BEFORE BELINSKY.

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.
Odoevsky:

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.

Veltman:

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>

Comments

  1. Your second passage seems to have a couple of typos. Archbishop Ratti did not become Pope Pius XI until 1922, and wasn’t born until 1856, so Veltman must be referring to Pius II (Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini), who did publish an erotic novel before he became pope. Roman II must have been misread as Arabic 11 somewhere along the way. I think ‘Heliodotus’ must be Heliodorus, author of the longest of the classical Greek novels. (I’ve always found it amusing that Longus wrote the shortest: Daphnis and Chloe.)

  2. Odoevsky is very familiar to a Russian reader by his classic, “Городок в табакерке” (“A little town in a snuff-box”) which is about as boring and as didactic child’s tale as it gets. It just doesn’t cut it as a contrarian story of the epoch where talents were squeezed in Procrustes bed of serving the Good of the Society.
    My impression has always been that a large part of the blame may be placed upon post-Decembrist reaction of the regime Nicholas I, where the government forcefully inserted itself into everything creative or private, and where literature and art which didn’t praise and prop the regime didn’t have any right to exist? And so literature morphed into a subversive sport of fooling the censors.
    Of course Odoevsky himself enjoyed a bit greater freedom, being of rarefied noble blood.

  3. Veltman’s mention of a novelist named Claudius Albinius is very obscure. I think he must mean Clodius Albinus, one of the claimants to the Roman empire after Pertinax was murdered in 193. The last line of his Wikipedia entry reads “It is said that he wrote a treatise on agriculture and a collection of stories, called Milesian”, with a reference to Herodian. Milesian tales were erotic, but it’s odd that he would mention an author whose alleged works do not survive.

  4. Googling Клавдий Албиний in Russian returns the only text – Veltman’s

  5. Veltman’s Claudius Albinius could be Claudius Aelianus, whose children’s stories as well as erotica seem to have been well known to Veltman’s contemporaries. Veltman’s story is full of distorted words and names, possibly to add humorous effect.
    ‘Mothers’ – маменьки – in Odoyevskyy’s story, I think, are actually nannies, not real mothers who would accompany a children’s outing today. The word is hardly is used today in this sense.
    And канва in the context more likely means a [boring, repetitive] plot, story rather than canvas.

  6. Odoyevsky’s children’s stories, I agree, aren’t easy to read to a 5-6 year old. I had to stop and explain what’s going on to mine.
    He may not be as widely read as some other 19C writers but his Russian Nights cycle has a firm place in literature. It includes A Town without a Name distopia (antiutopia), one of the first, if not the first in modern literature, and his ‘sci-fi’ novella The Year 4338 seems to predict the internet as ‘electro magnetic lines through which people talk to each other.’ And he was a great polymath contributing to music and geography.

  7. The posted fragments reminded me of Lyudmila Petrushevskaya’s Fairy Tales (you can find them online here). On the whole. I’d say that post-perestroika, a lot of Russian literature has moved away from the “socially useful / challenging injustice” mode and there is much more experimentation. And even during the Brezhnev years that was there – a good example is Aksyonov, one of my favourite authors.

  8. I agree with LH argument that demanding of a writer to ‘say something’ for the ’cause’, to have a ‘message’ is putting an constraint on someone who simply wants to tell a good story.
    Belinsky’s line goes directly to Lenin’s notion of ‘party literature’ and socialist realism.
    Chukovsky in the 20s had to defend his cigar-smoking Crocodile and Munchausen from critics who said children needed ‘something about diesels and radios.’

  9. But they, and the intellectual climate they produced, closed off avenues that were reopened only briefly in the 1920s
    Great post but I think you are underrating the artistic climate of the Silver Age and giving the 1920s too much credit. Most of the closed avenues in Russian literature were busily reopening by 1900 or so, and that movement wasn’t stopped by 1917, for the most part it continued to develop organically, albeit in exile in some cases. Belinsky and Chernyshevsky didn’t really complete their stranglehold over Russian literature until the 1930s.

  10. I know almost nothing about Russian literature but the Beethoven analogy is interesting.
    I think in most art forms there tend to appear certain “epic” or “vast” or “serious” milestones which fascinate everyone and inspire imitations… but not every artist can be a Goethe or a Wagner, so in the wake of these monoliths you get a lot of weird half-erected towers of Babel. And even Goethe and Wagner are no picnic. It’s interesting to think about how *less* ambitious structure might have resulted in much more enjoyable works of art, in many genres, throughout history.

  11. Your second passage seems to have a couple of typos.
    Yes, I had meant to mention the oddness of those names, and I’m glad you figured out what must be intended. But the typos must go back to the early editions, because they’re in all the modern ones. (For some reason, though Google has scanned the nineteenth-century editions of Veltman, they’re all “No preview.” Bah!)
    Odoevsky is very familiar to a Russian reader by his classic, “Городок в табакерке” (“A little town in a snuff-box”) which is about as boring and as didactic child’s tale as it gets. It just doesn’t cut it as a contrarian story of the epoch where talents were squeezed in Procrustes bed of serving the Good of the Society.
    I’m sorry you had that story imposed on you as a child, but it’s hardly fair to judge an author by an early reaction to a single story. I hated Dickens and Thomas Hardy when they were forced on me in high school. Odoevsky is really an excellent writer.
    ‘Mothers’ – маменьки – in Odoyevskyy’s story, I think, are actually nannies, not real mothers who would accompany a children’s outing today. The word is hardly is used today in this sense.
    And канва in the context more likely means a [boring, repetitive] plot, story rather than canvas.

    Argh! I actually know what маменьки means, but I was composing the post hurriedly, too late at night, and I simply had a brain fart. Thanks, I’ve corrected it. As for канва, you may be right about what he implied by it, but the fact is that he used the word for ‘canvas,’ and even Dahl doesn’t mention any such extended sense, so I’m going to leave it as is.
    I’d say that post-perestroika, a lot of Russian literature has moved away from the “socially useful / challenging injustice” mode and there is much more experimentation.
    Yes, that’s true, and I should have said “until the end of the Soviet Union” or some such. Before that, while there were writers like Aksyonov (one of my favorites as well), they were hardly favorites of either the authorities or official critics.
    Great post but I think you are underrating the artistic climate of the Silver Age and giving the 1920s too much credit. Most of the closed avenues in Russian literature were busily reopening by 1900 or so, and that movement wasn’t stopped by 1917, for the most part it continued to develop organically, albeit in exile in some cases.
    Interesting point; I’ll have to think about that. This post is just a hasty preliminary scribbling-down of thoughts that have been brewing for some time now—by the time I’ve worked through the nineteenth century and gotten to the Silver Age, I’ll have a much better sense of how things developed.

  12. Bill Walderman says:

    Art for art’s sake didn’t completely vanish in Russian literature until the Silver Age, as Tiuchev and Fet illustrate.
    “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.”
    Schubert? Mendelssohn? And what about Beethoven’s own 4th, 6th, 7th and 8th Symphonies?

  13. Bill Walderman says:

    “every new novel was scrutinized for its service to the cause of the People.”
    And although Turgeniev and Chekhov dealt with social issues in their prose writings–as any writer truthfully engaging with his or her contemporary society must–they did so by sensitive and perceptive description, not by aiming at prescribing solutions, in a way that transcends the contingencies of 19th century Russian life, and they seem to me to have successfully avoided dedicating their writing careers to “service to the cause of the People” in a narrow, Chernyshevskian sense.

  14. Re kanva, I just had another look at the passage and clapped with delight, it’s so masterly constructed. It starts with Genlis novels and Chesterfield’s letters, which the reader takes are physical objects, and then slips to ‘moldy sentences’ and Italian roulades, which are not. There’s a sliding scale from physical to metaphysical crowned with a bunch of Petersburg rumours.
    I don’t insist he means kanva as plot, main thread, composition but why is it in there with the rest?
    Dahl doesn’t note the figurative meaning, curiously, but Mikhelson has it in both meanings in ‘Explanation of 25,000 foreign words that have entered into usage in Russian language.’ Same year as Dahl – 1865. So do Chudinov, 1910, and Popov, 1907. See here.
    And Vyazemsky, a contemporary of Veltman’s, has an article on roughly the same subject as this post entitled ‘Современные темы, или канва для журнальных статей’ (Modern Topics, or a Thread for Magazine Articles). It’s here, Chapter III and further on Gogol and Belinsky. Vyazemsky’s thinking is very close to yours.

  15. they did so by sensitive and perceptive description, not by aiming at prescribing solutions, in a way that transcends the contingencies of 19th century Russian life, and they seem to me to have successfully avoided dedicating their writing careers to “service to the cause of the People” in a narrow, Chernyshevskian sense.
    Well, of course; I specifically said Belinsky didn’t ruin Russian literature (it took Stalin to do that). My point was not that he turned writers into People-serving robots but that he successfully changed people’s ideas of what novel-writing was all about. Try and find any Russian novel after, say, Dead Souls with the kind of freewheeling invention people like Veltman and Odoevsky took for granted.
    Mikhelson has it in both meanings in ‘Explanation of 25,000 foreign words that have entered into usage in Russian language.’ Same year as Dahl – 1865. So do Chudinov, 1910, and Popov, 1907. See here.
    OK, I’m convinced! And I’m glad you liked the passage as much as I did.

  16. Bill Walderman says:

    “Try and find any Russian novel after, say, Dead Souls with the kind of freewheeling invention people like Veltman and Odoevsky took for granted.”
    Not to be argumentative, but was this really a uniquely Russian phenomenon resulting from Belinsky and his followers? The mid- to late 19th century was the great age of realism in European literature: Balzac, Flaubert, Zola, Dickens, Eliot, Thackeray, Hardy etc. Russia was no exception.

  17. marie-lucie says:

    канва
    I enjoy learning about Russian literature, about which I know little, but I am puzzled by the use of this word and of English canvas, compared to French un canevas (pronounced about the same as the Russian word borrowed from it). In its concrete meaning the French word refers to a kind of very loosely woven but stiffened cloth used as a support for the kind of embroidery which covers the supporting threads, such as gros point, petit point (tapestry stitches, normally done with thick woollen thread) and cross-stitch (a type of embroidery which can be done on canevas – especially in order to learn how to do it – or a less loose cloth for permanent decoration). In this concrete meaning the word never refers to the cloth used by artists as a support for painting (a canvas = Fr une toile). In its literary meaning it means the general plot of a play or novel, on which details are “embroidered”, whether by improvising actors or by an author. I don’t remember encountering canvas in English with this meaning. The Russian word seems to have the French literary meaning, but this is not entirely clear to me from the discussions above.

  18. Bill Walderman says:

    And Odoevsky sounds like he owes as much (or more) to E.T.A. Hoffmann as to Gogol.

  19. The figurative sense of canvas most familiar to me in English is that of the background story or situation, where the metaphor is clearly from painting rather than embroidery. Unfortunately the OED is locking me out, and none of my other dictionaries have anything to say about this figurative use. Here, however, is a typical use: “If we look at a wider canvas, humanity has witnessed unimaginable, enormous and immeasurable changes and progress in the last one thousand years.”
    It’s nice that canvas, cannabis, hemp are an etymological triplet. As for toile, it has been part of English for eight centuries, albeit in a different sense.

  20. marie-lucie says:

    Thanks JC, I know about the “wider canvas” like a huge painting, but its use in your example is not in a literary but a historical context. The metaphor is static, like looking at a landscape, which remains fixed while all sorts of activities are taking place in it, not dynamic in the sense of a basic outline of a story or sequence of events, also involving characters, that will be developed by actors and/or writers (playwrights, screenwriters, as well as novelists). In French, only the second type would call for the term un canevas, while the first type would be une toile de fond, a “background canvas”, like the back scenery in a theatre.

  21. “My impression has always been that a large part of the blame may be placed upon post-Decembrist reaction of the regime Nicholas I, where the government forcefully inserted itself into everything creative or private, and where literature and art which didn’t praise and prop the regime didn’t have any right to exist?” – Dmitry Pruss (aka MOCKBA)
    I suspect you are projecting Stalin onto Nicholas I. The emperor would rather have literature stay away from politics and social criticism altogether. Senkovsky’s harmless babbling was OK, although I doubt Nicholas thought highly of it. I would guess that a literary equivalent of Caspar David Friedrich would have delighted Nicholas.

  22. Marie-Lucie’s explanation of canevas fits the Russian word канва perfectly. When I see the English word “canvas,” I think of painting, sailing, or summer shoes. (Of elections if I am in that mood.) When I come across канва, I think of embroidery.
    To be honest, it had never occurred to me that канва was a French loan until I was shown the original word. It sounds like an old non-IE borrowing or a native Slavic word. Compare ботва, халва, Москва.

  23. Alexei – regarding elections, it’s a different kanva – it’s canvass with a double s. I am not sure how it happened that the two split in English.
    it had never occurred to me that канва was a French loan
    maybe that’s why Dahl refused to enter it’s figurative meaning?

  24. un canevas
    The Russian word seems to have the French literary meaning, but this is not entirely clear to me from the discussions above.

    Marie-Lucie, kanva originally had both meanings, exactly like in French. Russian dictionaries still list both, with the literal as first, and point to the French canevas as the origin of the word, even though there are far fewer people engaged in embroidery than there were in the early 19C. Вышивать по канве – to embroider on canvas/canevas was a respectable ladies’ pastime then. When I was in primary school in Moscow we were still taught, both girls and boys, how to do it with мулине – moulinet – thread, not on canevas but on ватман – Whatman – paper. We made embroidered cards to give to our mothers for 8 March, and mothers had to run all over town to get the мулине.

  25. There is another idiom in Russian with a similar meaning: красная нить – red thread. Служение народу проходит красной нитью через его произведения – The idea of serving the people goes as a red thread through his works. There is the red thread of fate in Japanese folklore, but I somehow connect it with German.
    Does anyone know more?

  26. Alexei K. says:

    “regarding elections, it’s a different kanva – it’s canvass with a double s. I am not sure how it happened that the two split in English.”
    Not that different really as most dictionaries agree that “canvass” was derived from an alternative spelling of “canvas.” Even now, the verb is occasionally spelled with a single s.

  27. LH himself uses “canvas” in the sense of “examine” or “go through” (“He then goes on to canvas other sources”) – where M-W clearly prescribes “canvass.”

  28. SFReader says:

    Goethe used this expression in one of his works “Die Wahlverwandschaften” (“Elective Affinities”) written in 1809:
    “There is, we are told, a curious contrivance in the service of the English marine. The ropes in use in the royal navy, from the largest to the smallest, are so twisted that a red thread runs through them from end to end, which cannot be extracted without undoing the whole; and by which the smallest pieces may be recognized as belonging to the crown. Just so is there drawn through Ottilie’s diary, a thread of attachment…”

  29. I thought the red thread of fate was from an old Chinese legend (and I was right, see Wikipedia).

  30. i thought narodnost’ was about not the national character, but about democracy and progress, about which count Vyazemsky seems was so angry about, his argument about the aristocratic writers having all the same merits contributing to the real literature sounds kinda like pretty funny, i remember reading in John Shemyakin’s fb posts i guess that Tyutchev was so a terrible pomeshik whipping his serfs and taking pleasure in that that now all his poems seem like contaminated
    wasn’t it said in a previous thread that all what was good in the russian literature came from and through the european influences, and now this argument that the quest for national character though it’s maybe about the democratic values as if like almost ruined the russian classical literature seems like adding to that argument, maybe Belinskii and his “ilk” as if like whipped out helped it to become the world literature with the great humanistic values, otherwise maybe it would have been really the national literature as with the other east european national literatures, just for example, as if like a pale imitation of everything european, which is not to say that the national literatures are somehow inferior, of course no, just unknown to the wider audiences
    our Danzanravjaa for example who lived around the same time Pushkin lived seems was like Pushkin in our language, the ideas he wrote about sound very modern cz just very buddhist i guess, but alas he would be never known to the wider readers cycles unless one knows Mongolian and when translated his poems lose too much

  31. “every new novel was scrutinized for its service to the cause of the People.”
    Following up on my earlier comments (in which I tried to engage with and reacted to your thoughts–in a way that I hope comes across as constructive and not combative), it seems to me that this was just a manifestation, in the Russian context of a cruel autocracy, huge disparities of wealth and poverty, and an enormous population of peasants living in abject misery, of an attitude that was particularly pervasive (if not universal) in second half of the 19th century, and not just in Russia, but elsewhere in Europe, too: namely, that imaginative literature has to serve some socially useful purpose and shouldn’t be merely “frivolous.”
    Maybe this goes back to Plato’s condemnation of the poets, and it’s an undercurrent that is still around in some quarters, I think. But in Victorian England, for example, novels were expected to justify themselves by offering their readers moral “improvement.” Even Dostoevsky, and most certainly Tolstoy, shared this attitude, and it didn’t hamper them from producing their masterpieces.

  32. And Odoevsky sounds like he owes as much (or more) to E.T.A. Hoffmann as to Gogol.
    I doubt he owed anything to Gogol, who was five or six years younger and didn’t start publishing until Odoevsky was an established writer. And almost all Russian writers worth reading in the pre-Belinsky days owed a huge debt to Hoffmann; he and Sterne were major influences on all European literature in those day.
    where M-W clearly prescribes “canvass.”
    No, they give that as the first of two alternative forms, of which I prefer the second (one s).
    an attitude that was particularly pervasive (if not universal) in second half of the 19th century, and not just in Russia, but elsewhere in Europe, too: namely, that imaginative literature has to serve some socially useful purpose and shouldn’t be merely “frivolous.”
    Yes, but (as so often) Russia took the idea and ran with it (Isaiah Berlin has a good essay on this tendency). You will note that alongside the Serious Writers England had its Carroll and Conan Doyle and Kipling; the Russian imitations of Conan Doyle were subliterary works read only by the lower classes, and there was no equivalent of Carroll at all. My point (once again) is not that the attitude was exclusive to Russia but that it took over Russian literary thought completely.
    and it didn’t hamper them from producing their masterpieces.
    As I said.

  33. An interesting fact I just learned: Odoevsky “was foremost in Russia in promoting the music of Beethoven and Bach.”

  34. SFReader says:

    — our Danzanravjaa for example who lived around the same time Pushkin lived seems was like Pushkin in our language, the ideas he wrote about sound very modern cz just very buddhist i guess, but alas he would be never known to the wider readers cycles unless one knows Mongolian and when translated his poems lose too much
    To advance knowledge to wider reader cycles, here is a sample of his poetry in good English translation:
    Your perfect qualities,
    are like colors reflected in a mirror.
    I see your shining face, my dear,
    and truly you have captured
    my entire mind and body.
    Like the cuckoo’s song,
    you relieve the stress in my mind.
    Your kind words are gentle, my dear,
    with such kindness you sit
    and offer comfort.
    Your elegant body,
    borne upon the breeze,
    is beyond words, my dear.
    Like the scent of red sandalwood,
    you more and more entrance my thoughts.
    Like the taste of honey
    flowing from the heart of the lotus,
    joy in you, my dear,
    makes me ever happier,
    Happier beyond belief.
    In this human age,
    to do what you wish
    is to wish for the things of heaven.
    afloat upon the ocean of deep enjoyment,
    Let us be joyful together.

  35. but it sounds in Ulemjiin chanar a bit differently in my language it seems to me, there no one word can be substituted to not alter the harmony of thoughts and sounds i guess when in English it could be translated this or other ways and still would sound just a regular love poem
    the same thing happens with Pushkin in translation and all poetry in the general perhaps too i guess

  36. I suspect you are projecting Stalin onto Nicholas I. The emperor would rather have literature stay away from politics and social criticism altogether
    No disagreement – staying away from open politics and social criticism was politics; “Autocracy, Orthodoxy, Nationalism” (Самодержавие, Православие, Народность) was the regime’s motto and if you interlace it with Pétain’s “travail, famille, patrie”, then it would become what the aim of the literature and the arms: to glorify family and faith and nation and the existing social structure and traditional mores. What’s not political in the politics of reactionaries?
    I would think that the main reason why someone like Belinsky made such an apparently outsize effect on the ways of thinking was because he was a mere catalyst; the concepts were already in the air, and the political atmosphere itself was ripe to precipitate it.
    Indeed, wasn’t it Pushkin himself who so eloquently insisted on social calling of literature, like in 1926 “Prophet” (“set people’s hearts ablaze with your word!”); and, revisiting the theme in 1834 “Monument” (epigraphed “exegi monumentum”), placed poetry above the Columns of the Emperors for its glorifying Liberty in cruel times)?

  37. canvas-canvass
    So, oil on canvas can be -s/ss but canvass the voters is only -ss?
    Beethoven
    One of the popular stories (it’s included in Russian Nights) is Beethoven’s Last Quartet – with an epigraph from Hoffmann. Russian Nights are online here.

  38. oh i forgot to say thanks to SFR
    and even in the tsarist slogan is narodnost’ there really nationalism? it maybe says ” for people”, no? it doesnt specify which narod, maybe bc of being always that, multinational Russia, no?
    nowadays russkoe everything kino, tv etc. sounds more like that, for the national character, which is of course justified too, being really russkoe everything, just for the russian speaking multinationals must be it sounds pretty not that welcoming, or maybe that’s better for them than to be included into the blanket rossiskoe kino, tv and everything, previous soviet adjective was kinda pretty neutral in that regard and inclusive i guess

  39. J.W. Brewer says:

    Perhaps they did not quite get to the level of Nicholas I because of differences in circumstances and historical background, but quite a lot of German-speaking polities at around the same time (say from the Carlsbad Decrees of 1819 through the tumults of 1848) had autocratic governments, pervasive censorship, and a distrust of the seditious tendencies of the intelligentsia. How did that affect German literature, in terms of the same balance between the Serious and Socially Relevant, and the merely frivolous? Heine went into exile for political reasons, but I think (perhaps inaccurately?) of a lot of the stuff he wrote as taking the more Nabakovian art-for-art’s-sake side of this divide. But 19th century German lit is really not my expertise – I’m just offering it as a possible point of comparison for this story about how and why Russian lit evolved the way it did.

  40. J.W. Brewer says:

    I’m not sure what theory of the goals or social function of literature is implied by “Travail, Famille, Patrie,” but I’m guessing it might not result in the novels of that noted collaborationiste Celine. But there he is, and there they are, and I don’t think the Vichy authorities tried to suppress them.

  41. the Russian imitations of Conan Doyle were subliterary works read only by the lower classes, and there was no equivalent of Carroll at all
    Until Fandorin came along 100 years too late…

  42. is narodnost’ there really nationalism?
    probably not in every sense; Народность narodnost’ is an ambiguous word because it may infer народ “nationality, ethnic group” or народ “populace, the oppressed masses”. So narodnost’ is part nationalism, part populism.
    Czarist concept of Народность meant respecting Russian traditional cultural and family values, as well as the central role of Russian language and culture in the multilingual empire; treating the populace patronizingly as the children of the monarch; and rejecting foreign influences and depravities. But it definitely didn’t imply systematic oppression of all minorities; instead, it more or less singled out Jews as the targets of oppression.
    Wikipedia entry assumes, probably correctly, that the word narodnost’ has been coined as calque for German Volkstum, and in antithesis to Chaadayevism. A part of narodnost’ meant support for “subliterary works read only by the lower classe” such the Komarov’s “Milord George” (which we already discussed at LH) and other lubok-quality literature.
    what theory of the goals or social function of literature is implied by “Travail, Famille, Patrie,” :) I was still reminiscing about Odoyevsky’s “Snuffbox” (Городок в табакерке). (Sorry LH, I know that my personal opinions of classic books irk you every now and then, but still…) No I don’t remember reading Snuffbox Town as a child, but I do remember going though it with my own children, and boy what a tale of the Importance of Hierarchy and Traditional Roles it was! “Everybody must be a keg / a wheel of the grand mechanism of the society; know thy proper preordained place; we are all family and if you don’t obey the order than the whole world will come apart”. That’s what literature of the reactionaries should be, and that’s what it is, isn’t it?

  43. Bill Walderman says:

    “the Russian imitations of Conan Doyle were subliterary works read only by the lower classes, and there was no equivalent of Carroll at all”
    Isn’t this just as true of 19th century French literature, too?

  44. J.W. Brewer says:

    It seems clear that a reactionary regime would be opposed to literature that seems to promote an anti-regime political/social agenda, but I’m puzzled as to whether it needs to take sides between literature that affirmatively promotes a pro-regime political/social agenda versus literature that seems merely a source of apolitical amusement. Whether art-for-art’s-sake (or amusement-for-amusement’s-sake) is itself perceived as some sort of implicit critique of the regime seems likely to be an issue that wouldn’t have the same answer across times and places. But my point with Celine (and one could perhaps throw Pound among others into the mix, although “reactionary” may be a tricky label for the regime Pound was identified with) is that it’s not hard in the 20th century to identify writers politically identified with regimes commonly thought reactionary whose own work was rather avant-garde and I suppose non-Snuffboxlike, and I would not be surprised if the same were true in earlier time periods.

  45. I’m no expert on 19th century French literature, but they had writers like Pierre Louÿs and Jules Verne. (Nobody, of course, had a Carroll but the English, so that may have been unfair of me.)

  46. The OED says this, rather prescriptively, about the spelling of canvas(s):

    The spelling canvas, with one s, plural canvases (compare atlases) is, it will be seen, more etymological than canvass, and now predominates; this spelling is also better used in the verb with the literal sense of ‘furnish or line with canvas’, whence canvased, canvasing; but the old derivative verb with sense ‘to toss in a sheet, discuss, debate, solicit votes’, is now always spelt canvass, and this spelling is retained in the verbal n. in turn derived from it, as the electoral canvass.

    Note also the contrast between the Old French forms chanevaz and canabasser. But in fact either spelling has been and may be used in any sense.

  47. SFReader says:

    —the Russian imitations of Conan Doyle
    Isn’t “Crime and Punishment” a detective novel?

  48. Only sort of. Northrop Frye says:

    The fact that we are now in an ironic phase of literature largely accounts for the popularity of the detective story, the formula of how a man-hunter locates a pharmakos [scapegoat] and gets rid of him. The detective story begins in the Sherlock Holmes period as an intensification of low mimetic [mode, that of most comedy and "realistic" fiction], in the sharpening of attention to details that makes the dullest and most neglected trivia of daily living leap into mysterious and fateful significance. But as we move further away from this we move toward a ritual drama around a corpse in which a wavering finger of social condemnation passes over a group of “suspects” and finally settles on one. The sense of a victim chosen by lot is very strong, for the case against him is only plausibly manipulated. If it were really inevitable, we should have tragic irony, as in Crime and Punishment, where Raskolnikoff’s crime is so interwoven with his character that there can be no question of any “whodunit” mystery.

  49. The Germans had Karl May. Wouldn’t he be comparable to Kipling or Verne?

  50. Sure, that’s my point—everybody had Serious Literature, but only in Russia was that the only option (other than trash).

  51. a ritual drama around a corpse in which a wavering finger of social condemnation passes over a group of “suspects” and finally settles on one.
    Surely this only applies to the classic British-style detective story, whereby all the suspects are artificially gathered into one place as the master detective plays with them until he finally outs the real murderer.
    American hard-boiled crime fiction is somewhat different.

  52. It’s most obvious there, yes, but I think it’s equally true of all formal detective stories. In one chapter you find yourself convinced that X did it; in the next chapter the villain must be Y, and then you return to X before settling on Z. Even in howcatchems (as opposed to whodunits) there is an element of uncertainty, even if the reader doesn’t share it with the characters.

  53. Bill Walderman says:

    Are you sure there was no “middle-brow” writing in Russia after Belinsky? That none of the “trash” had any redeeming value?
    Also, in comparing the 19th century Russian literary scene with the contemporary situation in western Europe, don’t you have to take into account the fact that the reading public for English and French writing was much broader than that for Russian? The market for imaginative fiction in Russian, as well as the supply of writers capable of imaginative fiction, must have been much smaller than the English, French or German comparables–and most literate Russians probably had access to one or more of French, English or German writing anyway. Maybe the middle-brow market in Russia was adequately served by foreign-language works or, more likely, by translations of Dumas, Verne, etc. Maybe what seems to be an absence of middle-level literature in Russian is just an artefact of the social history of the Russian reading public rather that the product of an attitude that imaginative fiction had to be momentous and earth-shaking.

  54. Bill, I don’t think the point is whether there was or wasn’t ‘other’ literature in Russia. The point is that he instilled a judgment principle that whatever in literature that does not serve ‘the cause’ is not worthy of the ‘real literature.’ That principle stayed on for far too long, and still survives.
    It overlaps, but is different from the high-brow – low-brow argument in English-French literature, or literary criticism.
    On the subject, may I recommend an excellent short story by Maugham, The Creative Impulse, in which a ‘master of the semi-colon’ and a hostess of the grandest literary salon in London, who is admired by critics but cannot sell, is abandoned by her husband for their cook, who is a fan of detectives, like the husband. She makes an extraordinary twist in her literary career. But I don’t want to spoil the enjoyment, read it.

  55. Thanks for the recommendation, Hat.
    My only point, I guess, is that maybe Russian literature (and I think you’re much more familiar with the details than I am) evolved through the 19th century in synch with the general trends of European literature, and perhaps didn’t run off on a tangent of its own to so great an extent as you might suggest. But I have to confess that you know much more about this subject than I do. My exposure has been mainly to Tolstoy and above all, Dostoevski–the big guns.

  56. Well, sure it evolved in synch with the general trends of European literature; my point is not that it went off on a tangent of its own but that due to the peculiar development of the Russian intelligentsia they had a much narrower view of what constituted real literature than others. Sashura (who gave you the recommendation, by the way) summed it up quite well.

  57. Thank you, Sashura!

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