Pisemsky Reconsidered.

I was disappointed in Pisemsky’s famous first published novel, Tyufyak, which in my post about it I translated “The Lump”; I don’t take back any of the unkind things I said about it, but I now realize that it was a poor introduction to a fine author. The upsetting thing is that I only read his 1851 follow-up, Sergei Petrovich Khozarov i Mari Stupitsyna: Brak po strasti [Sergei Petrovich Khozarov and Marie Stupitsyna: Marriage for passion], because Apollon Grigoryev, the best Russian literary critic of the nineteenth century, ended his survey of 1851 with it and clearly considered it the best novel of the year. I am in hearty agreement with that judgment, but if it weren’t for Grigoryev I would never have heard of it: neither the English nor Russian Wikipedia article mentions it, nor does D. S. Mirsky in the long and laudatory section on Pisemsky in his History of Russian Literature (which first suggested to me that I might want to read him someday). Mirsky says “Throughout the fifties Pisemsky continued producing masterpieces that met with increasing recognition,” and we must presume he considered this one of those masterpieces, but you’d think he’d at least have mentioned their titles. At any rate, I’ll quote him on Pisemsky’s virtues and then go on to discuss the novel. This is from pp. 210-11 of my edition of Mirsky:

Pisemsky is different in many ways from his contemporaries. Most of the essential features I have spoken of as common to the Russian realists are absent from his work. To begin with, he is free from all idealism, and this in two senses — he has no use for ideas and theories, and he does not take an optimistic view of mankind. […] He painted life as he saw it, without breaking it to any preconceived idea. The people who inhabit his stories are not subjective creations, ultimately based on the exteriorization of personal experience, like Gogol’s and like those of most of the realists, but really other people, seen with the eyes and understood by the sense of kind. Another feature of Pisemsky is the predominance in his work of outline over atmosphere. His people do not move about in a mellow autumnal haze like Turgenev’s, but stand out in the fierce glare of sunlight. The discreteness as opposed to the continuity of things is what his vision reveals. Closely connected with this feature is a far greater element of narrative interest than is usual in Russian fiction. All these characteristics, together with his somewhat cynical attitude to life, make Pisemsky unlike the main current of Russian realism and much more like the French naturalists. He has points in common with Balzac and is anticipatory of Zola and of Maupassant. […] Pisemsky, who kept himself uncontaminated by idealism, was in his own time regarded as much more characteristically Russian than his more cultured contemporaries. And this is true, Pisemsky was in much closer touch with Russian life, in particular with the life of the uneducated middle and lower classes, than were the more genteel novelists. He was, together with Ostrovsky, and before Leskov, the first to open that wonderful gallery of Russian characters of non-noble birth which is one of the greatest things in Russian literature yet to be discovered by the West. Pisemsky’s great narrative gift and exceptionally strong grip on reality make him one of the best Russian novelists…

Brak po strasti opens in a Moscow boardinghouse with its owner, Tatyana Zamsheva, giving instructions to her cook about which dishes to serve to which of her boarders. Pisemsky creates as vivid a picture of boardinghouse life as Balzac or Trollope, and Zamsheva is quite comparable to Mrs. Roper, who runs the boardinghouse in Trollope’s The Small House at Allington (which is our current bedtime reading chez Hat, and which I recommend to anyone who loves nineteenth-century novels): both are good-hearted women constantly under stress because of the unwillingness of their boarders to pay up, and both get more involved in the love lives of the young men who board with them than they should. Zamsheva divides her boarders into three groups, the милашки [sweethearts], the так себе [middling], and the гадкие [revolting]. Among the sweethearts is young Sergei Khozarov, who is educated and polite, well above the usual run of boardinghouse inmates, and whom she therefore coddles, giving him the best of the food and not pestering him for the rent as she does the revolting ones.

The other locus of the story is the Stupitsyn household, which consists of the middle-aged Katerina Arkhipovna, her daughters Praskovya (“Pashette”), Anna (“Annette”), and Marya (“Mashette” or “Marie”), and her newly returned husband Anton Fedotych, who is one of the great characters of Russian realist literature. He is a drunk and a dreamer, and therefore a liar, but, as Pisemsky points out, “not one of those indecent liars who babble God only knows what sort of nonsense”: no, he tells people perfectly ordinary and believable things, just things that didn’t happen to him. His wife keeps him on a tight leash, refusing him the vodka and tobacco he loves (though she addresses him politely even while chewing him out: “она всегда относилась к нему во втором лице множественного числа и прибавляла частичку ‘с'”), so he spends much of his time inventing pleasant things that should have happened to him, and when he slips the leash and gets a chance to booze, he tells his drinking companions those stories. His usual crew, of course, know he’s making it all up, so he especially enjoys the opportunity to share his dreamed reality with strangers. It is as a result of his confabulation that Khozarov becomes convinced that Marie, the youngest Stupitsyn girl and the apple of her mother’s eye (and thus the object of the spiteful envy of her older sisters), is going to come into a substantial fortune and decides to woo her. Her family wanted to marry her to the rich and genial Ivan Rozhnov, but Marie considers him old and fat and wants nothing to do with him; she readily falls for the smooth-talking Khozarov, and goes on a hunger strike until her mother, who dislikes Khozarov intensely, gives in. All of this plays out with the economy and wit natural to a successful dramatist, which Pisemsky was, and I’m looking forward to reading his plays as well. In the meantime, I’m glad to have happened on this wonderful short novel, which should be translated and added to the reading lists of Russ. lit. classes.

So why has it been so utterly forgotten? I can think of two reasons (aside from sheer chance): it has nothing to say about serfdom, class struggle, politics, or any of the other obsessions of the critics who created our image of Russian literature (though it has a lot to say about gender relations, and the unhappy wife Varvara Mamilova, who befriends Khozarov and ends up regretting it, is another great creation, up there with Trollope’s Miss Dunstable, the “Ointment of Lebanon” heiress); and it has an awkward and unmemorable title. This simply confirms me in my belief that the notorious canon, though secure at the top (no, Shakespeare isn’t great just because a bunch of dead white males chose him out of a hat), is missing a great deal on the lower levels. I hope for many more such discoveries as I make my way through the nineteenth century.

I forgot to mention that I was moved by Mamilova’s apposite quotation (actually a slight misquotation) of Tatyana’s famous line from the last canto of Eugene Onegin, “Я другому отдана и буду век ему верна” [I have been given to another and will be true to him all my life], and then it occurred to me that that canto had been published only two decades earlier, and that Pushkin had been dead for only thirteen years. It’s as if a new novel quoted a famous line from the mid-1990s by an author who died in 2002; there were lots of readers who had known Pushkin personally or remembered reading that line when it first came out. Time is a strange thing.

Update. Erik of XIX век discusses this post and the prolific Pisemsky.


  1. If the critics’ obsessions determined the pecking order, wouldn’t students be reading more Nekrasov, Pisemsky (“The Wood Goblin,” A Bitter Fate, or the Masha subplot in Troubled Seas), and Leskov on Russian serfdom instead of books full of aristocratic passions or philosophical analyses of death, sin, and virtue? Not that there’s no serfdom (present or past) at the top of the canon — we need to know about it to understand Onegin’s preferences about obrok vs. barshchina, or A Sportsman’s Sketches, or Levin mowing, or who’s who in The Cherry Orchard — but there’s not as much as there could be. Even Dead Souls is about the nobles, not as slaveholders but as comic personifications of vices.

    I completely agree that people should read Pisemsky more, but as with any argument of this type I find it harder to say what should be taken out of those Russian literature classes to make room for him. In any case I personally look forward to reading A Marriage of Passion on your recommendation!

  2. I find it harder to say what should be taken out of those Russian literature classes to make room for him.

    Fortunately, since I do not actually teach classes I don’t have to worry about such things! As for the political stuff, sure, it’s not a hard-and-fast thing, I was just proposing it as one possible cause for this novel having slipped through the cracks. I’ll bet if there had been an oppressed serf or an argument about what could be interpreted as politics in it, it would have been better remembered.

  3. My god, this is the stuff that keeps me up at night: stories and authors that are being overlooked, even sparsely mentioned across the Internet. This reminds me of finding Muireann Maguire’s Red Spectres compilation by chance; it just takes a little digging to realize how many gaps in knowledge still exist.

  4. Yes indeed. See this LibraryThing thread, where in response to the comment “Are there any other significant 19th c. (or 20th c.) Russian novels that have never been translated into English? I figure there must a good reason why The Gardenins has not, perhaps the book is considered too lengthy and Ertel too obscure, or perhaps some other fatal flaw… ” I provided a long list of significant novels that had never been translated and said “You should really try to rid yourself of the (very common) idea that everything really worth translating has been translated, so if something hasn’t been translated it can’t be all that good; it’s simply not true.”

    Also, thank you for commenting on this poor neglected post!

  5. Thank you for the link, looks like I have my work cut out for me and my terrible Russian vocabulary!


  1. […] Last month Languagehat read A Marriage of Passion [Сергей Петрович Хозаров и Мари Ступицына: Брак по страсти, 1851] and his opinion of Pisemskii improved: […]

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