When I saw Anatoly’s post (in Russian) about some amazing finds on Google Books, notably the first edition (1800) of the Slovo o polku Igoreve (the classic Old East Slavic epic poem known in English as The Tale of Igor’s Campaign or The Lay of the Host of Igor) and the first Russian novel, Fedor Emin’s Nepostoyannaya fortuna [‘Inconstant fortune’] (1763), I knew I was going to blog it. But it was when I started investigating the latter that I really got hooked. In the first place, it surprised me that I’d never heard of Emin. I looked him up in my Russian biographical dictionary, but he wasn’t there—the author of the first Russian novel didn’t merit an entry? Then I went to D. S. Mirsky’s superb A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900 and found only this brief mention: “The first Russian novelist was Fëdor Emin (c. 1735-70), who wrote didactic and philosophical romances of adventure in a florid and prolix literary prose.” The first Russian novelist disposed of in one sentence, without even a mention of the name of the first Russian novel? (This in a book that devotes a long paragraph to Vasily Narezhny, 1780-1825, before concluding “He was in fact little read, and his influence on the development of the Russian novel is almost negligible.”) What’s going on here?
Fortunately, Brockhaus and Efron (published a century ago and still as invaluable as the 1911 Britannica) has a good article (in Russian) on Emin, which answered some of my questions and told a fascinating tale. It seems Emin (whose name and patronymic are given as Fedor Aleksandrovich) was not Russian at all, and little is known of his life before he arrived in Russia in his mid-twenties. B&E surmise that he may have been of South Slavic origin and mention that he spent eight years wandering in Austria, Turkey, Egypt, Italy, Portugal, and France, perhaps visiting Algiers and Tunis. In Turkey he converted to Islam and became a janissary. In 1761 he turned up in London at the doorstep of Prince Golitsyn, the Russian ambassador, converted to Orthodoxy (!), and was sent to Russia, where he quickly learned Russian and became first a teacher at the Corps des Pages (where the nobility were trained to be officers) and then a translator in the Foreign Ministry. He also became a prolific littérateur, turning out “satirical works,” novels both translated and original, and “an interesting Description of the Ottoman Porte,” edited the satirical journal Adskaya pochta [‘The Infernal Post’], and finally produced “the patriotic but strange Rossiiskaya istoriya [‘Russian History’] in three volumes, in which he referred to nonexistent books and evidence” (!!), as well as “a book of theological-philosophical content, Put’ ko spaseniyu [‘The Path to Salvation’], which continued to be reprinted until recently.”
Of his seven novels, say B&E, “six belong to the type of ‘adventure novel’ widespread in the 16th and 17th centuries, in which the reader knows the hero will emerge triumphant from the most difficult circumstances, virtue will be rewarded and vice punished. Only the novel Pis’ma Ernesti i Doravry [‘The Letters of Ernest and Doraura’] was composed under the influence of the new currents, notably La Nouvelle Héloise of J.-J. Rousseau. The novels of E., the first Russian novelist, had undoubted success, some of them even having new editions; in memoirs can be found references to the heroes of his novels; Karamzin in his youth could not tear himself away from them… His theory of the usefulness of literary works was an undoubted service to Russian society… E. touched on the acute problems of his day: the horrors of serfdom, disorders in law courts and administrative institutions, the general servility towards all sorts of benefactors. The pages dedicated by E. to these painful issues are distinguished from the articles in satirical journals by their considerably greater sharpness. The novelist placed his ideas in the mouths of heroes carrying on their activities in Greece, Algiers, and so on, which enabled him to speak more freely. In some novels (the autobiographical Nepostoyannaya fortuna, ili Priklyucheniya Miramonda [‘Inconstant Fortune, or the Adventures of Miramonde’], Priklyucheniya Miramonda [‘The Adventures of Miramonde’], and others) entire social programs are provided.” There is a discussion of his satirical writings, his relations with other authors of the day (he and Sumarokov had particularly fraught relations), and his Adskaya pochta, which they call “one of the best satirical journals of that time”; they end by saying “The literary activity of E. has been little studied,” and that apparently continues to be true.
And why is that? He was clearly an active participant in the literary life of his day, with an influence that considerably outlasted the few years given to him. He was much read and reprinted. And he wrote the first Russian novel, for Pete’s sake. I think the answer is clear: he wasn’t Russian. He was not only a foreigner but a convert, and Russian was probably not among his first half-dozen languages—yet he learned it well, and in an amazingly short time. How embarrassing for national amour propre! Best to sweep him under the carpet with a muttered sentence or two and hurry on to Karamzin. Me, I’d like to see a full biography. Why did he decide to convert to Orthodoxy on a visit to London, and spend the rest of his career in a Russia viewed as irremediably backward by the rest of Europe? And what’s the story with the invented historical evidence?
Incidentally, I started reading Nepostoyannaya fortuna and found myself caught up in the adventures of its hero, brought up in Constantinople and sent off to Algiers to adopt a new identity with the intention of being educated in Europe (where no one would teach him anything if they thought he was a Turk); it’s a good thing I don’t have time to read any further, because the copy at Google Books is wretchedly scanned, with some pages completely illegible (as you can see from the selected pages shown here.) I suppose it’s too much to hope for an improved scan…