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.