An Outline of Russian Literature
ñêà÷àòü êíèãó áåñïëàòíî
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 world’s 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 His work is bulky, and fills eleven thick volumes; some of it is quite out of date and at the present day almost unintelligible; but all that deals with the fundamental essentials of the Russian character, and not with the passing episodes of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 peasant’s 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.
Saltykov’s 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 Pope’s 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 Saltykov’s 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 Saltykov’s 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 Saltykov’s 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. Leskov’s 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 Leskov’s 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 Turgenev’s Sportsman’s 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 artisan’s life, and in his “Country Roads” he gives a picture of the good old times – replete with rich humour, and in sharp contrast to Saltykov’s sunless and trenchant etching of the same period. Humour, the pathos of the poor, landscape – these are his chief qualities.