Friday, November 1, 2013

Alexander Herzen's memoirs, some introductory fuss

Alexander Herzen almost makes me want to break my guideline against encyclopedism.*  Meaning the bio and political views and the historical importance, summarizing introductory material or Wikipedia.  But you by definition have the internet yourself, so what is the point, and even though I have been reading his memoir which is about Herzen himself of course I have no interest in writing about Herzen himself but rather about Herzen’s book, something else entirely.

And anyway I have only read a third of the memoir, or a quarter, so what do I know.

The title of the memoir, My Past and Thoughts, is accurate.  Some of it is about Herzen’s past; some of it about his thoughts.  In this volume, the titles of two of the three parts summarize the story:  “Nursery and University 1812-1834”; “Prison and Exile 1834-1838.”  The third part is about his wife, her childhood, their romance, and eventual elopement.  She died just at the time he began working on this material and is treated with great love and tenderness.  The last part is a bit like a romance novel.

Each section is a fine example of its genre, actually.  The first section, the childhood memoir, is one just one of four major examples from Russia in the 1850s (some of which are fiction):  Sergei Aksakov’s A Russian Schoolboy and Years of Childhood,** Leo Tolstoy’s Childhood, Boyhood, Youth, and the “Oblomov’sDream” section from Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov.  What was going on in Russia in the 1850s?  Why so much interest in the subject?  I have no idea.

Herzen’s memoirs are often compared to the novelists who were his contemporaries, to Turgenev and Tolstoy.  At the level of the scene, the comparison is accurate, and with some of the character writing, too.  I will save the characters for tomorrow.  And the scenes.  And the politics, and the writing, and everything else, I guess.

It’s a great memoir.  I plan to read the whole thing.  It is close to 1,500 pages, that is all, so I will take breaks when the opportunity presents itself.

* I do enjoy encyclopedism about the text.  Herzen wrote his memoir, along with lots of other journalism and commentary, in pieces in the 1850s for the Russian émigré magazines in London.  The articles were turned into a multi-volume memoir published between 1861 and 1866.  Constance Garnett brought My Past and Thoughts into English in six volumes from 1924 to 1927.  She was not human.  Her translation was revised and annotated by Humphrey Higgens in 1968.  This is the edition I read.  Amusingly, it has four layers of footnotes (Higgens, the Soviet editors, Garnett, and Herzen).  The edition includes a long, useful essay by Isaiah Berlin that I assume is more or less the piece that is in Russian Thinkers.  I should check.

**  I used the same conceit when I wrote about Aksakov.  Eh, who will ever know.


  1. I'm not sure, but I think Herzen shows up in Isaiah Berlin's Russian Thinkers. I've been meaning to read it for a year now, but won't until I've read Tolstoy's Resurrection.

  2. My guess is that the chapter in Herzen in Russian Thinkers is this exact essay that leads this edition of the memoirs, but I do not know for sure. I should read Russian Thinkers!

  3. "It is close to 1,500 pages, that is all" You make it sound like a walk in the park. No doubt you will be done with it all by Valentine's Day or sooner ;)

  4. Valentine's Day - possible, possible.

    On the one hand, it sounds so long, but a 4 book series, 350 pages each, read one per month, sounds almost leisurely.

    How long does it take the typical new enthusiast for Song of Fire and Ice to blow through 5,200 pages of George R. R. Martin? A month or two? And they say people have short attention spans.

    1. Ha, good point about the Martin books. They are, however, brain candy and once the sugar rush sets in it is easy to keep going. I find, however, they taste better in small doses. It is easier to avoid the big sugar crash that way. :)