I’ve finished Elena Veltman’s short novel Виктор [Viktor], which surprised me by being a huge advance on “Oksana” (which I wrote about here). It’s one of those works that makes me glad I embarked on my project of reading as much early Russian literature as I could, and frustrated at the unjust workings of literary history and canon formation. It appeared in the January and February 1853 issues of Moskvityanin and as a book in the same year, but the book appears to be an extreme rarity, and it has not been digitized by Google, which means anyone who wants to read the novel has to depend on the Google Books scan of Moskvityanin (here‘s the start)—which, alas, is missing several pages.
The novel is divided into two halves, the first giving background and the second telling the actual story. But here, as in an Alexander Veltman novel, the plot is not paramount, and the title character is not meant to be a particularly interesting or psychologically deep protagonist (a point missed by one of the very few people who seems to have actually read it since the 1850s, the author of the entry in the Dictionary of Russian Women Writers). It starts with its young hero waking up in an unbearably melancholy state, tells the reader that this is one of those fateful moments that can determine the entire future course of a person’s life, and then says that to understand it we must go back a generation or two, to Viktor’s mother, or better yet to her mother, Anna Petrovna Polyanova, and we’re off — Viktor disappears for many pages. It turns out that Anna’s husband, Prokofy Trofimovich, works for a rich woman, Avdotya Medvedeva, on the lawsuit which consumes her entire life and which everyone expects will make their fortune. After many miscarriages which seem to ordain a childless marriage, Anna has a daughter, Nastenka, who is so beautiful and charming that Avdotya takes her under her wing, giving her a proper lady’s education (French, piano, dancing) at a pension. Unfortunately, she is also a miser, and chooses the cheapest available pension (Mme Griselle’s), which means that Nastenka learns such terrible French that Avdotya says she’d better not marry anyone who actually speaks the language. Fortunately, she has just the right candidate: Andrei Lyudvinov, a lawyer who carries on her lawsuit in the higher circles of St. Petersburg. He’s an older man, and balding, but Nastasya has no choice in the matter, and she marries him (I might note that the author herself was forced by her family to marry an older man she didn’t love, for financial reasons); they have a child, Viktor, whom they adore, and they provide him with the best possible gentleman’s education. Unfortunately, just as he’s about to set out to make his way in the world, the lawsuit is decided unfavorably, and everyone is suddenly broke. He’s excited for a moment when an acquaintance shows up and offers to take him on a trip around the world, all expenses paid, but it turns out the fellow means that Viktor (who he assumes is rich) will pay the expenses while he acts as a tour guide. So, after awakening (thus we return to the start of the novel), Viktor sees nothing for it but to retreat to the village the family owns, out in the country. This is where the first part ends.
In his parents’ country house, he is bored out of his mind until he picks up a copy of Dead Souls that’s lying around, reads Gogol’s preface inviting readers to send him their accounts of whatever part of Russia they know so that a complete picture can be built up, and decides he will ride around the countryside and tell the author about it. Unfortunately, he quickly realizes that Gogol had described better than he could everything he sees (he quotes the passage from the start of chapter 2 beginning “Едва только ушел назад город [Hardly had the town fallen behind]…”) and gives up the idea. But Elena Veltman has fun with the conceit (and has a peasant give directions to Stary Suk for Viktor much like those to Manilovka for Chichikov), and the Dictionary of Russian Women Writers says “Some Russian intellectuals, grieving over Gogol’s absurd death in 1852, felt Vel’tman’s invocation of Dead Souls in her novella Viktor (1853) to be in bad taste.” Talk about bad luck and bad timing!
But while he’s exploring the area, he happens on a small house inhabited by a feeble and half-demented old woman and her beautiful and innocent young granddaughter Grusha, as well as a maidservant (on the rustic name Grusha, Viktor quotes Eugene Onegin on Tatyana); he is smitten by Grusha and hangs around their house reading her poetry and expounding his bitter philosophy of life, but later he meets the equally lovely but not so innocent Elizaveta, known to family and friends as Betsy, and is smitten by her as well, her attraction being all the greater because her family lives in a grand mansion with servants, and he assumes she is rich (and thus can repair his vanished fortunes). He forgets about Grusha and courts Betsy assiduously; alas, it turns out… but I don’t want to spoil the story; I’m hoping someone will be intrigued enough to republish and/or translate it!
At any rate, as I said above, the plot (derivative enough) isn’t the important thing; let me quote a few passages to give an idea of why I found it so enjoyable. This is from the start of section XII:
Viktor was what is called unfortunate [literally ‘deprived of his share’] — he had not found what he sought, and got knocked completely off track; there was no one to show off his intelligence to, no one to enlighten, nobody needed his compassion or deserved his reproach and moralizing irony.
“Where are they, O gifted author, where are your heroes, your Chichikovs, Nozdryovs, and Korobochkas?” cried Viktor, “where do you suggest I look for them?” And the quick-tempered youth was ready to prove that no Chichikovs, Nozdryovs, or Korobochkas existed in the world.
The sadness of disillusionment took hold of Viktor; walking around the room in his emotion, he glanced at the poem [i.e., Dead Souls] lying open on the desk, and his heart ached with envy.
Викторъ былъ, что называется, обездоленъ — онъ нашелъ не то, чего искалъ, и сбился совершенно съ толку; не надъ кѣмъ было ему здѣсь умничать, некого просвѣщать, никто не нуждался въ его состраданіи, никто не заслуживалъ укоризнъ его и нравоучительной ироніи.
…Гдѣ жь они, даровитый авторъ, гдѣ жь они, твои герои, гдѣ твои Чичиковы, Ноздревы и Коробочки? — вскричалъ Викторъ, — куда прикажешь идти искать ихъ? — И въ запальчивости юноша готовъ былъ доказывать, что не существуетъ на свѣтѣ ни Чичиковыхъ, ни Ноздревыхъ. ни Коробочекъ.
Тоска разочарованья овладѣла Викторомъ; ходя въ волненіи по комнатѣ, онъ взглянулъ на лежащую на пюпитрѣ раскрытую поэму, и сердце его заныло завистью.
Out for a morning ride, Betsy recites Rousseau’s ode:
L’Univers, à sa presence,
Semble sortir du néant,
Il prend sa course, il s’avance
Comme un superbe géant.
then sings Petrarch:
Pace non trovo, et non ho da far guerra,
E temo, et spero, ed ardo, e son in ghiaccio,
E volo sopra ‘l cielo, et giaccio in terra,
E nulla stringo, e tutto ‘l mondo abbraccio.
“But you haven’t reminded us yet of anything Russian,” said Viktor, when Betsy had stopped singing; “has the native lyre really not merited a tiny place in your capacious memory?”
“Russian?” said Betsy, laughing. “I learned by heart the first canto of the Telemakhiad to spite my teacher, when he was smothering me with Fenelon.”
“A whole canto of the Telemakhiad, by heart!” cried Viktor in horror. “How curious!”
“If you really find it curious, I’ll regale you with some verses.”
And Betsy began, with the certainty that reciting from memory the verses of Vasily Kirilovich [Trediakovsky] showed no small degree of originality:
“As when a youth is proud without mildness, daring without modesty,
Headlong without direction, lacking art, busy without skill,
Changeful and inconstant, light-minded, with no firmness,
Slow to the good, doing evil, given to pointless games,
Expects everything from himself, but, helpless, falls into the abysm…”
“What does that mean?” asked Miss Pocket [an Englishwoman], who did not understand Russian.
— Но вы не припомнили еще намъ ничего русскаго, — сказалъ Викторъ, когда Бетси перестала пѣть, — неужели отечественная лира не удостоилась занять маленькаго мѣста въ вашей могучей памяти?
— Русскаго? — сказала смѣясь Бетси, — я выучила наизусть первую пѣснь Телемахиды на зло моему учителю, который душилъ меня Фенелономъ.
— Наизусть, цѣлую пѣснь Телемахиды! — воскликнулъ съ ужасомъ Викторъ, — это любопытно!
— Если это любопытно въ самомъ дѣлѣ, то я поподчую васъ нѣсколькими стихами. — И Бетси начала съ увѣренностію, что читать на память стихи Василія Кириловича есть также оригинальность не послѣдняго разбора:
“Рцы, коль безъ кротости юноша пыщь, безъ скромности дерзокъ;
“Безъ направленій стремглавъ, чуждъ искуства, безъ навыковъ дѣльныхъ;
“Внѣ постоянства превратенъ н твердости внѣ легкомысленъ;
“Коль есть медленъ ко благу, творитъ зло, игру тщу пристрастенъ,
“Чаять всего отъ себя, но безъ помощи рѣяться въ бездны…
— Чтó это значитъ? — спросила миссъ Покетъ, не понимающая по-русски.
That last line made me laugh quite loudly, because Trediakovsky was considered unintelligible by Russians themselves. There’s an allusion to the European financial crisis of 1847-1850 in the comparison of unexpected news to “the effect produced when news comes over the telegraph of some commercial crisis that wrecks strong stocks [дѣйствіе, которое производитъ сообщенная по телеграфу вѣсть о какомъ нибудь торговомъ кризисѣ, роняющемъ крѣпкіе фонды].” And there’s a nice passage showing how taking part in a theatrical performance can affect emotions:
But there’s nothing to say about the performance. We know how amateurs act. The amateur actor has in the eyes of the worldly public a powerful superiority over the professional, and there’s no reason to reproach this preference: it is well founded, especially in scenes when the beau monde is represented onstage. Thus we can be in no doubt about the perfection with which the troupe of amateurs put on their performance. But it is hard to realize how lovely Betsy knew how to make herself, and what Viktor was like. The adroitness, the naturalness, their brilliantly thought-out playing, was beyond all description. The audience was thrilled, and Koburin applauded and cried out in ecstasy.
“You love me,” repeated Viktor backstage, gazing into Betsy’s eyes with his own aflame.
“You know,” she repeated, and both felt themselves in the rapture of the stage.
Но о представленіи говорить нечего. Мы знаемъ, какъ играютъ любители. Актеръ-любитель имѣетъ въ глазахъ свѣтской публики сильное преимущество надъ актеромъ по профессіи, и этого предпочтенія нельзя ставить въ вину: оно основательно, въ тѣхъ особенно случаяхъ, когда выводится на сцену такъ называемый свѣтѣ. Такимъ образомъ мы можемъ на сколько не сомнѣваться въ совершенствѣ, съ какимъ выполнила труппа любителей предпринятое представленіе. Но о томъ, какъ съумѣла быть прекрасна Бетси, о томъ, каковъ былъ Викторъ, трудно составить себѣ понятіе. Ловкость, естественность, умная обдуманная игра ихъ, были выше всякаго описанія. Зрители дошли до совершеннаго восторга, и Кобуринъ аплодировалъ и кричалъ въ изступленіи.
— Ты любишь,– повторялъ Викторъ за кулисами, глядя въ глаза Бетси пламенными глазами.
— Ты знаешь,– повторяла и она, и оба чувствовали себя въ сценическомъ упоеніи.
To sum up, there’s a lot of intertextuality, a lot of humor, a lot of insight into the lives of women, and if there were such a thing as a Russian equivalent of Feminist Press, it would be a slam-dunk for reprinting. As it is, I hope someone will be curious enough to give it further exposure, one way or another.