Friday, May 2, 2014

The theory is cold, but it teaches man how to procure warmth - warm Chernyshevsky

This one’ll be a hodgepodge.

Erik McDonald of XIX век has been reading What Is To Be Done? in Russian.  He knows more about the cluster of books surrounding this novel and Fathers and Sons than I ever will.  One of his posts compares most of the different English translations, discovering that only one of the old public domain translations is terrible.  Anyone reading this book right off of the internet, be sure you have the Benjamin R. Tucker translation.

I have neglected the first third of the novel, the more conventionally plotted part, probably because it is readable and contains characters who if not exactly recognizable as humans at least function as literary types, comic types, even.  Erik’s second post gives an example of how Chernyshevsky undermines his own clichés, in this case with an eavesdropping scene.  The heroine’s mother suspects her daughter and her male friend of amorous behavior, and is shocked to discover that the do nothing but talk about ideas.  “’The theory is cold, but it teaches man how to procure warmth’” (116) that kind of thing.

I hope Erik write more as he moves through the book.

Most of the final quarter of the novel, post-Rakhmetov, is quite dull, Chernyshevsky at his worst – that accounting chapter is an example, although I enjoyed its grotesquerie.  But there are still two long scenes that are among the best in the book, both openly political – had the censors just given up?  The first is “Vera Pavlovna’s Fourth Dream,” in which a fertility goddess singing Schiller songs reveals the post-revolutionary paradise, where work is leisure, love is easy, and wasteland has been transformed into garden.  This is pretty explicitly a return to the Garden of Eden.  The scene would not be much different if the characters had all been killed, if this were a vision of socialist heaven.

Almost everyone lives in aluminum and glass palaces cooled by fountains, lit by electricity.  People develop better singing voices  because “it’s healthy and very elegant.  As a result, the chest improves and the voice does too” (377).  Chernyshevsky is so odd.

The other good scene is the winter picnic, set back in the novel’s reality.  All of the characters, plus a new one, Chernyshevsky’s wife – she’s like a special guest star – sing and eat and play in anticipation of the new world that is soon to arrive.  Look, a genuinely good, novelistic  detail!  There ain’t many:

Within five minutes she’s charming Polozov, ordering the young men around, and drumming out a march or something on the table with the handles of two forks.  (438)

More of that, please!  But there is no more, the novel is ending, the Czar is overthrown, and the unjustly imprisoned first-time novelists are freed.

When I announced this preposterous readalong, I warned that What Is To Be Done? is a bad novel  by ordinary standards.  It had a series of extraordinary readers, though, who were able to find the complexity in Chernyshevsky’s book and make something out of it, whether in anger like Dostoevsky or fervor like Lenin or refined amusement like Nabokov.  I doubt the book has run out of such readers.

Not as long as Notes from the Underground is still read.  That’s where I’m going next.


  1. had the censors just given up?

    “In prison he managed to write his celebrated novel, What is to Be Done? (Chto delat'?), which, astonishingly, was legally published in the reopened Sovremennik in 1863 because each of two censors thought the other was supposed to suppress it.” That's Gary Jahn in the Terras Handbook of Russian Literature.

    Sovremennik or The Contemporary was Nekrasov's journal where Chernyshevsky had been the main critic. It was being reopened because the government had forced it to close for six months for going over the political line in various ways. In 1866 it would be shut down for good. (Nekrasov took over another journal in 1868.)

    Besides the two censors letting it slip through, I heard a story that Nekrasov was taking the only copy of the manuscript of What Is to Be Done? back to the office in a cab and left it on the seat. He was miraculously able to track down the driver and get it back. It's just amazing that the novel exists.

    I'm looking forward to reading what you write on Notes from the Underground!

  2. Joseph Frank has the story about Nekrasov, except it is not Nekrasov who tracks down the driver & recovers the manuscript, but the St Petersburg police!

    The big puzzle to me is not how the first part of the novel got through - it is unlikely but not mysterious - but rather how parts 2 and 3 were published as is. The radicals had already gone wild. This brought no additional scrutiny?

    Nabokov via The Gift's Fyodor, says that the censors allowed the book to be published because they thought it was so wretchedly written as to discredit its author, which I took as an amusing Nabokovian joke, but Rufus Mathewson repeats this claim as fact in The Positive Hero in Russian Literature, which is, by the way, outstanding.

    One of the pleasures of studying Russian literature is the astounding quality of its scholars.

  3. I should have known you'd know those stories already, and better than I do.

    I'm not sure I believe the Nabokov/Mathewson argument. Your comment made me look in A. M. Garkavi's N. A. Nekrasov in the Struggle against Tsarist Censorship (Kaliningrad, 1966). He tells the story from the point of view of the censor Beketov, who was comparatively liberal in his views and thought he was secure since his immediate superiors were also liberals, appointed in the early years of Alexander II's reign. He was easier on The Contemporary than other censors, though he shook them down for bribes. (“Being the censor for The Contemporary is a rather difficult and risky undertaking. I'm such a straightforward person that I like to define mutual agreements in any sort of undertaking. There won't be any delays or quibbling on my part [...] You just appreciate me, and we will get along quite well.” - Beketov paraphrased in Panaeva's memoirs as quoted by Garkavi.)

    It was Beketov's signature that let all the installments of What Is to Be Done? go through - pretty quickly, I think, in March, April, and May 1863 - and he had to resign over it. But it was reasonable for him to feel he was safe, since things had loosened up a lot from Nicholas I's death in 1855 to about 1859. He'd been the journal's censor on and off since 1853 and had signed various risky things by Chernyshevsky, Dobrolyubov, Nekrasov, Saltykov-Shchedrin, and others. What looks to Soviet scholars like a tightening of the screws from 1859 to 1865 wasn't so obvious in 1863, when liberal bureaucrats were still in place, and there was a lot of wavering back and forth on censorship policy.

    Dobrolyubov called Beketov “a censor famous for being liberal out of stupidity,” which makes it seem less likely that Beketov personally was playing the Nabokov/Mathewson chess game, though I suppose someone further up the censor food chain could have been. But maybe Beketov was just still following orders from above to institute glasnost, and didn't notice that the wind was changing in time to save his job.

  4. Has anyone written a novel starring Beketov? It would be a promising subject. What a story.

    I don't believe Nabokov's story either. I hope Mathewson was not just relying on a novel!