Saturday, November 2, 2013

Herzen writes characters - the chapter on his father - "For people he had an open, undisguised contempt – for everyone."

Herzen’s father was a living example of Turgenev’s literary creation, the Superfluous Man, educated and Westernized to a point that alienated him from his own country (“they [these types of men] were a sort of intellectual superfluity and were lost in artificial life,” 75).  Perhaps.  A page later:

For people he had an open, undisguised contempt – for everyone.  Never under any circumstances did he count upon anybody…  He was convinced beforehand that every man is capable of any evil act; and that, if he does not commit it, it is either that he has no need to, or that the opportunity does not present itself… (76)

One wonders to what extent Russian superfluity was cultural and to what extent it was temperamental.  His relations with other people are characterized by “[m]ockery, irony, cold, caustic, utter contempt” (77) which make him a trial to be around but an outstanding literary character, as Herzen demonstrates in Part I, Chapter 5 (“My Father”) of My Past and Thoughts, perhaps the finest example in this first volume of the memoirs of Herzen’s literary abilities.

The father spends his day according to a rigid schedule, in open combat with his servants who are robbing him at every opportunity, and with his guests, who he thinks are idiots, and to a lesser degree, thankfully, with his family.  Herzen’s chapter recreates the household of his youth in all its coldness and inflexibility which he presents as, from a distance, comic.  He often resembles, to my surprise, Proust, as in this description of an occasional guest:

Pimenov’s chief peculiarity lay not in his having once published books that no one ever read, but in the fact that if he began laughing he could not stop, and his laughter would grow into fits of whopping-cough, with explosions and dull rolls of thunder.  He knew this and therefore, when he had a presentiment that something laughable was coming, began little by little to take measures; he brought out a pocket-handkerchief, looked at this watch, buttoned up his coat, hid his face in his hands and, when the crisis came, stood up, turned to the wall, leaned against it and writhed in agony for half an hour or more, then, crimson and exhausted by the paroxysm, he would sit down mopping the perspiration from his bald head, though the fit would keep seizing him again for long afterwards.  (87)

Given this, Herzen’s father cannot resist provoking Pimenov to laughter as much as possible, for his own amusement.

Pimenov could be one of the Mme Verdurin’s circle.  That is the side of Proust I am thinking of, the woman who dislocates her jaw from laughing too hard.

Herzen writes that it was only during his imprisonment and exile that he understood there was anything more to his father, by which time it was too late – “his callous heart did not crave for reconciliation; so he remained on hostile terms with everyone on earth” (91).  Or almost everyone.  Herzen ends the marvelous chapter with a glimpse of his elderly father in “his study where, sitting in a hard, uncomfortable, deep armchair, surrounded by his dogs, he was playing all alone with my three-year-old son,” perhaps giving him a “rest from the incessant agitation, conflict, and vexation in which he had kept himself, as his dying hand touched the cradle.”

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