transled from the Russian text in S.V. Kovalevskaia : Izbnannye proizvedeniia. Moskva, "Sovetskaia Rossiia" 1982. (S.V. Kovalevskaia: Remembrances and Tales, Moscow, "Soviet Russia" 1982. p.293-305.
translated by Sherri Zhurkov for Joan Spicci
Saberhagen in Mar 1988
©1988 Sherri Zhurkov
"Still another star flashed, flashed and disappeared."
Still another shining name is crossed out of the list of names of that galaxy of great writers, who were born in Russia in the first quarter of our century and who became famous and beloved abroad almost as much as in their own country.
A very curious phenomenon that has already been noted several times: there are fruitful and unfruitful years for the birth of great people, just the same as for grain crops. In the expansive steppe of southern Russia a landowner with more justification than anywhere else can say that the years pass one after another but are not similar. If there is no rainfall, if the summer is unusually hot -- everything dries out, everything is burned up. Our black and rich land -- the famous Russian black earth -- is covered by a hard crust, like rock, then it is impossible to count on even an average harvest, and in the fall, only with effort is it possible to sow the fields.
Sometimes the bad years go in a row -- one summer, another, a third, a fifth, then begins the real destruction. Hunger and despair throughout the whole country. Finally, a good year comes, when plentiful rains fall. Then the earth finds strength and amazing fruitfullness. It is enough just to sow the fields to receive, in a few weeks, a harvest of a hundred fold. It is necessary to call together workers from all parts of Russia to gather the over-plentiful harvest. All the granaries and barns in the country are overflowing. There is always wheat left over that there is nowhere to put. In short, the harvest from one good year totally compensates the landowner for all his losses in the many bad years.
If one follows the various periods of the development of literature in Russia then , it seems, that it really is possible to establish such a pattern. Literatures history in our country is still not very long. It barely adds up to two centuries. Nevertheless, anyone studying this history in the duration of such a short time cannot but be amazed at the contrast between times of great barenness and striking fruitfullness. The years directly preceding or following 1825 create the impression of being more favorable for the birth of brilliant writers, Turgenev, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Nekrasov, Goncharov, Saltykov (Shchedrin) and Mrs. Krestovskaya -- all peers with a 5 to 6 year difference in age -- and all were born in this period.
The three first (former) names are well known in France, the four last (latter) are not or, better to say, are not yet as famous. But in Russia it is customary to connect these names that it is almost impossible to mention one name and not immediately imagine the entire set. That is because the authors which I just named characterise and embody the entire epoch of our literary history. Although each of them has his/her own individual manner of writing they have something in common -- some kind of native air. And therefore, I think that it is easily understood that they grew up in the same period, in the same surroundings, in the same culture, and in the same social environment.
Perhaps now it follows to consider their literary activities already finished. Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Nekrasov are no longer among the living. Goncharov and Krestovskaya, for many years have not created anything noteworthy. Tolstoy renounced literature and writes only folk tales or philosophical articles.
Only Shchedrin has kept until recently his [creative] power and productivity. It is even more significant considering that he has long suffered from a serious agonizing illness. And now death has silenced his biting and satirical speech; perhaps the only one that dared to sound in our time in defense of free thought and scourged the egoistic and reactionary movements which more and more are taking hold of Russian society and Russian literature.
The deep and genuine sorrow, seizing Russia upon the news of Saltykov's death, the huge crowd following his casket, the thousands of wreaths sent to his grave from the farthest corners of the Tsar's empire -- all of this is evidence of how this great writer was valued in his country and what emptiness he left.
Shchedrin occupied a very special place among his fellow writers. He alone embodied that which is so seldom found in Russia -- a free burst of critical thought. But although many of Shchedrin's works are translated into French, he was not met with the same understanding as Turgenev, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky. This coldness of foreighners for a writer so valued at home depends, I think, on two basic reasons and most of all, is explained by the genre of his works themselves.
It is true that Shchedrin demonstrated various artistic abilities. He began with poetry; his novel THE GOLOVLEVS proves without a doubt that he had the makings of a solid prose writer: lively and passionate imagination, an ability to transform himself into his characters, much refinement in his character analysis. Nevertheless, the real genre of Saltykov was always satire, framed in fantasy, similar to Rable's satire. And this genre, more than any other, is connected with his native soil. Tears are identical everywhere, but every people has its own way of laughing. That is why Rable also, in turn, will be understood only by a Frenchman.
In Russia all the beauty and subtleties of French literature are perceived with refinement and empathy. More than once we were enlightened to the exceptionality of a French writer before he was recognized at home. And so what of that? Even in Russia, you would only with difficulty find a person who understood Rable correctly.
Another reason why it is not very easy for a foreigner to understand Shchedrin, to use his own expression, is his special 'Aesopian language' that he was forced to use. One must not forget that Shchedrin wrote in the iron clutches of Russian censorship. He would just sit down at his desk, barely dip his pen into the ink and get comfortable to write when immediately would appear the red pencil of the censor threateningly hovering over his manuscript.
With much practice Shchedrin developed unbelievable agility in his ability to avoid the strokes of this terrible pencil. Tragic laughter which he willingly imparted to the character of simple peoples mockery, more than once covered his impertinent pranks. Thanks to this hidden meaning, often, nevertheless, very clear, he was able to mask his thought. Saying nothing obviously, he made everything understood!
But no matter what the writer's agility, such a manner of writing is impossible if the reader has not received a very special preparation. Shocking, how they know how to read between the lines in Russia! It is something like an invisible unity and secret understanding established between the public and a beloved author.
As an example of Shchedrin's writing still I want to call to mind one of his best stories -- THE PAINFUL PLACE. It is the story of a detective, who's punishment comes in the form of his son. Imagine the detective almost not understanding what he is doing. Very poor, very subservient in the beginning of his career, accustomed from childhood to bend his back before others, he, due to disastrous circumstances was forced to enter the secret police. When he ended up there, the only thing left for him to do was blindly carry out the orders of his superiors. He was ordered to become a plain-clothes detective and he fulfilled this role, not allowing himself to think nor object with the same zealous and assiduous obedience with which he carried out any assignment from his boss. He was not angry, just the opposite, deep down in his barely developed soul there was much tenderness and delicacy.
The vile profession in which he was engaged more than once instilled in him repulsion, but he was so penetrated with the necessity to obey and be subjugated that his repulsion was instinctive; he himself viewed it as a weakness and tried with all his might to overcome and stifle it: "Great Lord what will become of us, if every subordinate will discuss the orders of his superiors?"
Once he met on his way a young orphan, just as poor, humble and timid as he himself; he married her and they lived their closed life, happy enough in essence, although always frightened, always tremblilng before some kind of unknown threat and terrible force that at any moment could crush them.
For several years the pair had no children; finally, a son was born. Such a long-awaited child, he became everything for the father, who cared for him as the apple of his eye. But it was strange: as the father became more and more attached to his son, his instinctive disdain for his work grew. Nevertheless, he continued to be both active and vigilant. He even was noted for his good work -- he fell onto the trail of a dangerous plot and the monetary reward that he received for this valuable deed provided him, along with his saving, a kind of prosperity.
Toward this time his repulsion for his profession became so strong that he took advantage of this unexpected income to quit work and draw back into his personal life. He along with his wife and son withdrew into the remotest depths of the provinces and settled into a small house in the heart of a big overgrown garden.
Here they lived peacefully, surrounded by respect. The father concentrated on his only son all the wealth of his deep love and tenderness, so long hidden in his heart. He lived his life taking part in his growth and development; he obtained a new soul, touching the clean soul of a child. Thinking about him, he was filled with pride, and ambitious dreams, such as he had never before experienced in relation to himslef. He wanted his son to receive a good education so that all roads in life would be open to him, so his son would not be a worm that anyone could squish as it had been with him.
Sometimes remembrances about his past as a detective would return to him like attacks of awful, repusive nausea; then he would try with all his might to prove he was not at fault: "Why should I reproach myself? If he was the blind instrument of the death of many people -- the fault did not lie with him. These people established conspiracies against the government, his boss entrusted him to observe them, he only fulfilled his duty trying to uncover their secrets and tell the government about them. What happened to them had nothing to do with him. That was the doing of his superiors."
But all of these artful calculations did not prevent him from being seized by the fear that his son would find out at each time recollection.???
Once he accidentally met one of his old coworkers who almost forced himself on him as a guest and having drunk a glassful, began to reminisce about the past: "Remember, old man, how we were so lucky in 1871? Well, it is funny when you recall how we caught them in the act!"
The son, already a big boy, listened, focusing his big childish eyes on the stranger, stern and curious. The confused father did not know how to get the child away from him or how to shut the importunate big-mouth and dunce up. He felt his heart filling up with unbearable shame and hopelessness.
The boy, however, that time understood nothing. But years passed, and the boy grew. He developed his mother's character -- meek and gentle, a little bit sad and inclined to melancholy, but spiritually more gifted. He developed freely, and in a surrounding atmosphere of love and tenderness; he adored his father and loved science. When he turned 17 he, with his school diploma in his pocket, asked his father to let him go to Petersburg University to continue his education. The father who didn't know how to refuse his son, was forced to agree. He experienced at that time a secret fear and feeling of imminent danger threatening him.
And really -- the unavoidable catastrophe did not hesitate in breaking out. The father's name enjoyed sad infamy, still not forgotten in Petersburg. Soon after his entrance into the university, the young man found out that he is the son of a former detective; among his friends were even the sons of those whom his father betrayed.
One winter evening when the poor retired detective was napping peacefully in his corner, dreaming about his son, he appeared before him: he unexpectedly returned from Petersburg, having warned no one about his arrival.
-- Is it true, what they say about, you father?! -- This was the first question with which he approached the old man and it was enough for him to glance at the distorted face of his son to understand what should take place.
"Here is my judge", he thinks trembling before his tenderly beloved son. Nevertheless he makes an effort to defend himself; he sets forth all of the evidence that he had prepared for so many years as if in presentiment of that terrible moment when he would have to justify himself to his son. But he sees that this evidence does not produce any impression on the young man; on the beloved face he sees involuntary and insurmountable repulsion. Then the unhappy father stops his argument, he bursts into sobs and his son did not have the strength to reproach him.
But what should the son do now, how should he live further? He cannot return to the university and subject himself to insult on the part of his comrades. One of them in fact wrote to him to inspire him to return: "Everything still may die down, - he wrote - children do not answer for the crimes of their fathers, but if they have the misfortune to be the son of such a father as yours, then they reject him and that's all. You yourself understand that as long as people are aware of your good relationship with your father-detective, they will automatically not trust you. But if you abandon him, separate from him totally, they will receive you with outstretched arms.
Reject your father! The father who was so good, so dedicated to him and nevertheless, was the culprit that left so many other sons without fathers! Our hero would never have dared to do that. But, on the other hand, how could one live being subject his whole life to the scorn of those whose opinions counted the most?
The unhappy boy finds the only way out of this internal struggle: he shoots a bullet into his heart. He writes his father, several extremely cold words of farewell and kills himself.
The former undercover detective is left alone in the whole world. The punishment for his unconscious crime wounded him in a "tender spot".
[translator note: "Tender spot" = bol'noe mesto (Bolnojie Miesto)]
Such is the gloomy drama that Shchedrin unfolded before us. But in order to tell about it in Russia, he had to show more than a little agility. He was compelled to inform about it differently than I reported it. He had to do this with the most possible resourcefulness. The entire length of the story he did not once use such words as 'undercover detective' and 'secret police.' He speaks about the father's doings indeterminately and secretively. But the Russian reader, even the poorly educated one, cannot mistake this. He understands very well that this story is the story of an undercover detective and doesn't for a minute doubt the character of the covert crimes committed by the father.
But imagine that this story was translated into French without a commentary, without preparatory remarks. Chances are 10 to 1 that readers would not understand anything.
Speaking in his "Theatrical Impressions" about the revisions for the French stage by Louis Lezhand of Shakespeare's "Much Ado About Nothing", Jules Lemetr wrote that he was always delighted when refined people revised and altered Shakespeare according to their own requirements. I don't think I would care to agree with Lemetr's opinion regarding Shakespeare, but I am convinced that there are many authors who in their own interests, just as in the readers' interest, cannot be presented to a foreign public, not being, as expressed by Lemetr "examined and explained in detail by intelligent people."
Shchedrin undoubtedly belongs to that group of authors. Reading his stories, satires and fairytales, I don't find even one, even among those that I enjoy the most, that I would like to see translated literally into French. But I would be happy if a French writer turned up who understood Shchedrin as we Russians understand him and who would take upon himself the task of interpreting him for his fellow countrymen.
Shchedrin especially earned the right to be famous and appreciated in France because throughout his whole life he expressed the most burning sympathy for this country which he considered to a great extent his spiritual motherland. French literature, ideas, which were tossed over [to Russia] from France, had the most powerful influence on the development of his talent and political convictions. When Shchedrin began his literary activity (1847), and watched France.
This is how Shchedrin tells it in his article "Abroad", presented as something like a confession or an autobiography: "I at this time had just left the school bench and, raised on Belinsky's articles naturally I joined the Westernizers. But not the majority of Westernizers (naturally the authorities at that time in literature), who were occupied with the popularization of positions of German philosophy, but instead to that unknown circle, which instinctively stuck to France. It stands to reason that it was not the France of Louis Fillippe and Gizo, but the France of San-Simon, Kabe,Fure, Louis Blan and especially George Sand. From there flowed to us a belief in humanity; from there shone for us an assuredness, that "gold age" is not behind, but in front of us . . . In a word, all that is good, all that is hoped for and amorous -- all came from there.
In Russia, -- by the way, not as much in Russia as especially in Petersburg, -- we existed only in fact, or, as it was said at that time, we had an "image of life". But spiritually we lived in France . . . Gizo and Dushatel and Tier -- all these were like personal enemies (true, even more dangerous than LB Dubbelt), the successes of whom embittered, the failures -- gladdned . . . the agitation in favor of voting reform, the arrogant speeches of Gizo on this account, the February banquets -- all this even now raises up in my memory, as if it happened yesterday.
Saltykov was born in 1826, into a rich landowner's family, having several thousand serfs.
It is often thought that it was from the mother that the sons inherit their intellectual and moral qualities -- the majority of outstanding people had outstanding mothers. Saltykov's lot in this respect was almost identical to that of Turgenev. Both had mothers belonging to a type of strong women and both suffered very much in childhood due to maternal despotism, of which they maintained a hateful memory for their entire lives and impressed it into their works. Nevertheless, Turgenev's mother, no matter how stubborn, fanatical, demanding or how used to making everyone bend to her will she was, she was noted for her excellent manners, well-known refinedness and remained an aristocrat in spite of everything.
As far as Saltykov's mother goes, she was a so-called "fighting woman", a very gifted woman with an extremely practical mind but totally devoid of moral qualities. Very rich, she took her thriftiness to the point of terrible stinginess, created a hard life for her husband, children, and serfs, drove from her life all signs of comfort and wellbeing and simplified her existence to one main occupation -- the most possible accumulation.
Serfdom was in full bloom in Saltykov's childhood and teenage years. Therefore, it is not surprising that remembrances about this sad system occupy a significant place in his works. But at that time, like a great number of authors, with Turgenev at the head, dedicated many eloquent pages to the description of the pitiful fate of the persecuted serfs. Saltykov wrote a lot about the fatal and degrading influence that serfdom exerted on the landowners themselves. From this point of view his novel "The Golovlev Family" -- is a notable work in the highest degree.
Just as "Rugon-Makkary" (this novel could be sub headed 'the natural and social history of one family' because before our eyes unfolds the moral decline and gradual perishing of three generations of landowners) the decline, determined by the laws of heredity and the accumulated effect of unhealthy and demoralizing influences.
Speaking about this novel, I cannot not point out its curious similarities, probably unintentional, to the novels of Zol (Zola?) The symbolism of Zol has been talked about more than once. In each of his works always takes part an inanimate something, close, forming not only the basis of the novel, but also fulfilling in a sense the same function as fate in the Greek tragedy. Such is the garden in "the crimes of abbe Mure", the mine of "Germinal" the cathedral in "the Dream". This 'something' is connected by the tightest ties with the history of characters, but it determines beforehand all of their existence -- independent of their will it is determined unavoidably and incorrectibly.
In a Russian writers novel, you will notice the same kind of symbolism. This is the Golovlev's -- the inherited estate of the Golovlev family playing the role of the fatal and evil force. The old landowners house, big, solemn and gloomy, which crushes the pitful serfs' huts surrounding them with the weight of its stoney mass, personifies serfdom. This landowner's estate, which all the members of the Golovlev family covet, becomes the damning of each of them. Thanks to the difficul work of the serf, the material well-being of the Golovlevs grows; their wealth grows and their holdings expand. But what is all this for? One after another the generations die pitifully inside the walls of this damned house.
"How good things are for us! the Golovlev estate will eat up us all! No one will remain whole!" Anninka, the last offspring of this unhappy family, cries with despair, listing to himself the number of grandfathers, uncles and other relatives that tore the estate from each other, out bid each other for it and all ended their days there, some by suicide, others in maddness or in delirium tremens (DT's)
This noteworthy novel occupies a special place in the work of Saltykov. A big part of the other works of his is dedicated to the portrayal of morals and habits of the officaldom. Thanks to the many years of personal experience, he knew very well the various parts of the huge Russian bureaucratic machine.
Saltykov studied in the Tsarskoe Selski Liceum. Each educational establishment of that sort usually holds the traditions of some famous person who came out from its walls and the memory of him is connected with a special cult. In the Tsarskoe Selski Liceum our great poet, Pushkin played the role of the genius-protector. Each pupil of this liceum was filled with pride thinking that Pushkin was among his older comrades; and the exceptional honor that surrounded the poet in the liceum, is the reason why poetry was in fashion there. The number of pupils was small who had not attempted to write poetry, and Saltykov, in turn, did not avoid this general fate. Immediately following his exit from the liceum, he published a small collection of lyrical poems the greatest part of which was written in the liceum, -- all of them, by the way, were fairly mediocre.
Saltykov himself fairly quickly realized that lyrical poetry was not his destiny. Forced by his mother to go to work in the ministry of internal affairs as a petty bureaucrate he did not want, nevertheless, to suppress his indefeatable inclination toward literature. He stepped out in a year with a special work. In the "Mixed-up Business", written in 1848 under the pseudonym Shchedrin, which he kept his whole life, a great satirist can already be felt. This story, containing the sad lamentations about their work by the petty bureaucrats in Russia, created a good impression. Unfortunately, it appears just at the time when limiting rules for print raged with unusual force.
And so following after the appearance of the movement in France, Saltykov recalled, the corresponding movement took place in our country: the secret committee for the investigation of the insidiousnesses of Russian literature was established. In spite of the fictitious name behind which the author of "the mixed-up business" hid himself, he was soon identified and his exile to Vzjatka, a city situated on the outskirts of European Russia on the border of Siberia, crowned his first literary success. Only after 7 1/2 years in 1855 after the death of Nicholas and the accession to the throne of Alexander II, could Shchedrin return to Petersburg.
Although he was in disfavor, he did not leave his post and continued in Vzjatka to fulfill the obligations of a petty bureaucrat. The forced stay in a distant province was undoubtedly more useful than pleasant, since it gave him the opportunity to see with his own eyes the horrors, abuses, all the tyranny of the bureaucratic system that in the provinces was totally bared, without worry about any decorum that was considered obligatory in Petersburg.
Having returned to the capital, Saltykov heatedly undertook literature published his "Provincial Sketches" that immediately guaranteed him an honored place among the first (top) Russian writers.
Among the completely satirical works of Shchedrin perhpas, "The Story of One City" -- really the immoral tumultuous story of the Russian empire -- is his one noteworthy work that will never lose its interest for future generations. The characaters having created in this case his satirical inspiration, are so famous and can be so easily recognized that all the author's allusions are always understood well and appreciated.
It is not possible to say this about his other works. Many more than one page written by Saltykov requires already now a commentary even in Russia . . . As a result, his fame has greatly suffered. Changes in the form of government will also make the pricks of his satire less appreciable. But his name will remain in history not only as the name of a great pamphleteer that Russia once knew, but also as the name of a great citizen who did not give mercy nor rest to the repressors of thought.
Shchedrin really lived only for his time, but Göthe said so well: "He who lived for his time, lived for all times."
Paris, June 1889