Many years ago I visited the Topkapı Palace. As that Wikipedia article says, “The palace complex has hundreds of rooms and chambers, but only the most important are accessible to the public today,” and I was frustrated by the quick march our guide was providing through that limited number of rooms, so at a convenient moment I slipped away from the group and wandered for a bit through some of the closed areas. It was amazing seeing those dusty rooms with their faded ornamentation by myself; I soon hurried back to the group, not wanting to cause distress if my absence was noticed, but ever since then I’ve slipped into reveries thinking about the experience, and wished they’d open more of the place up.
Now that I’ve finished Veltman’s Strannik [The wanderer] (see this post), I have a very similar feeling. I started my swerve back to the beginning of modern Russian literature more or less on a whim, thinking I’d dash through some stories and at least start a few novels to get a sense of what the early stuff was like before settling in to Dostoevsky, but here it is the better part of a year later and I keep devouring writers of whom I, like most aficionados of Russian literature, had barely heard, thinking “Why don’t more people read this?” After finishing Narezhny’s Rossiisky Zhilblaz (A Russian Gil Blas; see this post), I went on to read two more of his novels (Bursak [The seminary student] and Dva Ivana [The two Ivans]), and once I had a taste of Pogorelsky (see this post) I read whatever else I could find by him. But what about the writers who aren’t even available online? What about Alexander Izmailov (1779–1831), whose Evgeny, ili pagubnye posledstviya durnogo vospitaniya i soobshchestva [Eugene, or the ruinous results of bad upbringing and association] Mirsky called “a cautionary and moral story, where the author describes vice with such realistic gusto that his critics were inclined to doubt the sincerity of his moral purpose”? What about Alexander Benitsky (1781–1809), whose style (again according to Mirsky) “surpassed in elegance and lucidity everything written in Russian prose before Pushkin” and upon whose death Batyushkov wrote to Gnedich: “What wit, and now no longer with us! Aren’t you ashamed not to write a line in praise of him, not in verse but prose? Why not let people know that a certain Benitsky lived and wrote ‘The Next Day’?” [Был умен, да умеръ! А тебе не стыдно ли не написать ни строчки в его похвалу, не стихами, а прозою? Зачем не известить людей, что жил некто Беницкий и написал На другой день?] (I’ve added a Google Books clip below the cut for those who can see it.) He’s so completely forgotten I can’t find a list of his stories with dates, let alone any texts, and it’s not even clear how to spell his last name (there are comparable numbers of hits for Бенитцкий and Беницкий). It’s a striking sign of the richness of Russian literature that it can afford to forget about writers that other cultures would name avenues after.
But enough preamble; let me tell you about Strannik (online here). I mentioned Moby-Dick in my previous Veltman post (linked above), and Melville certainly comes to mind; compare the openings of the two novels. Strannik: “This sedentary, monotonous life has grown wearisome; let us go, sir! — said I one day to myself — let us go a-traveling!” [Наскучив сидячею, однообразною жизнию, поедемте, сударь! — сказал я однажды сам себе, — поедемте путешествовать!] Moby-Dick (after the famous opening sentence): “Some years ago — never mind how long precisely — having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen, and regulating the circulation.” And the constant detours, the apparently inconsequential interruptions and side-thoughts, these too are reminiscent of the greatest American novelist (not a considered judgment that I am prepared to defend against all comers, mind you, but it is impossible for me not to feel it after immersing myself, however briefly, in Melville’s prose)—except that both writers got this style from the fons et origo of all divagating, diverting, dissertating novelists and prestidigitators of prose, Laurence Sterne, especially his Sentimental Journey and Tristram Shandy. The former (see this LH post) provides the template for the personal (“sentimental”) approach to the act of traversing a landscape, the latter the focus on war and the memory of war—Shandy’s siege of Namur becomes the Wanderer’s sieges of Shumla and Varna, all of them equally obscure after the passage of a few centuries (and indeed, the War of the League of Augsburg is one of the least remembered of the early modern pan-European wars, as the War of 1828–29 is one of the least remembered of the Russo-Turkish wars). (Here he sums up the twin poles of the book: “I do not intend to devote this day either to peaceful wandering through the Universe and through events, or to military campaigns through Bulgaria. It is as fine as the first of May.” [Этот день я не намерен посвящать ни мирному странствию по Вселенной и по событиям, ни военным походам по Булгарии. Он так хорош, как 1-е маия.]) Another source is Xavier de Maistre‘s Voyage autour de ma chambre, but of course de Maistre himself is heavily indebted to Sterne.
At any rate, what am I to say of the novel now that I’ve gotten its genealogy out of the way? It’s a war memoir, a travelogue, a fantasy, a dream of fair women, with poetry and ethnography tossed in, not to mention a phrasebook with bits of Greek, Turkish, Yiddish, French, and just about every other language to be found in the surprisingly cosmopolitan towns of early-nineteenth-century Bessarabia, Moldavia, and Bulgaria. It’s definitely postmodern avant le mot. It’s funny and wistful and occasionally hints at the devastation of war without ever rubbing the reader’s nose in it. I guess the best thing to do is quote a typical passage (I’ll put the original at the end of the post). Here are a couple of chapters from the end of the second part):
Boring, boring! … no, without [my Amazons] not a step forward! I’m ready to put off the march on Shumla to the end of the third part! Oh, to accomplish great deeds, one needs patience!… angelic… diabolic… do you think? no, mine—i.e., midway between them.
How patient is he who, having satisfied thirst and hunger, feelings, mind, and heart, stretches out to rest in downy waves and, already falling asleep, feels that something is crawling on his face, but fears to move lest in frightening off the insect he should also frighten sleep from his eyes… how patient he is!
And that isn’t everything, because everything is more than the whole Universe. That is not the end, nor is it the beginning… Show me a beginning and an end in anything, and I will say: No, that is a continuation.
Such transitions can be likened to familiar transitions… No, better yet, to the familiar Mozart chord in the overture to La clemenza di Tito. It goes without saying that he who does not know the thoroughbass of human emotions cannot understand the rightness of abrupt transitions; he can understand only a simple scale… Haydn, expressing the creation of the world, first of all depicted Chaos… In everything, harmony arises from disharmony… Thoughts, opinions, speeches, deeds, all of life, everything is subject to this law.
That’s as close as he comes to a manifesto. I wish I had a physical copy of the book, so I could mark all the cross-references and allusions, but although a Russian edition is available, Amazon wants $30 for it, and I’m not willing to shell out that much. But I would like to be living in a world where Strannik was as valued as any other nineteenth-century masterpiece, and I continue to meditate on the reasons it’s not. I suspect it has a lot to do with the turn toward Seriousness and Social Responsibility that Russian literature took in the 1840s. Belinsky has much to answer for.
Скучно, скучно!.. нет, без них ни шагу вперед! готов отложить поход к Шумле хоть до конца 3-й части! О, чтоб совершать дела великие, нужно терпение!.. ангельское… дьявольское… думаете вы? нет, мое — т. е. среднее между ними.
Как терпелив тот, который, утолив жажду и голод, чувства, ум и сердце, ложится в пуховые волны и, уже засыпая, чувствует, что что-то ползет по лицу, но боится пошевелиться, протянуть руку, чтоб, спугнув насекомое, не спугнуть и усыпления с очей своих… как терпелив он!
Это еще не все, ибо все более целой Вселенной. Это не конец и не начало… Покажите мне в чем-нибудь начало и конец, я скажу: нет, это продолжение.
Подобные переходы уподобляются известным переходам… или, еще лучше, известному моцартовскому аккорду в увертюре Титова милосердие. Разумеется, что тот, кто не знает генерал-баса чувств человеческих, не может понимать правильности резких переходов; для понятий его доступна только простая гамма… Хайдн, выражая создание мира, прежде всего изобразил Хаос… Во всем стройность создается из нестройности… Мысли, мнения, речи, дела, вся жизнь, все подвержено этому закону.