Now do you understand? You still don’t? You’re a fine one! Not too bright, are you? Well, then, I’ll have to spoon-feed you. (4, xxxi, 310)
The narrator of Chernyshevsky’s What Is To Be Done? is berating his idiot reader, always referred to as “the perspicacious reader,” for failing to understand why the revolutionary Rakhmetov has been introduced into the novel in so much detail if he is only to be used in a single scene.
“How dare you speak to me so rudely?” exclaims the perspicacious reader, addressing himself to me. “I’ll complain about you and I’ll spread the word that you’re an evil person!” (310)
This is another chapter with a title: “A Conversation with the Perspicacious Reader Followed by His Expulsion.”
The novel is full of direct addresses to the reader, mostly insults and harangues. Russians loved Tristram Shandy. “I speak arrogantly to the vast majority of readers, but to them alone…” (Preface, 48-9). At first the joke seems to be that the perspicacious reader is the conventional reader of fiction, deft at outguessing conventional plots. Since the first third of What Is To Be Done? makes use or is a parody of a conventional plot, a virtuous woman trying to avoid a loveless arranged marriage, the narrator enjoys mocking his own devices and mocking the reader who enjoys such clichés. “As a novelist I very much regret that I wrote several pages in which I stooped to the level of vaudeville” (119), that sort of thing. The perspicacious reader is not actually so perceptive, that’s the joke.
There’s something else going on, though.
I remind myself that Chernyshevsky was writing the novel from prison, that he was writing a novel because he was forbidden to write essays, and that any publication had to pass through two levels of Czarist censorship, a prison censor who might forbid a manuscript to leave the prison, and the regular censor who could forbid or alter what was published in magazines. Occasionally I wondered if Chernyshevsky was literally writing in code. I mean, “from 11 A.M. on Thursday to 9 P.M. on Sunday, a total of eighty-two hours,” what is that? But I do not really think there is that kind of code.
The overthrow of the Czar obviously cannot be mentioned. Rakhmetov spends a “quarter of his time” on reading and weight training, while “[t]he remainder he devoted to matters of concern to others or to no one in particular” (284). Michael Katz identifies odd lines like this as a reference to revolutionary activity. I quote another example yesterday, which said Rakhmetov had “vanished from Petersburg for the second and probably the last time” – what awkward phrasing. But it is purposeful. The next time Rakhmetov returns he will not have to vanish again. He will bring the revolution with him. “Probably.”
The Rakhmetov chapters are particularly coded, and it is only after them that, as I mentioned above, the narrator decides to “expel” his perspicacious reader. I began to see this reader differently. I imagined Chernyshevsky in his cell, writing his book, thinking – how could he not – of a single reader, the prison censor, or of a group of censors. “’I’ll complain about you’” – to whom? They are the readers who are supposed to be professionally perceptive, and they are the ones Chernyshevsky needs to deceive. Or convert. Or bore so much they rubber-stamp his text. I don’t know. Whatever he was doing, it worked.
This is another story the novel tells, the duel between the narrator and the censor. I am likely over-interpreting half of it and failing to see the other half. But paying attention to how the narrator mocks, goads, and subverts the censor makes the novel a lot more interesting, and even artful, in its way.