Monday, April 7, 2014

Character, setting, metaphor: What's not being done in Chernyshevsky

Nikolai Chernyshevsky was not a brilliant novelist, which he admits many times in the text of his 1863 novel What is to be Done? Yes, Chernyshevsky's novel is lacking in a lot of the devices and techniques one expects to find in a 19th-century novel. If I was to compare Chernyshevsky with Dickens, say, or Tolstoy, there would be nothing left of Nikolai; his best passages are barely equal to Dickens' worst. Hell, they are not that good.

Yet I pause to repeat what I said in my last post: I am actually enjoying What is to be Done? For the last two days or so I've been trying to figure out why that is. It's not the prose, certainly. This is a mostly flat narrative, a sort of matter-of-fact faux journalism, like the majority of what's called long-form nonfiction these days. There is generally a single tone to the writing, one of enthusiasm for a job well done, a sort of middle-management happiness at a good quarterly report. But I can't wait to get back to the book. Maybe I should take a closer look at the formal elements of the novel and try to figure out just what I'm enjoying here.

Character. Chernyshevsky does a lot of what's called telling in the novelist's trade. "What kind of woman was Marya? I will tell you..." and then he does, you know. At some length. At some clumsy repetitive length. A length of time will be spent clumsily expositing upon Marya's character. You will learn about Marya, who is similar, in many ways, to the landlady's mother. Et cetera. Very little of this has any life to it, any kick, but to our great relief Chernyshevsky sometimes enlivens these otherwise bland characterizations with a bit of action, with short scenes wherein his characters interact with the evils of the oppressive society. I wish there was more of this kind of stuff:
What sort of man was Lopukhov? Here's what sort. One day he was out walking along Kamennoostrovsky Prospekt in his well-worn uniform (returning home from a lesson...). From the other direction heading toward him was a portly gentleman, out on a constitutional. The portly gent headed straight for him, not about to give way. Now at the time Lopukhov had a rule never to yield to anyone except a woman. They bumped shoulders. The gentleman, turning slightly toward Lopukhov, said, "What sort of swine are you, you pig!" He was about to continue this edifying speech when Lopukhov turned to face him, seized the gentleman in a bear hug, and deposited him in the gutter, very carefully. He stood over him and said, "Don't move or I'll drag you out there where the mud is deeper."
I laughed aloud when I read that one. I can't wait to re-read Notes from Underground. There is, as I say, no spark of life in Chernyshevsky's characters. It's up to the reader to supply the humanity here, to extend our empathy and pretend that What is to be Done? concerns itself with real life people whose hearts beat in their breasts and whose lungs draw air. Our author isn't going to do that for us. Maybe he's just playing on our sympathy, our sentimentality. Dickens, after all, does the same thing when he expects a reader to care about one of his featureless, deadly dull saintly protagonists. One of the many notes I've scrawled in the margins of my copy of this novel is "A romance with no romantic feelings." Maybe that should be "a human-interest story with no humans." More clever readers will find a more clever construction.

Setting. This book takes place in Imperial Petersburg, in the 1850s. There is no flavor of the city at all in this novel. There are no views, there is no texture, there is nothing at all except for a few place names and the above-mentioned gutter. It could be set anywhere, which I don't think is intentional on Chernyshevsky's part. His world is a fog, an unseen place, a place he mostly ignores. Again, it's up to the reader to imagine a city, to summon up the Neva, the bridges, the islands, the parks and curving streets and the palace to the east, etc. Chernyshevsky wastes less effort on setting than he does on character. He either assumes his reader already knows the city or, more likely, he just doesn't care. It doesn't occur to him that his story needs a place to stand. He ignores every possible opportunity to stretch out and describe our surroundings:
People find nature so pleasant that they enjoy even the pitiful, miserable scenery around Petersburg, which cost millions and tens of millions of rubles.
That's it. Seriously, Chernyshevsky just walks away from that one. Anyone else would've lingered there, given us something solid and visual. Chernyshevsky is not a visual sort of writer. Which is why there is very little

Figurative language. Don't make me laugh, you. There's one onrunning metaphor, which Chernyshevsky flogs for all he is worth, of a field of grain. The field is Russia. The grain is the Russian people. Some of the land is polluted or in need of drainage (which is revolution, you see?). This is the metaphor in What is to be Done? The only metaphor, I think. Everything else is a colorless literal description, if it's described at all. Which it's generally not. Lopukhov and Kirsanov are medical students (and then doctors). Is that a symbol? No, it is not. Vera starts a sewing collective, a dressmaking company. Is that a symbol? No, it is not. Fifty young socialist utopians have a picnic on one of the islands, rowing out in six boats and playing tag after lunch. Is that a symbol? No, it is not. Young utopian socialists used to get together and have picnics and argue about politics. What is to be Done? has no use for symbols, except the coded symbols of revolutionary activity that were being used in the literature of the 1860s. None of these coded symbols are the least bit interesting except to the historian. They're also pretty blatant, at least at this historical distance.

I'm being very hard on Nikolai Chernyshevsky; I'm making this book sound really dull, and I swear to you that it's not. Some sections are not interesting, a great deal of it is in flat, academic prose, but I keep reading it and I want to keep reading it. Not that I'm making any sort of claim that this is a Russian Moby-Dick or anything like that. Somehow, despite all it lacks, it's a good novel.

So what's good in this novel that I'm enjoying? I find this book to be strangely charming. And what's most charming, I think, is the human element, which I think I earlier denied. This is a shallow, shallow book, where the inner lives and emotions of characters are barely examined except where they intersect with utopian politics, but I tell you that Chernyshevsky has a very good grasp of the subtleties of the human heart and his observations of that heart keep creeping into the novel, maybe despite his best efforts. Because while Chernyshevsky makes fun of the romance elements of his novel, this turns out to be a love story, or a collection of love stories. There are many good observations in this book about love, that respectable authors wouldn't be ashamed to have written.
His previous love was only a result of a his youthful desire to love someone, anyone at all...Indeed, his grief at losing her faded away very quickly; but even after the grief had disappeared, he imagined that he was still preoccupied with it. When he noticed that he no longer felt any grief but merely recalled it, he saw that he'd become quite involved with Vera Plavlovna and that he'd come upon a great misfortune.
That's good stuff. The observation, not the prose, I mean. Here is the absolute best passage I've come across in the book so far, on page 234. (The second best passage is in the prologue, where Dmitri is grieved at his wife's command that he leave her: He couldn't find his hat for the longest time. That's an excellent detail, a very good moment observed.) But here's the bit from page 234, where Kirsanov convinces himself that he must flee from his friendship with Vera, whom he loves:
My position is like this: I love wine. Before me stands a glass containing some very good wine, but I suspect that the glass has been poisoned. I can't determine whether my suspicion is well founded or not. Should I drink the glass or spill it out so that it no longer tempts me? I mustn't call my decision honorable or even honest--these words are too grand. I'll call it merely calculated and sensible. I spill out the glass. In doing so I deprive myself of some pleasure and cause myself some displeasure, but I protect my health, that is, the possibility of drinking much more wine for a very long time--wine that I'll know for sure hasn't been poisoned. I'm not behaving foolishly; and that's all the praise I deserve.
Chernyshevsky's "rational man" reasons it all out, even though he knows he's just rationalizing his decision. He pretends not to take Vera into consideration at all.

Sometimes I think of this book as a D.H. Lawrence novel as penned by a writer of encyclopedia articles. It's all there, though: the conflicted selfish men and women, lying to themselves and talking about poverty and higher meaning in life, the unhappy support characters, the dysfunctional families and the lists of what everyone's reading, just without the attention a Lawrence would give to the men and women, the focus on all the wrong parts of the narrative. And all the erotic subtext, of course. Even the story of the consumptive prostitute-turned-seamstress is chaste and practical in Chernyshevsky's hands. There are men and women of low morals in this novel, but there's nothing sexy about them.

My imaginary Chernyshevsky, whose eyes shine with true belief, whose mind races along the tide of history and whose pen flies across the page, attempts to write only that which is necessary and laughs at the idea that he could be creating some frivolous romance. And yes, he's writing a romance. Maybe that's what's charming: that love story, that dishwater gray love story of repressed passion channeled into something other than embraces, is the best that Chernyshevsky can do, the only love story he can write that he will respect himself for having written. I am reading my imaginary author, not his novel. But it's a good time anyway. I enjoyed the four page history of the organization of the sewing collective, too.


  1. These posts are gonna save me a lot of work. Thanks!

    I'm enjoying the book, too. As you say, it works as a sad comedy. Maybe it works in some other way as well, I don't know. How deep do I want the characterization to be in a Marx Brothers movie? If only Chernyshevsky could tell jokes.

    The one great character is the implied author, "Chernyshevsky," yearning for sexual utopia and greater upper-body strength, laughing when he awkwardly insults his perspicacious reader.

    The gutter passage made Dostoevsky so angry. At that point I was tempted to start Dostoevsky immediately, but I resisted; he will wait.

    1. Yeah, Chernyshevsky's deliberate jokes mostly fall flat, poor guy. I'll bet that picnic on the island was his favorite scene, a dream he had while locked up in prison. He even complains to the reader that he couldn't attend, but he would have if he'd been able.

      It's easier to believe that the big debate in Petersburg after 1863 was "Chernyshevsky is kidding" versus "No, he's sincere," rather than it being a debate about the future of politics.

  2. I love the part about Chernyshevsky being like Lawrence by a writer of encylopedia articles.

    And the whole project is good, the struggling to figure out what it is that claims you in a book that is clearly "not Dickens." Often what claims you is so very puzzling... I notice that people frequently get it wrong with certain writers; that is, they don't "get" a book and say that other people like it for some piffling reasons (that happens to Jane Austen's books all the time, in my opinion.)

    (I do want to know what Tom meant about the gutter passage and Dostoevsky....)

    1. There's some stuff about wrestling in the picnic scene that reminds me of the wrestling scene in Women in Love, but with the homoerotic subtext much more subdued in the Chernyshevsky than in the Lawrence. The socialist heros are so manly and pure that the're essentially sexless, even when they're guilty of rigorism or schismaticism.

      You're right, though: it's a very useful exercize, figuring out why I like this book that is supposed to be so dreadful. I mean, it is dreadful, but in all the right ways.

      The gutter passage in Chernyshevsky is parodied at great length by Dostoevsky in Notes From Underground. I recall also that Underground had some great stuff about desire, where in WitbD? discounts desire and privileges conscious advantage as motivation for everything.

    2. Oh, I was thinking that I should read the Dostoevsky (when I can finally get rid of my deadlines, drat it!) Should like to read that parody!

      Yes, and I think that in all sorts of texts, those weird points that stop you for a moment (either because bad, different, or askew in some sense) are worth considering. And they often are keys to something... I find that especially so in scripture--every now and then there's something so astonishingly weird that it stops me, yet I notice that people tend to just slalom over those things, when often they are the most interesting and curious things of all.

    3. You are right! People walk around the points of interest instead of pausing and asking themselves why the author put that in. And I think that why I'm reading this Chernyshevsky bad novel is because I keep encountering moments that I really like within the clumsy narrative. And after a while, the specific manner of Chernyshevsky's clumsiness, the things you can see he's trying to avoid, the kind of impression he's trying to make, begins to have a charm of its own. Like Tom said, the "Chernyshevsky" character is a great fictional creation.

  3. I've just finished the sewing collective part. (Which did not have enough sewing in it.) This is a weird novel. I'm enjoying it, but not because I like Vera or Dmitri, not because it evokes St. Petersburg (as you point out, it utterly fails to do any such thing), not because I think that a sewing collective would actually work. I want to know what happens next anyway. I do not understand these married people who are barely roommates.

    Kirsanov is just starting to show up again, so I'm going to try not to anticipate.

    1. There's a chapter pretty far into the book (page 250, maybe?) called "a theoretical conversation" that's sort of a microcosm of the whole novel; the real world is never once invoked and the talk is forcibly restrained into the realm of abstraction. The subject of this conversation, of course, is love. It's like this book was written by an alien. "Sewing collective," Chernyshevsky says. "That sounds good. I wonder what 'sewing' is? Well, it can't be important, can it? The collective is what matters." Dickens would give us all the dresses, the needle-pricked fingertips and the names of the clients and seamstresses, and we'd even know what the inside of the shop looked like.

      You need not anticipate regarding Kirsanov! Chernyshevsky does that for you, and will supply adequate spoilers in case you begin to get nervous about the outcome of the plot. Ni bispakoitas, as Tolstoy would say. Don't worry.

  4. I am finally figuring out who the perspicacious reader is. I knew it wasn't me. There is a layer to this novel that Katz works on, but I think maybe not enough. Anyway, that is one source of the novel's weirdness that I had not really understood until, oh, earlier today. Finally clicked.

    The weird things in this novel are without doubt the keys. Scott has done a great job finding examples of how a novel with such flat characters can turn out to be so psychologically rich.

    1. It's like we're reading Nikolai's fantasy journal. Have you noticed how the farther you get into the book, the more often he puts himself into the action. "We could see that he was like that," or "We had no idea this was the case for him," or "Some of us knew him better than that." I begin to expect him to walk into a scene with Vera, smoking a cigar and talking about wheatfields. The author is in love with Vera; he so wants her to be happy and liberated. It's almost painful.