Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Nikolai Chernyshevsky What Is to Be Done? readalong - if I hadn’t warned you, you might have thought that this tale was being told artistically

Literature can’t be all fun and Moomins, can it?  So in the tradition of the 2010 readalong of Herman Melville’s Clarel and the 2011 Anything Ubu Readalong Opportunity I am announcing the Wuthering Expectations What Is to Be Done? reading event.  Some of you said you wanted it.  I hold no one to any rashly made promise.

No, I am kidding, this will be fun.  And educational.  Mostly educational.

Nikolai Chernyshevsky’s 1863 novel What Is to Be Done? is a radical socialist Utopian novel written while in prison, waiting to be tried for a bunch of trumped up nonsense for which he was eventually convicted and sent to Siberia.  Given that Chernyshevsky was in prison because as an editor and essayist he was seen as a threat to the state, the fact that he was allowed to write and publish What Is to Be Done? is almost inexplicable.  This was the novel that prepared the ground for revolution.  Its importance in Russian intellectual history is immense.

The novel is full of idealized people doing idealized things.  The novels of Jean-Jacques Rousseau served as Chernyshevsky’s models.   Another inspiration was Hard Times, but Chernyshevsky thought Dickens wasted too much time on trivialities like love and happiness.  Another great influence was Georges Sand, and the novel is openly feminist in the usual fashion of 19th century Utopians – if society is to reform, marriage and family must reform, too.

What Is to Be Done? was a direct response to the nihilist protagonist of Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons (1862); it in turn inspired Fyodor Dostoevsky to write Notes from the Underground (1864).  Dozens of other novels spun off of this remarkable chain of books.  Here is the problem:

I possess not one bit of artistic talent.  I even lack full command of the language.  But that doesn’t mean a thing; read on, dearest public, it will be well worth your while.  Truth is a good thing; it compensates for the inadequacies of any writer who serves its cause.  Therefore, I shall inform you of the following: if I hadn’t warned you, you might have thought that this tale was being told artistically and that its author possessed great poetic talent.  But now that I’ve warned you that I possess no talent whatever, you know that any merit to be found in my tale is due entirely to its truthfulness.  (Preface, p. 48)

I do not believe much of this is meant ironically.  What Is to Be Done? is, by most aesthetic measures, a bad novel.  Wooden, ridiculous, dull, ethically dubious, linguistically flat.  Yet it is not actually incompetent like these horrors recorded by Adam Roberts, books by authors who seem to have trouble with the elementary use of language.  Chernyshevsky is rhetorically sophisticated, at least.  Structurally, too.  The book can be read; I have read it.

Still, Chernyshevsky’s literary importance depends as much on Dostoevsky as on his own book.  He makes Notes from the Underground even more interesting.

Maybe I should have called this the Notes from the Underground readalong.  It is that book’s 150th anniversary, after all, and I will read it along with Chernyshevsky.  Maybe I should – no, no – take your vitamins.

No, read what you want!  Say that you are interested in the intellectual history but put off by the 400 didactic pages of the novel itself.  That is fine.  I recommend, besides Fathers and Sons and Notes from the Underground, something from the following list:

The “Russian Populism” chapter in Isaiah Berlin’s Russian Thinkers (1978).

The relevant chapter of Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air (1982).

Chapter 4 of Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift (1938) – the entire novel, really, one of the great novels of the 20th century, but that chapter, a fictional biography of Chernyshevsky, is detachable.  It is so detachable that it was in fact censored by its original publisher.  It is a strange story.  Nabokov’s critique is aesthetic yet also ethical – ethics by means of aesthetics.

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Devils (1872) – he keeps returning to the subject.

Leo Tolstoy’s book What Is to Be Done? (or What Then Must We Do? or something similar, 1886).

Vladimir Lenin’s essay “What Is to Be Done?” (1902).

Erik McDonald of XIX Bek is actually translating a NikolaiLeskov novel that is another response to Turgenev and I think to Chernyshevsky.  Perhaps Erik will have more suggestions.

The quotation is translated by Michael Katz, in the 1989 Cornell University Press edition, which was brand new when I first read it.  Strangely, the first two English translations both date from 1886, and there is a later Soviet translation, too, but you are nuts if you read anything but the Katz translation.  The others are bowdlerized, for one thing, with some of the sexual material removed, and it would be ironic to the point of pathos to read this novel in a censored form.

How does April sound?  End of April?  This is a novel for the spring.


  1. I would actually love to do this, but do you know of any free e-books, or anything? As far as I've been able to see, I'll need to spend some money if I want to read Chernyshevsky, but I don't claim to have done all the research yet. Even an ILL might be tricky, esp. since it's
    pretty long.

    1. https://archive.org/details/avitalquestion00skidgoog

  2. I am in, and April sounds appropriate. I'll seek out the Katz translation. You'll be reading Notes From Underground alongside? That sounds amusing, though Notes is what? only 85 pages or so in mass-market paperback?

    Thank heavens I have plenty of vodka in the house. I think I'll need to fortify myself for this one.

  3. I can read it for April — I tried already and, without any serious aim, let it drop slowly around the seond third. So I'll try again in my French translation. And I'll take again The Notes From Underground, nice reading for winter.

  4. Without the Katz book (or a similarly good edition in another language), honestly I would skip Chernyshevsky. Or read around it. Or - now this is almost a good idea - just read the excerpt included in the Notes from the Underground Norton Critical Edition (also trans. and edited by Michael Katz).

    Spring is a time of Utopian hope and renewal. Thus appropriate. Sure, why not. Yes, Notes is quite short.

    The Clarel event was a smashing success with two readers. Will Chernyshevsky actually top that? If so, how exciting. If not, also exciting.

  5. I hope to be able to join in if everything else going on allows it. I take that back…I will do it, even if not in the same time frame. Thanks for all the notes and recommendations!

  6. Hm, I'll pass, thanks, don't really want to burden my busy schedule with a shoddy novel, have lots of those on my pile already. But I can't wait to read everyone's comments on it, it should produce entertaining writing.

  7. Two good choices - neither the timing nor any actual participation matter much here.

  8. Count me in for the readalong! I may also try a book I've been curious about for a while (but haven't read yet) called Chernyshevskii's “What Is to Be Done?”: A Reevaluation by Andrew Drozd, where according to this review, Drozd argues that Chernyshevskii sets a trap by making the novel appear to be badly written and didactic, when in fact he wasn't (until the end of the book) preaching the utilitarian and materialist ideas his characters believe in, but describing their 1860s milieu. One chapter is described as "a healthy intervention amid the Nabokov-inspired tendency to see Chernyshevskii as a plodding bore." The reviewer, Russell Valentino, isn't fully convinced, though.

  9. Talk about reading against the grain! But I admire the spirit of the exercise. Why else am I going to revisit the book if not to press against my received ideas about it.

  10. Ah, it sounds seductive: "What is to be Done?" As it turns out, though, I do have some other things to do (e.g., find a job -- see my blog posting today in which I rant and rave about academia's treatment of a friend and myself), so I think I will be taking a pass this time around. And you say the novel is "a bad novel." I cannot get past the endorsement. But I wish you and others well. As for myself -- well, if you read my posting today, you'll know what's to be done in my neck of the woods.

  11. The title asks a good question, amenable to many contexts.

    Best of luck with the job search. It is rough out there.

  12. I'm tempted by this one, for some reason, and quite enjoyed the opening few pages. It also gives me a reason to return to Dostoevsky, which I haven't done in a long time and to read Fathers and Sons, which I have never read. Hmmm...

  13. A series of good ideas. Even one of them would be something.

  14. I'd like to participate! I'll use the archive.org translation, which has a few odd choices--ie where they change what Ch. wrote to "better conform to the American ideal of manhood". The book isn't so stodgy stylistically as may appear; for example the author provides a preface only after the first few paragraphs. In it, he teases the reader about how he or she has been tricked into sympathy for the characters and interest in their story.

  15. I will just warn you, Jeffry, that the old translations have substantial cuts, mostly of sexual material.

  16. I've heard of this, of course: anyone with an interest in 19th century literature has. But a 400 page didactic novel that is "by most aesthetic measures, a bad novel" ... Well, let me say that I'd be interested in what you all have to say about it, and keep it there!

  17. I may join in the read-along- I've skimmed it but not read it properly. Mainly because the dialogue kept getting on my nerves. The narration is meta and interesting but the dialogue is tin-eared in the extreme.

    I'd say (based on that limited experience) that it's more philosophically dubious than ethically dubious.

  18. Good, I hope you join in. This is just why I benefit from more readers - I am philosophically unsophisticated and can use all the help anyone is willing to offer.

  19. Is Scott the only other one reading this book? Must say I've enjoyed reading about the reading... though I don't want to read it!

  20. Bailey has probably scared people away with the quality of his posts. "Mine won't be that good, so why bother." He has almost scared me away.

    When we get Dostoevsky and lash him to Chernyshevsky - actually, Dost. gives Ch. forty lashes - it will all seem worth it.