Friday, July 2, 2010

Cabbage whites and monster pigs - Sergei Aksakov's weird childhood

I left myself a note to look at page 235 of Years of Childhood.  Why?  Ah:

After a period which differed much in different cases, the outer skin of the caterpillar peeled off like a shell, and a chrysalis was left, either hanging or lying down.  The former kind had projections and horns, and were grey with patterns on them, or flesh-coloured, or sometimes gold-coloured; the latter were always dark in colour, and looked just like tiny dolls, closely swaddled in cradles…  Only one came out, a gold-coloured chrysalis which I had found under some projecting boards; it developed into the commonest sort of butterfly, a cabbage white; but our delight was of no common kind! (235)

Years of Childhood is partly a book about a boy’s awakening to the natural world.  I could have picked any number of comparable passages.  Aksakov’s first fish is a highlight, pp. 22-23, which excites him so much that he has a sort of hysterical fit, not uncommon for this oddly sensitive boy.  In the chapter “My First Spring in the Country,” Aksakov, age seven or eight, becomes hypnotized (“stupefied” is his word) by the change of seasons – the arrival of the birds, the flooding fields:

By me every change was noted exactly, and each step of spring was hailed as a victory.  From morning till night I ran from room to room and posted myself at my points of observation.  All my occupations were forgotten – reading, writing, games with my sister, even conversations with my mother. (206)

This is one of the weird parts of the book, of which there are a few, that makes me wonder if the standard critical view of Aksakov as a pioneer of so-called “realism” is missing something crucial.  There’s something else here, or in the passage on p. 163 where the boy becomes obsessed with the appearance and disappearance of a patch of frost “like a white table-cloth.”  Are the aspects of the natural world simply what they are, or is the boy seeing signs of something else?  What sort of meaning is he attaching to them?  And how does the adult Aksakov, fifty years later, understand the understanding of the boy?

The cabbage white should invoke Nabokov, another Proustian writer.  I am eager to read Speak, Memory (1967), particularly the earlier chapters about Nabokov’s own childhood on a Russian country estate, against Aksakov, which is now an obvious predecessor.  In The Gift (1938), Nabokov’s stand-in dismisses Aksakov for the howlers and blunders in his nature-writing (Aksakov’s first books were actually about hunting and fishing).  Perhaps this is Nabokov’s view, but it looks to me like classic misdirection.  I would look up the passage, but all of my books are packed.

I haven’t even mentioned the section, just three pages, in which the Aksakov family visits an eccentric millionaire who keeps English pigs “each as large as a moderate-sized cow” and has an orchestra play during dinner, the music of which, like the coming of spring, “petrifies” and “astonishes” the little boy.  A Russian Gentleman and Years of Childhood are not weird books, mostly. Just these little glimmers here and there.


  1. I have never heard os Aksakov and have been enjoying your posts. I will have to look for these books at my library. And I'm expecting a list of Russian reading recommendations any day now ;)

  2. I don't want to say every apge is as good as what I've been writing about. But these are impressive books.

    I think I'm going to do the short Russian books list as a post, if you don't mind. Next week.

  3. A post will work just as well maybe even better since others will be able to partake as well :)

  4. And others can tell me what I get wrong.