Thursday, February 17, 2011

Sergei Aksakov goes fishing, and goes to school

I wanted to continue pulverizing London, but I have a library book due, and that takes priority.  It’s a spiritual cousin of After London, actually, another book that seems to be about one thing but is also about a real love of nature.

Sergei Aksakov’s A Russian Schoolboy (1856) is the last of his trilogy of memoirs about his family and childhood.  I thought it was the least of the three, the one I am least likely to reread.  Still, anyone serious about Russian literature should read them all.

Aksakov has an odd place in Russian literature.  He was born eight years before Alexander Pushkin, so he was of the first great generation of Russian authors – Pushkin, Lermontov, and Gogol.  By the time he published anything, though, these writers were all dead, and the hot new thing was a young Leo Tolstoy.  Or second hottest, since, for three years or so, until his death in 1859, Sergei Aksakov was the Greatest Living Russian Writer.

His memoirs reach back even farther, to the 18th century, and to pre-Napoleonic Russia.  It feels oddly like a Russia before Russian literature – the students’ great literary arguments are over writers like Karamzin and Derzhavin.  Even the non-Russian writers feel strange – young Sergei becomes obsessed with the theater, and sees or acts in plays by the hugely popular Kotzebue, or the Lovers’ Vows of Elizabeth Inchbald, immortalized a few years later by Mansfield Park.  It’s all wonderfully exotic, or askew, a glimpse of a lost culture.

Although A Russian Schoolboy is primarily about his life at boarding school, Sergei’s greatest pleasures are outdoors - fishing, hunting, hawking, lepidoptery - and much of the finest writing in the book is in the chapter “A Year in the Country,” a reprieve from school caused by Sergei’s neurotically Proustian relationship with his mother.  He fishes, and fishes some more:

Meanwhile the building operations made it necessary to let the water out of the pond; and such fishing followed as was never known wither before or since.  All the fish in the pond made for the river which fed it, and the fish were as thick as they are in a tureen of good fish-soup…  Chub, carp, perch, pike, and large roach (three or four pounds’ weight) took constantly and at all hours…  My father liked especially to catch perch and pike, and I remember that he sometimes tied two hooks on one line and used small fish as bait; and often had two perch on at once, and once a perch and a pike. (73)

That’s part of one page.  There’s a lot of fishing.

It’s a nice little book.  A Russian Gentleman, about Aksakov’s grandfather and other relatives, is an even stranger look at an even more distant world, the last gasp of Russian feudalismA Russian Childhood counters Aksakov’s pleasant but strange childhood with an insightful portrait of his parents’ complicated marriage.  A Russian Schoolboy is more or less what its title suggests, a simpler book.  Come to think of it, I had the same reaction to Tolstoy’s contemporary Childhood, Boyhood, Youth – the child’s story is fresh and charming, the adolescent’s awkward and off-putting.  Such is life.

Translation by J. D. Duff in 1924.  I read the 1983 Oxford World’s Classics edition.


  1. Did he see "Lover's Vows" performed in Russia or on a trip to England? It would be fascinating to trace the relationship between Russia and England in the Romantic period; most comparitive lit classes and books stop at Germany.

  2. Aksakov saw Inchbald's play performed by a Russian travelling company. In Russian, I presume, although I can't be sure - translated from French, I'll bet.

    The part of the pastor was triumphantly played by the great Plavilschikov!

    Aksakov's school was in Kazan, a major city, but way, way out in the provinces, almost in Siberia.

    If he saw any other English plays, I did not recognize them. Schiller, The Robbers, was the only one I had read myself. The titles themselves were fascinating - The Pork-butchers, what's that?

  3. I have no comments on Aksakov as a writer---but he can't be all bad if he fishes and writes about fishing

  4. Oh nice! I just picked this one up recently. Have you read Alexander Herzen's memoirs? His recollection of university around the same time is fascinating, familiar and yet so so different.

  5. Herzen's memoirs are very high on my "must read it" list, but I have not got to them yet. It makes sense that he would cover much of the same ground, twenty years or so later - still pre-Pushkin, by a bit.

    Aksakov is, so far, the champion 19th century literary angler. I'm keeping my eye out for others.

    1. Aksakov's Notes on Fishing and Notes of Provincial Wildflower are available from Northwestern Universities awesome SRLT series (Studies in Russian Literature and Theory). I believe there is another volume n his Nature trilogy!! Perhaps that will become available someday!!

  6. This reminds me a bit of a Chekhov's novella, "The Steppes" in which a young Noble boy is taken by some servants on a long trip to a boarding school-we see things through the eyes of the boy as they travel across the vast steppes-American readers will see the parallels to the Great Plains

  7. Yes, that's true, and I did not even mentioned the closest connections, the accounts of the multi-day journeys from the estate to town and back, including some dramatic river crossings.

    The descriptions of how travel worked, how ferries worked, etc. give Aksakov's book a good part of its historical value.

  8. If possible I would launch a challenge next year on reading Eastern Europeans. There is a reading gap here.

  9. The Russian literature alone is amazingly rich.

    Or 20th century Hungarian lit, or Czech, or Polish - just incredible.

  10. I'm sorry I missed this post when it went up, but having recently reread Aksakov's family trilogy I enjoyed it greatly (and agree about the relative slightness of the schoolboy volume).

    I have no comments on Aksakov as a writer---but he can't be all bad if he fishes and writes about fishing

    In fact, his first book, the 1847 Zapiski ob uzhen′e [Notes on Fishing], was wildly popular (which surprised even its author, who greatly expanded it for the 1854 2nd edition); it occupies much the same place in Russian literature as The Compleat Angler does in English. I've read it and can attest to its charm; I believe it's been translated.

  11. Anyone who writes at length, in his memoir, about his first Fish is a true fisherman.

  12. I would like to see Aksakov's "Recollections of Gogol" become available in English. It, probably, has never been translated before.

  13. The fishing and fowling books may be a little specialized for me, but a Gogol book, that I would enjoy.