Russian literature of the later nineteenth century was dominated by the notorious question that served as the title of Chernyshevsky’s famous 1863 novel, What Is to Be Done? This is not a question that much interests me as a reader of literature, nor did it much interest Alexander Veltman; unfortunately, by midcentury the Russian intelligentsia was totally obsessed by it (what to do about serfdom, about autocracy, about the oppressed condition of women?) and had lost patience with anyone who cared about other things, with the result that Veltman’s former immense popularity dwindled away and he was soon considered a relic (and later forgotten entirely).
What did Veltman care about? He was fascinated by the inexhaustible variety of the world and its inhabitants, and loved accounts of travel, real and imaginary. But on a more basic level he was interested in the problem of identity. He anticipated (and perhaps influenced) Dostoevsky in dealing with the theme of doubles; in Serdtse i dumka (Heart and head, 1838) the heroine’s heart and mind split up and travel around Russia, and in General Kalomeros (General Kalomeros [i.e., Bonaparte], 1840), Napoleon falls in love with Klavdia and doubles himself so that Napoleon can conquer Russia while the unknown “General Kalomeros” can remain with his beloved. In his 1835 “Orlando Furioso” (which I wrote about here), an actor is taken for a governor because of his costume. Earlier in his novel Salomea, which I’ve returned to after a break of several months, the protagonist Dmitritsky puts on a wig and false mustaches and becomes the rich traveler Chernomsky (who had to that point been impersonated by another conman — see this post). And I’ve just gotten to a section that digs into the issue in an even deeper way.
I won’t go into the various twists and turns that lead up to this situation, but Dmitritsky has taken the place of Prokhor Vasilievich (the son of the rich tea merchant mentioned in this post), who went missing after being sent off to purchase English machinery for the family business, and he is about to be married to the attractive and well-off Avdotya Selifontovna. At this crucial point his accomplice Trifon Isaevich comes rushing in to tell him there’s a serious problem. I’ll translate the ensuing conversation (anyone interested in the original Russian can go to the online text of the novel and search on “Дмитрицкий заперся в своем кабинете”):
Dmitritsky locked his office door and talked with Trifon Isaevich.
“Well? What’s so important?”
“I’ll tell you what! The devil has brought the real Prokhor Vasilievich here just at the wrong time; he nearly showed up for your wedding!”
“Really? What’s holding him up?”
“Luckily, I grabbed him by the tail right at the gate!”
“Oh, you fool! Who asked you to?”
“Who asked me to! He would have wrecked our whole plan.”
“Oh, Trifon, you’ve spoiled it! What a magnificent thing it would have been — a double! How annoying; what a monster you are!”
“You must be joking!”
“Nonsense, fool, it’s no joke; my self-esteem would have been at stake: let somebody decide which of us was the devil’s delusion and which the real Prokhor Vasilievich… what do you think, which of us would ‘daddy’ have recognized as the real son? Well?”
[ . . . ]
“He’d recognize the real one, of course.”
“Nonsense, Trifon! According to you, the real Prokhor Vasilievich, setting aside the fact that he’s the real one, is really trash, right?”
“And I’m gold?”
“Some say so…”
“So why would daddy, that intelligent man, prefer trash to gold?”
After further discussion, Dmitritsky says “Look, it’s simple: let him take his place with daddy and with Selifontovna; I’m bored! I don’t want to be Prokhor Vasilievich!” Triron goes out to fetch Prokhor, and Dmitritsky has this remarkable soliloquy (search on “Прощай, любезный друг, Прохор Васильевич”):
Farewell, dear friend, Prokhor Vasilievich. I’ve served you as best I could with all my strength; I’ve bent over backwards, as they say, to make sure people didn’t say bad things about you. It seems as if it should be easy to be something you’re not, but in fact it’s devilishly hard work! Every featherless two-legged creature, from a man to a plucked chicken, is a spectator without a ticket, a judge without a robe… Who can argue with intelligent people who say that every person must be a person, and yet those same intelligent people create a role that pleases them for a person, and you’re supposed to be good enough to perform it! People are terribly unwilling to be what they are; they want to be better. A beautiful desire, truly beautiful! But it follows that God did not oblige them. Look at me: like everybody else I don’t want to be what I am, I want to be better, I’m beside myself to be better. Being Prokhor Vasilievich is definitely better: few desires and endless means. And I have the devil knows how many desires! And I?… Who am I, what am I? The servant of two masters, a lord and a lady. It would be fine to serve them if those spouses were in good health and lived in harmony, but there’s such confusion that it’s a complete mess: the lord is a fine, carefree beast, with no pretensions, he eats and wears whatever he’s given, he’s comfortable everywhere, but my lady is such a restless soul, it’s terrible! There’s no pleasing her; she’s a perfect goat:
The goat loved to gambol and frolic and race,
She could never sit still and stay in one place…
What can you do? My own goat can never sit still; give her this and give her the other to boot: wit, and learning, and courtesy, and luxury, and riches, and all that is not granted to everyone, but that everyone wants to have. Where to get it? If you didn’t inherit it, you have to acquire it, you have to buy it; if you don’t have the needful, you have to get it with labor and sweat. And once you’ve gotten it, look, it’s late, it’s gotten dark out, and all your labors and exploits have fallen underfoot! Take me, for example; I worked hard, carried out someone else’s duties properly, I’m ready to hand them over even with all formalities and get my certificate… I’ve acquired what is necessary in the world… I have the means, but I don’t know what to do with them: how can I return to myself? Go announce: “I, Dmitritsky, have the honor of presenting myself, I’ve gone through fire and water, I’m burned out and rinsed out, and now I have the noble intention of being what I am.” “Ah,” the good people cry, “so it’s you, dear friend? It’s really you? Come over here and answer us, confess everything!” You can’t help it, you’re afraid, you renounce yourself and say “No, gentlemen, I was joking, really I was just joking, I am not I!”
That kind of existential concern — who am I? I am not I! je est un autre! — would come into its own in the twentieth century, and if Veltman had managed to linger in cultural memory up till then I’m convinced he would have been hailed as a precursor of modernism. I hope I someday have the leisure to translate at least a few of his novels and bend over backwards, as they say, to make sure people take note of him.
[Thanks to D.O. and Dmitry Prokofyev for translation help!]
Addendum. Having gotten a bit farther into the novel, I’ve come across another beautiful example. Salomea, having gone through various ups and downs after fleeing Moscow, is now back in town but pretending to be a French governess. Platon Turutsky, the elderly gentleman who had hoped to marry her, was driven completely mad by her disappearance and is obsessively readying his new house (see this post) for her; among the other arrangements, he wants to hire a French governess to manage the household for him (he is expecting to raise a family with Salomea). A friend who knows this sends the French governess he has recently met (actually, of course, Salomea) to interview for the job. The befuddled and distraught Platon, wandering through the house to check the arrangements for the thousandth time (as he does every day), stumbles upon her dozing in a dressing room; he, of course, immediately recognizes her as the woman he loves, but she doesn’t recognize him, and a dialogue of cross purposes ensues (they are speaking French, though Veltman reports their words in Russian). He asks after her parents (search on “- Мои родители?… – повторила Саломея”):
“My parents?” repeated Salomea, “…my parents in France… are no longer alive.”
“My God, no longer alive? When… but I suppose some disaster must have happened… they told me you…”
“He’s a madman!” thought Salomea, and said “I don’t understand you; I’ve just arrived from France.”
“From France? When was this? My God, how many changes there have been! You came from France… alone?”
“Oh, no, I came with my husband, but he died on the road, and I was left with no one to take care of me.”
“No one to take care of you! Married!” repeated the thunderstruck Platon Vasilyevich. “My God, so many changes! Salomea Petrovna!” he added in Russian.
Salomea flushed, confused and embarrassed at hearing her name.
“I don’t understand you; I am Ernestine de Millevoie,” she replied, repressing her confusion.
“Ernestine de Millevoie?” repeated Platon Vasilyevich, looking at Salomea fixedly, as at a specter.
“I believe they have already told you…” Salomea began.
“They told me, they told me… My God, how happy I am!” Platon Vasilyevich interrupted.
“So I would like to know what disposal you intend to make of me,” said Salomea, who was beginning to recollect the familiar features of the old man and was determined to dissuade him from his belief.
“Disposal? Good lord, whatever you like, whatever pleases you, everyone is at your service… you have only to say the word… Everything is at your own disposal… I am so happy that I can be of service to you, that I can please you… I am so happy, Salomea Petrovna.” Tears spurted from the old man’s eyes, and he was unable to continue.
“You have taken me for someone completely different, but I do not wish to make use of another person’s rights in your house and be someone other than who I am [и быть не тем, что я есть],” said Salomea, rising from her seat.
I’ll take that kind of clever plot construction and examination of identity and deception over a thousand mournful accounts of the sufferings of downtrodden peasants.
Further addendum. Salomea, having escaped from Turutsky’s unwanted attentions, found herself the object of unwanted attentions from the besotted young Charov, from whom she has now managed to slip away; he runs around like a madman, looking for her:
Смерклось уже, а он ходил взад и вперед по всему парку, останавливался, и чуть завидит вдали какое-нибудь уединенное существо, торопится к нему и всматривается в лицо, как будто забыв и наружность и одежду Саломеи, и подозревая, не приняла ли она на себя чужой образ.
It was already dark, but he went back and forth throughout the park, stopping now and then, and as soon as he saw some solitary creature he hurried up to it and looked into its face, as if he had forgotten Salomea’s appearance and clothing and suspected that she might have taken on someone else’s form.