Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Astolphe de Custine, bad traveller

The Marquis Astolphe de Custine was an interesting fellow. His grandfather was one of the greatest Revolutionary generals, behind Lafayette, which did not save him from the guillotine. Custine's father also died on the guillotine. His mother barely escaped it, and was famous as a sort of Revolutionary martyr. Mme de Stael’s novel Delphine is named after her. Custine himself was a friend of Heine, Balzac, and the rest of literary Paris.

Custine made a 3 month trip to Russia that was in some sense inspired by the publication of the first volume of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. A comparison between the two writers is inescapable, but what damage it does to Custine. Tocqueville was a brilliant thinker, gifted at generalizing. A real social scientist. If Democracy in America is not the most exciting book to read today, it is because many of Tocqueville’s insights have been so thoroughly absorbed by modern political science and sociology.

Custine, by contrast, oh boy. Custine is an entirely conventional thinker, with no original ideas at all. Which does not stop him from constantly interrupting himself with the meaning of this and that aspect of Russia. The edition I am reading is abridged by about 15%. There’s another edition available that cuts the book down to 50%. I should have gone with that one.

Because Russia in 1839 is a very interesting book when read as a conventional travel book, an account of anecdotes and adventures in a strange place. Democracy in America has virtually no conventional travel writing, but is a book of ideas. Custine, not having enough ideas, tells a lot of good stories.

Custine is a sour traveler. He hates Russia and everything about it. This can be tiresome, but also fun. A few years earlier, Frances Trollope’s Domestic Manners of the Americans (short version: Americans have no manners) had been a huge hit in England. Custine’s book has a similar character. On one page he criticizes Russian flower arranging (“the flowers are not placed in such a manner as may render the interior of the apartment more agreeable, but so as to attract admiration from without”), then two pages later he attacks Russian furniture-moving (“the roads and bridges crowded with carriages, drowskas, and carts engaged in the removal of furniture, all the different kinds of which are heaped together with a slovenliness and disorder natural to the Slavonian race”). There is attention to detail in his dislike.

Arriving at his inn, Custine, exhausted, throws himself on the sofa, where he rests for three minutes before the bugs become unbearable. The innkeeper tells him every sofa in Russia is like that, of course you don’t sleep on the sofa. From then on, Custine sleeps with a bowl of water under each leg of his bed.

Russia in 1839 has been popular to readers interested in the Cold War as a way to see which aspects of Soviet culture were really just Russian. For example, Custine can’t enter the country until just the right official arrives, which doesn’t stop a dozen other officials from going through his baggage. Then he is assigned a completely inescapable “guide” for his entire trip. Sounds familiar.

The edition I am reading includes a woodcut of a bear playing a sort of heavy metal guitar. I have not gotten to that part yet, I guess.


  1. Things had not changed so much by roughly 1990 when I was there. In some hotel rooms the bugs were atrocious, coming out in hordes at night. The water saucer around each leg might have worked--should have thought of it. Of course, all luggage was searched closely. It appears 100+ years did not bring change in some areas.

  2. the marquis is portrayed as an eccentric though likable man in Russian gotta watch it,brings life to parts of the book in surreal light.

  3. I saw Russian Ark when it was released in the US, surrounded by an almost entirely Russian audience. The movie is an achievement.