Pisemsky’s Petersburger.

Back in December I wrote that I had discovered Alexei Pisemsky to be a fine writer despite my negative reaction to his first novel; this has been confirmed by his 1852 story “Питерщик” [The Petersburger]. It starts off with a description of a village in Pisemsky’s native Kostroma province: it’s full of women, because the men are off working, often in Moscow or St. Petersburg. The narrator, visiting such a village, meets such a peasant, Klimenty, a man of about thirty-five whose hut proclaims through its very furnishings that he has spent time in the capital and who has been spoiled for village life by his experiences there. The narrator asks to hear about them, and Klimenty’s account takes up the bulk of the story.

He had been happily married and brought his wife to live with him in Petersburg; when she died, it drove him off the rails, and he returned to his village. In his depressed state he found himself married off to another woman, who was neither good-looking nor intelligent, and to escape he returned to the capital, where for a time he worked hard and saved money. But then he ran into a relative who occasionally went on benders and inveigled Klimenty along on one of them; after going from one dive to another, they found themselves in the apartment of a woman and her beautiful daughter Palageya, with whom Klimenty became hopelessly besotted — he pretended he was a bachelor and wound up setting her and her mother up in a fancy apartment and spending all his money on them. They both start drinking to excess, the mother finds out he’s married, and things don’t go well; after nearly dying in the gutter, he is rescued and sent back to the village, where his understanding master puts him to work again.

It sounds like a formulaic I-met-a-fellow-who-told-me-his-tale-of-woe story illustrating the dismal state of the peasantry, of a sort that was exceedingly common in those years, but it doesn’t read like that at all, thanks to Pisemsky’s truly astonishing avoidance of cliché and sentimentality. Every turn of events is motivated and plausible, and every time the reader thinks “How could you be so stupid?” Klimenty interrupts himself to say “I don’t know how I could have been so stupid, a five-year-old should have been able to see what was going on,” and the reader reflects on his own episodes of similarly idiotic behavior. There is no moralizing, and the story ends on a cheerful note. I look forward to reading more Pisemsky, and I thank Erik McDonald for being so enthusiastic about him that I overcame my initial distaste. (Incidentally, Erik has done a very useful post, Pisemskii in Russian and English, story by story, which I recommend to anyone interested in this too little remembered author.)

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