I’ve finished Evenings on a Farm Near Dikanka, which I wrote about here, and I guess I’m glad that there’s a severe falling-off in quality in the last couple of stories, because that enables me to move on to something else—Bestuzhev-Marlinsky‘s «Испытание» [The Test] as it happens—without too much gritting of teeth, but still it’s hard. Bestuzhev-Marlinsky is a very enjoyable writer in the European tradition, the “I say, old chap, let me tell you a story…” style I mentioned in the previous post; I laughed out loud when his narrator described the tobacco habit as spreading “от мыса Доброй Надежды до залива Отчаяния, от Китайской стены до Нового моста в Париже и от моего до Чукотского носа” (from the Cape of Good Hope to the Bay of Despair, from the Wall of China to the Pont Neuf in Paris and from my [nose] to the Chukotka Promontory [literally 'nose']), but the play on the word “nose” took me right back to Gogol and his infinitely greater comic genius.
But Gogol’s comedy would not be as powerful as it is without the flip side, and one thing that kept calling itself to my attention as I was reading these stories is that every one, even the most apparently silly or jolly, ended in a minor key. The first story, “The Fair at Sorochintsy,” is about as fluffy a story as you could ask for, focusing on the plot hatched by a young man to get the father of the girl he loves to let him marry her. The Wikipedia summary says it ends with their wedding, and so it does in a plot sense, but here are the last two paragraphs, the image the story leaves you with (Russian below the cut):
The noise, laughter, and songs became quieter and quieter. The [violin's] bow died away, weakening and losing the vague sounds in the emptiness of the air. Somewhere you could still hear the stamping of feet, something like the murmur of a far-off sea, and soon everything became empty and indistinct.
Isn’t that the way joy, that beautiful and inconstant guest, flies from us, and a lonesome sound thinks in vain to express merriment? In its own echo it already hears sorrow and wilderness and heeds it in fright. Isn’t that the way the playful friends of our wild and free youth, one by one, one after the next, disappear to the ends of the earth and in the end leave in solitude their brother of old? It’s depressing to be left behind! And the heart is heavy and sad, and there’s no help for it.
Ho ho ho, right? “May Night, or the Drowned Maiden” has a very similar plot—the young Cossack Levko’s father won’t let him marry the woman he loves, but winds up agreeing—and ends in a similarly downbeat way: “The earth was just as lovely, in the marvelous silver gleam [of the moon], but nobody was intoxicated by it any more: everything was plunged into sleep. The silence was interrupted only by the rare barking of dogs, and for a long time yet the drunken Kalenik staggered through the sleeping streets, looking for his house.”
Of course Gogol would intensify both the humor and the sadness in his later, greater stories—”The Nose,” “The Overcoat,” Dead Souls—but there’s no call for Nabokov to have been as dismissive of these first stories as he was (“operatic romance and stale farce”); they are written with superb brio and a deeply felt sense of lacrimae rerum, and frankly I suspect Vladimir Vladimirovich’s aristocratic tastes made him turn up his nose at good honest Russian skaz.
The end of “The Fair at Sorochintsy” in Russian:
Гром, хохот, песни слышались тише и тише. Смычок умирал, слабея и теряя неясные звуки в пустоте воздуха. Еще слышалось где-то топанье, что-то похожее на ропот отдаленного моря, и скоро все стало пусто и глухо.
Не так ли и радость, прекрасная и непостоянная гостья, улетает от нас, и напрасно одинокий звук думает выразить веселье? В собственном эхе слышит уже он грусть и пустыню и дико внемлет ему. Не так ли резвые други бурной и вольной юности, по одиночке, один за другим, теряются по свету и оставляют наконец одного старинного брата их? Скучно оставленному! И тяжело и грустно становится сердцу, и нечем помочь ему.
The end of “May Night” in Russian:
Так же прекрасна была земля, в дивном серебряном блеске; но уже никто не упивался ими: все погрузилось в сон. Изредка только перерывалось молчание лаем собак, и долго еще пьяный Каленик шатался по уснувшим улицам, отыскивая свою хату.