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!”