Maurice Baring.

An Outline of Russian Literature


When the curtain again rose on Russian literature it was on an era of prose; and the leading protagonist of that era, both by his works of fiction and his dramatic work, was Nicholas Gogol [1809-52]. It is true that in the thirties Russia began to produce home-made novels. In Pushkins story The Queen of Spades, when somebody asks the old Countess if she wishes to read a Russian novel, she says A Russian novel? Are there any? This stage had been passed; but the novels and the plays that were produced at this time until the advent of Gogol have been deservedly for the greater part forgotten. And, just as Lermontov was the successor of Pushkin in the domain of poetry, so in the domain of satire Gogol was the successor of Griboyedov; and in creating a national work he was the heir of Pushkin.

Gogol was a Little Russian. He was born in 1809 near Poltava, in the Cossack country, and was brought up by his grandfather, a Cossack; but he left the Ukraine and settled in 1829 in St. Petersburg, where he obtained a place in a Government office. After an unsuccessful attempt to go on the stage, and a brief career as tutor, he was given a professorship of History; but he failed here also, and finally turned to literature. The publication of his first efforts gained him the acquaintance of the literary men of the day, and he became the friend of Pushkin, who proved a valuable friend, adviser, and critic, and urged him to write on the life of the people. He lived in St. Petersburg from 1829 to 1836; and it was perhaps home-sickness which inspired him to write his Little Russian sketches Evenings on a Farm on the Dikanka, which appeared in 1832, followed by Mirgorod, a second series, in 1834.

Gogols temperament was romantic. He had a great deal of the dreamer in him, a touch of the eerie, a delight in the supernatural, an impish fancy that reminds one sometimes of Hoffmann and sometimes of R. L. Stevenson, as well as a deep religious vein which was later on to dominate and oust all his other qualities. But, just as we find in the Russian poets a curious mixture of romanticism and realism, of imagination and common-sense, so in Gogol, side by side with his imaginative gifts, which were great, there is a realism based on minute observation. In addition to this, and tempering his penetrating observation, he had a rich streak of humour, a many-sided humour, ranging from laughter holding both its sides, to a delicate and half melancholy chuckle, and in his later work to biting irony.

In the very first story of his first book, The Fair of Sorochinetz, we are plunged into an atmosphere that smells of Russia in a way that no other Russian book has ever yet savoured of the soil. We are plunged into the South, on a blazing noonday, when the corn is standing in sheaves and wheat is being sold at the fair; and the fair, with its noise, its smell and its colour, rises before us as vividly as Normandy leaps out of the pages of Maupassant, or Scotland from the pages of Stevenson.

And just as Andrew Lang once said that probably only a Scotsman, and a Lowland Scotsman, could know how true to life the characters in Kidnapped were, so it is probable that only a Russian, and indeed a Little Russian, appreciates to the full how true to life are the people, the talk, and the ambient air in the tales of Gogol. And then we at once get that hint of the supernatural which runs like a scarlet thread through all these stories; the rumour that the Red Jacket has been observed in the fair; and the Red Jacket, so the gossips say, belongs to a little Devil, who being turned out of Hell as a punishment for some misdemeanour probably a good intention established himself in a neighbouring barn, and from home-sickness took to drink, and drank away all his substance; so that he was obliged to pawn his red jacket for a year to a Jew, who sold it before the year was out, whereupon the buyer, recognizing its unholy origin, cut it up into bits and threw it away, after which the Devil appeared in the shape of a pig every year at the fair to find the pieces. It is on this Red Jacket that the story turns.

In this first volume, the supernatural plays a predominant part throughout; the stories tell of water-nymphs, the Devil, who steals the moon, witches, magicians, and men who traffic with the Evil One and lose their souls. In the second series, Mirgorod, realism comes to the fore in the stories of The Old-Fashioned Landowners and The Quarrel of the Two Ivans. These two stories contain between them the sum and epitome of the whole of one side of Gogols genius, the realistic side. In the one story, The Old-Fashioned Landowners, we get the gentle good humour which tells the charming tale of a South Russian Philemon and Baucis, their hospitality and kindliness, and the loneliness of Philemon when Baucis is taken away, told with the art of La Fontaine, and with many touches that remind one of Dickens. The other story, The Quarrel of the Two Ivans, who are bosom friends and quarrel over nothing, and are, after years, on the verge of making it up when the mere mention of the word goose which caused the quarrel sets alight to it once more and irrevocably, is in Gogols richest farcical vein, with just a touch of melancholy.

And in the same volume, two nouvelles, Tarass Bulba and Viy, sum up between them the whole of the other side of Gogols genius. Tarass Bulba, a short historical novel, with its incomparably vivid picture of Cossack life, is Gogols masterpiece in the epic vein. It is as strong and as direct as a Border ballad. Viy, which tells of a witch, is the most creepy and imaginative of his supernatural stories.

Later, he published two more collections of stories: Arabesques (1834) and Tales (1836). In these, poetry, witches, water-nymphs, magicians, devils, and epic adventure are all left behind. The element of the fantastic still subsists, as in the Portrait, and of the grotesque, as in the story of the major who loses his nose, which becomes a separate personality, and wanders about the town. But his blend of realism and humour comes out strongly in the story of The Carriage, and his blend of realism and pathos still more strongly in the story of The Overcoat, the story of a minor public servant who is always shivering and whose dream it is to have a warm overcoat. After years of privation he saves enough money to buy one, and on the first day he wears it, it is stolen. He dies of melancholia, and his ghost haunts the streets. This story is the only begetter of the large army of pathetic figures of failure that crowd the pages of Russian literature.

While Gogol had been writing and publishing these tales, he had also been steadily writing for the stage; but here the great difficulty and obstacle was the Censorship, which was almost as severe as it was in England at the end of the reign of Edward VII. But, by a curious paradox, the play, which you would have expected the Censorship to forbid before all other plays, The Revisor, or Inspector-General, was performed. This was owing to the direct intervention of the Emperor. The Revisor is the second comic masterpiece of the Russian stage. The plot was suggested to Gogol by Pushkin. The officials of an obscure country town hear the startling news that a Government Inspector is arriving incognito to investigate their affairs. A traveller from St. Petersburg a fine natural liar is taken for the Inspector, plays up to the part, and gets away just before the arrival of the real Inspector, which is the end of the play. The play is a satire on the Russian bureaucracy. Almost every single character in it is dishonest; and the empty-headed, and irrelevant hero, with his magnificent talent for easy lying, is a masterly creation. The play at once became a classic, and retains all its vitality and comic force to-day. There is no play which draws a larger audience on holidays in St. Petersburg and Moscow.

After the production of The Revisor, Gogol left Russia for ever and settled in Rome. He had in his mind a work of great importance on which he had already been working for some time. This was his Dead Souls, his most ambitious work, and his masterpiece. It was Pushkin who gave him the idea of the book. The hero of the book, Chichikov, conceives a brilliant idea. Every landlord possessed so many serfs, called souls. A revision took place every ten years, and the landlord had to pay for poll-tax on the souls who had died during that period. Nobody looked at the lists between the periods of revision. Chichikovs idea was to take over the dead souls from the landlord, who would, of course, be delighted to be rid of the fictitious property and the real tax, to register his purchases, and then to mortgage at a bank at St. Petersburg or Moscow, the souls, which he represented as being in some place in the Crimea, and thus make money enough to buy souls of his own. The book tells of the adventures of Chichikov as he travels over Russia in search of dead souls, and is, like Mr. Pickwicks adventures, an Odyssey, introducing us to every kind and manner of man and woman. The book was to be divided in three parts. The first part appeared in 1842. Gogol went on working at the second and third parts until 1852, when he died. He twice threw the second part of the work into the fire when it was finished; so that all we possess is the first part, and the second part printed from an incomplete manuscript. The second part was certainly finished when he destroyed it, and it is probable that the third part was sketched. He had intended in the second part to work out the moral regeneration of Chichikov, and to give to the world his complete message. Persecuted by a dream he was unable to realize and an ambition which he was not able to fulfil, Gogol was driven inwards, and his natural religious feeling grew more intense and made him into an ascetic and a recluse. This break in the middle of his career is characteristic of Russia. Tolstoy, of course, furnishes the most typical example of the same thing. But it is a common Russian characteristic for men midway in a successful career to turn aside from it altogether, and seek consolation in the things which are not of this world.

Gogols Dead Souls made a deep impression upon educated Russia. It pleased the enthusiasts for Western Europe by its reality, its artistic conception and execution, and by its social ideas; and it pleased the Slavophile Conservatives by its truth to life, and by its smell of Russia. When the first chapter was read aloud to Pushkin, he said, when Gogol had finished: God, what a sad country Russia is! And it is certainly true, that amusing as the book is, inexpressibly comic as so many of the scenes are, Gogol does not flatter his country or his countrymen; and when Russians read it at the time it appeared, many must have been tempted to murmur doux pays! as they would, indeed, now, were a writer with the genius of a Gogol to appear and describe the adventures of a modern Chichikov; for, though circumstances may be entirely different, although there are no more souls to be bought or sold, Chichikov is still alive and as Gogol said, there was probably not one of his readers who after an honest self-examination, would not wonder if he had not something of Chichikov in him, and who if he were to meet an acquaintance at that moment, would not nudge his companion and say: There goes Chichikov. And who and what is Chichikov? The answer is: A scoundrel. But such an entertaining scoundrel, so abject, so shameless, so utterly devoid of self-respect, such a magnificent liar, so plausible an impostor, so ingenious a cheat, that he rises from scoundrelism almost to greatness.

There is, indeed, something of the greatness of Falstaff in this trafficker of dead souls. His baseness is almost sublime. He in any case merits a place in the gallery of humanitys typical and human rascals, where Falstaff, Tartuffe, Pecksniff, and Count Fosco reign. He has the great saving merit of being human; nor can he be accused of hypocrisy. His coachman, Selifan, who got drunk with every decent man, is worthy of the creator of Sam Weller. But what distinguishes Gogol in his Dead Souls from the great satirists of other nations, and his satire from the saeva indignatio of Swift, for instance, is that, after laying bare to the bones the rascality of his hero, he turns round on his audience and tells them that there is no cause for indignation; Chichikov is only a victim of a ruling passion gain; perhaps, indeed, in the chill existence of a Chichikov, there may be something which will one day cause us to humble ourselves on our knees and in the dust before the Divine Wisdom. His irony is lined with indulgence; his sleepless observation is tempered by fundamental charity. He sees what is mean and common clearer than any one, but he does not infer from it that life, or mankind, or the world is common or mean. He infers the opposite. He puts Chichikov no lower morally than he would put Napoleon, Harpagon, or Don Juan all of them victims of a ruling passion, and all of them great by reason of it for Chichikov is also great in rascality, just as Harpagon was great in avarice, and Don Juan great in profligacy. And this large charity blent with biting irony is again peculiarly Russian.

Dead Souls is a deeper book than any of Gogols early work. It is deep in the same way as Don Quixote is deep; and like Don Quixote it makes boys laugh, young men think, and old men weep. Apart from its philosophy and ideas, Dead Souls had a great influence on Russian literature as a work of art. Just as Pushkin set Russian poetry free from the high-flown and the conventional, so did Gogol set Russian fiction free from the dominion of the grand style. He carried Pushkins work the work which Pushkin had accomplished in verse and adumbrated in prose much further; and by depicting ordinary life, and by writing a novel without any love interest, with a Chichikov for a hero, he created Russian realism. He described what he saw without flattery and without exaggeration, but with the masterly touch, the instinctive economy, the sense of selection of a great artist.

This, at the time it was done, was a revolution. Nobody then would have dreamed it possible to write a play or a novel without a love-motive; and just as Pushkin revealed to Russia that there was such a thing as Russian landscape, Gogol again, going one better, revealed the fascination, the secret and incomprehensible power that lay in the flat monotony of the Russian country, and the inexhaustible source of humour, absurdity, irony, quaintness, farce, comedy in the everyday life of the ordinary people. So that, however much his contemporaries might differ as to the merits or demerits, the harm or the beneficence, of his work, he left his nation with permanent and classic models of prose and fiction and stories, just as Pushkin had bequeathed to them permanent models of verse.

Gogol wrote no more fiction after Dead Souls. In 1847 Passages from a Correspondence with a Friend was published, which created a sensation, because in the book Gogol preached submission to the Government, both spiritual and temporal. The Western enthusiasts and the Liberals in general were highly disgusted. One can understand their disgust; it is less easy to understand their surprise; for Gogol had never pretended to be a Liberal. He showed up the evils of Bureaucracy and the follies and weaknesses of Bureaucrats, because they were there, just as he showed up the stinginess of misers and the obstinacy of old women. But it is quite as easy for a Conservative to do this as it is for a Liberal, and quite as easy for an orthodox believer as for an atheist. But Gogols contemporaries had not realized the tempest that had been raging for a long time in Gogols soul, and which he kept to himself. He had always been religious, and now he became exclusively religious; he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land; he spent his substance in charity, especially to poor students; and he lived in asceticism until he died, at the age of forty-three. What a waste, one is tempted to say and how often one is tempted to say this in the annals of Russian literature and yet, one wonders!

What we possess of the second part of Dead Souls is in Gogols best vein, and of course one cannot help bitterly regretting that the rest was destroyed or possibly never written; but one wonders whether, had he not had within him the intensity of feeling which led him ultimately to renounce art, he would have been the artist that he was; whether he would have been capable of creating so many-coloured a world of characters, and whether the soil out of which those works grew was not in reality the kind of soil out of which religious renunciation was at last bound to flower. However that may be, Gogol left behind him a rich inheritance. He is one of the great humorists of European literature, and whoever gives England a really fine translation of his work, will do his country a service. M?rim?e places Gogol among the best English humorists. His humour and his pathos were closely allied; but there is no acidity in his irony. His work may sometimes sadden you, but (as in the case of Krylovs two pigeons) it will never bore you, and it will never leave you with a feeling of stale disgust or a taste as of sharp alum, for his work is based on charity, and it has in its form and accent the precious gift of charm. Gogol is an author who will always be loved even as much as he is admired, and his stories are a boon to the young; to many a Russian boy and girl the golden gates of romance have been opened by Gogol, the destroyer of Russian romanticism, the inaugurator of Russian realism.

Side by side with fiction, another element grew up in this age of prose, namely criticism. Karamzin in the twenties had been the first to introduce literary criticism, and critical appreciations of Pushkins work appeared from time to time in the European Messenger. Prince Vyazemsky, whose literary activity lasted from 1808-78, was a critic as well as a poet and a satirist, a fine example of the type of great Russian nobles so frequent in Russian books, who were not only saturated with culture but enriched literature with their work, and carried on the tradition of cool, clear wit, clean expression, and winged phrase that we find in Griboyedov. Polevoy, a self-educated man of humble extraction, was the first professional journalist, and created the tradition of violent and fiery polemics, which has lasted till this day in Russian journalism. But the real founder of Russian ?sthetic, literary, and journalistic criticism was Belinsky (1811-1847).

Like Polevoy, he was of humble extraction and almost entirely self-educated. He lived in want and poverty and ill-health. His life was a long battle against every kind of difficulty and obstacle; his literary production was more than hampered by the Censorship, but his influence was far-reaching and deep. He created Russian criticism, and after passing through several phases a German phase of Hegelian philosophy, Gallophobia, enthusiasm for Shakespeare and Goethe and for objective art, a French phase of enthusiasm for art as practised in France, ended finally in a didactic phase of which the watchword was that Life was more important than Art.

The first blossoms of the new generation of writers, Goncharov, Dostoyevsky, Herzen, and others, grew up under his encouragement. He expounded Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol, Griboyedov, Zhukovsky and the writers of the past. His judgments have remained authoritative; but some of his final judgments, which were unshaken for generations, such as for instance his estimates of Pushkin and Lermontov, were much biassed and coloured by his didacticism. He burnt what he had adored in the case of Gogol, who, like Pushkin, became for him too much of an artist, and not enough of a social reformer. Whatever phase Belinsky went through, he was passionate, impulsive, and violent, incapable of being objective, or of doing justice to an opponent, or of seeing two sides to a question. He was a polemical and fanatical knight errant, the prophet and propagandist of Western influence, the bitter enemy of the Slavophiles.

The didactic stamp which he gave to Russian ?sthetic and literary criticism has remained on it ever since, and differentiates it from the literary and ?sthetic criticism of the rest of Europe, not only from that school of criticism which wrote and writes exclusively under the banner of Art for Arts Sake, but from those Western critics who championed the importance of moral ideas in literature, just as ardently as he did himself, and who deprecated the theory of Art for Arts sake just as strongly. Thus it is that, from the beginning of Russian criticism down to the present day, a truly objective criticism scarcely exists in Russian literature. ?sthetic criticism becomes a political weapon. Are you in my camp? if so, you are a good writer. Are you in my opponents camp? then your god-gifted genius is mere dross.

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