Panaeva’s Talnikov Family.

My patient crawl through nineteenth-century Russian literature has brought me another unexpected reward, Avdotya Panaeva‘s Семейство Тальниковых [The Talnikov family]. It’s an account of a girl’s very difficult childhood, apparently autobiographical, and it’s usually discussed in terms like this (I quote Susan Conner Olson’s article on Panaeva in Russian Novelists in the Age of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky): “Her first work, Semeistvo Tal’nikovykh, followed the early intention of Sovremennik to depict the ugly realities of everyday life, a literary trend promoted by Belinsky and known as Naturalism.” Well, yes, except that it doesn’t read like someone trying to depict the ugly realities of everyday life, it reads like someone trying to tell us what it was like growing up, and it’s seen with the fresh child’s-eye view of a Satyajit Ray or Abbas Kiarostami — or, to take a comparison from Russian literature rather than movies, of Sergei Aksakov in his justly popular Detskie gody Bagrova-vnuka (1858, translated as Years of Childhood).

The parents are pretty one-dimensional — the father a brute, the mother interested only in card-playing and indifferent to her children — but the kids don’t interact with them much, and the various aunts, uncles, and grandparents are depicted with an amused and surprisingly sympathetic eye, given their frequently appalling behavior. There’s not much plot — someone goes off to war, someone gets married, someone goes mad — but it’s not oriented toward plot, and even less toward social commentary; it’s true it was immediately banned and the magazine it appeared in shut down, but that’s because of its attitude to authority, which is uniformly negative: if readers are given such jaundiced images of those in charge of family and school, how are they supposed to maintain respect for authority in general? It simply wants to say “this is how it is,” and precisely because the author was inexperienced, not steeped in the naturalistic writing so trendy at the time, she tells her story in original ways, avoiding the cliches she hadn’t soaked up like everyone else. I’ll translate the first few paragraphs to give at least an idea of it; maybe one of the small publishers so busily engaged in translation will put out the whole book, which would make ideal reading for anyone interested in women’s experience in nineteenth-century Russia:

In a room lit by a candle that needed snuffing, they were washing a dead body — my six-month-old sister. Her eyes, with their dull, fixed gaze, terrified me. There was silence in the room; neither my father nor my mother cried, only the wet-nurse was crying — for the gilt kerchief and fur coat of which my sister’s early death had deprived her. If the child had waited five or six months to die, the wet-nurse’s work would have been done, and the promised reward would not have slipped through her hands.

For a minute, the death made a strong impression on me, but the complete indifference of those surrounding the body and the absence of my father and mother convinced me that death was not something important. The periodic quarrels of my mother and grandmother seemed to me much more important, because of the copious tears of my grandmother and my mother’s menacing shouts: what had she done with the money given her for expenses, and how had the provisions vanished so quickly? I was always on the side of people who cried, whether because I cried a lot myself I don’t know, but I felt sorrier for my crying grandmother than my angry mother. After a prolonged quarrel they made peace, and my grandmother cried tears of joy rather than grief, ending the scene until the next month when it was again time to buy provisions…

My memories begin when I was around six. There were many relatives in the house: two sisters of my mother and a sister of my father, as well as his mother. We were very fond of our grandmother, because she indulged us. Mother took no trouble about us, and father, busy at his job, didn’t pay the slightest attention to his children, whose number increased with regularity every year. I had two sisters, Katya and Sonya, and three brothers, Misha, Fedya, and Vanya. We felt no particular tenderness for our parents, who for their part didn’t treat us especially kindly. I remember the time mama went away for a whole summer to take the waters. On the day she was supposed to return, the whole house was waiting for her, but she didn’t come. They put us to bed, but I couldn’t sleep: I wanted very much to see mama. When everyone left the room, I quietly got out of bed, sat by the window, and started watching the street and listening to the sounds. But mama didn’t come! I was ready to cry, and my heart beat strongly at the slightest sound in the other rooms. Finally the whole house was asleep, and I slept too, worn out by the wait, and I dreamed mama was kissing me soundly and holding me in her arms — it made me very happy. Suddenly I heard that mama had arrived! I ran downstairs and immediately hurled myself at her. She seemed surprised at my joy and kissed me. I cried… People clustered around me and asked me what was wrong, why was I crying? I said I was happy to see mama. Everyone laughed, and mama, smiling, took me in her arms. I clasped her neck, pressed myself strongly to her and wept more than before. She tried to calm me down and offered me presents, but I refused them and kept crying, covering my face with my hands. My mother decided I was sick, and saying “Look how she’s shaking!” ordered that I be taken to the children’s room and put to bed. I wanted to go back to her, but wasn’t allowed to…

That last scene reminds me of the famous opening of Remembrance of Things Past, in which Proust’s narrator remembers wanting desperately to see his mother, who was downstairs with guests. Panaeva is no Proust, of course, but she’s well worth reading in her own right.

Comments

  1. köhler says:

    … it’s fascinating! where can I get the English text?
    Thanks!
    Peter

  2. Alas, the only English text is what I translated above. I’m hoping someone will do the whole thing (me, I’m too busy reading all of Russian literature, and if I start translating whole books they’ll be by Veltman).

  3. This opening is brutally effective. Panayeva later co-authored filler novels for Sovremennik with Nekrasov. I understand he edited this one, too.

  4. One odd thing about the book is that “Talnikov” occurs only in the title; the family name is never mentioned in the text. Apparently contemporaries who knew it was based on Panaeva’s own life called it “The Bryansky Family” (her maiden name).

  5. I begin to read russian literature and Sergei Aksakov is the next writter who I want to read

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