While I’ve been reading the Russian-authored titles from the Art of the Novella series in chronological order, I haven’t been posting on them that way. The two earliest, Alexander Pushkin’s The Tales of Belkin and Nikolai Gogol’s How the Two Ivans Quarrelled were re-reads for me, so I saved them for Friday and gave you an early taste of Turgenev and Dostoevsky this week. Now, backwards a bit.
The Tales of Belkin, published in 1831, were Pushkin’s first prose work, and consist of five stories allegedly written by Ivan Petrovich Belkin, a recently deceased landowner who dabbled in writing. They are supposed to have been told to him, in turn, each by a different acquaintance. The first of these, “The Shot,” could have made Melville House’s subset of “The Duel” novellas into a sextet if only it had been otherwise named, and it ended up pairing very well with my recent read of Joseph Conrad’s novella of that name.
The narrator—not Belkin, but lieutenant-colonel I.L.P., according to the “letter from the publisher” opening the collection, is stationed in a very small town where the soldiers have almost no one else for company. The only one in their circle who isn’t currently in the army is retired from it, and lives in a “shack” whose walls are riddled with bullets. He has a very expensive set of pistols and is a dead shot. But when, during a game of cards, a new arrival throws a brass candlestick at him, Silvio inexplicably refuses to challenge him to a duel. Where in Conrad’s tale we are mostly focused on the less romantic duellist, D’Hubert, who will accept the social dictates that require him to behave honorably and duel, here Pushkin/Belkin/I.L.P. gives a window onto the more romantic notions of people like the narrator, who is horrified that Silvio’s antagonist is still alive a few days after the incident.
Out of all of us, I was the only one who had a hard time warming to him [Silvio] again. Possessing as I did a naturally romantic imagination, I had felt an unusual connection to this man whose life was a riddle, and who seemed to me to be the hero of a secret tale. He had been fond of me too; at least, it was only in my presence that he dropped his curt manner and talked about things simply and even courteously. But after that unhappy night, the idea that his honor had been sullied, and that he himself had allowed the stain to remain—this idea refused to leave me alone, and prevented me from relaxing with him as I had before. I was ashamed to look at him. …From that point on, I encountered him only among fellow officers, and the intimate conversations we’d had before ended.
The grinding gears of social mores laid bare! The narrator doesn’t just drop his friend because the dictates of “honor” say that he should. He actually perceives a “stain” and is too troubled by it—ashamed himself, on his friend’s behalf most likely—to continue their relationship. Meanwhile, it turns out that Silvio is painfully aware of such things himself, and is probably as hot-blooded as D’Hubert’s opponent, carrying on another duel over a period of years.
How the Two Ivans Quarrelled, a story of many similar titles, was first published in 1835 in the collection Mirgorod, and falls under the “Ukrainian Tales” heading in the Pevear and Volokhonsky transltion of The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, where I first read it. This is at least somewhat important, because the main attraction of the two Ivans, and much Gogol, is the narrator, who is very intrusive, a bit silly, obsessed with details, and something of a Ukrainian village busybody (but in Mirgorod, it seems almost everyone is). This one is the classic neighborly feud: two men who start out as the best of friends get in an argument about trivialities and end up in a years-long lawsuit that disrupts their whole lives. Certainly, the tale is in the telling here.
One of my favorite things about Gogol and this narrator, or type of narrator (who’s to say it’s always the same one?), is his obsession with food. I want to re-read Dead Souls just for the suckling pig. Here, the best comes toward the end, when the most prominent townspeople make an effort to reconcile the two Ivans at a party. The passage really gives the flavor—pun quite intended—of Gogol.
Meantime, the fragrance of the beet-soup was wafted through the apartment, and tickled the nostrils of the hungry guests very agreeably. All rushed headlong to table. The line of ladies, loquacious and silent, thin and stout, swept on, and the long table soon glittered with all the hues of the rainbow. I will not describe the courses: I will make no mention of the curd dumplings with sour cream, nor of the dish of pig’s fry that was served with the soup, nor of the turkey with plums and raisins, nor of the dish which greatly resembled in appearance a boot soaked in kvas, nor of the sauce, which is the swan’s song of the old-fashioned cook, nor of that other dish which was brought in all enveloped in the flames of spirit, and amused as well as frightened the ladies extremly. I will say nothing of these dishes, because I lke to eat them better than to spend many words in discussing them.
This translation, by John Cournos, is good, though Pevear and Volokhonsky do have “borscht” for “beet-soup” and other similar differences. (Melville House’s edition of Belkin is translated by Josh Billings.) And in fact, except perhaps the sauce, and maybe “that other dish” (which is, in P&V, the sauce itself, confusingly), I don’t really want to eat much of it. But I don’t mind at all how many words someone wants to spend discussing it.
Vladimir Nabokov’s book on Nikolai Gogol is my favorite sort of thing: one writer I love writing about another writer we both love. And I loved it. Nabokov is a joy to read, period, and his insights about Gogol were helpful in articulating the swirling mess of thoughts I had about him. But if Nabokov is an intimidating writer of fiction (which is a stronger word than I would use), he is much more so writing about fiction.
He has tastes, he knows what they are, and he has no problem putting them up as simply correct. He is harsh, he pulls no punches, and his disdain for any number of things is right there on the surface, totally unhidden and unvarnished. E.g.:
There is nothing more dull and sickening to my taste than romantic folklore or rollicking yarns about lumberjacks or Yorkshiremen or French villagers or Ukrainian good companions. It is for this reason that the two volumes of the Evenings as well as the two volumes of stories entitled Mirgorod…leave me completely indifferent.
Also unhidden is the scorn for the wrong kind of reader:
It is strange, the morbid inclination we have to derive satisfaction from the fact (generally false and always irrelevant) that a work of art is traceable to a “true story.” Is it because we begin to respect ourselves more when we learn that the writer, just like ourselves, was not clever enough to make up a story himself? Or is something added to the poor strength of our imagination when we know that a tangible fact is at the base of the “fiction” we mysteriously despise? Or taken all in all, have we here that adoration of the truth which makes little children ask the story-teller “Did it really happen?” and prevented old Tolstoy in his hyperethical stage from trespassing upon the rights of the deity and creating, as God creates, perfectly imaginary people? …
I have a lasting grudge against those who like their fiction to be educational or uplifting, or national, or as healthy as maple syrup and olive oil, so that is why I keep harping on this rather futile side of The Government Inspector question.
This sort of thing gives me a lot of discomfort. First, I abase myself before true genius. And I also note that Nabokov has an enormous amount of that self-confidence that comes seemingly so easily to men (whom I’m not intimidated by, but cannot mimic) and the upper classes (whom I am intimidated by, despite my best efforts). And so much of Nabokov’s particular critique in this case revolves around a concept tied very closely to class issues: the idea of poshlost’ (or, here, poshlust).
Poshlust is one of these untranslatable concepts and important to Gogol’s work. Some English words in the nearby semantic space include “cheap, sham, common, smutty, pink-and-blue, high falutin’, in bad taste…inferior, sorry, trashy, scurvy, tawdry, gimcrack.” In the realm of literature, poshlust does not apply to actual trash, but to “the best sellers, the ‘stirring, profound and beautiful’ novels; it is these ‘elevated and powerful’ books.” In other words, any amount of your average, garden-variety “literary fiction.” And the real damnation of it all:
The dreadful thing about poshlust is that one finds it so difficult to explain to people why a particular book which seems chock-full of noble emotion and compassion, and can hold the reader’s attention ‘on a theme far removed from the discordant events of the day’ is far, far worse than the kind of literature which everybody admits is cheap.*
So what is poshlust but tawdry, bourgeois taste, and who can be the arbiter of real taste other than someone very much like a Vladimir Nabokov? How is it possible, even for those not infected with appreciationism, to trust oneself?
Because as much as you might want to write this all off as the exercise of an ego beyond all reasonable bounds, there is a small problem with that: he is right, about pretty much everything. And that’s after I’ve stripped out (most of) the class shame and resentment and general self-abasement of the student. So many of these were already my ideas, both about Gogol and about literature, and despite certain matters of taste (I still like folklore and rollicking yarns; sorry, I am hopelessly tawdry). I don’t disagree with Nabokov about, say, the purpose of fiction, as many would. I am completely with him here:
Gogol’s play is poetry in action, and by poetry I mean the mysteries of the irrational as perceived through rational words. True poetry of that kind provokes—not laughter and not tears—but a radiant smile of perfect satisfaction, a purr of beatitude—and a writer may well be proud of himself if he can make his readers, or more exactly some of his readers, smile and purr that way.
I know that smile and purr. Here I am rewarded for being “the right kind of reader,” and reminded that I do know what does it for me. And rewarded further when he describes the course of a Gogol story in terms even I could articulate:
So to sum up: the story goes this way: mumble, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, lyrical wave, mumble, fantastic climax, mumble, mumble, and back into the chaos from which they all had derived. At this superhigh level of art, literature is of course not concerned with pitying the underdog or cursing the upperdog. It appeals to that secret depth of the human soul where the shadows of other worlds pass like the shadows of nameless and soundless ships.
I suppose I could simply say that reading Nabokov on fiction is as rewarding and humbling as reading his novels; the experiences are not dissimilar. But I was much more unsettled after this. There are so many obstacles. I cannot understand Russian literature without speaking Russian—or, let’s be real, being Russian—I cannot understand any of it without understanding my own feelings about fiction more deeply, and being able to justify them; and even after all that I cannot trust myself or my own judgment. This is the periodic problem that stalls my blogging. I will continue to fend it off and write the muddled mediocrities of a poor poshlyáchki.
*Another, and an amazing, example of his real damn-you’re-so-rightness is the takedown in this section of a (made-up?) review of such a book, through a devastating close reading. An editing as well as a writing superhero.
After “The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich,” The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol moves its setting from the Ukraine to St. Petersburg and with the spatial change comes a change in tone, or ambience, or something. Are the stories more Russian? Is it that they are still more concerned with rank, class, and bureaucracy than the Ukrainian stories? That they don’t have the healthy offsetting effect of pastoralism? The muzhiks and landowners and country superstition are a different side of Russia than the pomp of the northern capital, and the Petersburg stories are an important early literary portrait of the city.
The first story of the St. Petersburg section, “Nevsky Prospect,” starts as a detail-ridden observation of “the beauty of our capital” and its character at the different times of day. There is great vanity in Petersburg, and strong delineation of rank and position (“everyone is either an official, a shopkeeper, or a German artisan”)—lots of fodder for Gogol’s descriptions as well as his irreverence.
Here you will meet singular side-whiskers, tucked with extraordinary and amazing art under the necktie, velvety whiskers, satiny whiskers, black as sable or coal, but, alas, belonging only to the foreign office. Providence has denied black side-whiskers to those serving in other departments; they, however great the unpleasantness, must wear red ones. Here you will meet wondrous mustaches, which no pen or brush is able to portray; mustaches to which the better part of a lifetime is devoted—object of long vigils by day and by night; mustaches on which exquisite perfumes and scents have been poured, and which have been anointed with all the most rare and precious sorts of pomades, mustaches which are wrapped overnight in fine vellum, mustaches which are subject to the most touching affection of their possessors and are the envy of passers-by.
Petersburg makes an even better setting for the absurd than did Dikanka or Mirgorod, with its collegiate registrars and titular councillors and actual state councillors. “The Diary of a Madman” is not only a hilarious send-up of the bureaucracy but also a brilliant melding of Gogol’s cracked perspective with real nonsense and madness. The horror stories are better than the Ukrainian ones too; “The Portrait” is deliciously creepy and “The Overcoat” has a real bleakness to it. And “The Nose” is a gem of absurdism in this perfect new voice Gogol has.
…a gentleman in a uniform jumped out, hunching over, and ran up the stairs. What was Kovalev’s horror as well as amazement when he recognized him as his own nose! …Two minutes later the nose indeed came out. He was in a gold-embroidered uniform with a big standing collar; he had kidskin trousers on; at his side hung a sword. From his plumed hat it could be concluded that he belonged to the rank of state councillor.
“But you’re my own nose!”
The nose looked at the major and scowled slightly.
“You are mistaken, my dear sir. I am by myself. Besides, there can be no close relationship between us. Judging by the buttons on your uniform, you must service in a different department.”
What, you couldn’t tell by his side-whiskers?
Gogol admits that it has “much of the implausible in it”—but not so much because of the nose disappearing and reappearing as a state councillor thing. “[H]ow was it that Kovalev did not realize that he ought not to make an announcement about the nose through the newspaper office?” We can back up still further. “[W]hat is strangest, what is most incomprehensible of all is how authors can choose such subjects…I confess, that is utterly inconceivable, it is simply…no, no, I utterly fail to understand.”
This is really enough to make you wish Dead Souls had been finished, though it’s amazing all the same, and that there were more in general.
“The Story of How Ivan Ivanovich Quarreled with Ivan Nikiforovich”* makes a perfect introduction to Gogol, I think—not that it was actually my introduction, of course. But it has it all, starting with the almost pointillist piling of detail on detail along with the intrusive narrator. It opens:
A fine bekesha Ivan Ivanovich has! A most excellent one! And what fleece! Pah, damnation, what fleece! dove gray and frosty! I’ll bet you anything that nobody has the like! Look at it, for God’s sake—especially if he starts talking with somebody—look from the side: it’s simply delicious! There’s no describing it: velvet! silver! fire! Lord God! Saint Nicholas the holy wonder-worker! why don’t I have a bekesha like that! He had it made for him back before Agafya Fedoseevna went to Kiev. Do you know Agafya Fedoseevna? The one who bit off the assessor’s ear?
Not only intrusive, but excitable. There follows a highly excitable description of Ivan Ivanovich: tall, thin, pious, addresses every beggar, speaks mellifluously. His best friend, Ivan Nikiforovich (and here we get into Gogol’s wonderful absurdity—not only will the two Ivans quarrel, but later there will even be another Ivan Ivanovich), is short, fat, taciturn, lazy. “Ivan Ivanovich’s head resembles a turnip tail-down, Ivan Nikiforovich’s a turnip tail-up.” I think that really sums things up here, don’t you? In any case, they are inseparable:
Anton Prokofievich Pupopuz, who to this day still goes around in a brown frock coat with blue sleeves and on Sundays has dinner at the judge’s, used to say that the devil himself had tied Ivan Nikiforovich and Ivan Ivanovich to each other with a piece of string. Wherever the one goes, the other gets dragged along.
There’s another detail, that bit about the brown coat with blue sleeves. Anton Prokofievich isn’t important right now, but he’ll be back, with his coat. He won’t be important then either but there will be more details about it!
Anyway, the two turnip-heads are best friends, but as you can tell by the title they quarrel. The reason for their falling-out is as cracked as everything else in this Mirgorod: Ivan Nikiforovich calls Ivan Ivanovich a goose. Cue the feuding neighbors, encroaching on each other’s property and finally filing official complaints against each other (bonus Gogol bureaucracy here). Throw in a sow trespassing in the courthouse and eating Ivan Nikiforovich’s complaint before it’s been copied. A sow of Ivan Ivanovich’s, which was involved in the original quarrel to boot.
Detail upon detail; intrusive, absurd-loving narrator; Ukrainian village life; wonderfully caricatured characters who always seem to be performing. And a disruptive ending, not uncommon for Gogol’s stories. The poor Ivans, who have had so many near-misses at making things up, now have a neverending, Bleak House–style suit against each other, and the narrator who returns to Mirgorod and finds them aged enemies still waiting on that bureaucracy is much sadder and less excitable. He sighs a lot. And from the “fine bekesha” we end up only with, “It’s dull in this world, gentlemen!”
I’m not hugely familiar with The Russians,** but after reading The Tales of Belkin I think I’ll be revisiting a few of the big names. Gogol was the first stop as he’d already been a favorite. I’ve enjoyed the Ukrainian stories, especially the ones (unlike the Ivans) involving the supernatural. But it’s that unmistakable voice I like best.
*Also known as “The Squabble,” “The Tale of…” and “How the Two Ivans Quarreled.” I read the Pevear & Volokhonsky translation with the title above.
**n.b., Gogol is in fact a Ukrainian. Not to be overlooked.