IN PRAISE OF MINOR WRITERS.

I’ve long been a fan of the Dictionary of Literary Biography series (Wikipedia, publisher’s site), now up to Volume 366 (Orientalist Writers), but I’ve had to consult them in libraries, since the damn things cost over $300 each. New, that is; a while back it occurred to me to add the ones for Russian writers to my private Amazon wishlist, and sure enough, they occasionally show up used for only a few bucks. So far I’ve accumulated volumes 198 (Russian literature in the age of Pushkin and Gogol: Prose), 238 (Russian novelists in the age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky), 272 (Russian prose writers between the world wars), and the most recently acquired, Early Modern Russian Writers (Volume 150, covering the late 17th and 18th centuries). It may seem odd to spend one’s time reading biographical articles on obscure writers no one’s given a thought to in a couple hundred years, but I find that in some ways reading about minor writers is more interesting and revealing than reading about major ones. You read about Tolstoy’s life to understand Tolstoy, but you read about Andrey Bolotov or Vasily Kapnist to understand their times. These were people struggling to get by, most of them, who used literature as a means of getting a little money and renown at a time when that was just becoming possible. Irwin Titunik’s introductory paragraph on Vasily Ruban (Russian Wikipedia) will give an idea of how these articles expand one’s idea of Russian literature:

Vasilii Grigor’evich Ruban was an enterprising and prolific participant in eighteenth-century Russia’s equivalent of Grub Street—a host of professional literary men willing and able to undertake any writing task, equally adept at producing manuals on agriculture or card playing, at composing panegyric odes to the high and mighty or Russifying the works of Homer or Horace, and at performing as compilers, editors, and publishers. Such hackwork was by no means necessarily of poor quality; reputable writers were produced in this way. In Ruban’s case there were works compiled, edited, published, and also translated by him that received wide approval and appreciation. However, Ruban was notorious among his contemporaries for producing great quantities of occasional poems, especially those written for or to patrons whose protection, gifts, and monetary support he solicited and often gained. Ruban’s more distinguished and independent fellow writers reviled and mocked these “obsequious” verses, and he was subsequently condemned as a sycophant[...] Although that reputation has survived into the twentieth century, an unbiased assessment, without denying his reprehensible traits, must also acknowledge Ruban not only as a literary entrepreneur of extraordinary energy and versatility (not to speak of productivity) but also a competent writer typical of eighteenth-century Russia and of interest in his own right, especially as a poet.

One of the sad aspects of literary history is the tendency of writers blessed with a good position in society, from Pushkin to Virginia Woolf, to sneer at the lowly scribblers who are unable to match their leisurely grace.
Some other tidbits from this volume: of the religious figure Gedeon (Russian Wikipedia), “the first to preach in Russian rather than Church Slavonic,” Victor Zhivov writes:

Having become a grandee in his way, Gedeon also adopted the accepted cultural codes dictating how a magnate should act. One element of such behavior at mid century was apparently petty tyranny, and anecdotes about Gedeon ascribe such behavior to him. For example, it is said that while walking through the Trinity–Saint Sergius Monastery with his protégé Platon Levshin (the future metropolitan of Moscow; at the time a simple priest), Gedeon noticed the valuable silk cassock Platon was wearing and pushed him into a pond. Afterwards he reportedly made an admonition that someone of a lower rank should not be upset when a superior jokes with him and thereupon presented Platon with two expensive cassocks to replace the one that had been ruined.

Antiokh Kantemir had problems as a young man because his father “named as his heir whichever son excelled the most in his studies by the time of his coming of age,” at the same time calling Antiokh, the youngest, “the best of all in intelligence and learning”; as you might imagine, “the indefiniteness of the will regarding the inheritance later resulted in lengthy family disputes.” And it was fascinating to read David Gasperetti’s article on Matvei Komarov (Russian Wikipedia), forgotten now but in his day “Russia’s first best-selling literary figure,” whose 1779 Van’ka Kain “reached more readers than almost any other Russian novel, with a publication history spanning close to one hundred years,” and whose Milord George was even more successful: “Belinsky went so far as to call the novel immortal, and [...] Leo Tolstoy observed that the people were far more interested in Milord George than in the belles lettres and philosophy that the leading lights of Russian culture would have them read. Komarov’s tale of the English lord remained a best-seller in Russia until the newly established Bolshevik state did what the cajoling of previous generations of critics never could: it confiscated an edition of the work that was at press in 1918, thus ending its remarkable 136-year publication history.”

Comments

  1. Belinsky, apparently, was totally in the dark about the author of the “Milord”, asking himself who was this lucky author of immortal fate, when did he live, if he was for real at all:
    Судьба книг так же странна и таинственна, как судьба людей. Не только много было умнее “Английского милорда”, но были на Руси еще и глупее его книги: за что же они забыты, а он до сих пор печатается и читается? Кто решит этот вопрос! Ведь есть же люди, которым везет бог знает за что: потому что ни очень умны, ни очень глупы. Счастие слепо! Сколько поколений в России начало свое чтение, свое занятие литературою с “Английского милорда”. Одни из сих людей пошли дальше и — неблагодарные — смеются над ним, а другие и теперь еще читают его себе да почитывают!
    The book has been reprinted again in 2000

  2. marie-lucie says:

    I find that in some ways reading about minor writers is more interesting and revealing than reading about major ones. You read about [famous writers] to understand [them], but you read about [less well-known ones] to understand their times.
    This is also my attitude in general.
    I think this is also true of other forms of art: the great musicians, painters, etc transcend their times, the minor ones reveal them. You need to know some of the minor ones to realize what a difference the major ones made.

  3. marie-lucie says:

    I was mostly thinking of those people’s works, not just their lives.

  4. One of the sad aspects of literary history is the tendency of writers blessed with a good position in society, from Pushkin to Virginia Woolf, to sneer at the lowly scribblers who are unable to match their leisurely grace.
    I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment but I’m surprised by the examples. What about Pushkin’s “Разговор книгопродавца с поэтом”? And doesn’t Woolf see Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister as tragically and unjustly denied the leisure to write?

  5. Reminds me of how I had a lot of fun adding minor writers to the French Wikisource (gotten out of that lately, though). I wandered about pursuing works and writers alluded to in the texts I added or authors’ biographies. It added a lot to my appreciation when I read Madame Bovary: I had read a bunch of sappy, pious early-nineteenth-century stuff, so I knew what Emma Bovary fed her mind on, I knew what Flaubert was reacting against, and I had a sense why his contemporaries were shocked.

  6. Komarov’s opus is obliquely familiar to all Russian schoolchildren at least of Soviet time. It was condemned as stupid in a famous stanza by Nikolay Nekrasov (the famous is the second one, but the first one is more explicit)
    «А статских не желаете?»
    — Ну, вот еще со статскими! —
    (Однако взяли — дешево! —
    Какого-то сановника
    За брюхо с бочку винную
    И за семнадцать звезд.)
    Купец — со всем почтением,
    Что любо, тем и потчует
    (С Лубянки — первый вор!) —
    Спустил по сотне Блюхера,
    Архимандрита Фотия,
    Разбойника Сипко,
    Сбыл книги: «Шут Балакирев»
    И «Английский милорд»…
    Легли в коробку книжечки,
    Пошли гулять портретики
    По царству всероссийскому,
    Покамест не пристроятся
    В крестьянской летней горенке,
    На невысокой стеночке…
    Черт знает для чего!
    Эх! эх! придет ли времечко,
    Когда (приди, желанное!..)
    Дадут понять крестьянину,
    Что розь портрет портретику,
    Что книга книге розь?
    Когда мужик не Блюхера
    И не милорда глупого —
    Белинского и Гоголя
    С базара понесет?
    Ой люди, люди русские!
    Крестьяне православные!
    Слыхали ли когда-нибудь
    Вы эти имена?
    То имена великие,
    Носили их, прославили
    Заступники народные!
    Вот вам бы их портретики
    Повесить в ваших горенках,
    Их книги прочитать…

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  10. I couldn’t agree more with the sentiment but I’m surprised by the examples. What about Pushkin’s “Разговор книгопродавца с поэтом”? And doesn’t Woolf see Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister as tragically and unjustly denied the leisure to write?
    Those are examples of their literary work, where of course they presented themselves as filled with noble generosity (and Woolf, of course, was genuinely upset about the repression of women’s talents). But in their letters and conversation they were scathing about lowborn scribblers. I’ll try to find the biographical article I was reading about some poor clodhopper who was blackguarded by Pushkin; I can’t remember his name right now. And the whole Bloomsbury crowd was sodden with snobbery.

  11. Yes, Virginia thought Joyce was an awful little oik. I do wish she’d lived to see him voted the greatest English writer of the twentieth century.

  12. narrowmargin says:

    And Joyce and Woolf were born less than a month apart, and died a little over 2 months apart!

  13. John Emerson says:

    “I find that in some ways reading about minor writers is more interesting and revealing than reading about major ones. ”
    I’ve spent a fair amount of time researching the minor and very bad writer David Kin / Plotkin, whose oeuvre consisted of forgeries, soft pornography, a bogus historical work, and a political smear biography — and an early book of lyric poems. Its a fascinating entree into the political / publishing / ethnic world of NYC 1910-1955. Plotkin worked with the publisher Samuel Roth, who pirated Ulysses, published a porn series, published forgeries, and wrote a Nietzschean anti-Semitic book.
    Ca. 1920 literature publication was a risky, sleazy, unrespectable calling, and the founders of several publishing houses risked jail (not just Roth, who spent a considerable period in jail.)

  14. Sounds just like the late eighteenth century!

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    Roth is a striking surname in that there are at least three Roths who make the medium-list if not short-list of important 20th century literary figures (Henry, Joseph, and Philip). Maybe I’ll have to look into Samuel’s oeuvre.

  16. JWB: Let’s not forget Conrad Roth, though he’s more of a 21st-century phenomenon.
    AJP: This, we are told, was the verbatim reaction of a literary critic (unnamed) to the news that The Lord of the Rings had come in first in a U.K.-wide readers’ poll for the greatest novels of the 20th century: “Oh hell. Has it? Oh my God. Dear oh dear. Dear oh dear oh dear.” As Martin said to his man, who’s the oik now? It’s particularly choice that one of the epithets Woolf applied to Joyce was “illiterate”: what can she have meant by it?

  17. Michael says:

    I’m guessing the author of the entry on Gedeon Krinovskii was not a Zhikov but rather the late Viktor M. Zhivov.

  18. You’re right, of course — it was a typo in the book, and I’ve corrected it there and here. Thanks!

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