In general, I feel like a latecomer to literature; whenever I mention that I’m reading Proust or Patrick O’Brian or Alan Hollinghurst, I know that many of my readers will have been there before me, and I suspect that some of them are thinking “What, you’ve never read that?” But with Vasily Narezhny‘s Российский Жилблаз (A Russian Gil Blas), I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I’m the only one of the group here assembled that has read it—it’s never been translated into English, and it’s pretty much been forgotten by Russian literature except to be mentioned now and again as an inferior precursor of Gogol. In fact, I can’t help but wonder darkly if some of the critics and historians who have condescended to it have actually read it, since their descriptions are so at variance with the novel I am reading. Prince Mirsky, normally a reliable source, says Narezhny’s “books, owing to their heavy style and their diffuseness, are difficult reading.” Did he dip into one or two when he was in a bad mood, or is Narezhny just too far removed from his taste as it was formed at the turn of the twentieth century? At any rate, the novel is very far from “difficult reading”; in fact, I had to force myself to stop, having finished the second of the six surviving parts, and make a preliminary report.

To make one obvious point, it’s not very much like the original Gil Blas at all. (I can’t help but wonder if it might have had more success if Narezhny had called it, say, “The Stolen Son” instead of trying to capitalize on the popularity of the French book.) Lesage’s L’Histoire de Gil Blas de Santillane is a straightforward narrative in which the protagonist, telling his own story, describes how he was brought up and educated by his uncle and sent to Salamanca to the university; on the way his adventures begin, and his ups and downs are presented in order until he comes to a happy end. Narezhny’s novel is nothing like this. It begins with a third-person description of the aging Ivan Efremovich Prostakov, his wife Maremyana, and his daughters Elizaveta and Katerina, who live in a village on the border between Oryol and Kursk guberniyas. One evening a visitor arrives; he is announced as a prince but looks like a beggar, dressed in rags, covered in mud, and shivering from the cold. He introduces himself as Prince Gavrilo Simonovich Chistyakov; Maremyana wants to turn him away, but Prostakov takes to him immediately and invites him to have dinner with them and stay the night. He winds up staying as an indefinite guest, and begins telling them his life story, which takes up most of the first part (twenty chapters) of the novel: adolescent foolishness in a little village in southern Kursk guberniya, marriage, a son Nikandr. But after several chapters it is interrupted by the arrival of a Prince Svetlozarov, and subsequent events take up several more chapters until Chistyakov’s story can be resumed. The second part opens with “An Explanation by the Author,” in which the author in propria persona says “People keep wanting explanations from me: How could Prostakov have so easily been reconciled to his wife and daughters after their bad behavior? And how did Chistyakov manage to keep so much money after twenty years of wandering? It’s a good question, but I don’t have the energy to answer it right at the moment; I will, however, tell a story from a foreign land.” Whereupon he tells a story about a Great Mogul of India who was having trouble with resentful fakirs. The second chapter resumes the original Prostakov story, and the third begins another autobiographical narration, this one by a young man named Nikandr (who may or may not be Chistyakov’s son of that name); this takes up most of the rest of the second part, which ends on a magnificent cliffhanger.

I provide that much detail so you can see how elaborate the construction of the book is; Narezhny interweaves the stories in such a way as to gradually reveal how they fit together and builds up suspense that would not be possible in a linear narration. Furthermore, Lesage is an Enlightenment triumphalist, showing his hero’s inexorable rise to wealth and power; Narezhny is far more, well, Russian, and he emphasizes the downs more than the ups. In the last chapter of the first part he writes: “In a word, into whatever someone puts that dreamlike feeling, happiness, he will always be deceived. Everything passes: vanity of vanities.” [Словом, кто в чем ни положи это мечтательное чувство, это счастие, всегда обманется. Все выйдет: суета сует.] Not that it’s in any way a gloomy read; the narration is confident and jovial. But every once in a while he points the moral.

One thing that astonished me was the portrait of “the Jew Yanka.” He first appears offstage as the moneylender and tavernkeeper to whom a hapless girl’s father takes all their valuables to pawn so he can drink, and we’re primed for yet another nasty, avaricious stereotype. But when the destitute narrator wants to get married, Yanka not only gives his possessions back but adds five rubles and two bottles of vodka for the wedding feast; he becomes a good friend, and when the narrator leaves town, he bequeaths all his possessions to Yanka as the only person he can trust. This must be one of the most favorable portrayals of a Jew in nineteenth-century Russian literature, and in fact Leonid Livak, in his The Jewish Persona in the European Imagination: A Case of Russian Literature, says it’s one of the main causes of the novel’s fate (the first three parts were banned by the censors immediately after publication, and the remaining three were not allowed to be published—they only saw the light in 1938): “Although circulating in manuscript, this novel is barred from print as immoral, because ‘the jews’ ‘cannot and should not be [depicted] as people of virtue’—this being how Faddei Bulgarin sums up in 1826 the reasons for the novel’s proscription.” Contrast that to the “hideous figure of ‘Zhyd Yankel,’ a mercenary, soulless, dastardly creature” in Gogol’s Taras Bulba and the antisemitism of writers like Dostoevsky and you begin to see that more than a picaresque adventure story was lost.

I’ll quote a couple of bits from the second part that pleased me as a connoisseur and lover of language. In chapter 9, Trismegalos, a philologist obsessed with Church Slavonic, greets the narrator with “Чего ищеши зде, чадо?” [“What dost thou seek here, O progeny?”—though that doesn’t begin to convey the archaic ring of the Slavic], and the two have a delightful exchange in that musty medium. (I can’t help but wonder if that sentence is a deliberate echo of “Чего ищеши чадо безразсудное?”—What dost thou seek, O foolhardy progeny?—which Radishchev’s narrator hears from the heavens in the Bronnitsy chapter of Journey from St. Petersburg to Moscow; see this post.) And in chapter 15, Narezhny makes fun of Katerina, who is expecting to marry a rich man and suddenly starts acting all posh: “Instead of saying, as she would have before, ‘Mom, isn’t it time to lay the table? Dad’s already back from the threshing floor,’ she said ‘Ma chère maman! I dare think that it is already time to place covers for five persons on the table; mon cher papa has deigned to return from a voyage during which he deigned to observe the household arrangements involving tillage'” [Вместо того чтобы сказать, как и было прежде: «Матушка, не пора ли накрывать на стол? уже батюшка пришел с гумна», — она говорила: «Ma chère maman! Я смею думать, что уже время ставить на стол куверты на пять персон; mon cher papa изволил возвратиться из вояжа, во время которого изволил он осмотреть хозяйственные заведения касательно хлебопашества»]. A bit later the father goes on an extended and very funny rant beginning “So what if they hadn’t learned how to speak foreign languages [if he had kept them at home]; it does them no good” [Пусть они не умели бы говорить иностранными языками; им и не для чего]; it’s too long to translate here, but it ends up with a peroration against French novels and their corrupting influence.

Just when I was starting to think I was the only person to appreciate Narezhny, I found John Mersereau Jr.’s review (Slavic Review 47 (1988): 165-166) of The Russianization of Gil Blas: A Study in Literary Appropriation, by Ronald D. LeBlanc: “the author focuses primarily upon the two major examples, Vasilii Narezhnyi’s Rossiiskii Zhilblaz and Faddei Bulgarin’s Russkii Zhilblaz [i.e., Ivan Vyzhigin; Bulgarin’s novel was originally called “Ivan Vyzhigin, or the Russian Gil Blas”]. Both works are described in sufficient detail that the reader is not required to consult the original, although in Narezhnyi’s case this would be a pleasure. … The sad fate of Rossiiskii Zhilblaz … is contrasted with the excessive success of Bulgarin’s Ivan Vyzhigin (1829), the first Russian best-seller.” Investigating further, I found LeBlanc’s “Making ‘Gil Blas’ Russian” (The Slavic and East European Journal 30 (1986): 340-354), which is full of satisfying observations; I’ll quote several passages that give an idea of his take on Narezhny and Bulgarin:

What works to make the content of Narežnyj’s novels so new and originally Russian is his appreciation of the peculiarly non-European features of Russian cultural history. The author of Rossijskij Žilblaz saw the backward, medieval features of his culture not as shortcomings that had to be overlooked, but rather as the foundations upon which to build a sense of national identity. …

One of the most noteworthy achievements of this Russian adaptation of Lesage’s model is that it provided a hero who, as a result of the quest he undertakes and of the fate he comes to suffer, can only in a highly ironic sense be considered a “Gil Blas.” Narežnyj, in other words, Russianized not only Gil Blas the novel but also Gil Blas the hero, creating in Prince Čistjakov a distinctively Russian version of Lesage’s protagonist. …
Narežnyj, with his Flemish style and Baroque artistic sensibilities, seems to have been attracted more to the Spanish picaresque tradition, which he did not know, than to the Lesagean model, with which he was familiar. Indeed, his Rossijskij Žilblaz provides us with a curious instance which seems to validate Baxtin’s notion that a historical “memory” remains alive within a genre—that “genre lives in the present but always remembers its past, its origins” (Baxtin, 122). …

Thanks to the tsarist censors, who withheld publication of Narežnyj’s socially critical Rossijskij Žilblaz for well over one hundred years, it was Bulgarin’s artistically mediocre but politically loyal Ivan Vyžigin that was allowed to be published and that was fated to have an impact, as a historical instance, upon the rise of the novel in Russia. …

By subverting, through the use of parody and irony, the bourgeois hero’s quest for personal happiness and his pursuit of secular success, this pioneering Russian novelist succeeded in restoring to Lesage’s model a religious dimension that had been removed from picaresque fiction during the course of the eighteenth century. It is largely through the restoration of this religious dimension to the picaresque genre that Narežnyj succeeded in making Gil Blas Russian. He helped to show that the European novel and the European hero, if they were adapted in an innovative way and made to fit Russia’s peculiar cultural realities and overriding spiritual concerns, could be not only transplanted on Russian soil but also, to borrow Walter Reed’s expression, “renovated” within works of Russian literature. In this sense, Narežnyj not only recalls Alemán and von Grimmelshausen; he also anticipates Dostoevskij and Leskov.

I’m sure I’ll have more to say later on. I had originally intended to read only the first three parts, because that’s all that could have influenced Gogol and later writers, but now I’m pretty sure I’ll wind up reading the whole thing, because I’ll want to know what happens next.


  1. Sounds like my kind of thing. I loved Lesage’s Gil Blas. Lesage’s novel isn’t as straightforward as you imply as the hero meets plenty of other characters who tell their life stories, which include the characters they meet telling their life stories, which…You get the picture. In his introduction to my edition of Gil Blas, Etiemble writes: “les récits à tiroirs composent un quart du premier tome, la moitié du second, un sixième du troisième, un quart du quatrième.”

  2. Thanks for the correction. Here I complain about people discussing Narezhny’s novel without reading it and then I go and do the same to Lesage’s!

  3. Prof. LeBlanc wrote a Carl Beck occasional paper a few years ago on “Vegetarianism in Russia: The Tolstoy(an) Legacy.”

  4. Huh:

    Vegetarianism, which had been demonized under Stalin as a pernicious and insidiously “antiscientific” doctrine promulgated by the ideologues of the exploitative classes in the capitalist West, experienced a revival that began during the glasnost’ years; it has continued to remain popular in post-communist Russia as well.

    Man, Stalin sure demonized a lot of stuff.

  5. I have to praise the GDR here, because there is a translation into German which appeared there in 1972; the 3rd edition was published in 1991 (there was a Russian hype around that time), and now it is sold for all but nothing in the internet’s thrift shops. I just ordered one copy. Thank you very much for the tip! (I recently read Jan Potocki’s “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa,” so I am in the mood for this kind of novel.)

  6. narrowmargin says

    I used to say that to people (“What? You haven’t read that yet?”), until I soon realized that the same could be asked of me concerning, at a minimum, 100 commonly known titles. So I stopped.
    And when I’m reading a book about which that question could be asked of me, I casually declare, “Oh, I’m re-reading it.”

  7. I just ordered one copy. Thank you very much for the tip!
    You’re welcome, and I’m delighted to have brought Narezhny another reader! Let me know what you think when you’ve read it. (As for “The Manuscript Found in Saragossa,” I’ve seen the movie, which is wonderful, but haven’t read the book. Yet.)

  8. Latecomer to Literature would be a great name for a blog. Half the first page of Google hits refer to this very post, and some of the others use literature in the sense ‘writings about a particular subject’.

  9. I’ve seen the movie, which is wonderful, but haven’t read the book. Yet.
    The film’s great and captures the spirit of the book, which is even more complicated (!).

  10. I’ve seen the movie, which is wonderful, but haven’t read the book. Yet.
    Read the book, read the book! I haven’t seen the movie, but I can’t imagine that a movie could convey anything of the greatness of this book, in which, in short, an enlightened mind tells a story made up of very many stories by using the techniques of the premodern novel, i.e., intertwining the stories endlessly, which, of course, makes it a very modern novel in the end. Ah! I cannot praise this book enough. And the story of its manuscript is as bizarre as the stories told in it… My copy is praised as the one in which the fewest parts had to be translated from Polish; Potocki had written in French, and the Polishman who translated parts of it, burnt the original, and so on. Potocki was a Polish nobleman who had traveled a lot in Russia (for the tsar), because his first profession was science, and to end his life, he broke a little ball from his samovar, polished it and had it blessed before shooting himself with it.

  11. I haven’t seen the movie
    See the movie, see the movie! Seriously, it’s amazing.
    As for the book, anybody know if the Russian translation is any good? If I’m going to have to read it in translation, I’d just as soon read it in Russian. (Same goes for Lem.)

  12. See the movie, see the movie!
    I just watched its beginning on YouTube. It looks very very good, you are right. Unfortunately, I don’t speak Polish, but I will try to find a subtitled version. Thank you for this tip as well!

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