Literature can’t be all fun and Moomins, can it? So in the tradition of the 2010 readalong of Herman Melville’s Clarel and the 2011 Anything Ubu Readalong Opportunity I am announcing the Wuthering Expectations What Is to Be Done? reading event. Some of you said you wanted it. I hold no one to any rashly made promise.
No, I am kidding, this will be fun. And educational. Mostly educational.
Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is to Be Done? is a radical socialist Utopian novel written while in prison, waiting to be tried for a bunch of trumped up nonsense for which he was eventually convicted and sent to Siberia. Given that Chernyshevsky was in prison because as an editor and essayist he was seen as a threat to the state, the fact that he was allowed to write and publish What Is to Be Done? is almost inexplicable. This was the novel that prepared the ground for revolution. Its importance in Russian intellectual history is immense.
The novel is full of idealized people doing idealized things. The novels of Jean-Jacques Rousseau served as Chernyshevsky’s models. Another inspiration was Hard Times, but Chernyshevsky thought Dickens wasted too much time on trivialities like love and happiness. Another great influence was Georges Sand, and the novel is openly feminist in the usual fashion of 19th century Utopians – if society is to reform, marriage and family must reform, too.
What Is to Be Done? was a direct response to the nihilist protagonist of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862); it in turn inspired Fyodor Dostoevsky to write Notes from the Underground (1864). Dozens of other novels spun off of this remarkable chain of books. Here is the problem:
I possess not one bit of artistic talent. I even lack full command of the language. But that doesn’t mean a thing; read on, dearest public, it will be well worth your while. Truth is a good thing; it compensates for the inadequacies of any writer who serves its cause. Therefore, I shall inform you of the following: if I hadn’t warned you, you might have thought that this tale was being told artistically and that its author possessed great poetic talent. But now that I’ve warned you that I possess no talent whatever, you know that any merit to be found in my tale is due entirely to its truthfulness. (Preface, p. 48)
I do not believe much of this is meant ironically. What Is to Be Done? is, by most aesthetic measures, a bad novel. Wooden, ridiculous, dull, ethically dubious, linguistically flat. Yet it is not actually incompetent like these horrors recorded by Adam Roberts, books by authors who seem to have trouble with the elementary use of language. Chernyshevsky is rhetorically sophisticated, at least. Structurally, too. The book can be read; I have read it.
Still, Chernyshevsky’s literary importance depends as much on Dostoevsky as on his own book. He makes Notes from the Underground even more interesting.
Maybe I should have called this the Notes from the Underground readalong. It is that book’s 150th anniversary, after all, and I will read it along with Chernyshevsky. Maybe I should – no, no – take your vitamins.
No, read what you want! Say that you are interested in the intellectual history but put off by the 400 didactic pages of the novel itself. That is fine. I recommend, besides Fathers and Sons and Notes from the Underground, something from the following list:
The “Russian Populism” chapter in Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers (1978).
The relevant chapter of Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982).
Chapter 4 of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift (1938) – the entire novel, really, one of the great novels of the 20th century, but that chapter, a fictional biography of Chernyshevsky, is detachable. It is so detachable that it was in fact censored by its original publisher. It is a strange story. Nabokov’s critique is aesthetic yet also ethical – ethics by means of aesthetics.
Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Devils (1872) – he keeps returning to the subject.
Leo Tolstoy’s book What Is to Be Done? (or What Then Must We Do? or something similar, 1886).
Vladimir Lenin’s essay “What Is to Be Done?” (1902).
Erik McDonald of XIX Bek is actually translating a NikolaiLeskov novel that is another response to Turgenev and I think to Chernyshevsky. Perhaps Erik will have more suggestions.
The quotation is translated by Michael Katz, in the 1989 Cornell University Press edition, which was brand new when I first read it. Strangely, the first two English translations both date from 1886, and there is a later Soviet translation, too, but you are nuts if you read anything but the Katz translation. The others are bowdlerized, for one thing, with some of the sexual material removed, and it would be ironic to the point of pathos to read this novel in a censored form.
How does April sound? End of April? This is a novel for the spring.