Maurice Baring.

An Outline of Russian Literature





To the same epoch belong four other important writers, each occupying a place apart from the current stream of literary or political influences: one because he was a satirist, one because he wrote for the stage, and the two others because one impartially, and the other bitterly, dared to criticize the Radicals.

Michael Saltykov (1826-89), who wrote under the name of Shchedrin, holds a unique place in Russian literature, not only because he is a writer of genius, but because he is one of the worlds great satirists. Unlike Russian satirists before him, Krylov, Gogol, and Griboyedov, good-humoured irony or sharp rapier thrusts of wit do not suffice him; he has in himself the saeva indignatio, and he expresses it with all the concentrated spite that he can muster, which is all the more deadly from being used with perfect control. His work is bulky, and fills eleven thick volumes; some of it is quite out of date and at the present day almost unintelligible; but all that deals with the fundamental essentials of the Russian character, and not with the passing episodes of the day, has the freshness of immortality. At the outset of his career, he was banished to Vyatka, where he remained from 1848-56, an exile, which gave him a rich store of priceless material. His experiences appeared in his Sketches of Provincial Life in 1886-7.

He describes the good old times and the officials of the good old times, with diabolic malice and with an unequalled eye for the ironical, the comic, the topsy-turvy, and the true; and while he is as observant as Gogol, he is as bitter as Swift. He puts his characters on the stage and makes them relate their experiences; thus we hear how the collector of the dues manages to combine the maximum amount of robbery with the minimum amount of inconvenience. In his pictures of prison life, the prisoners tell their own stories, sometimes with unaffected frankness, sometimes with startling cynicism, and sometimes the story is obscured by a whole heap of lies. The prisoners are of different classes; one is an ex-official who states that he was a statistician who got into trouble over his figures; wishing to levy dues on a peasants property, he had demanded the number, not of their bee-hives, but of their bees, and wrote in his list: The peasant Sidorov possesses two horses, three cows, nine sheep, one calf, and thirty-nine thousand nine hundred and ninety-seven bees. Unfortunately he was betrayed by the police inspector.

Saltykovs satire deals entirely with the middle class, the high officials, the average official, and the minor public servants; and his best-known work, and one that has not aged any more than Swift has aged, is his History of a City according to the original documents.

In this he tells of the city of Glupov, Fool-City, where the people were such fools that they were not content until they found some one to rule them who was stupider than they were themselves.

The various phases Russia had gone through are touched off; the mania for regulations, the formalism, the official red-tape, the persecution of independent thought, and the oppression of original thinkers and writers; the ultimate ideal is that introduced by the last ruler of Glupov (the history lasts from 1731 to 1826), of turning the country into barracks and reducing every one and everything to one level in which the r?gime of the period of Nicholas I is satirized; until in the final picture, as fine in its way as Popes close of the Dunciad, the stream rises, and refusing to be stopped by the dam, carries everything away. The style parodies that of the ancient chroniclers; and its chief intent lies not in the satirizing of any particular events or person, but in the shafts of light, sometimes bitter, and sometimes inexpressibly droll, it throws on the Russian system of administration and on the Russian character.

In his Pompaduri, Saltykov dissects and vivisects the higher official, the big-wig, and in his sketches from the Domain of Moderation and Accuracy, he writes, in little, the epic of the minor public servant the man who is never heard of, who is included in the term of the rest, but who, nevertheless, is a cogwheel in the machinery, without which the big-wigs cannot act or execute. No more supreme piece of art than this piece of satire exists. The typical minor official is drawn in all the variations of his miserable and pitiable species, and in all the phases of his ignoble and sometimes tragical career, with a pen dipped in scorn and stinging malice, not unblent with a grave pity, which always exists in the work of the greatest satirists Peace to all such, but there was one for instance and wielded with terrible certainty of touch. This epic of the Molchalins of life the typical officials who cease to be men was the story of a great part of the Russian population; and in its essence, a great deal of it remains true to-day, while all of it remains artistically enjoyable.

Saltykov continued to write during the whole of his long life. His field of satire ranges from the days before serfdom to the epoch of the reforms, extends to the days of the Russo-Turkish War, and passes the frontier into the West. It is impossible here even to name all his works; but there is one, written in the decline of his life, which has a solid historical as well as a rich and varied artistic interest. This is his Poshenkhonskaya Starina; it is practically the history of his childhood, his upbringing, and the state of affairs which existed at that time, the life lived by his parents and their neighbours, the landed proprietors and their serfs. With amazing impartiality, without exaggeration, and yet with evidences of deep feeling and passionate indignation, all the more striking from being both rare and expressed with reserve, he paints on a large and crowded canvas the life of the masters and their serfs. A long gallery of men and women is opened to one; tragedy, comedy, farce, all are here in fact, life life as it was then in a remote corner of the country. Here Saltykovs spite and malice give way to higher strokes of tragic irony and pity; and the work has dignity as well as power In the bulk of Saltykovs early work there is much dross, much venom, and much ephemeral tinsel that has faded; the stuff of this book is stern and enduring; its subject-matter would not lose a particle of interest in translation. The Russians have been ungrateful towards Saltykov, and have been inclined to neglect his work, the lasting element of which is one of the most original, precious, and remarkable possessions of Russian literature.

The complement of Saltykov is Leskov (or, as he originally called himself, Stebnitsky). The character of his work, its reception by the reading public on the one hand, and by the professional critics on the other, is one of the most striking object-lessons in the history of Russian literature and Russian literary criticism. Leskov has been long ago recognized by educated Russia as a writer of the first rank; what is best in his work, which is bulky and unequal, has the unmistakable hall-mark of the classics; he is with Gogol and Saltykov, and the novelists of the first rank. Educated Russia is fully aware of this. Nobody disputes Leskov his place, nor denies him his supreme artistic talent, his humour, his vividness, his colour, his satire, the depth of his feeling, the richness of his invention. In spite of this, there is no Russian writer who has so acutely suffered from the didactic and partisan quality of Russian criticism.

His literary career began in 1860. Like Saltykov, he paints the period of transition that followed the epoch of the great Reforms. In spite of this, as late as 1902, no critical biography, no serious work of criticism, had been devoted to his books. All Russia had read him, but literary criticism had ignored him. It is as if English literary criticism had ignored Dickens until 1900.

The reason of this neglect is not far to seek. Saltykov was an independent thinker; he belonged to no literary or political camp; he criticized the partisans of both camps with equal courage; and the partisans could not and did not forgive him. Like Saltykov, Leskov saw what was going on in Russia; with penetrating insight and observation he realized the evils of the old order; like Saltykov, he was filled with indignation, and perhaps to a greater degree than Saltykov, he was filled with pity. But, whereas Saltykovs work was purely destructive an onslaught of brooms in the Augean stables Leskov begins where Saltykov ends. Like Saltykov and like Gogol before him, the old order inspires him with laughter, sometimes with bitter laughter, at the absurdities of the old r?gime and its results; but he does not confine himself to destructive irony and sapping satire. With Pisemsky, another writer of first-class talent, of the same epoch, Leskov was the first Russian novelist Griboyedov had already anticipated such criticism in Gore ot Uma, in his delineation of Chatsky, to have the courage to criticize the reformers, the men of the new epoch; and his criticism was not only negative but creative; he realized that everything must be reformed altogether. He then asked himself whether the new men, who were engaged in the task of reform, were equal to their task. He came to the conclusion not only that they were inadequate, but that they were setting about the business the wrong way, and he had the courage to say so. He was the first Russian novelist to say he disbelieved in Liberals, although he believed in Liberalism; and this was a sentiment which no Liberal in Russia could admit then, and one which they can scarcely admit now.

His criticism of the Liberals was creative, and not negative, in this: that, instead of confining himself to pointing out their weakness and the mistaken course they were taking, he did his best to point out the right path. Dostoyevsky was likewise subjected to the same ostracism. Turgenev suffered from it; but the genius of Dostoyevsky and the art of Turgenev overstepped the limits of all barriers and frontiers. Europe acclaimed them. Leskovs criticism being more local, the ostracism, although powerless to prevent the popularity of his work in Russia, succeeded for a time in keeping him from the notice of Western Europe. This barrier is now being broken down. One of Leskovs masterpieces, The Sealed Angel, was lately translated into English; but he is one of the most difficult authors to translate because he is one of the most native.

A far bitterer and more pessimistic note is heard in the work of Pisemsky. He attacks the new democracy mercilessly, and not from any predilection towards the old. His most important work, The Troubled Sea (1862), was a terrific onslaught on Radical Russia; and Pisemsky paid the same price for his pessimistic analysis as Leskov did for his impartiality, namely social ostracism.

The work of Ostrovsky (1823-86) belongs to the history of the Stage, to which he brought slices of real life from the middle class; the townsmen, the minor public servants, merchants great and small, and rogues, a milieu which he had observed in his youth, his father having been an attorney to a Moscow merchant. Ostrovsky may be called the founder of modern Russian realistic comedy and drama. In spite of the epoch at which his plays were written (the fifties and the sixties), there is not a trace of Scribisme, no tricks, no effective exits or curtains; he thus anticipated the form of the quite modern drama by about seventy years. His plays hold the stage now in Russia, and form part of the stock repertories every season. They give, moreover, just the same lifelike impression whether read or seen acted; and they are as interesting from a literary as they are from a historical or dramatic point of view, interesting because they are intensely national, and as Russian as beer is English.

This brief summary of the epoch would be still more incomplete than it is without the mention of yet another novelist, Grigorovich. Although on a lower level of art and creative power than Pisemsky and Leskov, he was the pioneer in Russian literature of peasant literature. He anticipated Turgenevs Sportsmans Sketches, and for the first time made Russian readers cry with sympathy over the annals of the peasant. Like Turgenev, he was a great landscape painter. In his Fishermen he paints the peasant and the artisans life, and in his Country Roads he gives a picture of the good old times replete with rich humour, and in sharp contrast to Saltykovs sunless and trenchant etching of the same period. Humour, the pathos of the poor, landscape these are his chief qualities.

CHAPTER VI
TOLSTOY AND DOSTOYEVSKY

With Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, we come not only to the two great pillars of modern Russian literature which tower above all others like two colossal statues in the desert, but to two of the greatest figures in the literature of the world. Russia has not given the world a universal poet, a Shakespeare, a Dante, a Goethe, or a Moli?re; for Pushkin, consummate artist and inspired poet as he was, lacks that peculiar greatness which conquers all demarcations of frontier and difference of language, and produces work which becomes a part of the universal inheritance of all nations; but Russia has given us two prose-writers whose work has done this very thing. And between them they sum up in themselves the whole of the Russian soul, and almost the whole of the Russian character; I say almost the whole of the Russian character, because although between them they sum up all that is greatest, deepest, and all that is weakest in the Russian soul, there is perhaps one element of the Russian character, which, although they understood it well enough, their genius forbade them to possess. If you take as ingredients Peter the Great, Dostoyevskys Mwyshkin the idiot, the pure fool who is wiser than the wise and the hero of Gogols Revisor, Hlestyakov the liar and wind-bag, you can, I think, out of these elements, reconstitute any Russian who has ever lived. That is to say, you will find that every single Russian is compounded either of one or more of these elements.

For instance, mix Peter the Great with a sufficient dose of Hlestyakov, and you get Boris Godunov and Bakunin; leave the Peter the Great element unmixed, and you get Bazarov, and many of Gorkys heroes; mix it slightly with Hlestyakov, and you get Lermontov; let the Hlestyakov element predominate, and you get Griboyedovs Molchalin; let the Mwyshkin element predominate, with a dose of Hlestyakov, and you get Father Gapon; let it predominate without the dose of Hlestyakov, and you get Oblomov; mix it with a dose of Peter the Great, you get Herzen, Chatsky; and so on. Mix all the elements equally, and you get Onegin, the average man. I do not mean that there are necessarily all these elements in every Russian, but that you will meet with no Russian in whom there is not to be found either one or more than one of them.

Now, in Tolstoy, the Peter the Great element dominates, with a dose of Mwyshkin, and a vast but unsuccessful aspiration towards the complete characteristics of Mwyshkin; while in Dostoyevsky the Mwyshkin predominates, blent with a fiery streak of Peter the Great; but in neither of them is there a touch of Hlestyakov. In Russia, it constantly happens that a man in any class, be he a soldier, sailor, tinker, tailor, rich man, poor man, plough-boy, or thief, will suddenly leave his profession and avocation and set out on the search for God and for truth. These men are called Bogoiskateli, Seekers after God. The one fact that the whole world knows about Tolstoy is that, in the midst of his great and glorious artistic career, he suddenly abjured literature and art, denounced worldly possessions, and said that truth was to be found in working like a peasant, and thus created a sect of Tolstoyists. The world then blamed him for inconsistency because he went on writing, and lived as before, with his family and in his own home. But in reality there was no inconsistency, because there was in reality no break. Tolstoy had been a Bogoiskatel, a seeker after truth and God all his life; it was only the manner of his search which had changed; but the quest itself remained unchanged; he was unable, owing to family ties, to push his premises to their logical conclusion until just before his death; but push them to their logical conclusion he did at the last, and he died, as we know, on the road to a monastery.

Tolstoys manner of search was extraordinary, extraordinary because he was provided for it with the eyes of an eagle which enabled him to see through everything; and, as he took nothing for granted from the day he began his career until the day he died, he was always subjecting people, objects, ideas, to the searchlight of his vision, and testing them to see whether they were true or not; moreover, he was gifted with the power of describing what he saw during this long journey through the world of fact and the world of ideas, whether it were the general or the particular, the mass or the detail, the vision, the panorama, the crowd, the portrait or the miniature, with the strong simplicity of a Homer, and the colour and reality of a Velasquez. This made him one of the worlds greatest writers, and the worlds greatest artist in narrative fiction. Another peculiarity of his search was that he pursued it with eagle eyes, but with blinkers.

In 1877 Dostoyevsky wrote: In spite of his colossal artistic talent, Tolstoy is one of those Russian minds which only see that which is right before their eyes, and thus press towards that point. They have not the power of turning their necks to the right or to the left to see what lies on one side; to do this, they would have to turn with their whole bodies. If they do turn, they will quite probably maintain the exact opposite of what they have been hitherto professing; for they are rigidly honest. It is this search carried on by eyes of unsurpassed penetration between blinkers, by a man who every now and then did turn his whole body, which accounts for the many apparent changes and contradictions of Tolstoys career.

Another source of contradiction was that by temperament the Lucifer element predominated in him, and the ideal he was for ever seeking was the humility of Mwyshkin, the pure fool, an ideal which he could not reach, because he could not sufficiently humble himself. Thus when death overtook him he was engaged on his last and his greatest voyage of discovery; and there is something solemn and great about his having met with death at a small railway station.

Tolstoys works are a long record of this search, and of the memories and experiences which he gathered on the way. There is not a detail, not a phase of feeling, not a shade or mood in his spiritual life that he has not told us of in his works. In his Childhood, Boyhood and Youth, he re-creates his own childhood, boyhood and youth, not always exactly as it happened in reality; there is Dichtung as well as Wahrheit; but the Dichtung is as true as the Wahrheit, because his aim was to recreate the impressions he had received from his early surroundings. Moreover, the searchlight of his eyes even then fell mercilessly upon everything that was unreal, sham and conventional.

As soon as he had finished with his youth, he turned to the life of a grown-up man in The Morning of a Landowner, and told how he tried to live a landowners life, and how nothing but dissatisfaction came of it. He escapes to the Caucasus, and seeks regeneration, and the result of the search here is a masterpiece, The Cossacks. He goes back to the world, and takes part in the Crimean war; he describes what he saw in a battery; his eagle eye lays bare the splendeurs et mis?res of war more truthfully perhaps than a writer on war has ever done, but less sympathetically than Alfred de Vigny the difference being that Alfred de Vigny is innately modest, and that Tolstoy, as he wrote himself, at the beginning of the war, had no modesty.

After the Crimean war, he plunges again into the world and travels abroad; and on his return to Russia, he settles down at Yasnaya Polyana and marries. The hero of his novel Domestic Happiness appears to have found his hearts desire in marriage and country life. It was then that he wrote War and Peace, which he began to publish in 1865. He always had the idea of writing a story on the Decembrist movement, and War and Peace was perhaps the preface to that unwritten work, for it ends when that movement was beginning. In War and Peace, he gave the world a modern prose epic, which did not suffer from the drawback that spoils most historical novels, namely, that of being obviously false, because it was founded on his own recollection of his parents memories. He gives us what we feel to be the very truth; for the first time in an historical novel, instead of saying this is very likely true, or what a wonderful work of artistic reconstruction, we feel that we were ourselves there; that we knew those people; that they are a part of our very own past. He paints a whole generation of people; and in Pierre Bezukhov, the new landmarks of his own search are described. Among many other episodes, there is nowhere in literature such a true and charming picture of family life as that of the Rostovs, and nowhere a more vital and charming personality than Natasha; a creation as living as Pushkins Tatiana, and alive with a reality even more convincing than Turgenevs pictures of women, since she is alive with a different kind of life; the difference being that while you have read in Turgenevs books about noble and exquisite women, you are not sure whether you have not known Natasha yourself and in your own life; you are not sure she does not belong to the borderland of your own past in which dreams and reality are mingled. War and Peace eclipses all other historical novels; it has all Stendhals reality, and all Zolas power of dealing with crowds and masses. Take, for instance, a masterpiece such as Flauberts Salammb?; it may and very likely does take away your breath by the splendour of its language, its colour, and its art, but you never feel that, even in a dream, you had taken part in the life which is painted there. The only bit of unreality in War and Peace is the figure of Napoleon, to whom Tolstoy was deliberately unfair. Another impression which Tolstoy gives us in War and Peace is that man is in reality always the same, and that changes of manners are not more important than changes in fashions of clothes. That is why it is not extravagant to mention Salammb? in this connection. One feels that, if Tolstoy had written a novel about ancient Rome, we should have known a score of patricians, senators, scribblers, clients, parasites, matrons, courtesans, better even than we know Cicero from his letters; we should not only feel that we know Cicero, but that we had actually known him. This very task namely, that of reconstituting a page out of Pagan history was later to be attempted by Merezhkovsky; but brilliant as his work is, he only at times and by flashes attains to Tolstoys power of convincing.





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