Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Strawberry wine and tarry bears - Sergei Aksakov's autobiography

With obscure writers, I have to resist the temptation to write, or, really, paraphrase, an encyclopedia entry.  Mostly I resist.  If you can read this, you have access to the internet, and can look things up.  Unless someone printed it out for you to read.  Or you saved it to a file so you could read it on the airplane, or at the laundromat, although those probably have wifi now.  Or perhaps – I seem to have lost my train of thought.

Encyclopedias.  Sergei Aksakov is not an obscure Russian writer, in Russian, but he’s an obscure writer in English, so maybe some encyclopedizing is in order.

He is now read for his three short volumes of semi-fictionalized memoirs.  They are available in Oxford World’s Classics editions, all translated by J. D. Duff, a great champion of Aksakov.  Duff’s English titles are:

A Russian Gentleman (1856)
Years of Childhood (1858)
A Russian Schoolboy (1856)

I’ve read the first, which is about Aksakov’s grandfather and parents, and ends with Aksakov’s birth, and I am in the middle of the second, which is a detailed account of his life from ages five to nine.  Then the poor fellow is sent off to school; that’s the third book, which I didn’t get to.  I doubt the order of reading matters much – note the odd order of publication.

Aksakov was sixty-five when the first book was published, which means his memoirs are about 18th century Russia.  He died in 1859, but for a few years was considered Russia’s greatest living writer.  Leo Tolstoy had recently published the first two volumes of his own childhood memoirs; he was twenty-eight in 1856.  Fyodor Dostoevsky was in exile in Siberia, or perhaps Kazakhstan.

Aksakov's memoirs are masterpieces, surprising masterpieces.  I wanted to read them for, I guess, background, as useful accounts of Russian life, to fill in my picture of the country life depicted in Fathers and Sons and Anna Karenina.  Aksakov’s books certainly serve that purpose, but they are far more richly written than I had expected.  I had planned to have all three books read by this point, but I had to slow down.  I wanted to slow down.

As the hosts had not thought of procuring sparkling wine from Ufa, the health of the bride and bridegroom was drunk in strawberry wine, three years old and as thick as oil, which diffused about the room the delicious perfume of the wild strawberry.  Mazan, with long boots smelling of tar on his feet, and wearing a long coat which made him look like a bear dressed up in sacking, handed round the loving-cup; it was ornamented with a white pattern and had a dark-blue spiral inside its glass stalk.  When the young pair had to return thanks, [the bride] was not much pleased to drink from the cup which had just left Karataev’s greasy lips, but she made no wry faces.  (A Russian Gentleman, 122)

Sergei Aksakov is writing about an event seventy or more years in the past, before his own birth.  He likely saw the cup himself, and heard the stories of the bride, his mother - maybe the tarry bear is his mother’s recollection, but I doubt it.  This is a powerfully imagined scene.  It is characteristic of Aksakov.

The rest of the week, more of this.  Please see His Futile Preoccupations for more Aksakov encyclopedism.  Welcome to visitors from the Classics Circuit!


  1. My pleasure. Anyone who wants more detail about Aksakov or A Russian Gentleman will find your post valuable, as I did.

  2. I have a thirty page excerpt from The Family Chronicle in my anthology of RussianImperial Lit. I assume that is the same as A Russian Gentleman?

    I'm excited to read it now. I'm glad to hear that it's so well written.

  3. A Family Chronicle = A Russian Gentleman, yes. I forgot to mention that. But I for some reason have neglected A Russian Gentleman.

    An excerpt makes a great deal of sense with this book.