I am about halfway through What Is to Be Done? – I have just reached the establishment of the sewing collective – yes, you read that right, a cooperative sewing business with all profits shared equally, all described in great detail – how many readers are thinking “I was going to skip that Chernyshevsky novel, but I did not now it was about a sewing collective!” – my point is that I am on schedule to write about the Chernyshevsky novel and Notes from the Underground during the last week of April and beginning of May as I had originally planned, so to anyone curious enough to read along, there we go.
Chernyshevsky’s novel is certainly readable. That is not the problem.
They attacked each other for inconsequentiality, moderatism, and bourgeois tendencies. These were general charges. But then each and every one in particular was accused of a special fault: for one it was romanticism, for Dmitry Sergeich, schematism, for another, rigorism. (3.vi., p. 203 of Katz)
This is a game, being played by adults. At a picnic. All right, the novel is mostly readable; that’s mostly not the problem. I was planning on writing something more substantive, but unfortunately my schematism has flared up, so nothing too serious until I recover.
I have Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift out because Chernyshevsky is the subject of one of its chapters, but it has also proved a helpful remedy for rigorism and schematism, by which I mean dull prose. Just on the first couple of pages, a moving van has “a shamelessly exposed anatomy”; the name painted on its side “was shaded laterally with black paint; a dishonest attempt to climb into the next dimension.” A man wears an overcoat “to which the wind imparted a ripple of life.” The street “rose at a barely perceptible angle, beginning with a post office and ending with a church, like an epistolary novel.”
Ah, what relief, a writer who not only writes, but who put something interesting in every single sentence. The Gift is about a young writer, a Russian émigré in Berlin. His first book of poems has just been published, so he is in a heightened state of sensitivity to sensory impressions, which he funnels into the art-generating mechanism in his brain (“Someday, he thought, I must use such a scene to start a good, thick old-fashioned novel”). Nabokov is not merely showing off.
A couple of pages later is this dull thing: “His landlady let him in and said that she had left his keys in his room.” The sentence is secretly referring to the end of the novel, 350 pages later. Its plainness is almost a tell. Keep an eye on this one, there’s a trick somewhere.
All of this is extremely Proustian, perhaps the most purely Proustian stuff Nabokov ever wrote. By chance I am just at the point in Time Regained where the narrator has achieved a heightened state of sensitivity to sensory impressions, allowing to him to solve the problem of his artistic vocation and begin writing a novel much like, but not the same as, the Proust novel he narrates, just as the writer in The Gift likely someday writes a novel much like The Gift, which will also contain
the tobacconist’s speckled vest with mother-of-pearl buttons and his pumpkin-colored bald spot. Yes, all my life I shall be getting that extra little payment in kind to compensate my regular overpayment for merchandise foisted on me.
Nabokov, Dostoevsky, and others demonstrate that even the reading of What Is to Be Done? has some compensations. People read it and then write masterpieces.