Thursday, July 1, 2010

How I went to sleep, and what happened afterwards, I have quite forgotten - Aksakov and Proust

Crazy-sounding claim first: Sergei Aksakov writes like Proust, sixty years earlier.  Aksakov is combing through his memory, recreating his childhood in as much detail as possible.  Sensory experiences are as important to the task as the recollections of actual events.  It’s the combination that is then turned into prose.  For example, Sergei is five years old, and ill:

Once in the early morning I woke, or became conscious, and could not recognize where I was.  All was unfamiliar: the large lofty room, the bare walls of fir planks, new and very thick, the strong smell of resin.  The sun – a summer sun, apparently – was just rising, and, as it shone through a window on my right above a thin canopy spread over me, was brightly reflected on the opposite wall.  Near me was my mother sleeping uneasily, in her clothes and with no pillows.  Even now I seem to see her black hair straying in disorder over her pale thin face.  (Years of Childhood, p. 2)

Seem to see – that has to be the truth.  Can this possibly be a genuine memory – “no pillows” and new fir planks and the precise location of the reflected sunlight?  With the help of Proust, I can guess at the procedure.  Imprecise memories, some elements very strong and others impossibly vague, are blended with his mother’s account of his illness (by the time Aksakov is writing, this would also be a distant memory) and a sensory experience, the smell of the resin, available to the author in the present that triggers or shapes or evokes the earlier recollection.  Aksakov knew all about the tea and the madeleine.

I was very fond of the smell of resin, which was sometimes used to fumigate our nursery.  I smelt the sweet transparent blobs of resin, admired them and played with them; they melted in my hands and made my long thin fingers sticky; then my mother washed and dried my hands, and I began to doze.  Visible objects became confused before me: I thought that we were driving, and that I refused to take some medicine which was offered me, and that the figure beside me was not my mother, but my nurse Agatha or my foster-mother…  How I went to sleep, and what happened afterwards, I have quite forgotten. (p.3, ellipses in original)

Proust begins Swann’s Way with a version of “how I went to sleep” that goes on for twenty pages and drives off who knows how many readers.  Nothing like this Modernist fracturing of the story can be found in Aksakov, which is structurally traditional and sometimes even clumsy, or is deliberately made to appear clumsy to simulate the process of memory.  And there’s nothing like Proust’s movement from childhood into adolescence, society, and even old age.  Still, when I read about young Sergei throwing hysterical fits, losing himself in books, and attaching himself so strongly to his mother – all surface similarities to Proust, I guess.  It’s the underlying projects that really are closely related.

Crazy-sounding, I said.  D. S. Mirsky made the Proust comparison in 1926, about as early as it could possibly be made.  Thanks to languagehat for posting the relevant passage of Mirsky’s essential A History of Russian Literature: From Its Beginnings to 1900.  I could go backwards, too.  Aksakov had discovered, reading Gogol and Pushkin, the importance of the wash of detail.  Clothes, dishes, mannerisms, the colors of a bird or fish – these can in and of themselves be the basis for narrative.  I mean, very little happens in Aksakov’s books.  He’s just a little kid.  Yet everything is so intense for him.  If I ever write my memoirs, they will begin when I am two years old and end when I’m three, the only truly interesting time in my life. 

Astute, or patient, or long-suffering readers of Wuthering Expectations will know that I could push this all straight back to Walter Scott, since that’s where Pushkin and Gogol got the idea.  I’ll just file that away for now.


  1. Well, if your claim is crazy, it at least makes me want to read Aksakov like never before. But based on the quotes you pull, it doesn't seem that crazy. Love the level of chewy detail here - very tempting!

  2. It's all detail, piles of marvelous detail, and not all descriptive. A lot of it is psychological, about people. Like Proust!

  3. Like Emily, I'm getting very excited to read this author. I'm horribly afraid of Proust but maybe it's just the 20 pages of madeleins that is a bit....overbearing in my imagination. I'll have to read this SOON.

  4. Here's where I should reassure that you that Proust is perfectly accessible and so on. But it would not be true. Proust is difficult. Conceptually, philosophically, Aksakov is far less sophisticated or complicated than Proust.

    Still, that Aksakov, so much earlier, discovered for himself a part of Proust's project is extradordinary enough.