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October 7, 2003 by AK

Petty demons raging

I suppose I’m not alone in this: Sometimes, coming across a political or literary review, I feel helpless rage at the author’s hopeless inability to understand a goddamn bit of what they examine. I may even scream, “This is stupid!” or “This is silly!” or “Bull!” but my exclamations would be inadequate to the fury seething inside. I realize full well that by calling someone clueless I arbitrarily assert the primacy of my understanding and my taste over hers; I have no problem with that, since there are subrealms where I am an opinionated absolutist, and I shall not be otherwise.

Browsing the archives at LanguageHat, I surfed over to Waggish, a literature and arts blog that LH warmly recommends. I scrolled down the comprehensive “recent entries” and “books” lists in search for familiar names — and since my knowledge area is narrow, I only identified one: Sologub with his Petty Demon, or The Little Demon; just let’s not argue over that. Immediately on reading the first third of the review, I lapsed into that rabid stupor… But I managed to get through to the end.

Now let’s face the Truth. Dostoyevsky was a terrible stylist. Except in his own Demons, he employs an anti-style that turns reading his novels into a continuing insult of one’s esthetical instinct, to say nothing of baser instincts. What’s troubling is that he achieves what he wants — and his goals transcend the esthetical and the moral. Yes, Gogol’s style is on the brink of monstrosity, but until some fateful moment he had no ubergoals in mind; and further meditation should bring anyone to the conclusion Gogol is the ultimate stylist in Russian literature — even with Nabokov counted — even with Leskov included. Now, Sologub’s style was even worse that FMD’s — not more perverse, but just more… absent. My first impression of The Little Demon was that half of it was written by a great writer, and half by a graphomaniac. The bottom line, though, is that is a foundational work, whether it belongs to literature or some other domain, and one should end up bound to visit it over and over again.

I suspect translations reduce stylistic intensity, so their readers get an easier ride through the Unrottable Novels; the flip side is that passages like this become a possibility:

The obvious comparison that jumps out is to Gogol. There is a similar dark humor, and a similar cynicism, but those affinities are mostly superficial. While Gogol had larger than life archetypes as characters (the pathetic bureaucrat, the obsessive gamesman, the skinflint), Sologub’s characters are resolutely small and detailed.

No comment, comrades; let’s blame the translators. The comparison with Gogol couldn’t be less obvious; Gogol is amusing in the short term, Sologub is Sologub. Gogol’s characters are detailed as detailed can be; it’s what details he picks that makes the difference.

But can we really indict the poor Slavists for the “larger than life archetypes”? First — I am devoutly Nabokovian on Gogol — there are no archetypes there; don’t look for them in belles lettres, please; turn elsewhere. Second, there is not, and cannot be, any point in comparing the dimensions of literary characters with those of life, as literature itself is the ultimate antipode of life (and the ultimate expression of all that is worth living, by whatever means paper will withstand).

In the context of the surroundings, stripped of any nobility, Peredonov occupies a role in his environment similar to that of Pechorin in Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, written in 1840, seemingly as a rebuff to Pushkin’s more romantic view of Russia. Pechorin was the cynical, brash opportunist who was no more moral than the pompous nobles around him, but is incredibly successful at exploting them.

Again, I am frozen right on the spot, like Gogol’s phantoms, speechless and all. Pushkin’s view of Russia was complex, I admit, but, hey, who’s the romantic here? Is it Alexander “Devil got me born in Russia with a mind and talent” Pushkin or Mikhail “No, I’m not Byron; I’m another, not yet known elect” Lermontov? OK, perhaps their takes on Russia were just an exception to their worldviews? Well, read and see for yourself. As for Pechorin’s being a “cynical, brash opportunist” (where can I find those pompous nobles around him?), some Russian readers do think so of him, too. At the age of 13 or so, I was especially impressed by a 15 year old mentor’s remark that he had read A Hero… a year earlier and was shocked to find Pechorin a scoundrel. Having by now accumulated enough temerity to challenge that sage’s dictum, I shall call Pechorin the ultimate romantic — a Byron without a castle, a peership, and a Greece to fight for.

As for the Rutilov sisters, they are among the few pure and natural — non-perverted — characters; Lyudmila, in particular, is sincere and sweet in her womanly affection for teenage Sasha; her “perversions” are such only in the reviewer’s eye — an aberration typical of Sologub’s critics.

I’m grateful to Waggish despite all this. Whatever the review (addendum here), the attention is precious. Even though they never mention the nedotykomka.


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