19th Century Russian Novel
The rise of the Russian novel in the middle of the eighteenth century coincides with a period of intense interest in and translation of narrative works from Western Europe. In the period from the 1730s to the 1760s, precieux romances and picaresque and politico-philosophical novels appeared in translations from French and English in handwritten and printed editions. Along with translations came the first attempts to defend the novel against the attacks of the neoclassical literary establishment. Most of these defenses reiterated Pierre Daniel Huet’s celebrated argument in Traitte de l’origine des romans (1670, Treatise on the origin of romances) which claimed that the novel can serve as a powerful tool for communicating and inspiring virtuous principles through pleasurable entertainment.
However, dominant views on the value of the novel did not start shifting to its advantage until the last decades of the century. In the period between 1769 and 1794, a new wave of translations brought attention to masterpieces of the sentimentalist and preromantic novel. Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie, ou la Nouvelle Heloise (1762, Julie, or the New Heloise), Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (1740) and Clarissa (1747–48), Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones (1749), Oliver Goldsmith’s The Vicar of Wakefield (1766), and perhaps most influentially Laurence Sterne’s A Sentimental Journey (1768)—all were translated at this time. Translations of the English novel, less readily accessible in the original to the French-speaking members of the aristocracy, made a particularly strong impact. It was no longer possible to think of the “good novel” as, by virtue of its genre, an exception.
The elevation of the status of the novel as a genre did not immediately result in increased esteem for its native manifestations. As late as 1809, in his account of the novel, professor of Russian eloquence and poetry Aleksei Merzliakov (1778– 1830) provides a long list of respectable novelists without mentioning a single Russian name.
1763–90: The Rise of “Serious Realism”
The first original Russian novel appeared in 1763. Written by Fyodor Emin, it was a quasi-autobiographical adventure narrative entitled Pokhozhdeniia Miramonda (Adventures of Miramond). Miramond presents the life of a virtuous nobleman from Constantinople, sent abroad by his father to study the “science of politics.” The novel is marked by generic eclecticism, combining a politico-philosophical premise with an adventure plot, endowed with lengthy ethno- geographical digressions, studded with inserted novellas of the fairytale variety and unified by a love intrigue, in which the protagonists’ love is tested through ordeals.
After Miramond, Emin went on to write the first Russian politico-philosophical novel as well as the first original epistolary sentimental novel. In the next two decades, a number of Russian original novels appeared, most following the generic topography traced out by Emin. A significant innovation was introduced by Mikhail Chulkov, whose novel Prigozhaia povarikha (1770, The Comely Cook) treats the picaresque adventures of Martona, an officer’s widow, forced by circumstance to become a prostitute. Written in the first person, the novel takes place in recognizable Russian locales and is motivated by something like a “historical realist” premise: Martona’s sad predicament results from her husband’s death during the Russo-Swedish war.
A qualitative leap past the formal and generic limitations of the earliest instances of the Russian novel is achieved by Aleksandr Radishchev in his seminal Puteshestvie iz Peterburga v Moskvu (1790, Journey from Petersburg to Moscow). Superficially modeled on Sentimental Journey, the novel is broken up into chapters, containing episodes that invoke in the sensitive and thoughtful traveler-narrator a feeling of dissatisfaction with the state of affairs in the country, followed by more abstract considerations on the proper form of political and social organization. The novel thus accomplishes a synthesis of previously unmixable narrative genres, combining elements of the politico-philosophical novel with close attention to the concrete conditions of contemporary Russian life. Here, for the first time, the “low” material of contemporary life deserves to be treated in “high,” neoclassical generic codes. Journey can thus be said to inaugurate, in Russia, the practice of what Erich Auerbach has called “serious realism.”
Nikolay Karamzin: Stylistic Reform and the Creation of the Author
To a mid-nineteenth-century Russian reader, however, Radishchev’s Journey would sound antiquated. This is largely due to a revolution in literary language consummated in the work of his younger contemporary, Nikolay Karamzin. Karamzin’s reform, accomplished primarily in the early 1790s, modeled the language of prose narrative on the conversational conventions of “polite” aristocratic society. The Karamzinian style avoided the intricacies of the Church-Slavonic sentence, minimizing syntactic subordination in favor of rhythmic parallelism with clear intonational schemes. Lexically, it displayed a penchant for alliteration and assonance. It also avoided “high,” neoclassical Slavonicisms as well as the “common” language of the people and professional jargon. In his sentimental short stories, Karamzin and his followers achieved a “middle style,” creating an elegant, “polite” Russian to replace the French that was used by default in high society.
In addition to elevating the “middle style” to respectability, Karamzin developed a highly individualized figure of the narrator. His Pis’ma russkogo puteshestvennika (1791–92, Letters of a Russian Traveler) represents, like Radishchev’s Journey, a mixture of empirical observation and lyrico- philosophical evaluation. But while Radishchev’s narrator is projected as “man in general,” pained by how far contemporary Russian life falls short of the ideal implanted in him by Nature, the authorial figure in Karamzin appears to the reader as more intimately connected with the biographical author himself. Karamzin, the person known in polite society, and K, the author of the Letters, thus merged, creating the figure of a Russian writer as a sensitive, enlightened individual and a full-fledged contemporary of the political and intellectual life of Western Europe.
Throughout the nineteenth century, following Karamzin (as well as Radishchev), Russian novelists would continue to transcend their narrowly professional limitations, aspiring to the status of (and received as) social commentators, moral visionaries, political activists, and martyrs.
The 1820s and 1830s: Pushkin
The literature of the first two decades of the nineteenth century was dominated by smaller literary forms—elegies, ballads, epigrams, short fiction—fit for presenting in polite society and published in elegant, illustrated almanacs. Prominent among longer narrative genres was the long romantic poem, most gloriously represented by Alexander Pushkin’s four so-called “Southern poems.” Pushkin’s romantic narrative poems (following and building on Lord Byron’s (1788–1824) trailblazing use of the genre) were characterized by an intense focus on the inner life of a superior hero, on an elaboration of his mysteriously motivated estrangement from the social world, and on his tragic adventures in the exotic “South.”
It is largely against the horizon of expectations established by this genre that the first canonical Russian novel was written and received. Pushkin’s “novel in verse,” Evgenii Onegin (1823–30, Eugene Onegin), frustrated these expectations, inserting the eponymous Byronic hero into the concrete and prosaic world of contemporary Russia, enveloping him in friendly but consistent narratorial irony and granting other character perspectives status at least equal to that of the hero.
The great literary critic of the 1830s–1840s, Vissarion Belinsky (1811–48), the great literary critic of the 1830s and 1840s, famously referred to Pushkin’s novel as “an encyclopedia of Russian life.” Indeed, the novel represents a wide range of concrete geographic locales, social classes, and cultural institutions, achieving through such sociohistorical concretization the deflation of the hero from the status of a representative of the universal human condition of Damnation and Exile to that of a more modest type— a disenchanted modern Russian nobleman.
More than an encyclopedia of Russian life, however, the novel is an almanac of contemporary sociohistorical discourses, serving as the first example of what Mikhail Bakhtin has called the “polyphonic novel” in Russia. Coming together here, within the highly dynamic space of the “Onegin stanza” (iambic tetrameter; rhyme scheme aBaBccDDeFFeGG), are multiple discursively embodied worldviews: neoclassicist, sentimentalist—Karamzinian, German romantic, Byronic, etc. The hero’s actions and worldview are thus ironized or rendered relative to other, competing world views represented or implicit in other characters’ behavior and speech.
Finally, unlike the romantic poem out of which this “novel in verse” appears to have grown, the figure of the author is here highly individuated, playfully close to the biographical Pushkin and resolutely distinct from the romantic hero. In fact, it is ultimately the author-narrator of the novel who occupies center stage with his salonnier virtuoso capacity to switch codes, tones, and moods, as well as with his whimsical treatment of the plot. The narrator of Eugene Onegin continues the traditions of the Karamzinian author, rejecting a strict demarcation between literature and life, staging their reciprocal involvement in, and dependence on, each other.
The Early 1840s: Lermontov, Gogol
The “Onegin line” of the Russian novel found its most immediate and significant development in Mikhail Lermontov’s fragmentary novel, Geroi nashego vremeni (1839–40, Hero of Our Time).
Throughout the 1830s, the novel in Russia had an easier time accommodating great historical events than contemporary Russian life. This was evidenced by the surge of original historical novels, influenced by the works of Walter Scott on the one hand and French novelistic historiography (Comte de Vigny, Victor Hugo) on the other. Pushkin’s only other completed novel, Kapitanskaia dochka (1836, Captain’s Daughter), set during the great peasant uprising under the leadership of Yemelian Pugachev, represents the culmination of that movement.
Meanwhile, contemporary Russian life— apparently offering little material for a dramatic intrigue in which particular events might have universal resonance— was treated in shorter prose tales or cycles of tales. Lermontov’s novel took its shape in sublating precisely the form of such a cycle. It is made up of five novellas, representing the major short narrative genres of the 1830s (a physiological sketch, an adventure tale, a slightly ironized gothic novella, a society tale, and a philosophical tale) and unified through the figure of a single protagonist, Pechorin, an officer in the Caucasus and the “hero of his time.”
Three of these tales appeared separately in a journal, and two more were added for the separate edition. The tales were arranged concentrically rather than chronologically, narrowing in on the mysterious and fascinating personality of the hero. First Pechorin’s adventures are given to us in the voice of his simple-minded roommate in the Caucasus; next we get the perspective of the more insightful narrator, and finally that of Pechorin himself: the last three tales are narrated under the subtitle “Pechorin’s Journal.”
A heightened, more thoroughly psychologized and historicized version of Onegin, Lermontov’s protagonist harkens both back to the Byronic narrative poem and forward to the practices of psychological realism in Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, and Leo Tolstoy. He also both foreshadows and precipitates the crucial position of the figure of the fascinating hero as the unifying principle in the nineteenth-century Russian novel form.
Nikolay Gogol’s Mertvye dushi (1842, Dead Souls) completed the triumvirate of early canonical Russian novels. It, too, is symptomatic of a certain looseness of contemporary Russian society, which made it difficult to find a dramatic unifying principle for the long narrative form and rendered early experiments in novelistic realism fragmentary and episodic. Mertvye dushi recounts the story of a former civil servant and crook who manages to wheedle from a number of landowners the legal titles of their deceased serfs (referred to as “souls” in pre-emancipation Russia) in order to use them as collateral for a loan. In the course of his journey from estate to estate, he encounters a number of memorably grotesque landowners, whose estates are represented as their proper milieu.
While Evgenii Onegin draws on minor salon genres as well as on the long romantic poem, and Lermontov’s Geroi nashego vremeni pushes off of the tale cycle, Mertvye dushi (projected as the Inferno of a Dantean trilogy and subtitled “poema” or “narrative poem”) owes much to the picaresque tradition from Gil Blas to Fielding’s “comic epic poems in prose” to the most prominent nineteenth-century Russian practitioner of the genre to date, Vasily Narezhnyi.
“Thick Journals,” the Natural School, and Three Debuts
The three works that jump-started the Russian novelistic tradition in the nineteenth century were written for a small audience of highly educated and mostly aristocratic readers. Each projected a cultivated image of the narrator, who would address the reader directly over the heads of the characters and who might meet that reader on any given night in society. In the late 1830s and into the 1840s this intimate relationship between author and reader began to dissolve. The institution of literature became more spacious; readership grew and became increasingly variegated. Reflecting and promulgating this development, the institution of the tolstyi zhurnal (“thick journal”) came to the foreground of Russian literary life. In these, installments of serialized novels would appear together with essays on current events, history, philosophy, the natural sciences, fashion, etc.
The thick journal, with fiction as its lifeblood and literary criticism at its heart, would play a major role in the development of the public sphere in Russia. In the environment of strict governmental censorship, literary criticism often served as a clandestine forum for the explication of political views implicit in literary texts. Heading the criticism section of the foremost thick journal of its time, Otechestvennye zapiski (Fatherland Notes), Belinsky promoted the figure of the literary critic to the status of a public intellectual, instructing his readers not merely on how to read but also on how to think and live.
The most prominent non-noble member of the nineteenth-century literary institution, Belinsky took up the struggle, in the 1840s, for a “poetry of the real” that would treat the various aspects of Russian life previously considered unworthy of artistic representation. With Belinsky’s encouragement, the genre of the “physiological sketch” thrived, taking its name from the contemporary genre of the French physiologie. Keeping plot to a minimum, the sketch described the lower strata of St. Petersburg and Moscow society, focusing on petty clerks, prostitutes, indigent artists, and their determining milieus: garrets, poor neighborhoods, back streets, and marketplaces. In large part through Belinsky’s efforts, two collections of such sketches came out, canonizing the literary practice of what came to be known as the Natural School.
The acknowledged master of the Natural School was Gogol, whose stories and novel, brilliantly elaborating relations between individual and environment, served as a source of inspiration to its younger practitioners. Extending the principles of the Natural School, three of them made significant contributions to the history of the Russian novel. In his novelistic debut, Dostoyevsky drew in particular on Gogol’s sketch “Shinel” (1842, “The Overcoat”), adopting the type of a lowly copy-clerk, dim, inarticulate, and so immiserated that a new overcoat becomes an object of his deepest yearning, for an epistolary novel quite “physiologically” entitled Bednye liudi (1845, Poor Folk). In the process of this generic mutation, the civil servant acquires many of the well-known characteristics of a Dostoyevskian hero: sensitivity, self-reflexivity, and a deeply dialogic speech, which constantly anticipates others’ words and resists their finalizing accents (Bakhtin).
Ivan Goncharov drew on the principles of the Natural School to create the first (and perhaps only) classical Russian bildungsroman in his Obyknovennaia istoriia (1847, Common Story). The novel depicted the disappointments of a naive, idealistic provincial in St. Petersburg, interspersing accounts of his experiences in the world with conversations about the legitimacy of the modern age as guided by the principles of bureaucratic-industrial mastery of existence.
Aleksandr Herzen took the preoccupation with the relation between hero and milieu in the opposite direction, developing an early version of the important and specifically Russian narrative form, the “superfluous man” novel. His Kto vinovat? (1847, Who Is to Blame?) endows the plot of a love triangle with historico-philosophical and political significance, staging it as a tragic conflict between gifted, ideal bearing individualities and the suffocating world of contemporary Russia in which they are condemned to live.
The Novel of the “Superfluous Man”
The 1850s were a productive period in the history of the Russian novel. During that time, Tolstoy appeared on the literary scene with some striking short stories and a quasi-autobiographical trilogy, Detstvo, Otrochestvo, Iunost’ (1852–57, Childhood, Boyhood, Youth). Dmitry Grigorovich, author of some of the first short narratives on peasant life, expanded his scope in two full-size novels on the subject. Aleksey Pisemsky wrote a novel of disillusionment not unlike Goncharov’s earlier one, but less schematic and less sympathetic to “the modern age.” Some of the first female novelists made their debuts: the conservative society-novelist Evgeniia Tur, the hostess of a literary salon and prolific author of family novels Avdotya Panaeva, and the progressive novelist critical of bureaucracy and high society Nadezhda Khvoshchinskaia were the most prominent of these.
But the decade came to be dominated by the novel of the “superfluous man,” whose most celebrated practitioner was Turgenev. The “superfluous man” is a specifically Russian sociopsychological type, congealing as a symptom of a tragic non-contemporaneity between the increasingly compelling bourgeois ideals of democracy, reason, and free human activity on the one hand and sociopolitical and economic retardation enacted by the state in fear of a bourgeois revolution on the other. The superfluous hero came to typify the “men of the ’40s,” progressivelyminded Russian noblemen condemned to live in the heavy shadow of the official ideology of “Orthodoxy, Autocracy, and Nationality.”
Though the word lishnii (“superfluous”) was already used by Pushkin to refer to Onegin in an early draft of the novel, and though it was used in a similar sense on other occasions, the expression forcefully entered Russian literary discourse with Turgenev’s first novel, Rudin (1856). A brilliant thinker and speaker, the novel’s eponymous hero proves incompetent when it comes to “real life,” bringing only confusion and pain to those who are drawn to him.
The discourse of the “superfluous man,” originating with Turgenev, retroactively created a tradition for itself, recruiting Onegin, Pechorin, Beltov (from Who Is to Blame?), and others, and thus solidifying the herocentrism of the Pushkin–Lermontov novelistic line into a literary-critical and historico-philosophical category. Turgenev himself wrote two more novels about “superfluous men,” but the tradition can be said to culminate with Goncharov’s second novel, Oblomov (1859). Compared with Turgenev’s enlightened failures, Oblomov represents a degenerate version of the “superfluous man,” unable to raise himself from his feudal slumber to face the realities of an increasingly bureaucratized modernity. With Oblomov, a particular kind of landowner protagonist became outdated, retreated into what became known in contemporary criticism as Oblomovshchina (Oblomov-ism), in the face of which the question ending Turgenev’s last novel from the 1850s rang all the more urgently: “Will there be men among us?”
The Early 1860s and the Novel of the “New People”
The 1860s in the history of the Russian novel open with a controversy regarding the change of guard at the forefront of Russian sociopolitical life. The death of the reactionary Nicholas I in 1855 and the end of the Crimean War in 1856 inaugurated a period of political liberalization and reform that would eventually lead to the abolition of serfdom in 1861. In the situation of relaxed censorship, journal polemics intensified, much of it focusing on the question of who should stand at the avant-garde of the political process. A heated exchange flared up in 1858 in response to Turgenev’s novella Asya of the same year. Nikolai Chernyshevsky, literary critic, materialist philosopher, and the leading figure of the progressive St. Petersburg journal Sovremennik (Contemporary), reviewed the novella, arguing that the time of the “superfluous man” was up. What Russia needed now, in the days of great historical promise, were active, decisive people, more socially conscious, less preoccupied with themselves. A debate ensued in which prominent critics spoke out defending or condemning the superfluous “men of the ’40s.”
Written in large part as an intervention in this debate, Turgenev’s most celebrated novel Ottsy i deti (1862, Fathers and Children) was thus a product of the unique proximity in which fiction and journalism were produced within the literary environment dominated by the institution of the thick journal. By contrast with Turgenev’s earlier protagonists, Bazarov, the hero of Fathers, is a raznochinets (literally “a person of various or indeterminate rank”) rather than a nobleman, a naturalist rather than a humanist, active rather than reflective. He dismisses speculative philosophy, scorns art and good manners, and pledges undivided allegiance to utility. He thus enters into an ideological and ultimately personal conflict with members of the older generation, the landowning idealists of the 1840s. Bazarov is characterized by his friend as a “nihilist,” launching the term on a glorious career throughout the 1860s and 1870s as it came to signify an adherent of particular views (naturalist, materialist, utilitarian, democratic) as well as a practitioner of a certain ethos (direct, anti-hierarchical, provocatively uncouth).
The novel was badly received among both progressive and conservative critics. The majority of the former believed that Bazarov was a caricature, while the latter thought that Turgenev was too sympathetic to his hero. As was so often the case within the Russian novelistic field of the nineteenth century, critical attention soon gave way to novelistic response.
The first and most consequential of these was Chernyshevsky’s novel Chto delat’? (1863, What Is to Be Done?), written in political imprisonment and published only thanks to a series of comic blunders committed by the censors. To the sullen Bazarov, Chernyshevsky’s novel opposes a number of more cheerful protagonists, the genuinely “new people,” espousing the principles of social justice, women’s emancipation, and enlightened self-interest. Unlike the earlier, exclusively male and largely isolated “superfluous men,” “the new people” was a gender- and number-neutral category: they could be men or women, and they could come together in groups. The events depicted in the novel were called upon to illustrate the possibility of fair and rational organization of life even in the spheres which had seemed to Chernyshevsky’s predecessors from Pushkin to Turgenev the least tractable (especially intimate relations).
Chernyshevsky’s novel was thus well suited to be retrospectively perceived as inaugurating the tradition of the socialist-realist novel of the 1930s–1950s. But in the meantime it appears to have galvanized two distinct novelistic lines, which flourished throughout the rest of the 1860s and 1870s: the “new-people” novel on the left of the political spectrum, focusing on the political education of a raznochinets hero and on his activism in the world; and the “antinihilist” novel on the right, frequently exploring the fate of an innocent victim (especially a pure-hearted young woman) seduced and misled by the cynical forces of destruction. These two lines of political novels about contemporary life were fueled by both contemporary events (discovered insurrectionary plots, trials of progressive activists, political assassination attempts) and their coverage in journalistic polemics.While few significant novelistic achievements came out of the progressive line, the antinihilist novel attracted important novelists such as Pisemsky (1863, Vzbolomuchennoe more; Troubled Seas), Nikolay Leskov (1864, Nekuda; No Way Out), Goncharov (1869, Obryv; Precipice), and perhaps most famously Dostoyevsky (1862, Besy; Devils).
A more immediate and highly noteworthy fictional retort to Chernyshevsky’s novel came from Dostoyevsky, whose Zapiski iz podpol’ya (1864, Notes from Underground) was written from the point of view of a modern “underground man,” mixing the genres of journalistic polemics and confession while addressing the burning sociophilosophical issues of the day: freedom, consciousness, reason, and social harmony. Staging, in his very style, the process whereby enlightened individualism turns against itself and reason turns into unreason, the underground man takes up Chernyshevsky’s expressions and images, questioning the viability and desirability of a world organized according to enlightened self-interest. This journalistic-confessional critique of Chernyshevsky’s “new people” is complemented, in Pt. 2 of the novel, by a more straightforwardly narrative rebuttal of the earlier generation of the 1840s with its “bookish” attempts to engage with the world. Thus, to the “new people” as well as to “superfluous men,” Dostoyevsky opposes the figure of an underground man as the true (anti)hero of Russian modernity.
This cluster of strikingly different novelistic attempts to specify the sociopsychological makeup of the contemporary Russian raznochinets displays an impressive variety of views on the nature of novelistic realism. In Turgenev, the realist plot is conceived as an inexorably unfolding resistance of the pre-given world to higher ideals, producing the closest the Russian novel would come to the Western European novel of disillusionment. In Chernyshevsky, it is understood as a progressive actualization of pre-given reason in the contemporary world. And in Dostoyevsky, a new conception of realism dawns, one that the author will repeatedly put to work and articulate. Here, the actual is understood as the irrational: neither “science” nor “bookishness” can help stabilize the flux within and outside the hero; both the hero and the world are in constant movement and thus inexhaustibly mysterious.
The Mid-1860s and the Multi-Plot Novel: Crime and Punishment, War and Peace
If according to the underground man neither the superfluous men of the 1840s, with their idealism and bookishness, nor the “new people,” of the 1860s, with their reason and progress, rise to the status of a true Russian hero, then who does? Prestuplenie i nakazanie (1866, Crime and Punishment) is explicitly preoccupied with this question. An odd detective novel, where the identity of the criminal, Raskolnikov, is revealed from the very beginning and yet, in a deeper socio-psychological sense, remains mysterious until the very end, it crowns the forty-year- long tradition of hero-centrism in the history of the Russian novel. Here, throughout the novel, the raznochinets hero-criminal is offered a multiplicity of alternative plots to follow, each related to a particular social class and ideology, each retrospectively emplotting the crime, giving it meaning. Building on Mikhail Bakhtin’s celebrated formulation, we can say that the novel presents the hero with a polyphony of plots, all carrying with them implicit worldviews, each representing a possible trajectory offered by contemporary Russian life.
Overlapping with the publication of Crime is another great multi-plotted novel of the mid-1860s, Tolstoy’s Voyna i mir (1865–69, War and Peace). Tolstoy’s first full-fledged novel follows the trajectories of several aristocratic families during the time of great historical events around the Napoleonic Wars. Each of these families possesses a set of stable characteristics, shared by most of its members and connected to its position in the Russian society of the time. If in Dostoyevsky, as much as in Turgenev, Lermontov, and Pushkin, it is always easy to identify the protagonist, here at least five characters occupy center stage and ten or fifteen more frequently merit the narrator’s exclusive attention. The best candidate for a more traditionally conceived protagonist is Pierre Bezukhov, who, being orphaned, fabulously rich, and intellectually restless, emerges as the most mobile character in the novel. Like Raskolnikov, Pierre represents the space of potentiality confronted with the choice between the historically available forms of life.
Tolstoy’s decision to write a historical novel at a time when the efforts of the vast majority of novelists were directed at comprehending contemporaneity was an act of literary-historical defiance. But, as Boris Eikhenbaum authoritatively demonstrates, this defiance was also a strategic detour back to the burning questions of the day. In fact, Tolstoy can be said to launch at least a threefold polemic against the dominant concerns of the present—first in his focus on the aristocracy and peasantry to the exclusion of the emerging “new people”; second, in his explicit rejection of the possibility of conscious intervention in history; and third, in his attack on women’s emancipation. Still, the form of the novel as a whole owes much to the structure of the specifically contemporary Russian experience: the rootless protagonist’s passionate search for a meaningful place in the midst of available socio-ideological and chronotopic possibilities.
The Novel of Disintegration in the 1870s: Shchedrin, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy
A decade after the abolition of serfdom, journalistic and novelistic production— spurred on by increased peasant destitution, a surge in political violence, and continued impoverishment and disorientation among the gentry—displayed a distinctive concern for the problem of social disintegration. Anti-nihilist novels continued to explore the consequences of modernization on the educated youth and the emancipated peasantry. At the other end of the political spectrum, the “new people” novel was accommodating itself to the emergence of narodnichestvo, or populism, a movement of the progressive youth from the cities to the villages with a view to improving the lot of the newly emancipated peasants. But the most successful novelistic experiments in staging and comprehending social disintegration were conducted in the more traditional genre of the family novel.
The three novels that merit particular attention here were written in a literary environment in which the suitability of the novel for registering the swiftly changing contemporary scene was being contested. In the polemical frame of his novel Podrostok (1875, Adolescent), Dostoyevsky argued that the beautiful forms of a historical novel such as War and Peace, while they may have been effective in representing the “extremely pleasant and delightful details” of the family life of the old aristocracy, were insufficient for capturing the flux of contemporary Russian life. A new novel would be necessary for that, one that would sacrifice architectonic perfection and aesthetic “seemliness” to the project of capturing the truth of familial and social disintegration.
This is in fact what Podrostok attempted to do, substituting confused and confessional first-person “notes” for Tolstoy’s epic omniscience, a tortuous series of unseemly episodes for Tolstoy’s providential plot guiding the lives of nations and families, the progeny of an illicit affair between a superfluous man and his married serf for Tolstoy’s children of noble houses. Thus, Russia appears before us as an “accidental family,” where anyone might come together with anyone, and the novel emerges as an equally accidental form, where characters, situations, and events fall together according to the unseemly logic of chance.
Dostoyevsky’s bitter journalistic opponent, the great satirical writer Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin, shared his concern for the ability of the novel to stay abreast of the radical dynamism of contemporary Russian life. Arguably his only full-fledged novel, Gospoda Golovlyovy (1875–80, The Golovyov Family), took shape as a series of stories depicting three generations of degradation in the life of an aristocratic family. Through indolence, wastefulness, gambling, alcoholism, squabblesover inheritance, disease, suicide—story by story, the Golovlyov offspring ruin themselves and squander the estate. The novel’s only unifying principle is the family itself; and yet it is the family which is falling apart, making it possible to dispose of the novel form.
The aristocratic family in dissolution is the opening theme and overarching motif of Tolstoy’s second novel, Anna Karenina (1875–77). The opening passages of the novel describe the disintegration of the noble “house of Oblonsky”—a condition that is revealed in its full synecdochal significance as the novel explores contemporary life in the two capitals, the impoverishment of gentry estates, the conditions of agricultural labor, and the loss of ethical and epistemological absolutes. Thus, Tolstoy’s second novel, whose serialization overlapped with that of Podrostok, renders Dostoyevsky’s critique anachronistic. Here, the omniscient, epic tone of War and Peace has disappeared; events are narrated through the prism of irreconcilable character perspectives; characters find it impossible to understand each other; meaning is rendered radically private; providence is either malevolent or altogether in doubt. Formally, the most striking symptom of disintegration is the novel’s own parallel plotting, with two protagonists following chronotopically distinct paths. The bracing narrative of happy marriage and ethical quest gravitates toward the feudal estate, while the tragic tale of adultery and death unfolds primarily in the capitals. Thus modernity itself is shown to have split off from Russia’s wholesome pre-modern past, and the novel dedicated to the exploration of this break internalizes it as a refusal to bring these two stories into a single shape.
The End of the Century: Away from the Novel
Starting in the 1870s, the center of gravity of Russian prose starts shifting away from the monumental genre of the novel and back toward smaller narrative forms. From literary-theoretical discussions of the time one might conclude that just as contemporary Russian life appeared to be too rarefied for the novel in the 1820s and 1830s, so it seemed too dense, too dynamic in the 1870s and 1880s. Prominent practitioners of the short story began to emerge: Gleb Uspensky, Vsevolod Garshin, Anton Chekhov, and others. Meanwhile, the last two great novels of the nineteenth century, Dostoyevsky’s Brat’ya Karamazovy (1879–80, The Brothers Karamazov) and Tolstoy’s Voskresenie (1899, Resurrection) can be understood as transitional works in the history of the Russian novel. Bringing much generically “archaic” material (folk and Christian legends, biblical apocrypha, hagiographic plots and motifs) to bear on the contemporary situation, they anticipate the modernist novel’s subsumption of realist details under insistent patterns of frequently otherworldly structures of meaning.
- Bakhtin, M.M. (1973), Problems of Dostoyevsky’s Poetics.
- Bushmin, A., et al. (1962–64), Istoriia russkogo romana v dvukh tomakh.
- Eikhenbaum, B. (1982), Tolstoy in the Sixties, trans. D. White.
- Eikhenbaum, B. (1998), Lermontov, trans. R. Parrott and H. Weber.
- Holquist, M. (1977), Dostoyevsky and the Novel.
- Lotman, Yu. (1995), Pushkin.
- Todd, W. (1986), Fiction and Society in the Age of Pushkin.