Readers may be wondering what happened to my Russian reading, which I haven’t mentioned for a while now. Well, for one thing, I’ve been absorbed in the Bible material I’ve been posting about recently, but that’s not all there is to it — I read at least some Russian literature every day. The thing is that as I approach the plunge into the familiar nineteenth-century realist literature that might be said to begin in 1846 with the publication of Dostoevsky’s first work, Бедные люди [Poor Folk], I’ve been slowing down and savoring the last of the earlier material (Romantic, I guess you’d call it) I’ve come to enjoy so much. I recently finished Русские ночи [Russian Nights], which I had been looking forward to, since I enjoyed his earlier stuff so much (1, 2, 3, 4), and this was supposed to be his masterpiece. I guess it is, but, well, I have serious reservations about it.
People at the time did, too. It was published too late; ten years earlier, when Odoevsky was one of the most popular writers in Russia, it would have been a hit, but by 1844 he was already considered out of date, and reviewers objected to the fact that the stories it contained had all been published in the previous dozen years. The stories themselves are excellent, among the author’s best; Бригадир [The Brigadier], about a dying man who realizes he has wasted his life, is a worthy precursor of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilich; “Opere del Cavaliere Giambattista Piranesi” is a wonderful character sketch of a madman who thinks he’s the long-dead Piranesi and begs for money to bring his impossible architectural visions to realization; Город без имени [City without a name] is a grim vision of a society that’s taken the ideas of Bentham to extremes; Импровизатор [The improvvisatore] tells the tale of a young man desperate to be able to compose poetry easily so as to woo his Charlotte, but comes to regret his deal with the demonic Segeliel; and there are brilliant little romanticized biographies of Beethoven and Bach, the latter providing a fine ending for the series of stories. But not, alas, for the book.
The stories, you see, are set in a tale-telling framework comparable to those of Pushkin’s Tales of Belkin (LH post) and Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time (LH post). In this one, a group of poorly differentiated young people visit their wise friend Faust (a stand-in for the author) and argue about life, history, and everything. Let me quote Ralph E. Matlaw’s introduction to his 1965 translation, Russian Nights:
The range of problems and questions raised by the discussants and the illustrative stories is enormous: the boundaries of knowledge, the meaning of science and art, the sense of human existence, atheism and belief, education, government rule, the function of individual sciences, madness and sanity, poetic creation, logic, Slavophilism, Europe and Russia, mercantilism, to name some of the important issues. Clearly, this is not merely a collection of stories, or a novel, but an imaginative exposition of human achievement and limitation at a specific time.
The book thus differs from collections like Hoffmann’s Serapionsbrüder and others that intersperse commentary between stories. The primary argument rests in the speeches of the four leading characters, to which the stories are subordinate.
And subordinating stories to philosophical-historical commentary is pretty much always a bad idea as far as I’m concerned. Still, I was going along with it, enjoying the stories greatly and the philosophical filler mildly, until I got to the end of the Bach story, saw that there was still a lot of the book to get through, and realized to my mounting horror that it was a worthy precursor of the dreaded Second Appendix of War and Peace (LH post), and it too could be called “the literary equivalent of an extremely long-winded Hyde Park orator, haranguing passers-by about how the so-called experts don’t know what they’re talking about.” As a matter of fact, if I were forced at gunpoint to reread one of the two, I don’t know which I’d choose. Perhaps the bullet. At any rate, with that caveat, I recommend the reprint of the Matlaw translation to whose Amazon page I linked above to anyone interested in Russian literature of the period, especially if they’re more interested in Romantic ideas of history and progress (spoiler: the ancients already knew all about our so-called modern discoveries!) than I am. To wash away the bitter taste of my captious complaints, let me quote the concluding passage of Neil Cornwell’s Afterword (1997):
Russian Nights may also appeal more to the “postmodern” age than to earlier epochs. Odoevsky’s mysticism and his Gothicism may be, if anything, better displayed in certain of his other works (see The Salamander and Other Gothic Tales). However, Russian Nights, Odoevsky’s single completed magnum opus, with its mixture of genres and styles, mingles fiction with nonfiction, romanticism with social reality, philosophical dialogue with historical reportage. It will perhaps be in the twenty-first century that Odoevsky’s reputation will finally be made.