Friday, February 27, 2015

THE OPEN-ENDED NOVEL (2) DOSTOEVSKY, "Crime and Punishment"

Although Dostoevsky published Crime and Punishment (1866) in the same decade that Turgenev published his Fathers and Sons, C and P, in size and structure, has little in common with Turgenev's work.

C and P tells the story of a contrite murderer, Rodion Raskolnikov, who, unfortunately, is both contrite and un-contrite at the same time. Raskolnikov, in fact, has a split personality and is a typical example of one of Dostoevsky's paranoiac types.

In reading this novel you get the feeling that the author wants his main character saved in the end, wants Raskolnikov to somehow choose the way of the saintly Sonya, who knows in her heart that this man is good and wants him along with herself, in the camp of Jesus Christ.

But Dostoevsky finds himself in a quandary: the novel has run to 450 pages and the main character is still good and evil simultaneously. So the author makes one last effort to get Raskolnikov right with God in the epilogue.

Here we learn that Raskolnikov had once helped a poor consumptive student and his ailing father, had, as well, rescued two little children from a fire. But still he is proud, and for Dostoevsky pride is of the devil. Until the hero humbles himself he cannot hope to be saved.

Note the episode describing Raskolnikov, under Sonya's influence, on the way to the police station to confess his crime. She tells him that he must fall down and kiss the earth he has defiled. He does. But then, when bystanders begin laughing at him, his pride reassert itself and he fails to say aloud (as Sonya has told him) "I am a murderer." Note the comments of the bystanders:

"It's because he's on his way to Jerusalem, boys, and he's saying good-bye to his family and his country. He's bowing down to the whole world and kissing the famous city of St. Petersburg and the soil it stands on" (Norton Critical Ed. of C and P, Jessie Coulson trans., p. 445).

This is a telling statement. Sonya (and Dostoevsky) would like to think that Raskolnikov is bound for  "Jerusalem," where he can find expiation of his crime and salvation, but he still has a long way to go. He is supposed to kiss the good earth, an ancient symbol of warmth and benevolence for Russians, but he ends up kissing the soil of St. Petersburg--the city that, for Dostoevsky symbolizes all the unease and malevolence that works on his hero's psyche, symbolizes, as well, the evil and rationalist ideas imported to Russia from the West.

Back to the epilogue. By the time we arrive here the author is desperate to get his hero saved. Dostoevsky, Christian author that he is, would have the reader believe that in a sudden burst of light, and, of course, with the help of the saintly Sonya, his hero finally receives God's grace:

"How it happened he himself did not know, but suddenly he seemed to be seized and cast at her feet. He clasped her knees and wept. For a moment she was terribly frightened, and her face grew white. . . . . But at once, in that instant, she understood. . . she no longer doubted that he loved her forever and that now, at last, the moment had come. . . . " (463).

Thing is, I don't believe a bit of this. Here we have a mentally ill character who goes round and round for 463 pages, alternating Christian love with satanic hatred, and suddenly he finds himself a salvation of sorts. The whole passage is, basically, made up of empty, forced rhetoric. The author, exasperated with his crazy character, prods him with a stick, forcing him, finally, over onto the lap of Jesus Christ:
"Come on, now. Get on over there! Stop resisting; I said you're saved!"

Of course, even Dostoevsky realizes the false note here. He starts hedging around almost immediately on the last two pages of the epilogue, suggesting that no, Raskolnikov is really not quite saved yet. He will still have a difficult struggle ahead of him. What has just happened, the clasping of Sonya's knees, the receipt of God's grace, is just the first step on his path to salvation.

Oddly enough, Dostoevsky ends Crime and Punishment by describing how the story is not over, suggesting that another whole novel might have to be written before the story is finally told:

"But that is the beginning of a new story, the story of the gradual renewal of a man, of his gradual regeneration, of his slow progress from one world to another, of how he learned to know a hitherto-undreamed-of reality. All that might be the subject of a new tale, but our present one is ended" (465).

This writing of a novel that is not finished when you get it written recalls Nikolai Gogol and his magnum opus, Dead Souls. Gogol ended the first volume (the only one published in his lifetime) on a lofty note, promising great things to come, including the redemption of his rogue hero Chichikov and many other wonderful developments for Russia in the two volumes to come. In his megalomania Gogol seemed to believe that when he finished the trilogy of Dead Souls he would find the secret to the meaning of Russian reality and of life itself. He never finished even the second volume to his satisfaction, and when his great dream died he went crazy and starved himself to death.

The one thing that the endings of Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment and Turgenev's Fathers and Sons have in common is that both authors, at the ends of their works, were doing a lot of wishful thinking. See previous posting on Turgenev ["The Open-Ended Novel (1)]. At least Turgenev's epilogue is an epilogue that wraps things up. Dostoevsky's is an epilogue that leaves the book totally open-ended.


The first of the great Russian realist writers to achieve popularity abroad was Ivan Turgenev. His
most famous work, "Fathers and Sons," was published in 1862. It is actually Fathers and Children in the original Russian, Отцы и дети,but translators have a point in rendering the title as they have, since the novel treats relationships between fathers and sons, and not between fathers and daughters.

The time of the open-ended novel had not yet quite begun in Russian literature when Turgenev published Fathers and Sons. He concludes the novel with an epilogue, a device that soon was to become old-fashioned.

"This would seem to be the end. But perhaps some of our readers would care to know what each of the characters we have introduced is doing in the present, the actual present. We are ready to satisfy him" (Norton Critical Edition of F and S, Matlaw translation, p. 163).

As we see right at the start, the writer is digging himself into a hole. Especially when he mentions "the actual present," which I'm guessing is about 1862 or 1863 in Turgenev's conception of time, but is certainly much a different thing for the reader, say, of 1940.

After this Turgenev goes on for almost three more pages, telling us what has become of the characters, those still living at the end of Fathers and Sons. The reader may be interested in two or three of the the central characters, but Turgenev tells us about the fortunes of even some whom we care very little about.

Of course, the main character, Bazarov, does not survive to make it into the epilogue, but Turgenev gives him his due by ending the book with a description of his grave.

"There is a small village graveyard in one of the most remote corners of Russia. Like almost all of our graveyards it presents a wretched appearance; the ditches surrounding it are long overgrown; the gray wooden crosses lie fallen and rotting . . . . . the tombstones are all displaced, as if someone were pushing them up from beneath; two or three ragged trees scarcely give scant shade; the sheep wander unchecked among the tombs. . .

"But among them is one untouched by man, untrampled by beast, only the birds perch upon it and sing at daybreak. An iron railing runs around it; two young fir-trees have been planted, one at each end. Evgeny Bazarov is buried in this tomb.

"Often from the little village not far off, two quite feeble old people come to visit it--a husband and wife. Supporting one another, they move to the tomb with heavy steps; they go up to the railing, fall down and remain on their knees, and long and bitterly they weep, and intently they gaze at the mute stone, under which their son is lying. They exchange some brief word, wipe away the dust from the stone, set straight a branch of a fir tree, and pray again, and they cannot tear themselves from this place, where they seem to be nearer to their son, to their memories of him.

"Can it be that their tears and their prayers are fruitless? Can it be that love, sacred, devoted love, is not all-powerful? Oh, no! However passionate, sinning, and rebellious the heart hidden in the tomb, the flowers growing over it peep serenely at us with their innocent eyes; they tell us not of eternal peace peace alone, of that great peace of 'indifferent' nature. They tell us, as well, of eternal reconciliation and of life without end" (165-66).

The book could well end with the last paragraph omitted. Without that paragraph Turgenev might have himself a better ending, but he would lose the rhetorical flourish, the sort of thing that Hollywood does so well-- when the music rises and the camera draws back at the end, and the little hairs on the neck of the viewer stand tall, and tears well up in the eyes.

After all, I don't think it would be too cynical of me to suggest that, to look life squarely in the eye, the single quotes on the word 'indifferent' above don't really belong there. Nor can you read the way flowers look at you and conclude with a message of eternal reconciliation and life without end.

But we do like endings like this, don't we? Could be we even need endings like this.

Saturday, February 21, 2015


In his reminiscences of Tolstoy Maxim Gorky makes much of Tolstoy as a kind on man-god on this earth, superior to mere human beings and often condescending in his attitude toward them. Tolstoy, says Gorky, was obsessed with God throughout most of his life.

"The thought that, obviously, more than any other gnaws at his soul is the thought of God. Sometimes it appears that it is not a thought, but an intense resistance to something that he feels up above him. He speaks of this less than he would wish, but he thinks about it constantly. This is hardly a sign of old age, a premonition of death. No, I believe that it originates in a splendid sense of human pride. And to some degree in a feeling of pique, because if you are Lev Tolstoy it is offensive to have to subordinate your will to some streptococcus."

"With God he has an extremely nebulous relationship, but sometimes it reminds me of the way two bears in the same den relate to each other."

Gorky emphasizes Tolstoy's lifelong obsession with death in the same terms--the idea of a titan on earth, the kind of man who looks at death and spits.

"All of his life he feared and hated it [death], all of his life the 'Arzamas terror' was fluttering about near his soul. Did he, Tolstoy, have to die? All of the world, everyone on earth was looking at him. From China, India, America, from everywhere living, trembling threads were stretching out to reach him. His soul is for all men, and for all time! Why should nature not make an exception for him; why not grant one of its human creatures physical immortality? Why?"


Much of the above reminds you of another literary colossus of the twentieth century, Vladimir Nabokov. By the time Nabokov was living out his final years in Switzerland he was, perhaps, the most renowned writer of literary fiction in the whole world. His reputation, of course, unlike Tolstoy's, was based on sheer literary talent, not on any attempt to foster moral and social reform.

Beginning largely after the publication of Lolita, Nabokov and his family indulged in an insane effort at image building, what was, in effect, at attempt to elevate Nabokov to a lofty literary position occupied only by Shakespeare and Pushkin. After Nabokov died his wife and son continued playing the same game, and they played it to the hilt until they themselves passed on.

Like Tolstoy, Nabokov was possessed of a super-sized ego. Once, when asked in an interview if he believed in God, he replied as follows:

"To be quite candid--and what I am going to say now is something I never have said before, and I hope it provokes a salutary little chill--I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more" (Strong Opinions, p.45).

This sort of arch gobbledygook was taken seriously not only by Nabokov's wife and son, but by some Nabokov disciples, who made much of the "otherworldly" theme in Nabokov's fiction. Here is his son Dmitry, beating the same drum in the preface to The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov:

"The ingenious rapture of 'The Word' surfaces in my father's later works, but only fleetingly, in an otherworld Nabokov could only hint at. He explained however, that he would be unable to say as much as he did, had he not known more than he said."

For a man with an ego big enough to make such claims it must have been a horrible thing to face when that streptococcus finally came for him in the mid-seventies. As readers we do, however, have one consolation to rely on after the deaths of the titans Tolstoy and Nabokov--we are left with their wonderful creative works to read.

Monday, February 16, 2015


(18) On Not Being and Other Nonevents

In Part VI, Ch. 23, Anna and her sister-in-law Dolly converse, shortly after Dolly has had a conversation with Anna's estranged husband. "The main thing he desires [says Dolly]. . . he desires that you should not suffer."

"That's impossible. Well?"

"Well, and the most legitimate desire--he wishes that your children should have a name."

"What children?" Anna said, not looking at Dolly and slitting her eyes. [see previous post, "Big Brother and the Russian Slit-Eyed Squint"]

"Annie and those to come . . . "

"He need not trouble on that score; I shall have no more children."

"How can you tell that you won't?"

"I shall not because I don't wish it." And, in spite of all her emotion, Anna smiled as she caught the naive expression of curiosity, horror, and wonder on Dolly's face.

"The doctor told me after my illness . . . "

             . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

"Impossible," said Dolly, opening her eyes wide (p. 665-66).

Note the line of dots across the page, indicating that, in Tolstoy's time, the subject (contraception) was so controversial or intimate that it could not be expressed in the words of a novel.

The conversation goes on [abbreviated somewhat here].

"N'est-ce pas immoral?" was all she [Dolly]said, after a brief pause.

"Why so? Think, I have a choice between two alternatives; either to be pregnant, that is, an invalid, or to be the friend and companion of my husband--he is, after all, my husband," Anna said in a tone intentionally superficial and frivolous.

"Yes, yes," said Darya Aleksandrovna, hearing the very arguments she had used to herself, and not finding the same force in them as before.

"For you, for other people," said Anna, as if though divining her thoughts, "there may be reason to hesitate; but for me . . . You must consider. I am not his wife; he loves me as long as he loves me. And how am I to keep his love? Not like this?"

She moved her white hands in a curve before her belly.

With extraordinary rapidity, as happens during moments of excitement, ideas and memories rushed into Darya Aleksandrovna's head. 'I,' she thought, 'did not keep my attraction for Stiva; he left me for others, and the first woman for whom he betrayed me did not keep him by being always pretty and lively. He deserted her and took another. And can Anna attract and keep Count Vronsky in that way? If that is what he looks for, he will find dresses and manners still more attractive and charming. And however white and beautiful her bare arms are, however beautiful her full figure and her eager face under her black curls, he will find something better still, just as my disgusting, pitiful, and charming husband does.'

Dolly made no answer, she merely sighed. Anna noticed this sigh, indicating dissent, and she went on. In her armory she had other arguments so strong that no answer could be made to them.

"Do you say that it's not right? But you must consider," she went on; "you forget my position. How can I desire children? I'm not speaking of the suffering, I'm not afraid of that. Think only, what are my children to be? Ill-fated children, who will have to bear a stranger's name. For the very fact of their birth they will be forced to be ashamed of their mother, their father, their birth."

"But that is just why a divorce is necessary."

Anna did not hear her. She longed to give utterance to all the arguments she had used so many times to convince herself.

"What is reason given me for if I am not to use it to avoid bringing unhappy beings into the world?" She looked at Dolly, but without waiting for a reply she went on:

"I should always feel guilty for having wronged these unhappy children," she said. "If they don't exist, they are at any rate not unhappy, while if they are unhappy, I alone would be to blame for it."

These were the very arguments that Darya Aleksandrovna had used in her own reflections; but she heard them now without understanding them. 'How can one wrong creatures that don't exist?' she thought. And all at once the idea struck her: could it possibly, under any circumstances, have been better for her favorite Grisha if he had never existed? And this seemed to her so wild, so strange, that she shook her head to drive away this tangle of whirling, mad ideas (Part VI, Ch. 23, p. 666-667).


So here we have entered the realm of deep metaphysical cogitation. If you don't exist are you, at least, not unhappy? The Russian text is interesting here. The literal translation: "If they are not, then they at least are not unhappy (Если их нет, то они не несчастны по крайней мере (Sob. soch. IX, 241). I like the little stutter there in the middle of the sentence: ne neschastny. In response to this, Dolly thinks (literal translation), "How can you be guilty before existent creatures that don't exist? (Как быть виноватою пред существами не существующими?)." That's a wonderful line in the Russian.

This way of discussing important issues by way of bringing non-creatures into the discussion recalls the importance of nonevents about a hundred pages earlier in the novel. One of these is the non-proposal of Koznyshev to Varenka.

"During the time of the children's tea the grownups sat on the balcony and talked as though nothing had happened, although they all, especially Sergey Ivanovich and Varenka, were very well aware that there had happened an event that, though negative, was of very great importance" (p.592). In other words, an important event, one with consequences, was a nonevent. A few pages later Lyovin is vexed over the non-arrival of Kitty's father (p. 595).

Of course, the biggest nonevent of the novel is the divorce that Anna never gets from Karenin and her subsequent non-marriage to Vronsky. In Part Five, Ch. 33, Vronsky's friend Yashvin looks at the Anna-Vronsky non-marriage and thinks, "With a wife you've got problems, but with a non-wife it's even worse (С женою забота, с не-женою еще хуже)".You could come up with a whole series of things NOT taking place and, consequently, influencing the fates and fortunes of the main characters.

But in terms of philosophical depth, there is probably no more important dialogue in the novel than this one between Anna and Dolly, about whether non-being can somehow be equated with happiness. Push it just a touch and you're into the problem of Hamlet, "to be or not to be": If I kill myself and become NOT, then I am not, at least, unhappy."

Monday, February 9, 2015

TOLSTOY AND CHEKHOV TOGETHER ( from the reminiscences of Maxim Gorky)

A.P. Chekhov, June, 1902

L.N. Tolstoy  1901   Crimea

Early in the twentieth century (1901-1902) Gorky, Chekhov, and Tolstoy all happened to be recuperating from various ills in the Crimea, where they met several times. Here are some excerpts from Gorky's notes.

"He [Tolstoy] speaks willingly and at length about women, like a French writer of novels, but always with that coarseness of the Russian peasant--which previously used to depress me. Today in the Almond Grove he asked Chekhov:

'Did you lead a dissolute life in your youth?'

Embarrassed, A.P. smirked, and, pulling at his little beard, he said something indistinct, and L.N., gazing at the sea, confessed:

'I was an insatiable. . . [Gorky leaves out the word, calling it only a "salty peasant word"--probably it was "ебун" (fucker)]."


"He [Tolstoy] was talking to Chekhov on the telephone.

'I'm having such a great day today, I feel such joy in my soul, and I wanted you to feel joyous too. Especially you! You're a really fine person, really! (Вы очень хороший, очень!)."


"'I'm an old man [said Tolstoy], and maybe I can't understand literature nowadays, but all the time I have the feeling that it's not Russian. They've started writing some sort of peculiar poetry; I don't know why we need these verses, and who needs them. You ought to learn to write poetry by reading Pushkin, Tyutchev, Shenshin [Fet]. Take you now--he turned to Chekhov--you're a Russian! Yes, very very much a Russian.

"And smiling tenderly, he put his arm around Chekhov's shoulder, while Chekhov lost his presence of mind and started muttering in his bass voice, something about his dacha, about the Tartars.

He loved Chekhov and always, whenever he looked at him he seemed to be caressing A.P.'s face with his gaze, which was almost tender at that moment. Once Chekhov was strolling down a lane in the park with Aleksandra L'vovna [Tol. daughter], and Tolstoy, still sick at that time, was sitting in an armchair on the terrace, stretching himself to peer at them as they walked, saying in a low voice:

"Aaa, what a dear, wonderful man: humble, quiet, just like a little miss of the nobility! And he walks like a little miss. He's simply marvelous!"

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

"Anna Karenina" THE MOWING SCENE

Orest Verejsky, Illustration for "Anna Karenina"

(17) The Mowing Scene (Part Three, Ch. 4-6)

Lyovin out mowing with the peasants:

"In the very heat of the day the mowing did not seem such hard work to him. The perspiration with which he was drenched cooled him, while the sun that burned his back, his head, and his arms, bare to the elbow, gave vigor and increased his perseverance to his labor; and more and more often now came those moments of unconsciousness, when it was possible not to think of what one was doing. The scythe cut by itself. These were happy moments. Still more delightful were the moments when they reached the stream where the rows ended, and the old man rubbed his scythe with the wet, thick grass, rinsed its blade in the fresh water of the stream, ladled out a little in a tin dipper, and offered Lyovin a drink.

"What do you say to kvas, eh? Good, eh?" said he, winking.

And truly Lyovin had never drunk anything so good as this warm water with bits of grass floating in it, and a taste of rust from the tin dipper. And immediately after this came the delicious, slow saunter, with his hand on the scythe, during which he could wipe away the streaming sweat, take deep breaths of air, and look about at the long string of mowers and at what was happening all around in the forest and in the country.

The longer Lyovin mowed, the more often he felt the moments of unconsciousness in which it seemed that the scythe was mowing by itself, a body full of life and consciousness of its own, and, as though by magic, without thinking of it, the work turned out regular and precise by itself. These were the most blissful moments.

It was hard work only when he had to break off the motion, which had become unconscious, and think. . . ." (267).

Here we have one side of Tolstoy, and an important side: the corporeal and earthy side, his love of nature and the earth, his desire to commune with nature, his distrust of abstract thought--represented by Lyovin's half-brother, Koznyshev, who all day long, while Lyovin is out in the fields, sits occupying himself with non-physical, intellectual things.

The mowing scene, describing how Lyovin throws himself into labor and achieves a state of mind above and beyond mere rationality, is the quintessence of the anti-rational, "natural" theme in "Anna Karenina."

Compare Karenin's spiritual bliss after he forgives his wife, the dying Anna. His emotional rapture probably reaches greater depths of spirituality than Lyovin's rapture out in the meadows, but it is inevitably fleeting and lacking in the placid contentment that Lyovin experiences. When he returns to the manor house at the end of the day, Lyovin is exhilarated, and he tells his brother that he has found a new treatment for physical and emotional ills: Arbeitskur (272).

At several other points in the novel Tolstoy describes certain exalted states of mind, which are always non-rational states. For example, as Lyovin awaits the birth of his child he thinks about the joy of this coming event and somehow equates it to the grief he experienced at the time of his brother Nikolay's death. Both experiences are "openings, as it were, in that ordinary life through which there came glimpses of something sublime. And in the contemplation of this sublime something the soul was exalted to inconceivable heights of which it had before had no conception, while reason lagged behind, unable to keep up with it" (742; my emphasis).

Tolstoy makes something of a summation of Lyovin's, and his own, anti-rationalist position near the end of the book:

"And I and millions of men, men who lived ages ago and men living now--peasants, the poor in spirit and the learned who have thought and written about it, in their obscure words saying the same thing--we are all agreed about this one thing: what we must live for and what is good. I and all men have only one firm, incontestable, clear knowledge, and that knowledge cannot be explained by reason--it is outside it, and has no causes and can have no effects" (828).

Only a few pages later Lyovin concludes that "thought cannot keep pace with feeling," but then:

"Yes, looking at the sky, I thought that the dome I see is not a deception, and then I thought something, I shirked facing something," he mused. "But whatever it was, there can be no disproving it! I have but to think, and all will come clear!" (847; my emphasis).

See the contradiction? Think and think and think, and by thinking, you think your way through to a refutation of the process of thinking! Lyovin, and his maker Tolstoy, are caught up in perpetual contradictions. Just like Tolstoy, Lyovin is too much of a rationalist to give up his rationalizings, even after he has reasoned his way through to a refutation of reasoning.

This contradiction remains to the very last page of the novel, and that is one big reason why the reader is reluctant to believe that Lyovin's new-found peace of mind (in his final appearance) will last long. He, as the character most like Tolstoy himself, inherits Tolstoy's lifelong dilemma: "He [Lyovin] was miserably divided against himself and strained all his spiritual forces to the utmost to escape from this condition" (820).

Practically for the whole of his long life Tolstoy was fighting an internecine war: inside himself. He finally won a Pyrrhic victory--when he died.