etext by James Rusk (email@example.com)
ESSAYS ON RUSSIAN NOVELISTS
By William Lyon Phelps
RUSSIAN NATIONAL CHARACTER AS SHOWN IN RUSSIAN FICTION
The Japanese war pricked one of the biggest bubbles in history, and left Russia in a profoundly humiliating situation. Her navy was practically destroyed, her armies soundly beaten, her offensive power temporarily reduced to zero, her treasury exhausted, her pride laid in the dust. If the greatness of a nation consisted in the number and size of its battleships, in the capacity of its fighting men, or in its financial prosperity, Russia would be an object of pity. But in America it is wholesome to remember that the real greatness of a nation consists in none of these things, but rather in its intellectual splendour, in the number and importance of the ideas it gives to the world, in its contributions to literature and art, and to all things that count in humanity's intellectual advance. When we Americans swell with pride over our industrial prosperity, we might profitably reflect for a moment on the comparative value of America's and Russia's contributions to literature and music.
At the start, we notice a rather curious fact, which sharply differentiates Russian literature from the literature of England, France, Spain, Italy, and even from that of Germany. Russia is old; her literature is new. Russian history goes back to the ninth century; Russian literature, so far as it interests the world, begins in the nineteenth. Russian literature and American literature are twins. But there is this strong contrast, caused partly by the difference in the age of the two nations. In the early years of the nineteenth century, American literature sounds like a child learning to talk, and then aping its elders; Russian literature is the voice of a giant, waking from a long sleep, and becoming articulate. It is as though the world had watched this giant's deep slumber for a long time, wondering what he would say when he awakened. And what he has said has been well worth the thousand years of waiting.
To an educated native Slav, or to a professor of the Russian language, twenty or thirty Russian authors would no doubt seem important; but the general foreign reading public is quite properly mainly interested in only five standard writers, although contemporary novelists like Gorki, Artsybashev, Andreev, and others are at this moment deservedly attracting wide attention. The great five, whose place in the world's literature seems absolutely secure, are Pushkin, Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoi. The man who killed Pushkin in a duel survived till 1895, and Tolstoi died in 1910. These figures show in how short a time Russian literature has had its origin, development, and full fruition.
Pushkin, who was born in 1799 and died in 1838, is the founder of Russian literature, and it is difficult to overestimate his influence. He is the first, and still the most generally beloved, of all their national poets. The wild enthusiasm that greeted his verse has never passed away, and he has generally been regarded in Russia as one of the great poets of the world. Yet Matthew Arnold announced in his Olympian manner, "The Russians have not yet had a great poet."* It is always difficult fully to appreciate poetry in a foreign language, especially when the language is so strange as Russian. It is certain that no modern European tongue has been able fairly to represent the beauty of Pushkin's verse, to make foreigners feel him as Russians feel him, in any such measure as the Germans succeeded with Shakespeare, as Bayard Taylor with Goethe, as Ludwig Fulda with Rostand. The translations of Pushkin and of Lermontov have never impressed foreign readers in the superlative degree. The glory of English literature is its poetry; the glory of Russian literature is its prose fiction.
*Arnold told Sainte-Beuve that he did not think Lamartine was "important." Sainte-Beuve answered, "He is important for us."
Pushkin was, for a time at any rate, a Romantic, largely influenced, as all the world was then, by Byron. He is full of sentiment, smiles and tears, and passionate enthusiasms. He therefore struck out in a path in which he has had no great followers; for the big men in Russian literature are all Realists. Romanticism is as foreign to the spirit of Russian Realism as it is to French Classicism. What is peculiarly Slavonic about Pushkin is his simplicity, his naivete. Though affected by foreign models, he was close to the soil. This is shown particularly in his prose tales, and it is here that his title as Founder of Russian Literature is most clearly demonstrated. He took Russia away from the artificiality of the eighteenth century, and exhibited the possibilities of native material in the native tongue.
The founder of the mighty school of Russian Realism was Gogol. Filled with enthusiasm for Pushkin, he nevertheless took a different course, and became Russia's first great novelist. Furthermore, although a melancholy man, he is the only Russian humorist who has made the world laugh out loud. Humour is not a salient quality in Russian fiction. Then came the brilliant follower of Gogol, Ivan Turgenev. In him Russian literary art reached its climax, and the art of the modern novel as well. He is not only the greatest master of prose style that Russia has ever produced; he is the only Russian who has shown genius in Construction. Perhaps no novels in any language have shown the impeccable beauty of form attained in the works of Turgenev. George Moore queries, "Is not Turgenev the greatest artist that has existed since antiquity?"
Dostoevski, seven years older than Tolstoi, and three years younger than Turgenev, was not so much a Realist as a Naturalist; his chief interest was in the psychological processes of the unclassed. His foreign fame is constantly growing brighter, for his works have an extraordinary vitality. Finally appeared Leo Tolstoi, whose literary career extended nearly sixty years. During the last twenty years of his life, he was generally regarded as the world's greatest living author; his books enjoyed an enormous circulation, and he probably influenced more individuals by his pen than any other man of his time.
In the novels of Gogol, Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoi we ought to find all the prominent traits in the Russian character.
It is a rather curious thing, that Russia, which has never had a parliamentary government, and where political history has been very little influenced by the spoken word, should have so much finer an instrument of expression than England, where matters of the greatest importance have been settled by open and public speech for nearly three hundred years. One would think that the constant use of the language in the national forum for purposes of argument and persuasion would help to make it flexible and subtle; and that the almost total absence of such employment would tend toward narrowness and rigidity. In this instance exactly the contrary is the case. If we may trust the testimony of those who know, we are forced to the conclusion that the English language, compared with the Russian, is nothing but an awkward dialect. Compared with Russian, the English language is decidedly weak in synonyms, and in the various shades of meaning that make for precision. Indeed, with the exception of Polish, Russian is probably the greatest language in the world, in richness, variety, definiteness, and elegance. It is also capable of saying much in little, and saying it with tremendous force. In Turgenev's "Torrents of Spring," where the reader hears constantly phrases in Italian, French, and German, it will be remembered that the ladies ask Sanin to sing something in his mother tongue. "The ladies praised his voice and the music, but were more struck with the softness and sonorousness of the Russian language." I remember being similarly affected years ago when I heard "King Lear" read aloud in Russian. Baron von der Bruggen says,* "there is the wonderful wealth of the language, which, as a popular tongue, is more flexible, more expressive of thought than any other living tongue I know of." No one has paid a better tribute than Gogol:—
"The Russian people express themselves forcibly; and if they once bestow an epithet upon a person, it will descend to his race and posterity; he will bear it about with him, in service, in retreat, in Petersburg, and to the ends of the earth; and use what cunning he will, ennoble his career as he will thereafter, nothing is of the slightest use; that nickname will caw of itself at the top of its crow's voice, and will show clearly whence the bird has flown. A pointed epithet once uttered is the same as though it were written down, and an axe will not cut it out.
*"Russia of To-day," page 203.
"And how pointed is all that which has proceeded from the depths of Russia, where there are neither Germans nor Finns, nor any other strange tribes, but where all is purely aboriginal, where the bold and lively Russian mind never dives into its pocket for a word, and never broods over it like a sitting-hen: it sticks the word on at one blow, like a passport, like your nose or lips on an eternal bearer, and never adds anything afterwards. You are sketched from head to foot in one stroke.
"Innumerable as is the multitude of churches, monasteries with cupolas, towers, and crosses, which are scattered over holy, most pious Russia, the multitude of tribes, races, and peoples who throng and bustle and variegate the earth is just as innumerable. And every people bearing within itself the pledge of strength, full of active qualities of soul, of its own sharply defined peculiarities, and other gifts of God, has characteristically distinguished itself by its own special word, by which, while expressing any object whatever, it also reflects in the expression its own share of its own distinctive character. The word Briton echoes with knowledge of the heart, and wise knowledge of life; the word French, which is not of ancient date, glitters with a light foppery, and flits away; the sagely artistic word German ingeniously discovers its meaning, which is not attainable by every one; but there is no word which is so ready, so audacious, which is torn from beneath the heart itself, which is so burning, so full of life, as the aptly applied Russian word."*
*"Dead Souls," translated by Isabel Hapgood.
Prosper Merimee, who knew Russian well, and was an absolute master of the French language, remarked:—
"La langue russe, qui est, autant que j 'en puis juger, le plus riche des idiomes de l'Europe, semble faite pour exprimer les nuances les plus delicates. Douee d'une merveilleuse concision qui s'allie a la clarte, il lui suffit d'un mot pour associer plusieurs idees, qui, dans une autre langue, exigeralent des phrases entieres."
And no people are more jealous on this very point than the French. In the last of his wonderful "Poems in Prose," Turgenev cried out: "In these days of doubt, in these days of painful brooding over the fate of my country, thou alone art my rod and my staff, O great, mighty, true and free Russian language! If it were not for thee, how could one keep from despairing at the sight of what is going on at home? But it is inconceivable that such a language should not belong to a great people."
It is significant that Turgenev, who was so full of sympathy for the ideas and civilization of Western Europe, and who was so often regarded (unjustly) by his countrymen as a traitor to Russia, should have written all his masterpieces, not in French, of which he had a perfect command, but in his own beloved mother-tongue.
We see by the above extracts, that Russia has an instrument of expression as near perfection as is possible in human speech. Perhaps one reason for the supremacy of Russian fiction may be found here.
The immense size of the country produces an element of largeness in Russian character that one feels not only in their novels, but almost invariably in personal contact and conversation with a more or less educated Russian. This is not imaginary and fantastic; it is a definite sensation, and immediately apparent. Bigness in early environment often produces a certain comfortable largeness of mental vision. One has only to compare in this particular a man from Russia with a man from Holland, or still better, a man from Texas with a man from Connecticut. The difference is easy to see, and easier to feel. It is possible that the man from the smaller district may be more subtle, or he may have had better educational advantages; but he is likely to be more narrow. A Texan told me once that it was eighteen miles from his front door to his front gate; now I was born in a city block, with no front yard at all. I had surely missed something.
Russians are moulded on a large scale, and their novels are as wide in interest as the world itself. There is a refreshing breadth of vision in the Russian character, which is often as healthful to a foreigner as the wind that sweeps across the vast prairies. This largeness of character partly accounts for the impression of Vastness that their books produce on Occidental eyes. I do not refer at all to the length of the book—for a book may be very long, and yet produce an impression of pettiness, like many English novels. No, it is something that exhales from the pages, whether they be few or many. As illustrations of this quality of vastness, one has only to recall two Russian novels—one the longest, and the other very nearly the shortest, in the whole range of Slavonic fiction. I refer to "War and Peace," by Tolstoi, and to "Taras Bulba," by Gogol. Both of these extraordinary works give us chiefly an impression of Immensity—we feel the boundless steppes, the illimitable wastes of snow, and the long winter night. It is particularly interesting to compare Taras Bulba with the trilogy of the Polish genius, Sienkiewicz. The former is tiny in size, the latter a leviathan; but the effect produced is the same. It is what we feel in reading Homer, whose influence, by the way, is as powerful in "Taras Bulba" as it is in "With Fire and Sword."
The Cosmopolitanism of the Russian character is a striking feature. Indeed, the educated Russian is perhaps the most complete Cosmopolitan in the world. This is partly owing to the uncanny facility with which he acquires foreign languages, and to the admirable custom in Russia of giving children in more or less wealthy families, French, German, and English governesses. John Stuart Mill studied Greek at the age of three, which is the proper time to begin the study of any language that one intends to master. Russian children think and dream in foreign words, but it is seldom that a Russian shows any pride in his linguistic accomplishments, or that he takes it otherwise than as a matter of course. Stevenson, writing from Mentone to his mother, 7 January 1874, said: "We have two little Russian girls, with the youngest of whom, a little polyglot button of a three-year-old, I had the most laughable little scene at lunch to-day. . . . She said something in Italian which made everybody laugh very much . . .; after some examination, she announced emphatically to the whole table, in German, that I was a machen.. . . This hasty conclusion as to my sex she was led afterwards to revise . . . but her new opinion . . . was announced in a language quite unknown to me, and probably Russian. To complete the scroll of her accomplishments, . . . she said good-bye to me in very commendable English." Three days later, he added, "The little Russian kid is only two and a half; she speaks six languages." Nothing excites the envy of an American travelling in Europe more sharply than to hear Russian men and women speaking European languages fluently and idiomatically. When we learn to speak a foreign tongue, we are always acutely conscious of the transition from English to German, or from German to French, and our hearers are still more so. We speak French as though it HURT, just as the average tenor sings. I remember at a polyglot Parisian table, a Russian girl who spoke seven languages with perfect ease; and she was not in the least a blue-stocking.
Now every one knows that one of the indirect advantages that result from the acquisition of a strange tongue is the immediate gain in the extent of view. It is as though a near-sighted man had suddenly put on glasses. It is something to be able to read French; but if one has learned to speak French, the reading of a French book becomes infinitely more vivid. With a French play in the hand, one can see clearly the expressions on the faces of the personages, as one follows the printed dialogue with the eye. Here is where a Russian understands the American or the French point of view, much better than an American or a Frenchman understands the Russian's. Indeed, the man from Paris is nothing like so cosmopolitan as the man from Petersburg. One reason is, that he is too well satisfied with Paris. The late M. Brunetiere told me that he could neither read or speak English, and, what is still more remarkable, he said that he had never been in England! That a critic of his power and reputation, interested as he was in English literature, should never have had sufficient intellectual curiosity to cross the English Channel, struck me as nothing short of amazing.
The acquisition of any foreign language annihilates a considerable number of prejudices. Henry James, who knew Turgenev intimately, and who has written a brilliant and charming essay on his personality, said that the mind of Turgenev contained not one pin-point of prejudice. It is worth while to pause an instant and meditate on the significance of such a remark. Think what it must mean to view the world, the institutions of society, moral ideas, and human character with an absolutely unprejudiced mind! We Americans are skinful of prejudices. Of course we don't call them prejudices; we call them principles. But they sometimes impress others as prejudices; and they no doubt help to obscure our judgment, and to shorten or refract our sight. What would be thought of a painter who had prejudices concerning the colours of skies and fields?
The cosmopolitanism of the Russian novelist partly accounts for the international effect and influence of his novels. His knowledge of foreign languages makes his books appeal to foreign readers. When he introduces German, French, English, and Italian characters into his books, he not only understands these people, he can think in their languages, and thus reproduce faithfully their characteristics not merely by observation but by sympathetic intuition. Furthermore, the very fact that Tolstoi, for example, writes in an inaccessible language, makes foreign translations of his works absolutely necessary. As at the day of Pentecost, every man hears him speak in his own tongue. Now if an Englishman writes a successful book, thousands of Russians, Germans, and others will read it in English; the necessity of translation is not nearly so great. It is interesting to compare the world-wide appeal made by the novels of Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoi with that made by Thackeray and George Eliot, not to mention Mr. Hardy or the late Mr. Meredith.
The combination of the great age of Russia with its recent intellectual birth produces a maturity of character, with a wonderful freshness of consciousness. It is as though a strong, sensible man of forty should suddenly develop a genius in art; his attitude would be quite different from that of a growing boy, no matter how precocious he might be. So, while the Russian character is marked by an extreme sensitiveness to mental impressions, it is without the rawness and immaturity of the American. The typical American has some strong qualities that seem in the typical Russian conspicuously absent; but his very practical energy, his pride and self-satisfaction, stand in the way of his receptive power. Now a conspicuous trait of the Russian is his humility; and his humility enables him to see clearly what is going on, where an American would instantly interfere, and attempt to change the course of events.* For, however inspiring a full-blooded American may be, the most distinguishing feature of his character is surely not Humility. And it is worth while to remember that whereas since 1850, at least a dozen great realistic novels have been written in Russian, not a single completely great realistic novel has ever been written in the Western Hemisphere.
*It is possible that both the humility and the melancholy of the Russian character are partly caused by the climate, and the vast steppes and forests, which seem to indicate the insignificance of man.
This extreme sensitiveness to impression is what has led the Russian literary genius into Realism; and it is what has produced the greatest Realists that the history of the novel has seen. The Russian mind is like a sensitive plate; it reproduces faithfully. It has no more partiality, no more prejudice than a camera film; it reflects everything that reaches its surface. A Russian novelist, with a pen in his hand, is the most truthful being on earth.
To an Englishman or an American, perhaps the most striking trait in the Russian character is his lack of practical force—the paralysis of his power of will. The national character among the educated classes is personified in fiction, in a type peculiarly Russian; and that may be best defined by calling it the conventional Hamlet. I say the conventional Hamlet, for I believe Shakespeare's Hamlet is a man of immense resolution and self-control. The Hamlet of the commentators is as unlike Shakespeare's Hamlet as systematic theology is unlike the Sermon on the Mount. The hero of the orthodox Russian novel is a veritable "L'Aiglon." This national type must be clearly understood before an American can understand Russian novels at all. In order to show that it is not imaginary, but real, one has only to turn to Sienkiewicz's powerful work, "Without Dogma," the very title expressing the lack of conviction that destroys the hero.
"Last night, at Count Malatesta's reception, I heard by chance these two words, 'l'improductivite slave.' I experienced the same relief as does a nervous patient when the physician tells him that his symptoms are common enough, and that many others suffer from the same disease. . . . I thought about that 'improductivite slave' all night. He had his wits about him who summed the thing up in these two words. There is something in us,—an incapacity to give forth all that is in us. One might say, God has given us bow and arrow, but refused us the power to string the bow and send the arrow straight to its aim. I should like to discuss it with my father, but am afraid to touch a sore point. Instead of this, I will discuss it with my diary. Perhaps it will be just the thing to give it any value. Besides, what can be more natural than to write about what interests me? Everybody carries within him his tragedy. Mine is this same 'improductivite slave' of the Ploszowskis. Not long ago, when romanticism flourished in hearts and poetry, everybody carried his tragedy draped around him as a picturesque cloak; now it is carried still, but as a jagervest next to the skin. But with a diary it is different; with a diary one may be sincere. . . . To begin with, I note down that my religious belief I carried still intact with me from Metz did not withstand the study of natural philosophy. It does not follow that I am an atheist. Oh, no! this was good enough in former times, when he who did not believe in spirit, said to himself, 'Matter,' and that settled for him the question. Nowadays only provincial philosophers cling to that worn-out creed. Philosophy of our times does not pronounce upon the matter; to all such questions, it says, 'I do not know.' And that 'I do not know' sinks into and permeates the mind. Nowadays psychology occupies itself with close analysis and researches of spiritual manifestations; but when questioned upon the immortality of the soul it says the same, 'I do not know,' and truly it does not know, and it cannot know. And now it will be easier to describe the state of my mind. It all lies in these words: I do not know. In this—in the acknowledged impotence of the human mind—lies the tragedy. Not to mention the fact that humanity always has asked, and always will ask, for an answer, they are truly questions of more importance than anything else in the world. If there be something on the other side, and that something an eternal life, then misfortunes and losses on this side are, as nothing. 'I am content to die,' says Renan, 'but I should like to know whether death will be of any use to me.' And philosophy replies, 'I do not know.' And man beats against that blank wall, and like the bedridden sufferer fancies, if he could lie on this or on that side, he would feel easier. What is to be done?"*
*Translated by Iza Young.
Those last five words are often heard in Russian mouths. It is a favourite question. It is, indeed, the title of two Russian books.
The description of the Slavonic temperament given by Sienkiewicz tallies exactly with many prominent characters in Russian novels. Turgenev first completely realised it in "Rudin;" he afterwards made it equally clear in "Torrents of Spring," "Smoke," and other novels.* Raskolnikov, in Dostoevski's "Crime and Punishment," is another illustration; he wishes to be a Napoleon, and succeeds only in murdering two old women. Artsybashev, in his terrible novel, "Sanin," has given an admirable analysis of this great Russian type in the character of Jurii, who finally commits suicide simply because he cannot find a working theory of life. Writers so different as Tolstoi and Gorki have given plenty of good examples. Indeed, Gorki, in "Varenka Olessova," has put into the mouth of a sensible girl an excellent sketch of the national representative.
*Goncharov devoted a whole novel, "Oblomov," to the elaboration of this particular type.
"The Russian hero is always silly and stupid, he is always sick of something; always thinking of something that cannot be understood, and is himself so miserable, so m—i—serable! He will think, think, then talk, then he will go and make a declaration of love, and after that he thinks, and thinks again, till he marries. . . . And when he is married, he talks all sorts of nonsense to his wife, and then abandons her."
Turgenev's Bazarov and Artsybashev's Sanin indicate the ardent revolt against the national masculine temperament; like true Slavs, they go clear to the other extreme, and bring resolution to a reductio ad absurdum; for your true Russian knows no middle course, being entirely without the healthy moderation of the Anglo-Saxon. The great Turgenev realised his own likeness to Rudin. Mrs. Ritchie has given a very pleasant unconscious testimony to this fact.
"Just then my glance fell upon Turgenev leaning against the doorpost at the far end of the room, and as I looked, I was struck, being shortsighted, by a certain resemblance to my father [Thackeray], which I tried to realise to myself. He was very tall, his hair was grey and abundant, his attitude was quiet and reposeful; I looked again and again while I pictured to myself the likeness. When Turgenev came up after the music, he spoke to us with great kindness, spoke of our father, and of having dined at our house, and he promised kindly and willingly to come and call next day upon my sister and me in Onslow Gardens. I can remember that next day still; dull and dark, with a yellow mist in the air. All the afternoon I sat hoping and expecting that Turgenev might come, but I waited in vain. Two days later, we met him again at Mrs. Huth's, where we were all once more assembled. Mr. Turgenev came straight up to me at once. 'I was so sorry that I could not come and see you,' he said, 'so very sorry, but I was prevented. Look at my thumbs!' and he held up both his hands with the palms outwards. I looked at his thumbs, but I could not understand. 'See how small they are,' he went on; 'people with such little thumbs can never do what they intend to do, they always let themselves be prevented;' and he laughed so kindly that I felt as if his visit had been paid all the time and quite understood the validity of the excuse."*
*"Blackstick Papers," 1908
It is seldom that the national characteristic reveals itself so playfully; it is more likely to lead to tragedy. This cardinal fact may militate greatly against Russia's position as a world-power in the future, as it has in the past. Her capacity for passive resistance is enormous—Napoleon learned that, and so did Frederick. A remarkable illustration of it was afforded by the late Japanese war, when Port Arthur held out long after the possible date assigned by many military experts. For positive aggressive tactics Russia is just as weak nationally as her men are individually. What a case in point is the Duma, of which so much was expected! Were a majority of that Duma Anglo-Saxons, we should all see something happen, and it would not happen against Finland. One has only to compare it with the great parliamentary gatherings in England's history.*
* Gogol said in "Dead Souls," "We Russians have not the slightest talent for deliberative assemblies."
Perhaps if the membership were exclusively composed of women, positive results would show. For, in Russian novels, the irresolution of the men is equalled only by the driving force of the women. The Russian feminine type, as depicted in fiction, is the incarnation of singleness of purpose, and a capacity to bring things to pass, whether for good or for evil. The heroine of "Rudin," of "Smoke," of "On the Eve," the sinister Maria of "Torrents of Spring," the immortal Lisa of "A House of Gentlefolk," the girl in Dostoevski's "Poor Folk;" Dunia and Sonia, in "Crime and Punishment"—many others might be called to mind. The good Russian women seem immensely superior to the men in their instant perception and recognition of moral values, which gives them a chart and compass in life. Possibly, too, the women are stiffened in will by a natural reaction in finding their husbands and brothers so stuffed with inconclusive theories. One is appalled at the prodigious amount of nonsense that Russian wives and daughters are forced to hear from their talkative and ineffective heads of houses. It must be worse than the metaphysical discussion between Adam and the angel, while Eve waited on table, and supplied the windy debaters with something really useful.
To one who is well acquainted with American university undergraduates, the intellectual maturity of the Russian or Polish student and his eagerness for the discussion of abstract problems in sociology and metaphysics are very impressive. The amount of space given in Russian novels to philosophical introspection and debate is a truthful portrayal of the subtle Russian mind. Russians love to talk; they are strenuous in conversation, and forget their meals and their sleep. I have known some Russians who will sit up all night, engaged in the discussion of a purely abstract topic, totally oblivious to the passage of time. In "A House of Gentlefolk," at four o'clock in the morning, Mihalevich is still talking about the social duties of Russian landowners, and he roars out, "We are sleeping, and the time is slipping away; we are sleeping!" Lavretsky replies, "Permit me to observe, that we are not sleeping at present, but rather preventing others from sleeping. We are straining our throats like the cocks—listen! there is one crowing for the third time." To which Mihalevich smilingly rejoins, "Good-bye till to-morrow." Then follows, "But the friends talked for more than an hour longer." In Chirikov's powerful drama, "The Jews," the scene of animated discussion that takes place on the stage is a perfect picture of what is happening in hundreds of Russian towns every night. An admirable description of a typical Russian conversation is given by Turgenev, in "Virgin Soil":—
"Like the first flakes of snow, swiftly whirling, crossing and recrossing in the still mild air of autumn, words began flying, tumbling, jostling against one another in the heated atmosphere of Golushkin's dining-room—words of all sorts—progress, government, literature; the taxation question, the church question, the Roman question, the law-court question; classicism, realism, nihilism, communism; international, clerical, liberal, capital; administration, organisation, association, and even crystallisation! It was just this uproar which seemed to arouse Golushkin to enthusiasm; the real gist of the matter seemed to consist in this, for him."*
*All citations from Turgenev's novels are from Constance Garnett's translations.
The Anglo-Saxon is content to allow ideas that are inconsistent and irreconcilable to get along together as best they may in his mind, in order that he may somehow get something done. Not so the Russian. Dr. Johnson, who settled Berkeleian idealism by kicking a stone, and the problem of free will by stoutly declaring, "I know I'm free and there's an end on't," would have had an interesting time among the Slavs.
It is rather fortunate that the Russian love of theory is so often accompanied by the paralysis of will power, otherwise political crimes would be much commoner in Russia than they are. The Russian is tremendously impulsive, but not at all practical. Many hold the most extreme views, views that would shock a typical Anglo-Saxon out of his complacency; but they remain harmless and gentle theorists. Many Russians do not believe in God, or Law, or Civil Government, or Marriage, or any of the fundamental Institutions of Society; but their daily life is as regular and conventional as a New Englander's. Others, however, attempt to live up to their theories, not so much for their personal enjoyment, as for the satisfaction that comes from intellectual consistency. In general, it may be said that the Russian is far more of an extremist, far more influenced by theory, than people of the West. This is particularly true of the youth of Russia, always hot-headed and impulsive, and who are constantly attempting to put into practice the latest popular theories of life. American undergraduates are the most conservative folk in the world; if any strange theory in morals or politics becomes noised abroad, the American student opposes to it the one time-honoured weapon of the conservative from Aristophanes down,—burlesque. Mock processions and absurd travesties of "the latest thing" in politics are a feature of every academic year at an American university. Indeed, an American student leading a radical political mob is simply unthinkable. It is common enough in Russia, where in political disturbances students are very often prominent. If a young Russian gives his intellectual assent to a theory, his first thought is to illustrate it in his life. One of the most terrible results of the publication of Artsybashev's novel "Sanin"—where the hero's theory of life is simply to enjoy it, and where the Christian system of morals is ridiculed—was the organisation, in various high schools, among the boys and girls, of societies zum ungehinderten Geschechtsgenuss. They were simply doing what Sanin told them they ought to do; and having decided that he was right, they immediately put his theories into practice. Again, when Tolstoi finally made up his mind that the Christian system of ethics was correct, he had no peace until he had attempted to live in every respect in accordance with those doctrines. And he persuaded thousands of Russians to attempt the same thing. Now in England and in America, every minister knows that it is perfectly safe to preach the Sermon on the Mount every day in the year. There is no occasion for alarm. Nobody will do anything rash.
The fact that the French language, culture, and manners have been superimposed upon Russian society should never be forgotten in a discussion of the Russian national character. For many years, and until very recently, French was the language constantly used by educated and aristocratic native Russians, just as it is by the Poles and by the Roumanians. It will never cease seeming strange to an American to hear a Russian mother and son talk intimately together in a language not their own. Even Pushkin, the founder of Russian literature, the national poet, wrote in a letter to a friend, "Je vous parlerai la langue de l'Europe, elle m'est plus familiere." Imagine Tennyson writing a letter in French, with the explanation that French came easier to him!
It follows, as a consequence, that the chief reading of Russian society people is French novels; that French customs, morals, and manners (as portrayed in French fiction) have had an enormous effect on the educated classes in Russia. If we may believe half the testimony we hear,—I am not sure that we can,—Russian aristocratic society is to-day the most corrupt in the world. There is an immense contrast between Parisians and Russians, and the literature that would not damage the morals of the former is deadly to the latter. The spirit of mockery in the Parisian throws off the germs of their theatre and their fiction. I have seen in a Parisian theatre men, their wives, and their families laughing unrestrainedly at a piece, that if exhibited before an American audience would simply disgust some, and make others morbidly attentive. This kind of literature, comic or tragic, disseminated as it everywhere is among impulsive and passionate Russian readers, has been anything but morally healthful. One might as rationally go about and poison wells. And the Russian youth are sophisticated to a degree that seems to us almost startling. In 1903, a newspaper in Russia sent out thousands of blanks to high school boys and girls all over the country, to discover what books constituted their favourite reading. Among native authors, Tolstoi was first, closely followed by Gorki; among foreign writers, Guy de Maupassant was the most popular! The constant reading of Maupassant by boys and girls of fifteen and sixteen years, already emancipated from the domination of religious ideas, can hardly be morally hygienic. And to-day, in many families all over the Western world, Hygiene has taken the place of God.
Russian novelists have given us again and again pictures of typical society women who are thoroughly corrupt. We find them in historical and in contemporary fiction. They are in "War and Peace," in "Anna Karenina," in "Dead Souls," in "A House of Gentlefolk," and in the books of to-day. And it is worth remembering that when Tolstoi was a young man, his aunt advised him to have an intrigue with a married woman, for the added polish and ease it would give to his manners, just as an American mother sends her boy to dancing-school.
Finally, in reading the works of Tolstoi, Turgenev, Dostoevski, Gorki, Chekhov, Andreev, and others, what is the general impression produced on the mind of a foreigner? It is one of intense gloom. Of all the dark books in fiction, no works sound such depths of suffering and despair as are fathomed by the Russians. Many English readers used to say that the novels of George Eliot were "profoundly sad,"—it became almost a hackneyed phrase. Her stories are rollicking comedies compared with the awful shadow cast by the literature of the Slavs. Suffering is the heritage of the Russian race; their history is steeped in blood and tears, their present condition seems intolerably painful, and the future is an impenetrable cloud. In the life of the peasants there is of course fun and laughter, as there is in every human life; but at the root there is suffering, not the loud protest of the Anglo-Saxon labourer, whose very loudness is a witness to his vitality—but passive, fatalistic, apathetic misery. Life has been often defined, but never in a more depressing fashion than by the peasant in Gorki's novel, who asks quietly:—
"What does the word Life mean to us? A feast? No. Work? No. A battle? Oh, no!! For us Life is something merely tiresome, dull,—a kind of heavy burden. In carrying it we sigh with weariness and complain of its weight. Do we really love Life! The Love of Life! The very words sound strange to our ears! We love only our dreams of the future—and this love is Platonic, with no hope of fruition."
Suffering is the corner-stone of Russian life, as it is of Russian fiction. That is one reason why the Russians produce here and there such splendid characters, and such mighty books. The Russian capacity for suffering is the real text of the great works of Dostoevski, and the reason why his name is so beloved in Russia—he understood the hearts of his countrymen. Of all the courtesans who have illustrated the Christian religion on the stage and in fiction, the greatest is Dostoevski's Sonia. Her amazing sincerity and deep simplicity make us ashamed of any tribute of tears we may have given to the familiar sentimental type. She does not know what the word "sentiment" means; but the awful sacrifice of her daily life is the great modern illustration of Love. Christ again is crucified. When the refined, cultivated, philosophical student Raskolnikov stoops to this ignorant girl and kisses her feet, he says, "I did not bow down to you individually, but to suffering Humanity in your person." That phrase gives us an insight into the Russian national character.
The immediate result of all this suffering as set forth in the lives and in the books of the great Russians, is Sympathy—pity and sympathy for Humanity. Thousands are purified and ennobled by these sublime pictures of woe. And one of the most remarkable of contemporary Russian novels—Andreev's "The Seven Who Were Hanged," a book bearing on every page the stamp of indubitable genius—radiates a sympathy and pity that are almost divine.
This growth of Love and Sympathy in the Russian national character is to me the sign of greatest promise in their future, both as a nation of men and women, and as a contributor to the world's great works of literary art. If anything can dispel the black clouds in their dreary sky, it will be this wonderful emotional power. The political changes, the Trans-Siberian railway, their industrial and agricultural progress,—all these are as nothing compared with the immense advance that Christian sympathy is now making in the hearts of the Russian people. The books of Dostoevski and Tolstoi point directly to the Gospel, and although Russia is theoretically a Christian nation, no country needs real Christianity more than she. The tyranny of the bureaucracy, the corruption of fashionable society, the sufferings of the humble classes, the hollow formalism of the Church, make Russia particularly ripe for the true Gospel—just as true to-day as when given to the world in Palestine. Sixty years ago Gogol wrote: "What is it that is most truly Russian? What is the main characteristic of our Russian nature, that we now try to develop by making it reject everything strange and foreign to it? The value of the Russian nature consists in this—that it is capable, more than any other, of receiving the noble word of the Gospel, which leads man toward perfection." One cannot read Dostoevski and Tolstoi without thinking of the truth of Gogol's declaration.
All the philosophy and wisdom of the world have never improved on the teachings of the Founder of Christianity. What the individual and society need to-day is not Socialism, Communism, or Nihilism; no temporary palliative sought in political, social, or financial Reform; what we each need is a closer personal contact with the simple truths of the New Testament. The last word on all political, philosophical, and social questions may still be found in the Sermon on the Mount. It is a significant fact, that Tolstoi, after a varied and long experience of human life, after reviewing all the systems of thought that have influenced modern society, should have finally arrived and found rest in the statements that most of us learned in childhood from our mothers' lips.
Nikolai Vassilievich Gogol was born at Sorotchinetz, in Little Russia, in March, 1809. The year in which he appeared on the planet proved to be the literary annus mirabilis of the century; for in that same twelvemonth were born Charles Darwin, Alfred Tennyson, Abraham Lincoln, Poe, Gladstone, and Holmes. His father was a lover of literature, who wrote dramatic pieces for his own amusement, and who spent his time on the old family estates, not in managing the farms, but in wandering about the fields, and beholding the fowls of the air. The boy inherited much from his father; but, unlike Turgenev, he had the best of all private tutors, a good mother, of whom his biographer says, Elle demeure toujours sa plus intime amie.*
*For the facts in Gogol's life, I have relied chiefly on the doctor's thesis by Raina Tyrneva, Aix, 1901.
At the age of twelve, Nikolai was sent away to the high school at Nezhin, a town near Kiev. There he remained from 1821 to 1828. He was an unpromising student, having no enthusiasm for his lessons, and showing no distinction either in scholarship or deportment. Fortunately, however, the school had a little theatre of its own, and Gogol, who hated mathematics, and cared little for the study of modern languages, here found an outlet for all his mental energy. He soon became the acknowledged leader of the school in matters dramatic, and unconsciously prepared himself for his future career. Like Schiller, he wrote a tragedy, and called it "The Robbers."
I think it is probable that Gogol's hatred for the school curriculum inspired a passage in "Taras Bulba," though here he ostensibly described the pedagogy of the fifteenth century.
"The style of education in that age differed widely from the manner of life. These scholastic, grammatical, rhetorical, and logical subtleties were decidedly out of consonance with the times, never had any connection with and never were encountered in actual life. Those who studied them could not apply their knowledge to anything whatever, not even the least scholastic of them. The learned men of those days were even more incapable than the rest, because farther removed from all experience."*
*Translated by Isabel Hapgood.
In December, 1828, Gogol took up his residence in St. Petersburg, bringing with him some manuscripts that he had written while at school. He had the temerity to publish one, which was so brutally ridiculed by the critics, that the young genius, in despair, burned all the unsold copies—an unwitting prophecy of a later and more lamentable conflagration. Then he vainly tried various means of subsistence. Suddenly he decided to seek his fortune in America, but he was both homesick and seasick before the ship emerged from the Baltic, and from Lubeck he fled incontinently back to Petersburg. Then he tried to become an actor, but lacked the necessary strength of voice. For a short time he held a minor official position, and a little later was professor of history, an occupation he did not enjoy, saying after his resignation, "Now I am a free Cossack again." Meanwhile his pen was steadily busy, and his sketches of farm life in the Ukraine attracted considerable attention among literary circles in the capital.
Gogol suffered from nostalgia all the time he lived at St. Petersburg; he did not care for that form of society, and the people, he said, did not seem like real Russians. He was thoroughly homesick for his beloved Ukraine; and it is significant that his short stories of life in Little Russia, truthfully depicting the country customs, were written far off in a strange and uncongenial environment.
In 1831 he had the good fortune to meet the poet Pushkin, and a few months later in the same year he was presented to Madame Smirnova; these friends gave him the entree to the literary salons, and the young author, lonesome as he was, found the intellectual stimulation he needed. It was Pushkin who suggested to him the subjects for two of his most famous works, "Revizor" and "Dead Souls." Another friend, Jukovski, exercised a powerful influence, and gave invaluable aid at several crises of his career. Jukovski had translated the "Iliad" and the "Odyssey;" his enthusiasm for Hellenic poetry was contagious; and under this inspiration Gogol proceeded to write the most Homeric romance in Russian literature, "Taras Bulba." This story gave the first indubitable proof of its author's genius, and to-day in the world's fiction it holds an unassailable place in the front rank. The book is so short that it can be read through in less than two hours; but it gives the same impression of vastness and immensity as the huge volumes of Sienkiewicz.
Gogol followed this amazingly powerful romance by two other works, which seem to have all the marks of immortality—the comedy "Revizor," and a long, unfinished novel, "Dead Souls." This latter book is the first of the great realistic novels of Russia, of which "Fathers and Children, "Crime and Punishment," and "Anna Karenina" are such splendid examples.
From 1836 until his death in 1852, Gogol lived mainly abroad, and spent much time in travel. His favourite place of residence was Rome, to which city he repeatedly returned with increasing affection. In 1848 he made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, for Gogol never departed from the pious Christian faith taught him by his mother; in fact, toward the end of his life, he became an ascetic and a mystic. The last years were shadowed by illness and—a common thing among Russian writers—by intense nervous depression. He died at Moscow, 21 February 1852. His last words were the old saying, "And I shall laugh with a bitter laugh." These words were placed on his tomb.
Most Russian novels are steeped in pessimism, and their authors were men of sorrows. Gogol, however, has the double distinction of being the only great comic writer in the language, and in particular of being the author of the only Russian drama known all over the world, and still acted everywhere on the Continent. Although plays do not come within the scope of this book, a word or two should be said about this great comedy; for "Revizor" exhibits clearly the double nature of the author,—his genius for moral satire and his genius for pure fun. From the moral point of view, it is a terrible indictment against the most corrupt bureaucracy of modern times, from the comic point of view, it is an uproarious farce.
The origin of the play is as follows: while travelling in Russia one day, Pushkin stopped at Nizhni-Novgorod. Here he was mistaken for a state functionary on tour among the provinces for purposes of government inspection. This amused the poet so keenly that he narrated all the circumstances to Gogol and suggested that the latter make a play with this experience as the basis of the plot. Gogol not only acted on the suggestion, but instead of a mere farce, he produced a comedy of manners. Toward the end of his life he wrote: "In "Revizor" I tried to gather in one heap all that was bad in Russia, as I then understood it; I wished to turn it all into ridicule. The real impression produced was that of fear. Through the laughter that I have never laughed more loudly, the spectator feels my bitterness and sorrow." The drama was finished on the 4 December 1835, and of course the immediate difficulty was the censorship. How would it be possible for such a satire either to be printed or acted in Russia? Gogol's friend, Madame Smirnova, carried the manuscript to the Czar, Nikolas I. It was read to him; he roared with laughter, and immediately ordered that it be acted. We may note also that he became a warm friend of Gogol, and sent sums of money to him, saying nobly, "Don't let him know the source of these gifts; for then he might feel obliged to write from the official point of view."
The first performance was on the 19 April 1836. The Czar attended in person, and applauded vigorously. The success was immediate, and it has never quitted the stage. Gogol wrote to a friend: "On the opening night I felt uncomfortable from the very first as I sat in the theatre. Anxiety for the approval of the audience did not trouble me. There was only one critic in the house—myself—that I feared. I heard clamorous objections within me which drowned all else. However, the public, as a whole, was satisfied. Half of the audience praised the play, the other half condemned it, but not on artistic grounds."
"Revizor" is one of the best-constructed comedies in any language; for not only has it a unified and well-ordered plot, but it does not stop with the final fall of the curtain. Most plays by attempting to finish up the story with smooth edges, leave an impression of artificiality and unreality, for life is not done up in such neat parcels. The greatest dramas do not solve problems for us, they supply us with questions. In "Revizor," at the last dumb scene, after all the mirth, the real trouble is about to begin; and the spectators depart, not merely with the delightful memory of an evening's entertainment, but with their imagination aflame. Furthermore, "Revizor" has that combination of the intensely local element with the universal, so characteristic of works of genius. Its avowed attempt was to satirise local and temporal abuses; but it is impossible to imagine any state of society in the near future where the play will not seem real. If Gogol had done nothing but write the best comedy in the Russian language, he would have his place in literature secure.*
*The first production of "Revizor" in America (in English) was given by the students of Yale University, 20 April, 1908. For all I know to the contrary, it was the first English production in the world. It was immensely successful, caused subsequent performances elsewhere, both amateur and professional, and attracted attention in Russia, where a journal gave an illustrated account of the Yale representation.
One must never forget in reading Gogol that he was a man of the South—"homme du Midi." In all countries of the world, there is a marked difference between the Northern and the Southern temperament. The southern sun seems to make human nature more mellow. Southerners are more warm-hearted, more emotional, more hospitable, and much more free in the expression of their feelings. In the United States, every one knows the contrast between the New Englander and the man from the Gulf; in Europe, the difference between the Norman and the Gascon has always been apparent—how clear it is in the works of Flaubert and of Rostand! Likewise how interesting is the comparison between the Prussian and the Bavarian; we may have a wholesome respect for Berlin, but we love Munich, in some respects the most attractive town on earth. The parallel holds good in Russia, where the Little Russians, the men of the Ukraine, have ever shown characteristics that separate them from the people of the North. The fiery passion, the boundless aspiration of the Cossack, animates the stories of Gogol with a veritable flame.
His first book, "Evenings on a Farm near the Dikanka (Veillees de l'Ukraine)," appeared early in the thirties, and, with all its crudity and excrescences, was a literary sunrise. It attracted immediate and wide-spread attention, and the wits of Petersburg knew that Russia had an original novelist. The work is a collection of short stories or sketches, introduced with a rollicking humorous preface, in which the author announces himself as Rudii Panko, raiser of bees. Into this book the exile in the city of the North poured out all his love for the country and the village customs of his own Little Russia. He gives us great pictures of Nature, and little pictures of social life. He describes with the utmost detail a country fair at the place of his birth, Sorotchinetz. His descriptions of the simple folk, the beasts, and the bargainings seem as true as those in "Madame Bovary"—the difference is in the attitude of the author toward his work. Gogol has nothing of the aloofness, nothing of the scorn of Flaubert; he himself loves the revelry and the superstitions he pictures, loves above all the people. Superstition plays a prominent role in these sketches; the unseen world of ghosts and apparitions has an enormous influence on the daily life of the peasants. The love of fun is everywhere in evidence; these people cannot live without practical jokes, violent dances, and horse-play. Shadowy forms of amorous couples move silent in the warm summer night, and the stillness is broken by silver laughter. Far away, in his room at St. Petersburg, shut in by the long winter darkness, the homesick man dreamed of the vast landscape he loved, in the warm embrace of the sky at noon, or asleep in the pale moonlight. The first sentence of the book is a cry of longing. "What ecstasy; what splendour has a summer day in Little Russia!" Pushkin used to say that the Northern summer was a caricature of the Southern winter.
The "Evenings on a Farm" indicates the possession of great power rather than consummate skill in the use of it. Full of charm as it is, it cannot by any stretch of language be called a masterpiece. Two years later, however, Gogol produced one of the great prose romances of the world, "Taras Bulba." He had intended to write a history of Little Russia and a history of the Middle Ages, in eight or nine volumes. In order to gather material, he read annals diligently, and collected folk-lore, national songs, and local traditions. Fortunately out of this welter of matter emerged not a big history, but a short novel. Short as it is, it has been called an epical poem in the manner of Homer, and a dramatisation of history in the manner of Shakespeare. Both remarks are just, though the influence of Homer is the more evident; in the descriptive passages, the style is deliberately Homeric, as it is in the romances of Sienkiewicz, which owe so much to this little book by Gogol. It is astonishing that so small a work can show such colossal force. Force is its prime quality—physical, mental, religious. In this story the old Cossacks, centuries dead, have a genuine resurrection of the body. They appear before us in all their amazing vitality, their love of fighting, of eating and drinking, their intense patriotism, and their blazing devotion to their religious faith. Never was a book more plainly inspired by passion for race and native land. It is one tremendous shout of joy. These Cossacks are the veritable children of the steppes, and their vast passions, their Homeric laughter, their absolute recklessness in battle, are simply an expression of the boundless range of the mighty landscape.
"The further they penetrated the steppe, the more beautiful it became. Then all the South, all that region which now constitutes New Russia, even to the Black Sea, was a green, virgin wilderness. No plough had ever passed over the immeasurable waves of wild growth; the horses alone, hiding themselves in it as in a forest, trod it down. Nothing in nature could be finer. The whole surface of the earth presented itself as a green-gold ocean, upon which were sprinkled millions of different flowers. Through the tall, slender stems of the grass peeped light-blue, dark-blue, and lilac star-thistles; the yellow broom thrust up its pyramidal head; the parasol-shaped white flower of the false flax shimmered on high. A wheat-ear, brought God knows whence, was filling out to ripening. About their slender roots ran partridges with out-stretched necks. The air was filled with the notes of a thousand different birds. In the sky, immovable, hung the hawks, their wings outspread, and their eyes fixed intently on the grass. The cries of a cloud of wild ducks, moving up from one side, were echoed from God knows what distant lake. From the grass arose, with measured sweep, a gull, and bathed luxuriously in blue waves of air. And now she has vanished on high, and appears only as a black dot: now she has turned her wings, and shines in the sunlight. Deuce take you, steppes, how beautiful you are!"*
*Translated by Isabel Hapgood.
The whole book is dominated by the gigantic figure of old Taras Bulba, who loves food and drink, but who would rather fight than eat. Like so many Russian novels, it begins at the beginning, not at the second or third chapter. The two sons of Taras, wild cubs of the wild old wolf, return from school, and are welcomed by their loving father, not with kisses and affectionate greeting, but with a joyous fist combat, while the anxious mother looks on with tears of dismayed surprise. After the sublime rage of fighting, which proves to the old man's satisfaction that his sons are really worthy of him, comes the sublime joy of brandy, and a prodigious feast, which only the stomachs of fifteenth century Cossacks could survive. Then despite the anguish of the mother—there was no place for the happiness of women in Cossack life—comes the crushing announcement that on the morrow all three males will away to the wars, from which not one of them will return. One of the most poignant scenes that Gogol has written is the picture of the mother, watching the whole night long by her sleeping sons—who pass the few hours after the long separation and before the eternal parting, in deep, unconscious slumber.
The various noisy parliaments and bloody combats are pictured by a pen alive with the subject; of the two sons, one is murdered by his father for preferring the love of a Capulet to the success of the Montagues; the other, Ostap, is taken prisoner, and tortured to death. Taras, in disguise, watches the appalling sufferings of his son; just before his death, Ostap, who had not uttered a word during the prolonged and awful agony, cries out to the hostile sky, like the bitter cry "My God, why hast thou forsaken me?" "Father! where are you? do you hear all?" and to the amazement of the boy and his torturers, comes, like a voice from heaven, the shout, "I hear!"
Fearful is the vengeance that Taras Bulba takes on the enemy; fearful is his own death, lashed to a tree, and burned alive by his foes. He dies, merrily roaring defiant taunts at his tormentors. And Gogol himself closes his hero's eyes with the question, "Can any fire, flames, or power be found on earth, which are capable of overpowering Russian strength?"
In its particular class of fiction, "Taras Bulba" has no equal except the Polish trilogy of Sienkiewicz; and Gogol produces the same effect in a small fraction of the space required by the other. This is of course Romanticism rampant, which is one reason why it has not been highly appreciated by the French critics. And it is indeed as contrary to the spirit of Russian fiction as it is to the French spirit of restraint. It stands alone in Russian literature, apart from the regular stream, unique and unapproachable, not so much one of the great Russian novels as a soul-thrilling poem, commemorating the immortal Cossack heart.
Gogol followed up the "Evenings on a Farm near the Dikanka" with two other volumes of stories and sketches, of which the immortal "Taras Bulba" was included in one. These other tales show an astonishing advance in power of conception and mastery of style. I do not share the general enthusiasm for the narrative of the comically grotesque quarrel between the two Ivans: but the three stories, "Old-fashioned Farmers," "The Portrait," and "The Cloak," show to a high degree that mingling of Fantasy with Reality that is so characteristic of this author. The obsolete old pair of lovers in "Old-fashioned Farmers" is one of the most charming and winsome things that Gogol wrote at this period: it came straight from the depths of his immeasurable tenderness. It appealed to that Pity which, as every one has noticed, is a fundamental attribute of the national Russian character. In "The Portrait," which is partly written in the minute manner of Balzac, and partly with the imaginative fantastic horror of Poe and Hoffmann, we have the two sides of Gogol's nature clearly reflected. Into this strange story he has also indicated two of the great guiding principles of his life: his intense democratic sympathies, and his devotion to the highest ideals in Art. When the young painter forsakes poverty and sincerity for wealth and popularity, he steadily degenerates as an artist and eventually loses his soul. The ending of the story, with the disappearance of the portrait, is remarkably clever. The brief tale called "The Cloak" or "The Overcoat" has great significance in the history of Russian fiction, for all Russian novelists have been more or less influenced by it. Its realism is so obviously and emphatically realistic that it becomes exaggeration, but this does not lessen its tremendous power: then suddenly at the very end, it leaves the ground, even the air, and soars away into the ether of Romance.
Although these stories were translated into English by Miss Hapgood over twenty years ago, they have never had any vogue among English-speaking people, and indeed they have produced very little impression anywhere outside of Russia. This is a misfortune for the world, for Gogol was assuredly one of the great literary geniuses of the nineteenth century, and he richly repays attentive reading. In Russia he has been appreciated, immensely respected and admired, from the day that he published his first book; but his lack of reputation abroad is indicated by the remark of Mr. Baring in 1910, "the work of Gogol may be said to be totally unknown in England." This statement is altogether too sweeping, but it counts as evidence.
Despite Gogol's undoubted claim to be regarded as the founder of Russian fiction, it is worth remembering that of the three works on which rests his international fame, two cannot possibly be called germinal. The drama "Revizor" is the best comedy in the Russian language; but, partly for that very reason, it produced no school. The romance "Taras Bulba" has no successful follower in Russian literature, and brought forth no fruit anywhere for fifty years, until the appearance of the powerful fiction-chronicles by Sienkiewicz. It has all the fiery ardour of a young genius; its very exaggeration, its delight in bloody battle, show a certain immaturity; it breathes indeed the spirit of youth. With the exception of "The Cloak," Gogol had by 1840 written little to indicate the direction that the best part of Russian literature was to take. It was not until the publication of "Dead Souls" that Russia had a genuine realistic novel. This book is broad enough in scope and content to serve as the foundation of Russian fiction, and to sustain the wonderful work of Turgenev, Tolstoi, and Dostoevski. All the subsequent great novels in Russia point back to "Dead Souls."
No two books could possibly show a greater contrast than "Taras Bulba" and "Dead Souls." One reveals an extraordinary power of condensation: the other an infinite expansion. One deals with heroes and mighty exploits; the other with positively commonplace individuals and the most trivial events. One is the revival of the glorious past; the other a reflection of the sordid present. One is painted with the most brilliant hues of Romanticism, and glows with the essence of the Romantic spirit—Aspiration; the other looks at life through an achromatic lens, and is a catalogue of Realities. To a certain extent, the difference is the difference between the bubbling energy of youth and the steady energy of middle age. For, although Gogol was still young in years when he composed "Dead Souls," the decade that separated the two works was for the author a constant progress in disillusion. In the sixth chapter of the latter book, Gogol has himself revealed the sad transformation that had taken place in his own mind, and that made his genius express itself in so different a manner:—
"Once, long ago, in the years of my youth, in those beautiful years that rolled so swiftly, I was full of joy, charmed when I arrived for the first time in an unknown place; it might be a farm, a poor little district town, a large village, a small settlement: my eager, childish eyes always found there many interesting objects. Every building, everything that showed an individual touch, enchanted my mind, and left a vivid impression. . . . To-day I travel through all the obscure villages with profound indifference, and I gaze coldly at their sad and wretched appearance: my eyes linger over no object, nothing grotesque makes me smile: that which formerly made me burst out in a roar of spontaneous laughter, and filled my soul with cheerful animation, now passes before my eyes as though I saw it not, and my mouth, cold and rigid, finds no longer a word to say at the very spectacle which formerly possessed the secret of filling my heart with ecstasy. O my youth! O my fine simplicity!"
Gogol spent the last fifteen years of his life writing this book, and he left it unfinished. Pushkin gave him the subject, as he had for "Revizor." One day, when the two men were alone together, Pushkin told him, merely as a brief anecdote, of an unscrupulous promoter, who went about buying up the names of dead serfs, thus enabling their owners to escape payment of the taxes which were still in force after the last registration. The names were made over to the new owner, with all legal formalities, so that he apparently possessed a large fortune, measured in slaves; these names the promoter transferred to a remote district, with the intention of obtaining a big cash loan from some bank, giving his fictitious property as security; but he was quickly caught, and his audacious scheme came to nothing. The story stuck in Gogol's mind, and he conceived the idea of a vast novel, in which the travels of the collector of dead souls should serve as a panorama of the Russian people. Both Gogol and Pushkin thought of "Don Quixote," the spirit of which is evident enough in this book. Not long after their interview, Gogol wrote to Pushkin: "I have begun to write "Dead Souls." The subject expands into a very long novel, and I think it will be amusing, but now I am only at the third chapter. . . . I wish to show, at least from one point of view, all Russia." Gogol declared that he did not write a single line of these early chapters without thinking how Pushkin would judge it, at what he would laugh, at what he would applaud. When he read aloud from the manuscript, Pushkin, who had listened with growing seriousness, cried, "God! what a sad country is Russia!" and later be added, "Gogol invents nothing; it is the simple truth, the terrible truth."
The first part of his work, containing the first eleven chapters, or "songs," was published in May 1842. For the rest of his life, largely spent abroad, Gogol worked fitfully at the continuation of his masterpiece. Ill health, nervous depression, and morbid asceticism preyed upon his mind; in 1845 he burned all that he had written of the second volume. But he soon began to rewrite it, though he made slow and painful progress, having too much of improductive slave either to complete it or to be satisfied with it. At Moscow, a short time before his death, in a night of wakeful misery, he burned a whole mass of his manuscripts. Among them was unfortunately the larger portion of the rewritten second part of Dead Souls. Various reasons have been assigned as the cause of the destruction of his book—some have said, it was religious remorse for having written the novel at all; others, rage at adverse criticism; others, his own despair at not having reached ideal perfection. But it seems probable that its burning was simply a mistake. Looking among his papers, a short time after the conflagration, he cried out, "My God! what have I done! that isn't what I meant to burn!" But whatever the reason, the precious manuscript was forever lost; and the second part of the work remains sadly incomplete, partly written up from rough notes left by the author, Partly supplied by another hand.
"Dead Souls" is surely a masterpiece, but a masterpiece of life rather than of art. Even apart from its unfinished shape, it is characterised by that formlessness so distinctive of the great Russian novelists the sole exception being Turgenev. The story is so full of disgressions, of remarks in mock apology addressed to the reader, of comparisons of the Russian people with other nations, of general disquisitions on realism, of glowing soliloquies in various moods, that the whole thing is a kind of colossal note-book. Gogol poured into it all his observations, reflections, and comments on life. It is not only a picture of Russia, it is a spiritual autobiography. It is without form, but not void. Gogol called his work a poem; and he could not have found a less happy name. Despite lyrical interludes, it is as far removed from the nature and form of Poetry as it is from Drama. It is a succession of pictures of life, given with the utmost detail, having no connection with each other, and absolutely no crescendo, no movement, no approach to a climax. The only thread that holds the work together is the person of the travelling promoter, Chichikov, whose visits to various communities give the author the opportunity he desired. After one has grasped the plan of the book, the purpose of Chichikov's mission, which one can do in two minutes, one may read the chapters in any haphazard order. Fortunately they are all interesting in their photographic reality.
The whole thing is conceived in the spirit of humour, and its author must be ranked among the great humorists of all time. There is an absurdity about the mission of the chief character, which gives rise to all sorts of ludicrous situations. It takes time for each serf-owner to comprehend Chichikov's object, and he is naturally regarded with suspicion. In one community it is whispered that he is Napoleon, escaped from St. Helena, and travelling in disguise. An old woman with whom he deals has an avaricious cunning worthy of a Norman peasant. The dialogue between the two is a masterly commentary on the root of all evil. But although all Russia is reflected in a comic mirror, which by its very distortion emphasises the defects of each character, Gogol was not primarily trying to write a funny book. The various scenes at dinner parties and at the country inns are laughable; but Gogol's laughter, like that of most great humorists, is a compound of irony, satire, pathos, tenderness, and moral indignation. The general wretchedness of the serfs, the indifference of their owners to their condition, the pettiness and utter meanness of village gossip, the ridiculous affectations of small-town society, the universal ignorance, stupidity, and dulness—all these are remorselessly revealed in the various bargains made by the hero. And what a hero! A man neither utterly bad nor very good; shrewd rather than intelligent; limited in every way. He is a Russian, but a universal type. No one can travel far in America without meeting scores of Chichikovs: indeed, he is an accurate portrait of the American promoter, of the successful commercial traveller, whose success depends entirely not on the real value and usefulness of his stock-in-trade, but on his knowledge of human nature and the persuasive power of his tongue. Chichikov is all things to all men.
Not content with the constant interpolation of side remarks and comments, queries of a politely ironical nature to the reader, in the regular approved fashion of English novels, Gogol added after the tenth chapter a defiant epilogue, in which he explained his reasons for dealing with fact rather than with fancy, of ordinary people rather than with heroes, of commonplace events rather than with melodrama; and then suddenly he tried to jar the reader out of his self-satisfaction, like Balzac in "Pere Goriot."
"Pleased with yourselves more than ever, you will smile slowly, and then say with grave deliberation: 'It is true that in some of our provinces one meets very strange people, people absolutely ridiculous, and sometimes scoundrels too!'
"Ah, but who among you, serious readers, I address myself to those who have the humility of the true Christian, who among you, being alone, in the silence of the evening, at the time when one communes with oneself, will look into the depths of his soul to ask in all sincerity this question? 'Might there not be in me something of Chichikov?'"
This whole epilogue is a programme—the programme of the self-conscious founder of Russian Realism. It came from a man who had deliberately turned his back on Romanticism, even on the romanticism of his friend and teacher, Pushkin, and who had decided to venture all alone on a new and untried path in Russian literature. He fully realised the difficulties of his task, and the opposition he was bound to encounter. He asks and answers the two familiar questions invariably put to the native realist. The first is, "I have enough trouble in my own life: I see enough misery and stupidity in the world: what is the use of reading about it in novels?" The second is, "Why should a man who loves his country uncover her nakedness?"
Gogol's realism differs in two important aspects from the realism of the French school, whether represented by Balzac, Flaubert, Guy de Maupassant, or Zola. He had all the French love of veracity, and could have honestly said with the author of "Une Vie" that he painted 'humble verite. But there are two ground qualities in his realistic method absent in the four Frenchmen: humour and moral force. Gogol could not repress the fun that is so essential an element in human life, any more than he could stop the beating of his heart; he saw men and women with the eyes of a natural born humorist, to whom the utter absurdity of humanity and human relations was enormously salient. And he could not help preaching, because he had boundless sympathy with the weakness and suffering of his fellow-creatures, and because he believed with all the tremendous force of his character in the Christian religion. His main endeavour was to sharpen the sight of his readers, whether they looked without or within; for not even the greatest physician can remedy an evil, unless he knows what the evil is.
Gogol is the great pioneer in Russian fiction. He had the essential temperament of all great pioneers, whether their goal is material or spiritual. He had vital energy, resolute courage, clear vision, and an abiding faith that he was travelling in the right direction. Such a man will have followers even greater than he, and he rightly shares in their glory. He was surpassed by Turgenev, Dostoevski, and Tolstoi, but had he lived, he would have rejoiced in their superior art, just as every great teacher delights in being outstripped by his pupils. He is the real leader of the giant three, and they made of his lonely path a magnificent highway for human thought. They all used him freely: Tolstoi could hardly have written "The Cossacks" without the inspiration of Gogol, Turgenev must have taken the most beautiful chapter in "Virgin Soil" directly from "Old-fashioned Farmers," and Dostoevski's first book, "Poor Folk," is in many places almost a slavish imitation of "The Cloak"—and he freely acknowledged the debt in the course of his story. The uncompromising attitude toward fidelity in Art which Gogol emphasised in "The Portrait" set the standard for every Russian writer who has attained prominence since his day. No one can read Chekhov and Andreev without being conscious of the hovering spirit of the first master of Russian fiction. He could truthfully have adapted the words of Joseph Hall:—
I first adventure: follow me who list, And be the second Russian Realist.
Turgenev was born on the 28 October 1818, at Orel, in south central Russia, about half-way between Moscow and Kiev. Thus, although the temperament of Turgenev was entirely different from that of Gogol, he was born not far from the latter's beloved Ukraine. He came honestly by the patrician quality that unconsciously animated all his books, for his family was both ancient and noble. His mother was wealthy, and in 1817 was married to a handsome, unprincipled military officer six years younger than herself. Their life together was an excellent example of the exact opposite of domestic bliss, and in treating the boy like a culprit, they transformed him—as always happens in similar cases—into a severe judge of their own conduct. The father's unbridled sensuality and the mother's unbridled tongue gave a succession of moving pictures of family discord to the inquisitive eyes of the future novelist. His childhood was anything but cheerful, and late in life he said he could distinctly remember the salt taste of the frequent tears that trickled into the corners of his mouth. Fortunately for all concerned, the father died while Turgenev was a boy, leaving him with only one—even if the more formidable—of his parents to contend with. His mother despised writers, especially those who wrote in Russian; she insisted that Ivan should make an advantageous marriage, and "have a career"; but the boy was determined never to marry, and he had not the slightest ambition for government favours. The two utterly failed to understand each other, and, weary of his mother's capricious violence of temper, he became completely estranged. Years later, in her last illness, Turgenev made repeated attempts to see her, all of which she angrily repulsed. He endeavoured to see her at the very last, but she died before his arrival. He was then informed that on the evening of her death she had given orders to have an orchestra play dance-music in an adjoining chamber, to distract her mind during the final agony. And her last thought was an attempt to ruin Ivan and his brother by leaving orders to have everything sold at a wretched price, and to set fire to other parts of the property. His comment on his dead mother was "Enfin, il faut oublier."
It is significant that Turgenev has nowhere in all his novels portrayed a mother who combined intelligence with goodness.
French, German, and English Turgenev learned as a child, first from governesses, and then from regular foreign tutors. The language of his own country, of which he was to become the greatest master that has ever lived, he was forced to learn from the house-servants. His father and mother conversed only in French; his mother even prayed in French. Later, he studied at the Universities of Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Berlin. At Berlin he breathed for the first time the free air of intellectual Europe, and he was never able long to live out of that element again. One of his closest comrades at the University was Bakunin, a hot-headed young Radical, who subsequently became a Nihilist agitator. There is no doubt that his fiery harangues gave Turgenev much material for his later novels. It is characteristic, too, that while his student friends went wild at the theatre over Schiller, Turgenev immensely preferred Goethe, and could practically repeat the whole first part of "Faust" by heart. Turgenev, like Goethe, was a natural aristocrat in his manner and in his literary taste—and had the same dislike for extremists of all kinds. With the exception of Turgenev's quiet but profound pessimism, his temperament was very similar to that of the great German—such a man will surely incur the hatred of the true Reformer type.
Turgenev was one of the best educated among modern men-of-letters; his knowledge was not superficial and fragmentary, it was solid and accurate. Of all modern novelists, he is the best exponent of genuine culture.
Turgenev often ridiculed in his novels the Russian Anglo-maniac; but in one respect he was more English than the English themselves. This is seen in his passion for shooting. Nearly all of his trips to Britain were made solely for this purpose, and most of the distinguished Englishmen that he met, like Tennyson, he met while visiting England for grouse. Shooting, to be sure, is common enough in Russia; it appears in Artsybashev's "Sanin," and there was a time when Tolstoi was devoted to this sport, though it later appeared on his long blacklist. But Turgenev had the passion for it characteristic only of the English race; and it is interesting to observe that this humane and peace-loving man entered literature with a gun in his hand. It was on his various shooting excursions in Russia that he obtained so intimate a knowledge of the peasants and of peasant life; and his first important book, "A Sportsman's Sketches," revealed to the world two things: the dawn of a new literary genius, and the wretched condition of the serfs. This book has often been called the "Uncle Tom's Cabin" of Russia; no title could be more absurd. In the whole range of literary history, it would be difficult to find two personalities more unlike than that of Turgenev and Mrs. Stowe. The great Russian utterly lacked the temperament of the advocate; but his innate truthfulness, his wonderful art, and his very calmness made the picture of woe all the more clear. There is no doubt that the book became, without its author's intention, a social document; there is no doubt that Turgenev, a sympathetic and highly civilised man, hated slavery, and that his picture of it helped in an indirect way to bring about the emancipation of the serfs. But its chief value is artistic rather than sociological. It is interesting that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and "A Sportsman's Sketches" should have appeared at about the same time, and that emancipation in each country should have followed at about the same interval; but the parallel is chronological rather than logical.*
*There is an interesting and amusing reference to Harriet Beecher Stowe in the fourth chapter of "Smoke."
The year of the publication of Turgenev's book (1852) saw the death of Gogol: and the new author quite naturally wrote a public letter of eulogy. In no other country would such a thing have excited anything but favourable comment; in Russia it raised a storm; the government—always jealous of anything that makes for Russia's real greatness—became suspicious, and Turgenev was banished to his estates. Like one of his own dogs, he was told to "go home." Home he went, and continued to write books. Freedom was granted him a few years later, and he left Russia never to return except as a visitor. He lived first in Germany, and finally in Paris, one of the literary lions of the literary capital of the world. There, on the 3 September 1883, he died. His body was taken to Russia, and with that cruel perversity that makes us speak evil of men while they are alive and sensitive, and good only when they are beyond the reach of our petty praise and blame, friends and foes united in one shout of praise whose echoes filled the whole world.
Turgenev, like Daniel Webster, looked the part. He was a great grey giant, with the Russian winter in his hair and beard. His face in repose had an expression of infinite refinement, infinite gentleness, and infinite sorrow. When the little son of Alphonse Daudet saw Turgenev and Flaubert come into the room, arm in arm, the boy cried out, "Why, papa, they are giants!" George Moore said that at a ball in Montmartre, he saw Turgenev come walking across the hall; he looked like a giant striding among pigmies. Turgenev had that peculiar gentle sweetness that so well accompanies great bodily size and strength. His modesty was the genuine humility of a truly great man. He was always surprised at the admiration his books received, and amazed when he heard of their success in America. Innumerable anecdotes are told illustrating the beauty of his character; the most recent to appear in print is from the late Mr. Conway, who said that Turgenev was "a grand man in every way, physically and mentally, intelligence and refinement in every feature. . . I found him modest almost to shyness, and in his conversation—he spoke English—never loud or doctrinaire. At the Walter Scott centennial he was present,—the greatest man at the celebration,—but did not make himself known. There was an excursion to Abbotsford, and carriages were provided for guests. One in which I was seated passed Turgenev on foot. I alighted and walked with him, at every step impressed by his greatness and his simplicity."
We shall not know until the year 1920 how far Turgenev was influenced by Madame Viardot, nor exactly what were his relations with this extraordinary woman. Pauline Garcia was a great singer who made her first appearance in Petersburg in 1843. Turgenev was charmed with her, and they remained intimate friends until his death forty years later. After this event, she published some of his letters. She died in Paris in 1910, at the age of eighty-nine. It is reported that among her papers is a complete manuscript novel by Turgenev, which he gave to her some fifty years ago, on the distinct understanding that it should not be published until ten years after her death. We must accordingly wait for this book with what patience we can command. If this novel really exists, it is surely a strange sensation to know that there is a manuscript which, when published, is certain to be an addition to the world's literature. It is infinitely more valuable on that account than for any light it may throw on the relations between the two individuals.
When Madame Viardot gave up the opera in 1864, and went to live at Baden, Turgenev followed the family thither, lived in a little house close to them, and saw them every day. He was on the most intimate terms with her, with her husband, and with her daughters, whom he loved devotedly. He was essentially a lonely man, and in this household found the only real home he ever knew. It is reported that he once said that he would gladly surrender all his literary fame if he had a hearth of his own, where there was a woman who cared whether he came home late or not. What direction the influence of Madame Viardot on Turgenev took no one knows. Perhaps she simply supplied him with music, which was one of the greatest passions and inspirations of his life. This alone would be sufficient to account for their intimacy. Perhaps she merely stimulated his literary activity, and kept him at his desk; for, like all authors except Anthony Trollope, he hated regular work. His definition of happiness is not only a self-revelation, it will appeal to many humble individuals who are not writers at all. Being asked for a definition of happiness, he gave it in two words—"Remorseless Laziness."
It is one of the curious contradictions in human nature that Tolstoi, so aggressive an apostle of Christianity, was himself so lacking in the cardinal Christian virtues of meekness, humility, gentleness, and admiration for others; and that Turgenev, who was without religious belief of any kind, should have been so beautiful an example of the real kindly tolerance and unselfish modesty that should accompany a Christian faith. There is no better illustration in modern history of the grand old name of gentleman.
His pessimism was the true Slavonic pessimism, quiet, profound, and undemonstrative. I heard the late Professor Boyesen say that he had never personally known any man who suffered like Turgenev from mere Despair. His pessimism was temperamental, and he very early lost everything that resembled a definite religious belief. Seated in a garden, he was the solitary witness of a strife between a snake and a toad; this made him first doubt God's Providence.
He was far more helpful to Russia, living in Paris, than he could have been at home. Just as Ibsen found that he could best describe social conditions in Norway from the distance of Munich or Rome, just as the best time to describe a snowstorm is on a hot summer's day,—for poets, as Mrs. Browning said, are always most present with the distant,—so Turgenev's pictures of Russian character and life are nearer to the truth than if he had penned them in the hurly-burly of political excitement. Besides, it was through Turgenev that the French, and later the whole Western world, became acquainted with Russian literature; for a long time he was the only Russian novelist well known outside of his country. It was also owing largely to his personal efforts that Tolstoi's work first became known in France. He distributed copies to the leading writers and men of influence, and asked them to arouse the public. Turgenev had a veritable genius for admiration; he had recognised the greatness of his younger rival immediately, and without a twinge of jealousy. When he read "Sevastopol," he shouted "Hurrah!" and drank the author's health. Their subsequent friendship was broken by a bitter and melancholy quarrel which lasted sixteen years. Then after Tolstoi had embraced Christianity, he considered it his duty to write to Turgenev, and suggest a renewal of their acquaintance. This was in 1878. Turgenev replied immediately, saying that all hostile feelings on his part had long since disappeared; that he remembered only his old friend, and the great writer whom he had had the good fortune to salute before others had discovered him. In the summer of that year they had a friendly meeting in Russia, but Turgenev could not appreciate the importance of Tolstoi's new religious views; and that very autumn Tolstoi wrote to Fet, "He is a very disagreeable man." At the same time Turgenev also wrote to Fet, expressing his great pleasure in the renewal of the old friendship, and saying that Tolstoi's "name is beginning to have a European reputation, and we others, we Russians, have known for a long time that he has no rival among us." In 1880, Turgenev returned to Russia to participate in the Pushkin celebration, and was disappointed at Tolstoi's refusal to take part. The truth is, that Tolstoi always hated Turgenev during the latter's lifetime, while Turgenev always admired Tolstoi. On his death-bed, he wrote to him one of the most unselfish and beautiful letters that one great man ever sent to another.