Pisemsky’s Thousand Souls.

I’m almost halfway through what is generally considered Alexei Pisemsky’s best novel, the 1858 Тысяча душ, translated by Ivy Litvinov as One Thousand Souls, and I can’t wait any longer to post about it — it’s so good I have to let the world know. I’ve praised Pisemsky’s Brak po strasti [Marriage for passion] (here) and Pitershchik [The Petersburger] (here), and this is better than either of them, at least so far. It shows off to the full his powerful sense of character and plot, and how they can be made to interact in a convincing manner.

The novel starts off with a newspaper notice reading “Увольняется штатный смотритель эн-ского уездного училища, коллежский асессор Годнев с мундиром и пенсионом, службе присвоенными. Определяется смотрителем эн-ского училища кандидат Калинович” [The superintendent of schools of the N. district, Collegiate Assessor Godnev, is retiring with the uniform and pension appropriate to his service. The new superintendent will be kandidat Kalinovich]. Thus are two of the main characters introduced; at first it seems Godnev will be the protagonist, but eventually we realize it’s actually young Yakov Kalinovich, who is proud and bitter because after being orphaned, he made his way through school and university by dint of endless work and ruthless self-denial, but after graduation could find no work for two years until he was finally assigned to this provincial backwater (better jobs required the kind of influential friends and protectors he lacked). He makes the rounds of the town notables, but they all turn up their noses at him except for the ever-friendly former superintendent, so he winds up spending most of his leisure time at the Godnevs’. There he and the teenage daughter, Nastenka, become close, both because they share an interest in literature and because they have both been rejected by local society (Nastenka’s first ball was a disaster, because her mother was dead and her father, though loving, had no idea how she should dress or act).

I won’t go into further detail about the story, because I don’t want to spoil it; I’ll just say the usual nineteenth-century “marriage plot” is even more powerfully developed than it is in Trollope (my previous go-to example of how it should be done), because everyone is well motivated and their interactions are thoroughly convincing. Trollope clearly liked women and they are generally the most positive characters in his novels, but the protagonists tend to be a trifle too goody-goody, giving their heart to some young man for life and waiting patiently for that man to get over whatever other romance he has foolishly gotten entangled in. (In one case, when the young man is irretrievably lost, the woman resigns herself to being an old maid and continues living pleasantly with her mother in a flower-girt country cottage.) Furthermore, with the Victorian Trollope, realism can only go so far — it is unthinkable that one of his heroines would, say, commit suicide or (worse) become a prostitute. With a Russian writer, all bets are off, so I read with the kind of trepidation that enhances enjoyment. It’s possible, of course, that it will fall apart as did Dostoyevsky’s Netochka Nezvanova (see this post); I’ll report back when I finish it. In the meantime, I can only express my delight that it’s actually been translated; Ivy Litvinov was English-born and lived in the Soviet Union (as the wife of Maxim Litvinov) — she wrote novels herself and did many translations of Russian literature — so the Englishing should be competently done, and I urge any interested parties to locate a copy (and some publisher should reprint it).

Oh, I should mention that the “souls” of the title are serfs (as in Gogol’s Dead Souls), and a thousand of them represented real wealth — at one point a character tells Kalinovich he should marry a woman with “one thousand souls” in much the same tone with which in Austin Powers Dr. Evil says “One… Hundred… BILLION DOLLARS!”

Comments

  1. Sold! Not sure why you always link to the lib.ru edition of your Russian classics, rather than, say, the Kindle editions…so much easier on the eyes, and equally free of charge.

    I think you’re painting Trollope’s heroines with a rather broad brush, though, based mostly on Lily Dale, about whom Trollope himself is known to have written disparagingly in later years. Trollope seems to have felt he wrote himself into a narrative corner with her characterization. I’m in the midst of (a first reading of) Phineas Finn at the moment, and all three of the heroines are much livelier and more complicated than Dale (though, of course, all to some degree enchanted by the eponymous hero).

  2. Oh Jesus, Lily Dale is THE WORST. She single-handedly…if not ruins, then at least badly degrades both of the novels she appears in. Then again, I’m currently slogging my way through Can You Forgive Her?, and Alice Vavasor isn’t any great shakes either.

  3. January First-of-May says:

    Not sure why you always link to the lib.ru edition of your Russian classics, rather than, say, the Kindle editions…so much easier on the eyes, and equally free of charge.

    IIRC, lib.ru, having been established well into the dark 1990s, is intended to be readable on just about any browser – even the ones that only get text. (IIRC, it even tries to limit line lengths to 80 characters, for much the same reason.) This is a lot less useful today that it was twenty years ago, but it’s still helpful occasionally if you have a particularly exotic browser (ironically enough, these days this would usually mean a smartphone – which the 1990s designers definitely didn’t have in mind).

    OTOH, Kindle editions are pretty much useless unless you have a working Kindle and know how to put books on it (and even then they’re not particularly nice, though admittedly better than lib.ru’s lowest-common-denominator standard).
    And I’m not sure that some of the more obscure Russian “classics” even have a Kindle edition (never mind a free one). But that’s another question entirely.

  4. Not sure why you always link to the lib.ru edition of your Russian classics, rather than, say, the Kindle editions

    What January First-of-May says. Not everybody has a Kindle! And I figure if you want a Russian text, you know how to google the Russian name and find one. The lib.ru link is basically a convenience in case someone wants to look something up right at the moment.

  5. I think you’re painting Trollope’s heroines with a rather broad brush, though, based mostly on Lily Dale

    Guilty as charged! I am definitely being unfair to Trollope, but it’s only because I’m in the thrall of Pisemsky.

  6. There are free Kindle readers for PC, Mac, iPhone, and Android. I just tried downloading a .mobi file from the Internet Archive and mailing it to my phone’s Kindle address, and it appeared a minute later.

    And on the Mac I can just open the file with the Kindle ‘app’. No fuss.

    The display is horribly mangled — in this case because the illuminated capitals are stored as images, but any fancy formatting tends to break — so it will never be as good as a PDF. But it’s not an inaccessible format, and it serves perfectly well for reading novels.

  7. Good to know!

  8. Yes, the fact is I don’t own a Kindle myself, just an iPad with the free app. Since Amazon doesn’t charge anything for books in the public domain (in either English or Russian) it’s become my go-to resource.

  9. I have a bunch of books from Amazon, which I read exclusively in my browser (read.amazon.com).

  10. I finished Trollope’s Doctor Thorne minutes before I came here to read about Pisemsky, and what strikes me about the two authors’ marriage plots and heroines is how much Trollope enjoys teasingly reminding us that everyone’s fate is determined by his needs as a novelist. He’s already hinted that he’s reached an age where he’s unlikely to withhold a happy ending, and says with a smile, “When Mary is breaking her heart on her death-bed in the last chapter, or otherwise accomplishing her destiny…” I don’t think Pisemsky’s narrator would affect to know what was coming for Nastenka (about which I’ll say nothing to avoid spoilers, but I look forward to hearing more of your thoughts about One Thousand Souls).

  11. Ian Press says:

    One of my favourite Russian novels. I read it in the late sixties and treasure my good old Soviet edition. A very good story. Being in thrall is excellent! I haven’t touched my Kindle in ages. Good light and gently contrasting print get more and more important, having experienced a detached retina a month ago.

  12. I must admit, not yet having taken a respectable chunk out of Russian lit yet, I felt a bit smug in presuming the souls to be Gogol’s upon seeing the post’s title, only to fret a bit before being reassured by the last paragraph.

    Furthermore, with the Victorian Trollope, realism can only go so far — it is unthinkable that one of his heroines would, say, commit suicide or (worse) become a prostitute.

    I’m either picking a nit or revealing my ignorance, but is realism really the distinguishing factor here? Prostitution and suicide are every bit as real, even commonplace — even when performed by women of high station — as those choosing to become old maids after things don’t quite work out with one would-be beau. And of course either story could be told in whatever style the author found available. Would it not be better put, “Furthermore, Trollope’s Victorian tradition only went so far . . .”? Flaubert did go a bit further with Emma Bovary, after all. (Again, do forgive the nitpicking: I’m just up to my neck in such stylistic and periodic terms — all the Kenner; I’d like to be sure I know how to swim!)

  13. Prostitution and suicide are every bit as real, even commonplace

    Well, that was my point: that his realism doesn’t go so far as to encompass those aspects of reality, whereas the Russians do (when permitted by censorship, of course). Russian readers, unlike Victorians, have never been afraid of the grubbier aspects of reality.

  14. Oh, I knew you were making that absolutely correct point — I was just trying to quickly cover every aspect to which the term “realism” could attend, before picking the nit that it was the tradition (more than anything “realism” denotes) that ultimately distinguishes Trollope from Pisemsky. Your meaning was perfectly clear, my comment a futile attempt — though right now necessary for my own research — to keep terms like “realism” safely in their sometimes multi-sectioned boxes (save where the unruly creatures truly have a job to do), lest they get out and . . . well, since they already have of course, do no more than continue to tax my intellect, if not confuse me from time to time. The comment was doubly self-involved, as I tried to make clear with my two apologies, lest you thought, for one thing, that my anti-prescritivism had become any less firm — at any other time I’d take their manumission in stride (assuming, wrongly of course, that they’d ever really been enslaved at all) — or, for another more important thing, that my queries were meant as substantive criticism rather than as a mere plea to scratch a personal intellectual itch. I hope that clarifies things.

Speak Your Mind

*