CHRESTOMATHY.

Chrestomathy,” by Anatoly Belilovsky (from the speculative fiction magazine Ideomancer) takes a counterfactual—what if Pushkin had survived that duel?—and runs with it; it’s a clever collection of imaginary writings, prominently featuring “The Reluctant Revolutionist,” by Vladimir Nabokov (St Petersburg, 1937—the city name and the date combine to produce a frisson all by themselves). You needn’t accept the plausibility of his speculations (Dred Scott went the other way! there was no Civil War!) to enjoy the pastiches and the general fun. Of course, Belilovsky is not the first person to have had that idea, and if you visit the MetaFilter thread where I found the link, you will find a comment by me quoting a chunk of Nabokov’s greatest novel, The Gift, in which he takes the conceit to a much higher level.

Incidentally, while investigating something else entirely I happened on an 1828 issue of The Foreign Review, and Continental Miscellany that contained a thirty-page review essay, starting on p. 279, of “Opŭity Kratkoi Istorii Ruskoi Literaturŭi, &c. A Sketch of Russian Literature. By Nicholas Ivanovich Grech. 8vo. St. Petersburg, 1822.” The anonymous but well-informed reviewer [apparently William Henry Leeds—thanks, MMcM!] has taken the opportunity to provide a splendid tour d’horizon, starting out with a plea for the importance of the subject (“At the present day her literature is but imperfectly known to her immediate neighbours, and still less in this country; — yet a language spoken by nearly forty million of people, containing upwards of eighty thousand printed works, may reasonably be supposed to deserve some attention, and to possess some treasures for the reward of the diligent student”) and making a comparison with German (“Had any one, half a century ago, inquired whether the Germans possessed a literature, he would probably have been told, either that ‘High-Dutch’ was the most barbarous and dissonant of modern idioms, utterly incapable of eloquent or elegant expression ; or that their only writers were dull commentators, and insufferable pedants — for the very idea of German poetry was an absurdity”) before going on to discuss the early annalists, Prokopovich, Kantemir, Lomonosov, Sumarokov (“one among the few poets of Russia whose names were known to foreigners”), Kheraskov, Derzhavin (of whom “it is almost impossible to speak too highly”), Karamzin, Krylov, and Batiushkov. Then:

After the foregoing names, we may justly place the author of ‘Ruslan and Liudmila.’ Whilst yet a youth, Pushkin exhibited in that delightful poem, in six cantos, powers of description, and a rapidity and brilliancy of narrative, which have obtained for him the appellation of the Northern Ariosto. In this production he transports us into the fabulous era of Russian history, rife with prodigies and enchantments. [There follows a detailed description of the poem, with a number of translated excerpts.] Such is a brief outline of this romance, which is related with a grace and felicity that would do credit to the author of the ‘Bridal of Triermain.’ We have dwelt upon it at some length, as it is one of the most celebrated productions of the later literature of Russia. Pushkin’s ‘Prisoner of the Caucasus,’ although a sketch, exhibits perhaps still higher powers, and delineates with an energy, which frequently reminds us of Byron in his ‘Corsair,’ the wild scenery and the bandit manners of the robber-hordes of that district, relieved by softer pictures, full of pathos and passion. [...] To this succeeded his ‘Fountain of Bakhchisarai,’ which, for eloquent poetry and depth of feeling, is even superior. Among the other points of this poet’s resemblance to Byron may be mentioned his facility of composition, and variety of subjects; his ‘Eugenius Onægin,’ which, like ‘Beppo,’ is designed as a satire on the follies of the fashionable world, is not only curious as a picture of the manners of the higher classes in Russia at the present day, but also attractive for the touches of loftier poetry, and the warmth of feeling which it occasionally displays. Like ‘Don Juan,’ this production has been published piecemeal, and is not, we believe yet completed, so that we cannot judge sufficiently of the plan to express any opinion of its merits.

The reviewer goes on to discuss “The Gypsies” and “Vadim: A Novgorodian Tale,” then applies a touch of the lash: “instead of sending forth so many slight compositions, we should be better pleased to find him applying his talent to some work of varied and sustained interest, worthy his powers, and redeeming the promise of excellence given in his Ruslan and Liudmila.” He discusses many other authors, ending by saying “for the future [Russian literature] is full of hope and promise.” I must say I’m astonished that such an affectionate and comprehensive survey was available to the English reading public in 1828; the reviewer certainly has no reason to feel abashed if he’s sitting on a cloud somewhere looking back at his work sub specie aeternitatis. And there you have Pushkin, with eight years still to live, in which he would apply his talent to works of varied and sustained interest, worthy his powers, and redeem the promise of excellence he had given. I’m glad I found it. (Heck, it was worth it just for “Eugenius Onægin”!)

I also found a 1916 Foreign Book List of the American Library Association, which lists with brief but informative descriptions a great many recent publications in Russian, then finishes up with an astonishing few paragraphs beginning “The names of several widely read writers of modern Russian fiction [...] have been omitted as being unsuitable for public library use” and ending “They belongs [sic] to the decadent school, which will probably be short lived, and are entirely unsuitable to put into the hands of immigrant people.” You can read the whole thing here, and I’ll paste in a hotlinked image for those of you who can see it:

Thank goodness that kind of open snobbery and contempt is pretty much gone from the printed page, if not from the human heart.

Comments

  1. I learn that ‘Michel Artsicbachev’ (whom I haven’t read), was the great grandson of one famous naturalized American, Tadeusz Kosciuszko, and the father of another, the wonderful illustrator and anti-Nazi propagandist Boris Artzybasheff.

  2. John Emerson says:

    In his youth Prosper Merimee wrote a book of fake translations of non-existent Serbian folk songs. (The Balkans were in vogue around 1820-1830, vampires etc.) Pushkin and Mickiewicz both translated some of these songs. Much later Merimee (a Russian scholar among other things) translated one of Pushkin’s translations back into French. Link
    Pushkin and Mickiewicz were friends and supposedly Pushkin, who worked slowly, envied Mickeiwicz’s effortless poetry. Still supposedly, when he picked up the rumor about Salieri poisoning Mozart and wrote a story about it, he saw himself in the envious Salieri,and (just as supposedly) when Rimsky Korsakoff made it into an opera, he saw himself as Salieri and Musorgsky as Mozart.
    This is fact, though: Salieri was at Haydn’s deathbed too.

  3. anonymous but well-informed reviewer
    Probably William Henry Leeds.

  4. See here.

  5. Probably William Henry Leeds.
    Thanks! I was hoping somebody would know, and I can’t say I’m surprised it turned out to be you.

  6. Why does Andreev get his name Hellenicized but Smidovich not get his Latinized?

  7. So Belikovsky apparently “learned English from watching Star Trek reruns”. I wonder what he thinks a changeling is?

  8. I couldn’t find a mention of Ippolit Bogdanovich in the review. Bogdanivich’s 1775 poem Dushenka, based on La Fontaine’s Les amours de Psyché et de Cupidon, was revolutionary and far ahead of anything produced by contemporary Russian poets.

  9. You should write a letter to the editor and complain! (Does the French postal service deliver to 1828?)

  10. Trond Engen says:

    I don’t know about the French, but the Danish does.

  11. I couldn’t find a mention
    p. 287.

  12. A whole paragraph! I hope Sashura hasn’t already sent off that letter; I’m sure Leeds would have torn him to shreds with unimpeachable elegance.

  13. Wow-wee, thanks Mike, It sure does him the credit he’s worth. At MGU in the 70s, I attended Professor Zapadov’s course on Russian literature of the 18th C. Among ourselves we giggled: there wasn’t anything worth reading before 1800. But his enthusiasm was infectious and I had a go – and never regretted it, mostly because of Bogdanovich.

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