Category Archives: Russian Literature

Duller than a Dull Hick: City Folk and Country Folk by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya

The stereotypes of country dwellers being crass and uncouth and city dwellers being urbane and sophisticated is one that reaches all the way back to Ancient Rome.  In Carmen 22, Catullus describes his good friend Suffenus whom he admires for being venustus et dicax et urbanus (charming, well-spoken and sophisticated).  The Latin word urbanus, from which the English word urban is derived, literally means a person from the city who is sophisticated.  But Catullus sadly notes that Suffenus is an awful poet and when one reads his compositions he appears to be caprimulgus aut fossor (a goat herder or a ditch digger) and he is infaceto est infacetior rure (duller than a dull hick).  Rus, ruris becomes in English the word rural which is associated with someone who lives in the countryside and is decidedly unsophisticated.

Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, a nineteenth century Russian author who wrote and published her works under a male pseudonym, uses the stereotype of city folk and country folk to satirize the landed gentry in the time period immediately following the emancipation of the serfs in her country.  Her main character, Erast Sergeyovich Ovcharov, is an urbane and worldly man who is used to living in Moscow and traveling to the most famous cities across Europe.  He is proud of his elegance and refinement and thinks that exposure to his good qualities will elevate the manners of his country neighbors.

Ovcharov’s country estate in Snetki has fallen into ruins and he has not come to any agreement with his serfs who have just been freed so he is forced to spend a summer among the country bumpkins.  Ovcharov is a humorous caricature of the Russian nobility who views himself as a perfect example of charm and wit for the poor country folk who do not regularly visit the city.  He is haughty, condescending and patronizing to his neighbors in the country and he writes political pamphlets that fully display his self-righteous personality.  He comments about the rural gentry women he encounters:

The old rural gentry-woman type has barely changed: moral and physical clumsiness.  On the other hand, the old despotism has disappeared, and the younger generation is spreading its wings.  It spreads them clumsily, crudely, gracelessly, but spread them it does.  It raises its own voice and acts, to some extent, according to its own will.  The second-rate shrinking violet of the past, oppressed by the parental right hand, is also being transformed into a second-rate dahlia.  Still it is a beautiful flower, bright and attractive in a flower bed.  Yes, it’s true: the younger generation of women in the countryside and provincial towns in freer than it was twenty years ago.  Now is the time to show that who deserves thanks for this freedom.

Ovcharov rents a bath house from his neighbor, Natasyha, who is a kind-hearted widow that has successfully managed her own farms and workers for many years.  Natasyha’s daughter, Olenka, is smart and witty and when she rejects Ovcharov’s advances the irony of the situation is hilarious.  It is Olenka, the seemingly country hick, that rejects the urbane, supposedly sophisticated, Ovcharov.  Olenka is smart enough to see Ovcharov for the ridiculous man he truly is.  The author’s wit is subtle yet affective in providing a glimpse into the lives of the Russian upper classes in the 19th century.

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The Sum of These Infinitesimals: Some Concluding Thoughts about War and Peace

At the beginning of Book Three of War and Peace, Tolstoy writes about the laws of historical movement: “Only by taking an infinitesimally small unit for observation (the differential of history, that is, the individual tendencies of men) and attaining to the art of integrating them (that is, finding the sum of these infinitesimals) can we hope to arrive at the laws of history.”  Throughout his many commentaries on history in War and Peace, the author rejects the idea that it was a single great man, like Napoleon or Alexander I, that caused the French invasion of Russia and the army’s resulting destruction.  The entire second epilogue, for instance,  is dedicated to Tolstoy’s thoughts on the study of history as he explores concepts like liberty, grandeur, power and religion and how they come to bear on the examination of past events; it is a shame that many don’t read this section and that it is not included in certain editions of the English translations.  As I reflect on the work as a whole, two of Tolstoy’s themes keep coming to mind: war and love.  He examines both of these subjects on a grand scale but it is equally important for him to focus his text on the lives of individuals, getting down to the level of the “infinitesimals.”

The male protagonists in War and Peace, Prince Andrei, Nicholas Rostov, and Pierre, go through  significant transformations in their thinking about warfare after they experience it firsthand.  Early in the story, Prince Andrei and Nicholas both, as I discussed in a previous post, display a great deal of bravado and desire to go to war to attain fame and honor.  Their horrific experiences on the battlefield, however, cause both men to lose their naïve and callow views of battle.  They come to the realization that individual glory is not important but that they are part of a much larger and important whole.  But it’s really Pierre, a pampered and privileged count, whose view of life and war change most dramatically because of his experiences of watching men fight and die.   Pierre doesn’t join the army as a soldier like Andrei or Nicholas, but his desire to experience the events of a battlefield  and his ensuing hardships as a result of his curiosity force him to have a dramatic existential shift in his worldviews.  When placed under situations of extreme duress, Pierre shows himself to be a good, decent man and even a hero.

The most surprising theme for me that I encountered in War and Peace is that of love; one encounters examples of many different types of love throughout Tolstoy’s epic—romantic love, erotic love, conjugal love, patriotic love, familial love and even love of one’s enemy.  Due to traumatic events they suffer while serving in the Russian army, Prince Andrei and Nicholas also come to the conclusion that human connections and love are more important than anything in life, including glory.  (Achilles would have been horrified by both of them.)  Nicholas, when he meets the woman that he will eventually marry has an epiphany; even though she is rather plain, it is her gracious and beautiful soul that attracts him.   Prince Andrei becomes, I think, a softened and much more likeable character when he is overcome with love for a woman.  I was glad to see that, in the end, this woman (I don’t want to give her name away) grows to make herself worthy of his love.

The beginning parts of War and Peace are difficult to read because of Pierre’s confused notions of love.  He awkwardly speaks to his fiancée the  moment they become engaged, “‘Je vous amie‘! he said, remembering what has to be said at such moments: but his words felt so weak that he felt ashamed of himself.”  It is not so much love Pierre feels but lust.  In the epilogue of War and Peace, Tolstoy presents us with a very different Pierre who has settled into a tranquil and happy domestic life during his second marriage.  Tolstoy’s epic ends on a positive note for his characters as far as love is concerned but his view of conjugal love is realistic, attainable by anyone.  These final scenes are captivating and unexpected in their depiction of a couple engaging in mundane, everyday, family activities; Tolstoy provides a realistic view of love in which mutual kindness, a deep love and unconditional acceptance are attained.

I have that empty, restless feeling one has when one finishes a truly great book.  I am still not quite sure what reading I will settle into next; nothing seems to have captured my attention since I have completed Tolstoy’s masterpiece.

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Qualis Apes: Vergil, Tolstoy and Bees

Dido Building Carthage. J.M.W. Turner. 1815.

In Book I of Vergil’s Aeneid, when the epic hero lands in Carthage after surviving a violent storm at sea, he encounters the Queen, Dido, and its inhabitants in the midst of building their city.   Vergil uses one of his most famous similes to describe this communal activity in which the Carthaginians are engaging.  In Aeneid 1.430-436 Vergil writes(translation is my own):*

Just as work drives the bees under the sun
in early summer throughout the florid countryside
when the adults of the hive lead forth the young,
or when they store the liquid honey
and stuff the cells with sweet nectar.
Or when they receive the deliveries of those
arriving, or ward off, having formed a
phalanx, the drones—a lazy swarm—
from the hive; The work seethes and the
fragrant honey is redolent with thyme.

Building a city is a communal activity, and with this simile Vergil emphasizes that the sum is greater than its parts.  There is a feeling of hope and a bright future.  It’s also striking that, in addition to supervising the building of their hive, that the bees ward off danger and protect their home.

I have written in a previous post about Tolstoy’s Homeric influences, but as I was reading the last third of War and Peace, his elaborate similes and metaphors have struck me time and again as being rather Vergilian.   My suspicions were confirmed when Tolstoy uses an elaborate metaphor involving bees to describe the relinquishment and subsequent destruction of the Russians’ beloved “Mother Moscow.”  The inhabitants know that the French are marching towards their city and they would rather run away than submit to foreign rule.  Tolstoy uses the bees as an extended metaphor and completely and ingeniously inverts Vergil’s simile.  The city is destroyed, there is no hope for her, and instead of protecting their home, the inhabitants—from the governor to the upper classes to the peasants to the serfs—utterly abandon their home to the enemy. Tolstoy  writes about deserted Moscow:

In a queenless hive no life is left though to a superficial glance it seems as much alive as other hives.

The bees circle round a queenless hive in the hot beams of the midday sun as gaily as around the living hives; from a distance is smells of honey like the others, and bees fly in and out in the same way.  But one has only to observe that hive to realize that there is no longer any life in it.  The bees do not fly in the same way, the smell and the sound that meet the bee-keeper are not the same.  To the bee-keeper’s tap on the wall of the sick hive, instead of the former instant unanimous humming of tens of thousands of bees with their abdomens threateningly compressed, and producing by the rapid vibration of their wings an aerial living sound, the only reply is a disconnected buzzing from different parts of the deserted hive.  From the alighting-board, instead of the former spirituous fragrant smell of honey and venom, and the warm whiffs of crowded life, comes an odour of emptiness and decay mingling with the smell of honey.  There are no longer sentinels there sounding the alarm with their abdomens raised, and ready to die in defence of the hive.  There is no longer the measured quiet sound of throbbing activity, like the sound of boiling water, but diverse discordant sounds of disorder.

Napoleon in Burning Moscow. Adam Albrecht. 1841.

The metaphor goes on for the next page and a half in the Maude English translation.  Tolstoy portrays Napoleon standing on the Poklonny Hill outside Moscow with eager anticipation at his entry.  To him all things look normal, as they should be with a magnificent city,  but once he enters the gates he is bitterly disappointed to learn that Moscow is empty.  This place, without its people, is just a shell of its former self.  Tolstoy’s metaphor, I think, also has an underlying tone of hopelessness that foreshadows defeat not for the Russians but for Napoleon himself.  The author stresses the point in his narrative that the army’s dispersal throughout the deserted city and Napoleon’s extended stay in Moscow were contributing factors in the ultimate failure of the French army.  And finally, the bee metaphor is also apt for discussing Tolstoy’s theme of soldiers being individual yet important parts of an enormous whole which I also discussed in my previous post.

I will finish War and Peace in the next day or so.  I thought I would be immersed in this epic for a few months, but it has so captivated my attention that I am reading it every free moment I have and will finish much more quickly than planned.

*For the extra curious, here are the lines of the Aeneid I translated above in Latin:

Qualis apes aestate nova per florea rura               430
exercet sub sole labor, cum gentis adultos
educunt fetus, aut cum liquentia mella
stipant et dulci distendunt nectare cellas,
aut onera accipiunt venientum, aut agmine facto
ignavom fucos pecus a praesepibus arcent:               435
fervet opus, redolentque thymo fragrantia mella.

 

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Part of that Enormous Whole: Battle Scenes in War and Peace

A page from Tolstoy’s ninth draft of War and Peace. 1864.

The cinematic nature of Tolstoy’s scenes, especially those involving battle, has been widely noted.  His ability to give us an overall perspective of the war as a whole as well as up close and personal views of battle through the eyes of specific characters is astonishing.  A short paragraph inserted during the scenes of the battle of Austerlitz captures both of these perspectives: “Every general and every soldier was conscious of his own insignificance, aware of being but a drop in that ocean of men, and yet at the same time was conscious of his strength as a part of that enormous whole.”  I thought I would share a few examples of Tolstoy’s writing that have captivated me both for their literary brilliance as well as their display of raw emotion; Tolstoy consistently pans out wide and zooms in close to give us both a philosophical and a personal view of warfare.

In a passage describing the Russian army under Bagration’s command as it is about to fight the French in Austria Tolstoy writes:

A soldier on the march is hemmed in and borne along by his regiment as much as a sailor is by his ship.  However far he has walked, whatever strange, unknown, and dangerous places he reaches, just as a sailor is always surrounded by the same decks, masts, and rigging of his ship, so the soldier always has around him the same comrades, the same ranks, the same sergeant-major Ivan Mitrich, the came company dog Zhuchka, and the same commanders.  The sailor rarely cares to know the latitude  in which his ship is sailing, but of the day of battle—heaven knows how and whence—a stern note of which all are conscious sounds in the moral atmosphere of an army,, announcing the approach of something decisive and solemn, and awakening in men an unusual curiosity.  On the day of battle the soldiers excitedly try to get beyond the interests of their regiment, they listen intently, look about, and eagerly ask concerning what is going on around them.

Later on in the same battle, we get a view of the horror of warfare from the eyes of Prince Andrei who has suffered a terrible head wound:

On the Pratzen heights, where he had fallen with the flagstaff in his hand, lay Prince Andrei Bolkonsky bleeding profusely and unconsciously uttering a gentle, piteous and childlike moan.

Towards evening he ceased moaning and became quite still.  He did not know how long his unconsciousness lasted.  Suddenly he again felt that he was alive and suffering from a burning, lacerating pain in his head.

‘Where is it, that lofty sky that I did not know till now, but saw today?’ was his first thought.  ‘And I did not know this suffering either,’ he thought.  ‘Yes, I did not know anything, anything at all till now.  But where am I?’

And later in the novel when Count Rostov is fighting French dragoons, Tolstoy gives us a vision of the enemy’s humanity through the eyes of the Count:

Rostov reined in his horse, and his eyes sought his foe to see whom he had vanquished.  The French dragoon office was hopping with one foot on the ground, the other being caught in the stirrup.  His eyes, screwed up with fear as if he every moment expected another blow, gazed up at Rostov with shrinking terror.  His pale and mud-stained face—fair and young, with a dimple in the chin and light blue eyes—was not an enemy’s face at all suited to a battlefield, but a most ordinary, homelike face.

I have read 900 pages of the Maudes’ translation and am beginning to panic that there are only 400 pages left in the novel for me to read.  I am utterly engrossed in this epic and I don’t know what I shall read after this!

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What do we Live For?: The Character of Pierre in War and Peace

I find myself both repulsed and intrigued by Tolstoy’s character of Pierre in War and Peace. He is the pampered, illegitimate son of Count Bezukhov and when the old count dies Pierre inherits his vast fortune. What disgusts me about Pierre is his weak and feckless nature. He allows his friends to draw him into also sorts of unnecessary trouble, he is manipulated by Prince Vasili into marrying his beautiful yet shallow daughter, Helene, and he is repeatedly duped by his steward about the state of his business affairs. The plot that revolves around his cunning and manipulative wife, Helene, is especially difficult to read. He knows the better choice in all of these matters, but can’t help but let himself be influenced and even exploited by all of these people. Pierre’s character stands in sharp contrast to Prince Andrei and Count Rostov, whose military ambitions I have written about in my previous post. But just when one thinks that one can bear no more of Pierre’s story, Tolstoy puts profound thoughts into the head of this most pathetic character. The trouble with Pierre’s wife causes him to reevaluate his entire existence. I will share a few of Pierre’s thoughts as he flees Moscow and the torment which his wife has inflicted on him:

No matter what he thought about, he always returned to these same questions which he could not solve and yet could not cease to ask himself. It was as if the thread of the chief screw which held his life together were stripped, so that the screw could not get in our out, but went of turning uselessly in the same place.

‘What is bad? What is good? What should we love and what hate? What do we live for? And what am I? What is life, and what is death? What Power governs all?’

‘Can anything in the world make her or me less a prey to evil and death?—death which ends all and must come today or tomorrow—at any rate in an instant as compared with eternity.’ And again he twisted the screw with the stripped thread, and again it turned uselessly in the same place.

I look forward to seeing if Pierre really learns his lesson and grows or if he is, at his core, the same feckless man no matter the circumstances. I don’t know if I have ever enjoyed a work of fiction so much. I will be happily immersed in reading War and Peace this weekend. (I might take a few hours off, though, on Sunday night to cheer on the Philadelphia Eagles.)

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