Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Golovlyov Family - as though she were trying to understand something and could not

Russian literature is depressing, people say, and they have not even read The Golovlyov Family by Shchedrin* (1876).  It may be the bleakest novel I have ever read.  Eh, probably not, but one of them.  The book is, of course, a comedy.  If it were all meant seriously it would be too easy to laugh at it, but as a comedy it is truly grim.

The Golovlyov Family is the story of a family destroyed by the meaninglessness of everything.  Arina Petrovna Golovlyov and her offspring waste their pointless lives and then die miserably, one by one, mostly one per chapter.  Life has no meaning, but it is well-organized.

Golovlyovo – that was death itself, cruel, greedy death, that is forever stalking a fresh victim…  All deaths, all poison, all sickness – all came from here.  (318)

At first – no, for quite a while – I did not think this novel had much to do with the Turgenev \ Chernyshevsky \ Dostoevsky chain we will all have so much fun with in April, but I see now that I was wrong.  Shchedrin, a famous satirist, has watched fifteen years of debate about nihilists and thought: you want nihilism, I’ll give you real nihilism.

Sorrow and joy, love and hate, did not exist for him: the whole world was in his eyes merely something dead that simply provided one with an opportunity for an endless flow of talk.  (151)

This is Shchedrin’s most original creation, Porphyry Golovlyovo, the hypocrite, if “hypocrite” is a sufficiently strong word.  Porphyry does not mean what he says, about religion or family or work, not because he is hiding his real meaning but because he never means anything at all.  He just wants to talk.  The line above is in a paragraph about his indifference to his son’s suicide.

Porphyry’s emptiness leads to evil, more from the absence of any other value rather than from maliciousness.  It is the evil of the void.  The story, such as it is, is about a succession of characters falling into the void.  They do not die in agony – that would be a different kind of miserable novel – but slide into the pit.

“Mamma! dearest! bless me!“ [Porphyry, of course, always talking]

But Arina Petrovna did not hear.  Her wide-open eyes gazed dully into space as though she were trying to understand something and could not.  (177)

The back cover of the NYRB edition (tr. Natalie Duddington) invokes William Faulkner and One Hundred Years of Solitude.  The Faulkner feeling was present early, the Faulkner of the almost unbearably horrible or stupid characters of As I Lay Dying, another great comedy, or the decaying Compson family of The Sound and the Fury.  I first thought the comparison to García Márquez was cheating, since he was so influenced by Faulkner, but by the end of Golovlyov it almost seems false that the manor, the estate, and the entire world of the novel do not collapse into the void much like One Hundred Years of Solitude disappears into itself.  Shchedrin instead gets in one last joke.

*  I am honestly confused about how to refer to the author.  Shchedrin is a pseudonym.  James Wood uses it, so I guess I will, too.


  1. We call him "Saltykov-Shchedrin" at our house. Because that's what's on the spines of the books we have. I'll have to see if we have The Golovlyov Family. It doesn't sound familiar but it looks interesting. I'm reading Fathers and Sons now, sort of preperatory to the Chernyshevsky and Dostoyevsky. Maybe I'll add this to the chain, if I can swallow that much sustained discussion of nihilism.

  2. Irritatingly, this books was published under the name Shchedrin, no first name, no Saltykov. So keep the pseudonym? I don't know.

    One funny thing is that the word "nihilism" never appears. But the word "nothing" is used constantly.

  3. Turns out that The Golovlyov Family is the novel we have. In the Ronald Wilks translation, a Penguin Classic. I've poked around in it and it looks like Porfiry is more a roskolnik than a nihilist; I keep running into his attempts to argue Christianity into a mirror of his own selfishness. Arguing from a variety of conflicting positions, I think. First he says that the Fall was because mankind has an intellect, which sinless animals lack. A few minutes later he's claiming, "I look out of my window and see sparrows pecking at manure; that's enough for them, but a man must have more!" It looks pretty amusing, but my cursory skimming must miss all the bleakness.

    1. Well, maybe not a real raskolnik, now that I bother to look up the word and see that it means something more specific than I thought it did.

  4. No, Porphyry is not a nihilist. That would imply, paradoxically, a sense of purpose. Even his greed has no point. He is not really rationalizing his selfishness, not really - he just loves to talk.

    A profound joke, that is.

    It is amusing! I'll work on one of the deaths today. The bleakness should be clear enough. Nothing, nothing, nothing.

  5. I don't know if it's unique to Russian scholars, but they have a habit of hyphenating [real surname]-[pseudonym] in these cases, and freely using the real first name and patronymic with the hyphenated last name. Mikhail Yevgrafovich Saltykov-Shchedrin is about the most famous of the people referred to this way, but there's also Bestuzhev-Marlinsky, Mamin-Sibiryak, Melnikov-Pechersky. It might be mostly a nineteenth-century thing, since you sometimes see "Sinyavsky-Tertz" but more often just Sinyavsky.

    I've been loving all the Russian literature posts lately - but then I love the non-Russian ones too.

  6. Thanks so much for the explanation. It is certainly not done in English. No Clemens-Twain or Evans-Eliot. People'd look at you funny if you wrote that. Although it does solve certain problems.

  7. Thanks for posting on this, a nice reminder on why I picked up a copy in the first place. Unfortunately it keeps slipping down the TBR pile, something I need to correct.

  8. It is something else. Clearly of its time, yet, in some ways more like books from much later.

  9. Nobody does depressing quite as well as the Russians. Not even Dickens can make life look quite so bleak.

    I do love Russian literature.

  10. I tell ya, this one is like a test case - how bleak can you go, while still being, fundamentally, a comedy.

    Really, the saddest Chekhov is more depressing. His people live in a world more like ours. This novel is more of a "what if." I am pretty sure the author actually thinks the world is so completely bereft of meaning. Quite the contrary.

  11. I finally finished the novel (really more a collection of stories featuring the same characters, since he had no idea of continuing after publishing the first one); I've been reading it, off and on, since February (I'm going chronologically, so I read each chapter as it was published). At first it was enjoyable, and I couldn't quite understand why it had such a grim reputation -- sure, the characters were a pretty rotten bunch, but there were bright spots, and the brio with which it was told carried me along with a smile on my face. But as the saga went on it got grimmer and grimmer, and when I got to the final chapter -- the return of bedraggled Anninka with her tale of ruin and suicide -- I had to physically force myself to finish it. It felt as though Shchedrin had set a plate of ashes sprinkled with vodka in front of me and was watching me nibble at it, smirking diabolically. What a book!

  12. Like Cranford, a novel-in-retrospect.

    The final chapter is just about beyond belief, that anyone would write such a thing.