I wanted to continue pulverizing London, but I have a library book due, and that takes priority. It’s a spiritual cousin of After London, actually, another book that seems to be about one thing but is also about a real love of nature.
Sergei Aksakov’s A Russian Schoolboy (1856) is the last of his trilogy of memoirs about his family and childhood. I thought it was the least of the three, the one I am least likely to reread. Still, anyone serious about Russian literature should read them all.
Aksakov has an odd place in Russian literature. He was born eight years before Alexander Pushkin, so he was of the first great generation of Russian authors – Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol. By the time he published anything, though, these writers were all dead, and the hot new thing was a young Leo Tolstoy. Or second hottest, since, for three years or so, until his death in 1859, Sergei Aksakov was the Greatest Living Russian Writer.
His memoirs reach back even farther, to the 18th century, and to pre-Napoleonic Russia. It feels oddly like a Russia before Russian literature – the students’ great literary arguments are over writers like Karamzin and Derzhavin. Even the non-Russian writers feel strange – young Sergei becomes obsessed with the theater, and sees or acts in plays by the hugely popular Kotzebue, or the Lovers’ Vows of Elizabeth Inchbald, immortalized a few years later by Mansfield Park. It’s all wonderfully exotic, or askew, a glimpse of a lost culture.
Although A Russian Schoolboy is primarily about his life at boarding school, Sergei’s greatest pleasures are outdoors - fishing, hunting, hawking, lepidoptery - and much of the finest writing in the book is in the chapter “A Year in the Country,” a reprieve from school caused by Sergei’s neurotically Proustian relationship with his mother. He fishes, and fishes some more:
Meanwhile the building operations made it necessary to let the water out of the pond; and such fishing followed as was never known wither before or since. All the fish in the pond made for the river which fed it, and the fish were as thick as they are in a tureen of good fish-soup… Chub, carp, perch, pike, and large roach (three or four pounds’ weight) took constantly and at all hours… My father liked especially to catch perch and pike, and I remember that he sometimes tied two hooks on one line and used small fish as bait; and often had two perch on at once, and once a perch and a pike. (73)
That’s part of one page. There’s a lot of fishing.
It’s a nice little book. A Russian Gentleman, about Aksakov’s grandfather and other relatives, is an even stranger look at an even more distant world, the last gasp of Russian feudalism. A Russian Childhood counters Aksakov’s pleasant but strange childhood with an insightful portrait of his parents’ complicated marriage. A Russian Schoolboy is more or less what its title suggests, a simpler book. Come to think of it, I had the same reaction to Tolstoy’s contemporary Childhood, Boyhood, Youth – the child’s story is fresh and charming, the adolescent’s awkward and off-putting. Such is life.
Translation by J. D. Duff in 1924. I read the 1983 Oxford World’s Classics edition.