Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Notes on Herzen's My Past and Thoughts - Those five years were for me, too, the worst time of my life

Since I am going to write a note on a Russian writer, I will first mention that I am for some reason organizing a readalong of Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done?, for which I will also be reading Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground.  I suppose I should start reading soon.  Chernyshevsky’s novel is not all that long, but it calls for breaks, some perhaps extended.  I would love to know if anyone is able to just plow through it.  The novel does have a plot, more plot than Dostoevsky’s endlessly superior novella.

Alexander Herzen barely mentions Chernyshevsky in his memoirs, My Past and Thoughts (1866).  They are both radical socialists devoted to the overthrow of the Russian monarchy, both magazine editors.  But Chernyshevsky is younger, fiercer, and most importantly working right in the jaws of the Czar (and he paid the price for it), while Herzen is writing in exile.

The literary conceits are opposed, too – I am confusing history with literature.  Chernyshevksy’s revolution is the one that succeeded, while Herzen’s, non-violent and humanist, is the one that failed.  The second volume of My Past and Thoughts, the one I just finished, finally, is a memoir of failure.  This volume hinges around the European revolutions of 1848, especially in France and Italy where Herzen saw them fail in person.  His earlier book, From the Other Shore (1850), is his direct reaction to the catastrophe of 1848, a series of articles so rhetorically sophisticated I barely remember them.  It is a book of idealistic disillusionment or something like that.  The sensible and skeptical revolutionary – I can see how this is a difficult position.

My Past and Thoughts is a memoir as bracing as Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, so Herzen’s subject is not entirely political.  Parallel to the sputtering after effects of 1848 is an agonizing section titled “A Family Drama.”  Herzen’s wife Natalie falls for another revolutionary, charismatic but nuts.  She breaks off the affair, but her lover (and his wife) act like loons.  As if this were not painful enough, Herzen’s mother and one of his sons dies in a shipwreck.  And then Natalie, the wife, dies from what I assume is typhoid.  Meanwhile, the nutcase is challenging Herzen to duels or begging him to be friends again.  I have seen people say that Herzen’s memoir is like a novel.  This section is like a soap opera that takes a tragic turn.

Those five years were for me, too, the worst time of my life; I have not now such riches to lose or such beliefs to be destroyed.  (671)

A truffled turkey appears on p. 492, in Herzen’s encomium to an old friend who taught him that revolutionaries are allowed to have fun, for example to enjoy Schubert and good food.  The truffled turkey is an old obsession at Wuthering Expectations; I am just cataloguing its appearances.  Someday I will eat one.

I am not doing much more here than writing notes.  Finishing volume 2 puts me through a thousand pages of about 1,800 total.  I am reading the 1968 four volume edition, translated by Constance Garnett, revised by Humphrey Higgens. Volume 4 has an index, which is how I know about the near-absence of Chernyshevsky.


  1. I've decided to read Chernyshevsky. I've heard about it for decades for it seems as though any comments about Russian writers invariably includes a reference to him. Thanks for moving me off the dead center and doing something about it. I've ordered it through abebooks so it will take some time to arrive. How long do you think you will be posting about it?

  2. I am aiming for the end of April, and will surely try to get a week of posts out of the books. How many will be about Chernyshevsky and how many about Notes from the Underground - or Isaiah Berlin or whatever I or other people find interesting - I do not want to predict.

    Good to hear you are joining in!

  3. End of April will be fine for I should receive the book easily by then. Notes from Underground is one of my favorite Dostoyevsky works, so I shall find that interesting also.

    I haven't read anything by Isaiah Berlin so far. Anything you would recommend as a starter?

  4. Russian Thinkers covers the relevant ground, with substantial essays about Herzen, Chernyshevsky, and others (plus the famous Tolstoy essay "The Hedgehog and the Fox").

    I would recommend Berlin to people who want to know about the history (including the literary history) but are not so interested in actually reading Chernyshevsky.

    Another good book with a long essay about the Turgenev-Chernyshevsky-Dostoevsky chain is Marshall Berman's All That Is Solid Melts into Air.

  5. OK, thanks for the references.