Russian literature is depressing, people say, and they have not even read The Golovlyov Family by Shchedrin* (1876). It may be the bleakest novel I have ever read. Eh, probably not, but one of them. The book is, of course, a comedy. If it were all meant seriously it would be too easy to laugh at it, but as a comedy it is truly grim.
The Golovlyov Family is the story of a family destroyed by the meaninglessness of everything. Arina Petrovna Golovlyov and her offspring waste their pointless lives and then die miserably, one by one, mostly one per chapter. Life has no meaning, but it is well-organized.
Golovlyovo – that was death itself, cruel, greedy death, that is forever stalking a fresh victim… All deaths, all poison, all sickness – all came from here. (318)
At first – no, for quite a while – I did not think this novel had much to do with the Turgenev \ Chernyshevsky \ Dostoevsky chain we will all have so much fun with in April, but I see now that I was wrong. Shchedrin, a famous satirist, has watched fifteen years of debate about nihilists and thought: you want nihilism, I’ll give you real nihilism.
Sorrow and joy, love and hate, did not exist for him: the whole world was in his eyes merely something dead that simply provided one with an opportunity for an endless flow of talk. (151)
This is Shchedrin’s most original creation, Porphyry Golovlyovo, the hypocrite, if “hypocrite” is a sufficiently strong word. Porphyry does not mean what he says, about religion or family or work, not because he is hiding his real meaning but because he never means anything at all. He just wants to talk. The line above is in a paragraph about his indifference to his son’s suicide.
Porphyry’s emptiness leads to evil, more from the absence of any other value rather than from maliciousness. It is the evil of the void. The story, such as it is, is about a succession of characters falling into the void. They do not die in agony – that would be a different kind of miserable novel – but slide into the pit.
“Mamma! dearest! bless me!“ [Porphyry, of course, always talking]
But Arina Petrovna did not hear. Her wide-open eyes gazed dully into space as though she were trying to understand something and could not. (177)
The back cover of the NYRB edition (tr. Natalie Duddington) invokes William Faulkner and One Hundred Years of Solitude. The Faulkner feeling was present early, the Faulkner the almost unbearably horrible or stupid characters of As I Lay Dying, another great comedy, or the decaying Compson family of The Sound and the Fury. I first thought the comparison to García Márquez was cheating, since he was so influenced by Faulkner, but by the end of Golovlyov it almost seems false that the manor, the estate, and the entire world of the novel does not collapse into the void much like One Hundred Years of Solitude disappears into itself. Shchedrin instead gets in one last joke.
* I am honestly confused about how to refer to the author. Shchedrin is a pseudonym. James Wood uses it, so I guess I will, too.