The Spell of the Russian Writers
“ WE are most of us, at present,” observes a witty correspondent, “ consumed by one of two passions, — for the German opera, or the Russian romance.”
If I were sufficiently learned, both in literature and music, I would attempt, for the curiosity of the thing and the possible amusement of the reader, to trace out an analogy between these two fashionable preoccupations — I will not say crazes — of the modern Athenian.
I seem dimly to perceive that there is such an analogy ; and that both of the new and rather portentous developments of art here indicated, in their solemn intensity and merciless complexity, their scorn of old-fashioned laws and symmetries, their desperate grasp after the expression of the unutterable, appeal to the same dark and disillusioned yet restless and expectant temper in the modern mind.
Happily I know just enough to perceive that such a task would be altogether beyond my power. I should be out of my depth in the musical part of it directly. I feel it to be quite sufficiently ambitious that I should essay some inquiry into the source and the elements of the strong fascination exercised over all the reading world just now, but especially, and, as I think, for special reasons, over ourselves in America, by those tremendous works of the imagination which are finding their way to us from beyond the Carpathians.
The impertinence of the attempt seems all the greater, when one reflects that nobody reads the Russian novel with gusto who does not also read French with ease, and that nobody who reads French with ease can by any possibility have overlooked the admirable studies of the subject in question by the Vicomte Eugène Melchior de Vogüé which first appeared in the Revue des Deux Mondes, and have now been collected into a delightful volume entitled Le Roman Russe. No more delicate and beautiful critical work than may be found in these essays has been done, I think, since Sainte-Beuve died, almost twenty years ago. There are some of us who thought never again to be moved by one man’s estimate of another man’s achievement, so nearly after the fashion in which the great master of criticism used to move us. For, over and above his natural acumen and his ample literary and scholarly outfit, M. de Vogüé possesses, in a preëminent degree, the three chief moral qualifications of a good critic, sympathy, modesty, and patience. Not more than once or twice in all the completed volume does the finely cloven foot of the sardonic French epigrammatist peep out, as in the passage where he says that the purpose of Anna Karénine is, briefly, " to compare the hell of unbridled passion with the — purgatory of family life.” Now M. de Vogüé himself married one of those marvelous Russian women who dazzle and reduce to despair all the rest of the feminine world ; he has lived long in Russia, and has also — thanks largely, no doubt, to the help of madame ! — actually mastered the Russian language. Even the Russians themselves, the traveled ones, who are wont to smile a little archly at the struggles of the resolute occidental to grasp their idioms and penetrate their illusive national secrets, will own that M. de Vogüé knows his Russia very well, and that in many of his judgments on their authors he comes uncommonly near hitting the mark.
How, it will surely be asked, can a person of immeasurably inferior equipment hope to do better than this ? Nobody does hope it, in fact ; but when, after a great deal of scientific shooting, and very brilliant shooting too, considering the enormous range, the bull’s-eye has not precisely been entered, any tyro may take a shot, and a great many may be tempted to do so. There is always the thrilling possibility that a random arrow may graze the black.
Not to press the figure too far. M. de Vogüé as good as confesses that his own delicately feathered and carefully aimed shafts have not yet quite found the centre of the eye. “I have tried,” he says, near the close of his elaborate study of Tolstoï, “ to select the attributes by virtue of which he may be included in one or another of the classifications of our rhetoric ; and yet, in my heart, I know that he escapes them, and that he escapes me.” I myself have made a guess concerning the side by which Tolstoï and his peers escape the accomplished Frenchman ; but I do not quite dare to propound it. It will be better to consider, for a little, the books themselves.
Of the greatest of all of them in dramatic and analytic power, in their almost miraculous divination of human secrets and grasp of human motive, — of Guerre et Paix and Anna Karénine and the chief masterpieces of Tourgéneff, long since translated into English, — I shall not presume to say anything. Suddenly it has come to pass that these books are everywhere. The selfsame volumes, wearing that glaringly democratic badge, the stamp of the circulating library, make their way into the houses of high and low. They may be found, in more dainty attire, on the shelves of the very few people who still buy books. You can pick them up on the Paris quais. Everybody now reads these more celebrated tales, and talks of them fluently ; and a certain number, I suppose, positively reflect upon them. But while they are sufficiently captivating as mere stories, in spite of their outlandish nomenclature and their often unwieldy bulk, to approve themselves to the universal novel-reader, they are full, and over-full, of a strange moral excitement, and of vastly revolutionary suggestions for the more philosophic student. It will be the object of this article to trace the genesis of their sombre style and the growth of their peculiar ethics through certain Russian books, less widely known as yet, and some of them of an earlier date than those already named : through the Ames Mortes of Gogol, the Souvenirs de la Maison des Morts of Dostoïevsky, Tourgéneff’s Récits d’un Chasseur, — now enlarged and collected under the more appropriate title of the Mémoires d’un Seigneur Russe, — and the Polikouchka, Ma Religion, and A la Recherche de Bonheur of Tolstoï.
It was Gogol’s great book which begot all the rest, of which the names are now so familiar; and Gogol’s personal history foreshadows, in some one or more important particulars, that of each of his illustrious followers. Like most of his literary compeers, Tolstoi alone having been of the highest social rank, Nikolaï Vasilevitch sprang from the petite, noblesse. He was born in 1809, in what is expressively called Little Russia; that is to say, in that circumscribed country of the Cossacks, where alone, in all the vast dominions of the Tsar, there is a something of southern exuberance in the landscape, and of southern gayety and nonchalance in the temper of the people. He was educated in a provincial gymnasium, where he passed his time, as so many geniuses (and dunces) have done before him, in omnivorous general reading, to the neglect of the regular course. He graduated with a low rank, at the age of twenty, and went to St. Petersburg to seek employment in the civil service. Being odd and unattractive in person, and without influential friends, he had rather more than the usual number of disappointments and mortifications to endure, for all of which he amply revenged himself on the official class, when he had found the use of his pen. After all, his apprenticeship was not a very long one. In his twenty-sixth year we find him collecting and publishing, over his own name, a number of tales which must needs already, in their anonymous form, have attained a certain popularity. He had, by this time, worked for a year, at a desk, in a very obscure office ; tried for the stage, and been rejected on account of the weakness of his voice ; had acted as private tutor in a noble family, and as lecturer on history in the University of St. Petersburg. Best of all, and most important for his future career, he had made the acquaintance of the poet Pouchkine, who had given him that generous, not to say rapturous, welcome which the father of Russian letters seldom failed to accord to rising talent. Indeed, we are struck from the very beginning of this literary history with the artless admiration of these men for one another. Our own best writers hardly go beyond them in mutual appreciation. It is natural, perhaps, to the scions of a young race and the citizens of a new country, this keen sense of brotherhood; of being embarked in a patriotic common cause, requiring for its advancement the special aptitudes of each. The time for petty jealousies comes later. Pouchkine solemnly enjoins upon Gogol (and this already sixty years ago !) the duty of confining himself to Russian subjects; of studying Russian life and manners, including those of the poor exactly as he finds them, in all their native homeliness and even deformity. Tourgéneff sends to Tolstoï, from his deathbed of torture in Paris, an affecting entreaty that the latter will return to the world, and resume, for the sake of the fatherland, the work which he had apparently laid aside for his own. There are transient interruptions to the harmony of these deep voices. Dostoïevsky, in his grim old age, conceives a spite against Tourgéneff for having, as he thinks, tampered with his own private and proper theme of Nihilism; and when the same Dostoïevsky was first introduced to Pouchkine, some time in the forties, as “ a new Gogol,” the poet observed testily, “ Oh yes, yes! The country is growing Gogols, like cucumbers, just now ! ” Before the old man was halfway through Dostoïevsky’s first book, however, his hat was off, and he was paying a tearful homage to the author of Les Pauvres Gens. The presentiment of some vast national destiny to be accomplished, the thought “ for Russia’s sake,” is continually carrying the day, even with the most crabbed and pessimistic, over all meaner instincts and insignificant private ambitions.
But to return to Nikolaï Vasilevitch. In the two collections of his early tales, Les Veilles d’un Hameau and Arabesques, he had found, as if by accident, the very key in which Tolstoï was presently to pitch Les Cossaques,1 and Tourgéneff to discover so many weird and haunting themes. He had, moreover, written a powerful tragedy in verse, Tarass Boulba, founded on the idealized exploits of some of his own ancestors in the Ukraine, and he had also produced one good acting comedy, which has ever since held its place upon the Russian stage. The plot of the Réviseur turns on the consternation excited among the corrupt officials of a certain provincial town, when they hear that they are to have a visit from a government inspector. A rather important-looking stranger, with no very obvious business, arrives at the principal hotel. It is taken for granted that this is the dreaded censor, and he is followed, flattered, fawned upon, and inordinately bribed by the whole venal crew. The stranger divines the situation, enters into the humor of it, and plays the part with spirit, to his own immense pecuniary advantage, until the real inspector arrives. The play contains, of course, a scathing arraignment of the administrative methods then in vogue in Russia. Nevertheless, the stout old Emperor Nicholas — a giant, indeed, beside his chétif majesty of to-day ! — read the manuscript of it, in his cabinet, with roars of laughter, ordered it to be brought out, and himself gave the signal for applause from his own royal box. He afterward assisted Gogol with large though anonymous gifts of money; sufficient, in fact, to render the fortunate playwright independent of the search for daily employment, and to enable him to set forth on his travels and finally establish himself in Rome.
Gogol carried away with him, to work out in the then calm of the Eternal City, an idea which he afterward confessed to have first received from Pouchkine, — the grotesque and altogether original idea of the Ames Mortes.2 Stated as briefly as possible, the plan of the book, which the author himself would have preferred to call its argument, just as he affected to call its chapters cantos, is this. In the old days of serfdom, the adult male serfs counted only as souls. As such they were registered whenever the census was taken, and were then subject to taxation, and to be bought, sold, mortgaged, and otherwise negotiated, like any kind of personal property. But since the census was not taken often, it came inevitably to pass, through the average mortality of the peasants, and still more when this was enhanced by pestilence or other disaster, that, before the new registration came to be made, there would be a great many names upon the books of the seigneur which represented dead souls merely, and no longer active arms, or, in other words, productive property. The immortal hero of Gogol’s book, Tchitchikof, — a buoyant adventurer, in whose early official career there had been some rather shady passages, — conceived the luminous idea of making a tour of the remote Russian provinces ; buying up at a nominal price, where he cannot get ceded to him outright, large numbers of these “ dead souls ; ” having his purchases regularly certified and recorded by local officials, who would not take too much trouble to inquire into the identity of his chattels ; and then raising money on them, ad libitum, in the banks of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Tchitchikof reckons on the stupidity, the heedlessness, or the greed of the average rural proprietor for the success of his impudent undertaking, and apparently he reckons with an innumerable host. Never before, I think, was such a number and variety of sordid and absurd human types observed with so ardent a zest, and portrayed with such glorious good-humor. It is all a great farce, of course, but with what spirit the first acts are played ! — the characters, the dialect, the costumes and scenery, how minutely studied ! I do not know what readers mean who admit with a gentle sigh that there is “ a certain grim humor ” in Gogol. Why, the first volume of the Ames Mortes is a perfect fantasia of fun, and not so very grim, either ! The state of mind of these pensive critics must be analogous to that of the play-goer who feels bound to laugh at his favorite comedian, even when he plays tragedy. Their own organs have become affected by that “ souffle de la cimetière ” with which Vogüé finds the later Russian literature so deeply imbued, and from which the retrospective reader cannot immediately free himself, even when bowling with Tchitchikof in his britchka, behind that excellent coachman Seliphane, over the unworn ways of Central Russia. But the retrospective reader certainly carries with him what was not originally present in the plan of Gogol’s book. To me, at least, the narrative in its earlier portions is continuously and most delightfully droll: just as I am sure that I should have laughed at the comedy of the inspector, though Vogüé says that he could not.
How is it possible, for instance, to suspect of any deep depression, under the burden of stern moral engagements, the man who could elaborate the perfectly natural and vivacious, and also perfectly inane, dialogue between Charmante and Gentille, in that delicious “ canto ” entitled Les Emotions d’une Petite Ville, wherein the gossips decide among themselves that the object of Tchitchikof, in his mysterious comings and goings, must be to arrange an elopement with their governor’s daughter ? The lady who pays the visit pounces incidentally upon the summer costume of the lady who receives.
“ ‘ What a pretty print! ’ cried Charmante (with reference to the gown of Gentille).
“‘Is it not? Prascovia Fedorovna thinks that the checks are a little large, and she would have liked blue dots better than cinnamon dots. But I have just sent to my sister the most exquisite stuff! I only wish I could give you any idea of it! Fancy fine, fine, fine stripes, the finest imaginable, and between the stripes rounds and sprigs, rounds and sprigs, rounds and sprigs. I declare to you that it is ravishing! For my own part, I never saw anything so graceful! ’
“ ‘ Still, it must be rather confused ! ’
“ ‘ Oh, no, it is not confused! ’
“ ‘ Ah, bah ! It must be ! ’ . . . Gentille repeated mildly that the effect of the stuff they were discussing was not at all confused, and then exclaimed abruptly, —
“ ‘ But, my dear, you are wearing edging still! Nobody wears it now ! ’
“ ‘ What do you mean ? ’
“ ‘ Oh, no. Everything is in scallops, instead! ’
“ ‘ So much the worse, I say. Scallops are not at all pretty ! ’
“ ‘ But they are worn on everything. Capes are scalloped, sleeves are scalloped, shoulder-caps, even stockings. In short, everything. No edging at all! ’
“ ‘ It is not pretty, Sophia Ivanovna, — a trimming entirely of scallops.’
“ On the contrary, it is exquisite! They are made with a double hem,’ ” etc.
Now this is not only done to the life, but it is done, indisputably, with a sense of keen enjoyment on the part of the writer.
It is Dickens who, simultaneously with Gogol, marks the transition from romanticism to realism in the literature of his own country. And not Dickens himself, as it seems to me, begins his work in higher spirits, less hampered by the behests of a “ cold moral ” or teased by the importunities of any fundamental doubt. The temper of both men altered sadly, as the years went on. That of Gogol changed the earlier and more profoundly, by just so much as he was more thorough in his practice of the new method; more sincere and unreserved in his adoption of that principle of blank veracity, on which what we call realism must needs rest. No man retains into mature life the spirits of his youth who does not also retain a certain number of illusions. Dickens was the first of the present generation of English realists, but he was never altogether a realist. He was romantic and rhetorical to his dying day. Gogol is rhetorical too, sometimes, especially in those eloquent apostrophes to Russia, which abound in the first volume of the Ames Mortes, but he is never romantic. He published, it is true, in his melancholy last years, after his writings had secured him many enemies, a number of elaborate letters on the subject of the Ames Mortes, in which he claimed to have been actuated, from the first conception of the book, by a high philanthropic purpose. I cannot quite believe it. He simply, as I think, undertook to tell what he saw, and what he saw began by diverting and ended by overpowering him. He was like those heroes in the old-fashioned fairy-tales who, having dared to fix their eyes upon a magic mirror, saw the smooth surface begin slowly to darken and to swirl, and grim depths open, and fierce forms emerge, until the whole uncanny thing was thick with strife and grewsonre with all manner of horror. He had set himself dispassionately to observe the social condition of rural Russia in the last years of serfdom. There is no hint in all the Ames Mortes that he ever personally questioned the righteousness of that “ peculiar institution ” of Russia, or seriously regarded the serf otherwise than as a piece of property. He seems hardly to have troubled himself about the serf at all. It is what he sees of the effect of slavery, and the semi-barbarism it implies, upon the master, which ends by taking all the heart out of him.
His book was never properly finished. He had intended to offset, in the latter half of it, by a certain number of humane and noble types, the coarse, unprincipled, or ridiculous ones which he had depicted with so much zest in the beginning. He found that he must draw largely on his imagination for these types, and that his imagination was not equal to the task. He flung at the hero, of whose meanness he had tired, the sarcasm of a complete success in his iniquitous undertaking, and turned his own back suddenly and squarely upon a world in which such a dénoûment appeared to him probable.
One day, in a fit of general disgust, he destroyed the manuscript of his second volume, setting an example which, as we know too well, Tolstoï has but lately followed with that of his third considerable romance. There is an immense contempt of self-interest about these men which compels our admiration, even when its results are most exasperating. In Gogol’s case, there existed an imperfect copy of the work thus rashly sacrificed, from which, after his death, was restored and very clumsily pieced together the unsatisfactory second volume of the Ames Mortes which we know.
Gogol had now returned from his ten years’ residence in Italy. His always precarious health had become very bad, and a great change, or conversion, had taken place in his interior life. He called himself an Orthodox Greek Christian still, but he had become a strict pietist, and his piety was of that mystical and exalted type to which, in his religious retours, the true Russian is ever prone, and which indicates the deep and steadfast oriental element that underlies the seeming versatility and receptivity of his nature. During his residence in Rome, Gogol had made the acquaintance of a Russian painter of sacred subjects, named Ivanof, from whom he seems originally to have imbibed his ultimate religious views. The friends had retired together to the Capuchin convent on Mt. Soracte, and they lived there for some years before Gogol returned to Russia. I could not but think much of this pair, as I rounded, a few days ago, the base of that beautiful mountain group, whose first association, to a modern mind, will always be with the dazzle of its winter snows, and with the simple convivialities of the gay Augustan poet. I seemed to see the two voluntary exiles, fugitives to the sun, out of that dim Scythia, from which had descended the doom of the old Roman world, sitting there and brooding in their ascetic retreat, between the desert of the past and the desert of the future ; with that great, fair, void sepulchre of human life, the Roman Campagna, always before their natural eyes, and the stretch of the illimitable steppes haunting their mental vision. All at once I fancied that I had discerned one of the obscure and, so to speak, organic points of sympathy between these moody Muscovites and ourselves in the New World, — a tendency, namely, to overlook sometimes, in their estimate of human affairs, the whole splendid results of the civilization of Western Europe, the conventionalized Christianity, the artificial moral codes, the accumulated learning, the elaborated art, in general terms all that Vogüé includes in “ the classifications of our rhetoric ; ” and to leap in their reasoning direct from the commencement of the Christian era to the present day.
It was to defray the expenses of a pious pilgrimage to the Holy Land that Gogol published, after his return to Russia, his own private correspondence, including the Lettres sur les Ames Mortes. With this one exception, he gave in charity all that he could earn by his pen, and hastened his end, it is thought, by his fasts and macerations. It was, however, an attack of typhoid which finally carried him off in February, 1852, exactly four years before “ General Fevrier turned traitor ” to his old patron, Tsar Nicholas. The sunshine of royal favor had long since passed away from the novelist. The governor of Moscow was severely censured for attending his funeral in official dress, and Tourgéneff was already in exile on his estates for having, among other misdemeanors, called the author of the Ames Mortes a great man. Gogol was only forty-three when he died, but he had described in his comparatively brief career the are of a great circle, and had indicated the orbit in which all his literary progeny were to revolve.
I have insisted the more upon the evidence of something like hilarity of temper in the youthful Gogol for the very reason that the gleam was so transitory ; because the jocund morning sunshine was incontinently eclipsed, and has proved the prelude to an exceeding sombre day, — one on which a faint and dubious glint of promise is only now beginning to arise. Important events had taken place in the political world of Russia before Gogol died, and more important ones yet were rapidly preparing. The agitations and aspirations of 1848 had found their echo there in sundry organized movements or conspiracies, for the slightest possible complicity with one of which poor diseased, possessed, inspired Dostoïevsky had already been dispatched to his ten years’ martyrdom in Siberia. Tourgéneff was under a cloud, as we have seen, for his supposed sympathy with the malcontents and their subversive ideas, and Tolstoï, the youngest of the three by about eight years, was presently to depart, with other young noblemen of his regiment, to the Crimea; there to obtain that personal acquaintance with the whole theory and practice of war of which he was later to make so amazing an application in Guerre et Paix and the Crimean sketches. It is useful to mark these dates, and to observe that the famous trio who succeeded Gogol were all horn between 1818 and 1830, and might well, therefore, have been brothers in blood, no less than in genius and in destiny. Ivan Tourgéneff was the only one of them just then in a position to write, and the hunter’s tales which form the bulk of the Mémoires d’un Seigneur Russe were most of them composed during that season of retirement in Russia which preceded his final removal to France.
The plan of the book is very similar to Gogol’s. The adventures of a roving hero form a thread on which to suspend innumerable studies of native character. It is by far the most indigenous of all Tourgéneff’s books ; Russian, and very Russian, in form no less than in substance. He treated none but Russian themes at any time; but after he went to live in Paris, he made a point of treating these themes, as far as possible, in a European manner. I am only making the distinction which the Russians themselves continually make. They do not really claim to be European any more than we do in America. Tourgéneff made concessions to the canons of a classical taste in the works by which he is well known. He bethought himself of being an artist, and he became a great one. He cared to satisfy the critical demands of the sophisticated French reader; to make his tales brief and shapely, his style pointed and literary, albeit he could never quite overcome his repugnance to anything like a conventional ending. But here, in his earliest essays, — they might better, almost, for all their dramatic form and elements, be called meditations, — the narrative is long, low-voiced, and desultory. We seem to hear the heavy sighs of repressed feeling by which it is frequently interrupted. Tourgéneff felt bound, as Gogol had done before him, to confine himself to a bare statement of fact. He took his assiduous and silent notes of the wild, monotonous landscape of middle Russia, with its dearth of historic associations, — a kind of scenery wonderfully intime to us in our country, — and of the elementary types of character bred therein, and the sad and sordid life of the children of the soil, both bond and free. But he was of another and more acutely sensitive nature than Gogol, and was penetrated by the ideas of a later day. He was intensely sympathetic, and we are not long left in doubt concerning the side to which his sympathies incline. For all his instinctive fastidiousness, they are always with the poor. The themes that engage his full powers are the simple faith and goodfellowship of an old-fashioned pair of rustics like Khor and Kalyvtch ; the silent submission to unutterable wrong of the miller’s wife Arina; the ingenuous courage with which the boy Paul confronts the spectre that foretells his untimely death, in that exquisite story of the night encampment of the village children among the grazing horses ; the beatific resignation of the girl Loukéria, in the Reliques Vivantes. There is barely a word here, any more than in the Ames Mortes, which can be construed into a direct plea for the oppressed or arraignment of the oppressor ; yet our sense of the multiform woe inherent in a vast public wrong goes on deepening from page to page, until we feel as if the most indignant appeal on behalf of the socially disinherited would seem tame and weak beside this plain process of passionless revelation.
The coincidence in time has been noted between the appearance of the Récits d’un Chasseur and of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and the presumable relative connection of the two books with the formal abolition of slavery in Russia and the United States. But never, it must be allowed, did two philanthropists work simultaneously for kindred ends in so entirely dissimilar a fashion. Let the reader who would measure the difference between them compare the hot and harrowing description of the beating of Uncle Tom, in the chapter entitled The Martyr, with this, out of Tourgéneff’s first volume : —
“ Notwithstanding my small sympathy for Arcadi Pavlytch, it happened to me once to pass the night with him. I had my horses harnessed early in the morning, but he insisted on my taking ‘ an English breakfast ’ with him before I went, and dragged me, for that purpose, into his study. They brought us, with our tea, cutlets, soft-boiled eggs, butter, honey, Swiss cheese, etc. Two whitegloved footmen anticipated silently and very swiftly our slightest wishes. We sat upon a Persian divan. Arcadi wore large Turkish trousers of silk, a black velvet vest, an elegant fez with blue tassels, and yellow Chinese slippers without heels. He sipped his tea, nibbled a little, looked at his finger-nails, smoked, put a cushion behind his back, and in general gave evidence of being in an excellent humor. Presently he made a serious attack upon the cutlets and cheese, and after having quitted himself like a man at this operation he poured himself a glass of red wine, lifted it to his lips, and frowned.
“ ‘ Why was this wine not warmed ? ‘ he said dryly to one of the footmen. The man looked distressed, turned pale, and stood as if petrified. ‘ Well, my friend, I asked you a question,’ continued the young seigneur with studied calm, and staring fixedly at the poor man, who twisted slightly the napkin which he held in his hand, but made no other movement, and appeared as if spellbound by some fascination which deprived him of the power of utterance. “ Arcadi smoothed his brow, still regarding the poor wretch thoughtfully.
“ ‘ Excuse me,’ he said to me, with an amiable smile and a friendly touch upon my knee; then turned his eyes again upon the footman silently.
“ ‘You can go, now,’ he observed at length, touching at the same time the spring of a little hand-bell, which brought in a huge dark-complexioned man, with a low forehead and streaked eyes.
“ ‘ Make your arrangements for Fedor,’ he said to the man, in fewer words even than these, and with perfect selfcommand.
“ The thick-set man bowed and went out.
“ ‘Such, my dear fellow,’ said Arcadi gayly, ‘ are the annoyances of country life. But where are you going ? Sit down, sit down, and stay awhile.’
“ ‘ No: it is high time for me to leave.’ ”
Both Tourgéneff and Mrs. Stowe had on their side, as the event proved, the immense power of exact opportunity. Our countrywoman could, however, do no more than make an uncommonly vigorous use of the rhetorical and Sensational devices of the past. It was a fault of all our earlier American literature to be too much in awe of literary precedent, the ever wasteful mistake of putting new wine into old bottles. But the Russian had been called to the practice of a new method ; and mild as that method might at first sight appear in the hands of a writer of Tourgéneff’s refinement, it was presently felt to be a terrible one. Nor do we at all wonder that Russia, even the presumably regenerated Russia of Alexander the Liberator, was no longer a possible residence for him.
He went away to a career of honor and emolument in a foreign land, and yet he went away broken-hearted, and the fixed sentiment which underlies all the wonderfully varied studies of Russian life which he subsequently made from a distance is one of despair. Tourgéneff and Gogol are the true Nihilists, though the latter never knew the name of his complaint, and the former, as we have seen, was bitterly accused of having trenched on Dostoïevsky’s province, in assuming to discuss and illustrate it. With minds congenitally clear of cant, they had plunged fearlessly — the elder even jauntily — into the deep labyrinth of latter-day speculation; but neither went far enough, before he died, to discern the faint spark of light at the extremity of the noisome cavern, or suspect the point of its ultimate issue.
For Nihilism, in its largest acceptation, that is to say the flat negation of all faith and hope, whether in the social, political, or spiritual order, is not a possible permanent attitude of the human mind. Whatever it may mean, whether it be for our consolation or our delusion, the fact is so. The planet must return from its eclipse, the soul from its nadir of universal denial. It seems strange to think of Dostoïevsky, the mouthpiece of the “humiliated and offended,” the master of horrors, as the prophet of such a return, and yet I find him to have been so. He, more than any of the rest of these new men and would-be teachers, has been unfortunate in the order in which his productions have been given to the western world. It is hardly possible to comprehend or even tolerate Crime et Châtiment without having first read the Souvenirs de la Maison des Morts ; or fully to appreciate the latter without knowing something of the personal history of the author. I must also confess to having been myself beaten by Crime et Châtiment, when I first attempted to read it. I began the book, and had not nerve enough to finish it. But I did afterwards read the Souvenirs from beginning to end, and this, which was really the earlier work, reconciled me to the later. It is one long, dry chronicle of human misery, of which not a single distressing or even revolting detail is spared the reader; but it is a chronicle of suph misery endured unto the end, and, before the end, surmounted by the might of the inviolable human will. Let us see to what extent this agonizing, and yet in some sort animating, story is a narrative of actual experience.
Fedor Michaïlovitch Dostoïevsky was born in 1821, in an almshouse in Moscow, where his father, the proprietor of a tiny rural estate and a retired armysurgeon, had received the appointment of physician. It was but a starveling livelihood which the elder Dostoïevsky gained in this way, and his children were familiarized, from their earliest years, with the pinch of barely decent poverty in their own persons, no less than with the daily spectacle of extreme wretchedness and destitution. Shift was made, however, to send Fedor and his brother Alexis to the school of military engineering at St. Petersburg, and the former graduated at the age of twenty-two with the grade of sub-lieutenant. He wore his uniform for about a year, then doffed it, and returned to Moscow, having embraced the desperate resolution of exchanging the sword for the pen as a means of livelihood. Some sort of subsistence he must have contrived to gain by writing, since his first book, Les Pauvres Gens, a simple and very affecting story of life among the working-classes of Moscow, was published in 1844, and it was not until April, 1849, that he was arrested and imprisoned as a political offender.
The two brothers were both implicated in what goes by the name of the conspiracy of Petrachevsky, but the counts against them were extremely light. They were charged with having attended the meetings of the conspirators, with having joined them in denouncing the censorship of the press, and with having subscribed for the publication of a book, which never appeared, by the way, but which was to have set forth certain decidedly treasonable views. The Russian police could hardly have been as vigilant a body then as now, for the meetings of this revolutionary club had been going on for nearly two years, when the associates were finally betrayed by one of their own number. They had arranged a series of banquets, and had already celebrated, in one of these, the founder of Christianity, but that which was made the occasion of their arrest was held in honor of Fourier. Neither of the brothers Dostoïevsky, as it happened, was present on this occasion, but they shared the common fate. Alexis was soon set at liberty, in the absence of any shadow of proof against him, but Fedor was consigned, with the rest, to a squalid dungeon, where they remained, for eight months, awaiting sentence.
One of their number — not the novelist — has left a narrative of this time of suspense, in which he tells the curiously characteristic story of a young soldier of their guard, who was wont to do his best to console them by opening, on the sly, from time to time, the grating in their door, and softly whispering, “ Are you very tired of it ? Suffer patiently ! Christ also suffered! ” It is natural, apparently, to the untutored Muscovite mind to conceive of Christianity, quite simply, as a supplice. Dostoïevsky was destined to transpose this fixed idea of the inherent excellence and efficacy of suffering from the passive into the active voice; while that most militant of all non-resistants, Tolstoï, is endeavoring even now — or was endeavoring yesterday — to make of it a watchword, not to say a war-cry. SainteBeuve says of one of his nobly divined if slightly idealized women, the Duchesse de Duras, “ She did more than accept suffering. She loved it. She conceived for suffering, if I may say so, a kind of last sublime passion.” It is a similar disposition to exceed the utmost, to “ desire the inevitable,” to substitute enthusiasm for resignation and turn the flank of despair, to woo the object of one’s deepest dread in the spirit of that strange chant to which Tennyson so long denied a place in In Memoriam, —
No casual mistress, but a wife ? ” —
it is this very transport of dejection which seems everywhere to mark the latest development of the Russian idea. Fanatical? Unnatural? No doubt, to a “ European,” or, in other words, thoroughly Latinized mind, like Vogüé’s. But who shall say what is or is not going to be natural to the men of an untried race and an unknown era ? Still there was a black passage to be traversed by Fedor Dostoïevsky before he should even conceive the possibility of solving by so defiant a paradox the riddle of his difficult life.
All the summer and autumn of 1849, while just over the Carpathian Mountains the war for Hungarian independence was traversing its brief season of triumph. Petrachevsky and his comrades languished in prison, uncertain of their doom. Finally, on the 22d of December, they were led out into the Place Semenovsky, in Moscow, and ordered to take off their coats before listening to their sentence. The mercury stood at twenty degrees below zero, and the reading had lasted half an hour before it concluded with the words “ condemned to be shot.” The restless glances of some of the shivering band had already detected a wagon drawn up at one side of the square, and piled high with certain bulky objects, concealed by a coarse cloth, which were now understood to be coffins. As soon as the reading was ended, Petrachevsky and his two most prominent associates were brought forward into the centre of the square and blindfolded, and the muskets of the soldiers were actually leveled, when a messenger arrived from St. Petersburg commuting the sentence, and they were all started forthwith for Siberia. The conspirators had experienced the imperial clemency, but the horrible shock received upon that bitter day may well have left its morbid traces for his entire life on the body and brain of Dostoïevsky.
At Tobolsk the convicts were visited, and their most pressing necessities relieved, by a deputation composed of the wives and widows of old Siberian prisoners, of whom some were still in durance, and some had long since died in exile. Here, too, the comrades were all parted from one another, and each received separate sentence; Dostoïevsky’s being four years’ hard labor in the convict prison, to be followed by enlistment for life in the ranks of the Siberian army, with forfeiture of nobility and all so-called civil rights. He served out his full term among the convicts, but was pardoned under the general amnesty proclaimed by the Emperor Alexander in 1859, and permitted to return to Moscow. There he lived until 1881. There he wrote his greatest books, the Souvenirs, Crime et Châtiment, and Humiliés et Offensés ; and the concourse of the lower orders at his funeral was so great that his coffin was actually overturned by the press in the room where the remains were exposed.
In the Souvenirs de la Maison des Morts, he has given us, under the thinnest. possible disguise of fiction, the journal of these ten years of exile. He would never have been allowed to publish it, of course, had he not represented his convict as a civil rather than a political offender. One wonders a little, especially while one’s nerves are yet quivering from the perusal of the story, that he should have been allowed, under any circumstances, to publish it there. But after all, it contains nothing of the nature of a complaint or an arraignment, hardly so much as an implied protest or indirect reflection against the authorities. That, as we have seen, is not the way of the Russian when he feels himself wronged. He relies, as well he may, upon his unparalleled power of making things speak for themselves. Here the facts are: the hunger, and cold, and nakedness, and squalor; the cruel mockings and scourgings : the anguish, to a man of personal refinement and educated moral sense, of the unavoidable daily and hourly contact with all that is coarsest and most depraved in humanity; the pain of unaccustomed toil, and the far worse pain of enforced inaction ; the inconceivable ennui ; the maddening waste of life’s best years ; the daily spectacle of death in its dreariest form. The man who has endured these things consents to re-live them, and the reader has no choice but to live them also. I had intended to give a detailed sketch of the Souvenirs and to make extracts. But quotations are hard to select where, with continuous intensity, there is absolutely no emphasis laid by the writer, and I fancy that I enter more fully into his own spirit and intent by declining to break his narrative at all. I will indicate only two salient passages : that in which he is roused from his first complete prostration of soul by the sudden stimulus of the thought, “ Here one may learn to suffer all; ” and that other, near the end, where he calmly casts up the profit and loss of his dire experience, and proclaims himself enormously the gainer.
“ Ah no, poor soul!” cries Vogüé, with a compassionate shake of the head. “ It is a brave word, certainly, but all the more pitiful to hear! His nerves were hopelessly shattered during those ten years, his epileptic malady confirmed, his mind incurably warped.”
To this opinion, had it been delivered in his presence, Dostoïevsky would assuredly have retorted, as he did once, in fact, disdainfully retort, when the French critic ventured a guarded allusion to the “ limitations ” of the Russian writers, “ We have the genius of all other nations plus our own. It follows that we can comprehend you, and that you cannot comprehend us ! ” But the author of the Scarlet Letter and the Marble Faun would intuitively have comprehended. I wonder, by the way, that no one should yet have noted the identity in plot of Dostoïevsky’s greatest novel, Crime et Châtiment, and Hawthorne’s latest, and in some respects profoundest, romance : a horrible crime committed under overwhelming temptation, a long evasion of justice, followed by a voluntary surrender and a course of unflinching expiation. The mystic element predominates in the American fiction, the realistic in the Russian ; but both elements are present in both works, combined in previously untried proportions.
But it was reserved for a member of the most favored class in Russia distinctly to formulate, for her dumbly enduring millions, this possible new faith, grown from the very seed of despair. The re-reading, or re-adjustment, of Christianity proposed by Count Leo Tolstoï in Ma Religion has its fantastic features. It recalls the earliest presentation of that doctrine, at least in this : that it can hardly fail to prove a “ stumbling-block ” to one half the well-instructed world, and an epitome of “ foolishness ” to the other. It consists merely in a perfectly literal interpretation of the fundamental precepts, resist not evil, be not angry, commit no adultery, swear not, judge not. Even the qualifications which our Lord himself is supposed to have admitted in the passage, “ Whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause,” and in the one excepted case to the interdict against divorce, our amateur theologian rejects as the glosses of uncandid commentators, or the concessions of an interested priesthood. He then proceeds to show that the logical results of his own rigid interpretations, if reduced to practice, would be something more than revolutionary. They would involve the abolition of all personal and class distinctions ; the effacement of the bounds of empire; the end alike of the farce of formally administered justice and of the violent monstrosity of war ; the annihilation of so much even of the sense of individuality as is implied in the expectation of personal rewards and punishments, whether here or hereafter. For all this he professes himself ready. The man of great possessions and transcendent mental endowment, the practiced magistrate, the trained soldier, the consummate artist, the whilom statesman, having found peace in the theoretic acceptance of unadulterated Christian doctrine as he conceives it, offers himself as an example of its perfect practicability.
Ma Religion was given to the world as the literary testament of the author of Guerre et Paix and Anna Karénine. From the hour of the date inscribed upon its final page — Moscow, February 22, 1884 — he disappeared from the scene of his immense achievements and the company of his intellectual and social peers. He went away to his estates in Central Russia, to test in his own person his theories of lowly-mindedness, passivity, and universal equality. He undertook to live henceforth with and like the poorest of his own peasants, by the exercise of a humble handicraft.
Those who know him best say that he will inevitably return some day; that this phase will pass, as so many others have passed with Tolstoï; and that we need by no means bemoan ourselves over the notion that he has said his last word at fifty-seven. Indeed, he seems to have foreshadowed such a return in his treatment of the characters of Bezouchof and Lenine, with both of whom we instinctively understand the author himself to be so closely identified. We are bound, I think, to hope that Tourgéneff’s last prayer may be granted ; those of us, at least, who are still worldly-minded enough to lament the rarity of great talents in this last quarter of our century.
And yet, there is a secret demurrer; there are counter-currents of sympathy. A suspicion will now and then arise of something divinely irrational, something — in all reverence be it said — remotely messianic, in the sacrifice of this extraordinary man. The seigneur would become as a slave, the towering intelligence as folly, if by any means the sufferer may be consoled, the needy assisted. Here, at any rate, is the consistency of the apostolic age. And is it not true that when all is said, when we have uttered our impatient protest against the unconditional surrender of the point of honor, and had our laugh out, it may be, at the flagrant absurdity of any doctrine of non-resistance, a quiet inner voice will sometimes make itself heard with inquiries like these : —
“ Is there anything, after all, on which you yourself look back with less satisfaction than your own self-permitted resentments, your attempted reprisals for distinctly unmerited personal wrong ? What is the feeling with which you are wont to find yourself regarding all public military pageants and spectacles of warlike preparation ? Is it not one of sickening disgust at the ghastly folly, the impudent anachronism, of the whole thing ? ” In Europe, at all events, the strain of the counter-preparations for mutual destruction, the heaping of armaments on one side and the other, has been carried to so preposterous and oppressive a pitch that even plain, practical statesmen like Signor Bonghi, in Rome,3 are beginning seriously to discuss the alternative of general disarmament, the elimination altogether of the appeal to arms from the future international policy of the historic states.
Now, if we turn from his formulated heresies to the simple tales in which Count Tolstoï has endeavored to bring his new beliefs within the grasp and illustrate them for the benefit of the ignorant and poor, we shall find them, or at least I find them, to be pervaded by a quite unexampled freshness and tenderness, a grace which is almost angelic. The artless animus of infinite folk-lore, the essence of all the earliest and sweetest legends of the church, may be found in the Recherche de Bonheur, re-wrought into shapes of infantile innocence and beauty. What a meek, pure sadness in the stories of Polikouchka and Aksénoff! Where now is Vogüé’s “ souffle de la cimetière ” ? There is a fragrance about these pages as of the morning dews of Paradise. They are more naïf than the fioretti of St. Francis. We seem to be listening to the lullabies of the new birth, or the nurserytales of the millennium. I protest that I know nothing in all the art of the past fitly to compare with Les Deux Vieillards and Ce Qui Fait Vivre les Hommes except that softly sparkling mosaic of the Good Shepherd and his flock, in the Church of San Nazario e Celso in Ravenna.
But it is time to cut short this reverie upon the Russian writers, which long since abandoned the pretense of being a critique, and is fast degenerating into a rhapsody. The sum of what I feel rather than think about them may be put into a very few words. The most patient and unbiased students of the human heart which our introspective era has known have thrown contempt upon the results of their own researches. They who were once enamored of all negation have begun hardily to reaffirm. Their work of destruction and denial is virtually done. They are ready now to inaugurate a new worship, to adumbrate a new art, and to prophesy a new morality ; while the classicist of Western Europe looks on confounded, unable to conceive the semblance of the structure which is to surmount these eccentric foundations.
Harriet Waters Preston.
- The reader will, I am sure, be glad to learn that a new edition is about to appear of Mr. Eugene Schuyler’s very spirited translation of this fascinating tale. So far as I know, it is the first of all of them to have been rendered directly from the original into English, and it excited less attention than it ought to have done when first published, about ten years ago.↩
- This curious book has quite lately, as I understand, been translated into English, but the title Dead Souls appears to me so much more remote from all the associations connoted by the original than even the French one that I have preferred to stick to the latter, I have not had the pleasure of seeing this English translation, and do not even know whether it has been made directly from the Russian or through the medium of the French.↩
- See article entitled La Paix, in the Revue Internationale for March 1, 1887.↩