I’ve finished Alexei Pisemsky’s Тысяча душ [One Thousand Souls] (see this post), so I thought I’d provide a few final thoughts. The novel is in four parts; he started writing it in 1854, under the heavy censorship of that period, and finished it under the much freer conditions that prevailed after the Crimean War. Even so, the fourth and most controversial part was published (in June 1858) only through the forceful intervention of Ivan Goncharov, who was a censor at the time; Pisemsky remained grateful to him all his life. He had originally planned to call the book Умный человек [A clever man], a phrase that occurs several times in it, but changed it to foreground the riches that are the object of Kalinovich’s striving — or rather, the necessary means to his ultimate goal, which is to use his intelligence and energy to help reform his slothful, corrupt country.
In order to achieve that goal, he finds himself taking actions that hurt people he loves, make enemies, and (as he himself says) kill the best part of his soul. He who had wanted to be a writer becomes a cold, callous official — but one who is doing his best to clean out the Augean stable, no matter how many feathers are ruffled in the process. It’s an interesting narrative arc; the problem is that (as usual) the early parts, involving sinning and character interaction, are more engaging than the last bit, when he is trying to put his ideas into practice. Lots of novels (and movies, for that matter) fall off towards the end, and this is nowhere near as dire a falling-off as that in War and Peace (see this 2009 post); I kept reading with undiminished interest until the end, and I warmly recommend the book.
And now for a few random things that struck me. There are a couple of mentions of Nikolai Polevoy, a forgotten hero of the early 19th century who I wrote about here, which gave me pleasure; in fact, in Part III, chap. 5 a chunk of his translation of Hamlet is quoted. In Part III, chap. 4 there’s a reference to a Лёв Николаевич, which is interesting in that it shows there was a pronunciation of the name Лев [Lev] as “Lyov” but it wasn’t standard (or Pisemsky wouldn’t have felt it necessary to mark the ё). There’s a mention of confiscation of Polish estates for private gain that I’m astonished made it past the censor. And the most piquant bit of literary detritus is in in Part II, chap. 8, when Nastenka’s uncle “вдруг проговорил известный риторический пример: «Се тот, кто как и он, ввысь быстро, как птиц царь, порх вверх на Геликон!» Эка чепуха, заключил он.” [suddenly uttered the well-known rhetorical example: “Behold the one who, like him, quickly upward, like the king of birds, flitted up onto Helicon!” What nonsense, he concluded.] It took me a while, but I finally determined that this is a distorted quote of a parody of Count Khvostov published by members of the Arzamas Society, a clashing crunch of short words which originally read in full:
Се Росска Флакка зракъ! Се тотъ, кто какъ и онъ,
Выспрь быстро, какъ птицъ Царь, несъ звукъ на Геликонъ!
Се ликъ одъ, притчъ творца, Музъ чтителя, Свистова,
Кой поле испестрилъ Россійска красна слова!
(Hopefully, you can see it here.) The Soviet annotators of my edition, who scrupulously translated every bit of French (Adieu!, merci, etc.), passed over this in silence.