Thursday, September 11, 2014

The mutual interaction of men on books, and books on men, is a curious thing - advice about Alexander Herzen's My Past and Thoughts

Now, a post or two on the last of the massively long books I finished recently, Alexander Herzen’s memoir My Past and Thoughts.  Logistics first.

Writing about Herzen previously, I have muddled the date of publication, and I remain confused.  Herzen’s memoirs began as magazine pieces dating back to the 1840s.  They were assembled and possibly edited – possibly not – into coherent memoiristic volumes at intervals beginning in the 1850s.  I believe that the third volume was published in 1857 and the fourth, which is not coherent at all, but a pure hodgepodge of miscellaneous material, in 1862, but there is no reason to believe me.  Subsequent editions incorporated additional material, and the edition I read has every scrap, which is confusing.

Few writers would dare such a structure, and artistically they would be right, but there is a sense in which the increasingly ragbag-like form reflects the form of the author’s life.  Goethe’s multivolume memoir has the same structure, and the same problem, with the first books about his childhood and early life following the usual linear chronological path and with the later books feeling like a drawer of the author’s desk had been emptied into them.  But it is Goethe’s desk, Herzen’s miscellaneous scraps, not mine, so they are worth reading even if it is an effort to fit them together.

Nevertheless, I would recommend an abridged edition to most readers.  I assume – although how would I know – that many specialists in Russian history and literature make do with abridgements.  Oxford used to publish a pair of World’s Classics, Childhood, Youth, and Exile, with a title nodding at Tolstoy's first books, and Ends and Beginnings that amount to 900 pages and look like they cover the strongest narrative of Herzen’s life, the parts of his memoir often described as “novelistic.”  There is also a 750 page version (My Past & Thoughts, University of California Press) abridged by Dwight Macdonald that has the advantage, whatever else it might do, of including a long introduction by Isaiah Berlin that is close to essential.

My library had the four volume Knopf edition from 1968, translated by Constance Garnett and revised by Humphrey Higgens, so that is what I read, all 1,800 pages of it (plus the Berlin essay).  I am happy I read it all, but I know I also would have been happy with the shorter options.

The mutual interaction of men on books, and books on men, is a curious thing.  (p. 1,752, note 1)

Is it ever.  That footnote includes one of the rare mentions of Herzen’s radical rival Nikolai Chernyshevsky:

The young Russians who have come on the scene since 1862 are almost all derived from What Is To Be Done? with the addition of a few Bazarov features.

Bazarov, the nihilist hero of Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons, as we all remember from last December.

That leaves me one post to say what is in the last 800 pages of My Past and Thoughts.  I might have overdone the logistics, but anyone actually thinking of reading the book wants to know, right?  It is a book that requires planning.

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