мечтания” [Literary musings] has been called “the beginning of Russian intelligentsia journalism”; he wrote this, his first major essay, at the age of twenty-three, and when it was published at the end of 1834 it attracted immediate attention. It’s a long survey of the history of Russian literature, which he divides into four periods; the third, dominated by Pushkin, ended in 1830, but the new prosaic period has as yet no leaders, though Veltman and Lazhechnikov are promising talents. His main claim, which he keeps returning to, is that there is no truly national literature in Russia, by which he means authors who “fully express and reproduce in their works the spirit of that people among whom they are born and raised, by whose life they live and whose spirit they breathe” [вполне выражающих и воспроизводящих в своих изящных созданиях дух того народа, среди которого они рождены и воспитаны, жизнию которого они живут и духом которого дышат]. He says of Pushkin that any European poet could have written “Prisoner of the Caucasus,” “The Fountain of Bakhchisarai,” or “The Gypsies,” but only a Russian could have written “Eugene Onegin” and “Boris Godunov”: “Absolute national character [narodnost'] is available only to people free from foreign influences” [Безотносительная народность доступна только для людей, свободных от чуждых иноземных влияний]. This was, of course, an expression of the spirit of nationalism that was spreading all over Europe at the time, and it might have been harmless enough as a passing fancy, like the philosophy of Schelling which was so popular in those days; unfortunately it took root to such an extent that it’s never really been dislodged, and combined with the insistence on socially useful literature espoused by Belinsky and his fellow radical critics Dobrolyubov and Chernyshevsky, it created an entirely new environment for Russian writers, one in which that brilliant fantast Gogol was pressed into service as an analyst of social ills and every new novel was scrutinized for its service to the cause of the People. This, of course, is exactly what Nabokov reacted against so strongly (and what got him condemned as un-Russian when he was publishing his early novels), and the more I read what was published in the first third of the nineteenth century, the more I realize what was lost.
Don’t get me wrong: Belinsky and his ilk didn’t ruin Russian literature; it went from strength to strength, and by the end of the century Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were seen everywhere as giants of world literature. But they, and the intellectual climate they produced, closed off avenues that were reopened only briefly in the 1920s, before Stalin closed them off again with his ungentle grip. It’s comparable to what happened in European classical music; after Beethoven, nobody could write symphonies that were simply pleasant to listen to, they had to storm the gates of heaven and express new Truths about Life. Well, I don’t always want to see gates stormed; sometimes (often, in fact) I just want to see artistic magic worked by artists who are enjoying themselves and their art and surprising me with the results. Let me give you a couple of examples from my recent reading, both published in 1833 (Russian at the end of the post).
Vladimir Odoevsky‘s “Сказка о том, как опасно девушкам ходить толпою по Невскому проспекту” [Tale of How Dangerous It Is for Girls to Walk in a Crowd along Nevsky Prospect] describes eleven young women walking down the street accompanied by three nannies. Unfortunately, the nannies lose count and leave one of them behind in a fashionable store whose proprietor turns out to be a wizard (and a “foreign infidel” [заморский басурманин]) assisted by a brainless French head, an English belly, and a German nose; he puts a glass bell jar over her and considers how to proceed:
The wizard thought for a long time; finally he waved his hand again, and before them appeared a tripod, a bain-marie, and a retort, and the villains went to work.
Into the retort they squeezed a multitude of novels by Madame de Genlis, the letters of Chesterfield, some moldy maxims, a blank plot, Italian roulades, a dozen new contredanses, some computations of English moral arithmetic, and distilled from all this a sort of colorless and soulless liquid. Then the wizard opened the window, moved his arm around in the air of Nevsky Prospect, and grabbed a handful of city gossip, rumors, and stories; finally, he pulled from a drawer a huge bundle of papers and with savage joy showed it to his comrades: clippings from diplomatic correspondence and extracts from a letter-writing manual, containing assurances of deepest respect and true devotion—all this the villains, leaping and guffawing, began to mix with their devilish brew: the French head fanned the flames, the German nose stirred, and the English belly, like a pestle, pounded it.
With this hellish mix they turn the girl into a soulless doll who irritates exceedingly the young romantic who buys her.
From Alexander Veltman‘s second novel, Кощей бессмертный [Koshchei the Immortal]; he’s been describing a bucolic medieval scene, with a cocky young lordling [барич] tormenting some village lads, when we suddenly get:
This circumstance would likely have remained forgotten, like many that are superficially insignificant but at bottom important, to which History does not turn its solicitous attention, if I had not followed the frenzied fashion of writing novels and had not imitated Apuleius, Petronius, Claudius Albinius, Pope Pius XI, Heliodotus, and all the ancient, medieval, and modern novelists.
Poor reader! Who has not taken advantage of your weakness, of your credulity! Who has not led you through the thorns of style, the ruins of subject matter, the tombs of sense, the abyss of absurdities?
The lordling was around twenty; he was of medium height, like all great people; he was healthy and ruddy of face.
In our day his mother would have put her only son into a deck of cards as the king of diamonds.
Now, I’m not saying any of this rivals War and Peace or The Brothers Karamazov. But it’s unexpected, and it’s a lot of fun, and literature loses something important when that kind of fun is no longer allowed.
And the whole nationalist issue is stupid anyway; no amount of “foreign influences” will change the fact that a Russian writer will always be a Russian and write Russian books. As Douglas Dunn said of Scottish poets (like Norman MacCaig) who write in English, “the English written by Scottish poets is … English repossessed by the voice of the Scots vernacular.” And anyway, who cares? What’s important is that it be human, and that it be good art. The rest is pettiness.
Думал, долго думал чародей, наконец махнул еще рукою, и пред собранием явился треножник, мариина баня и реторта, и злодеи принялись за работу.
В реторту втиснули они множество романов мадам Жанлис, Честерфильдовы письма, несколько заплесневелых сентенций, канву, итальянские рулады, дюжину новых контрадансов, несколько выкладок из английской нравственной арифметики и выгнали из всего этого какую-то бесцветную и бездушную жидкость. Потом чародей отворил окошко, повёл рукою по воздуху Невского проспекта и захватил полную горсть городских сплетней, слухов и рассказов; наконец из ящика вытащил огромный пук бумаг и с дикою радостию показал его своим товарищам; то были обрезки от дипломатических писем и отрывки из письмовника, в коих содержались уверения в глубочайшем почтении и истинной преданности; всё это злодеи, прыгая и хохоча, ну мешать с своим бесовским составом: французская голова раздувала огонь, немецкий нос размешивал, а английский живот, словно пест, утаптывал.
Это обстоятельство осталось бы, верно, в забвении, подобно многим, по наружности ничтожным, а в сущности важным обстоятельствам, на которые История не обращает своего заботливого внимания, если б я не последовал исступленной моде писать Романы и не подражал Апулею, Петронию, Клавдию Албинию, Папе Пию 11-му, Гелиодоту и всем, всем древним, средним и новым романистам.
Бедный читатель! Кто не пользовался твоею слабостью, твоей доверчивостью! Кто не водил тебя по терниям слога, по развалинам предмета, по могилам смысла, по пучине несообразностей?
Баричу было уже лет около двадцати от роду. Он был среднего роста, как вообще все великие люди; был здоров и красен лицом.
В настоящее время его родительница положила бы единородного своего сына на картах бубновым королем./blockquote>