Saturday, April 5, 2014

Confessions and footnotes in Nikolai Chernyshevsky's What is to be Done?

I'm about halfway through Nikolai Chernyshevsky's novel What is to be Done?, and because I've recently re-read the Confessions of St Augustine, I'll start this post with a couple of confessions. First, one from Chernyshevsky:
Yes, the first pages of my story reveal that I have a very poor opinion of my public. I employed the conventional ruse of a novelist: I began my tale with some striking scenes taken from the middle or the end, and I shrouded them with mystery. You, the public, are kind, very kind indeed, and therefore undiscriminating and slow-witted. You can't be relied upon to know from the first few pages whether or not a book is worth reading. You have poor instincts that are in need of assistance...I was obliged to bait my hook with striking scenes. Don't condemn me for it: you deserve all the blame...No mysteries lie ahead: you will always know the outcome of every situation at least twenty pages in advance. And, to begin with, I shall even tell you the outcome of the entire novel: it will end happily, amidst wine and song.
And now one from me: At least so far, I am enjoying this book, but that's because I'm reading it as a comedy, which is not, I'm sure, how Chernyshevsky intended the novel to be read. But the thing is, it's almost a pretty good novel despite the fact that it's not really a novel at all; it's actually a persuasive essay in the vague form of a romance. An essay about materialism, feminism, and utopian socialism. I also confess that I'm having a hard time structuring this little essay about the book, because the book is actually a few separate forces lashed together, all pulling in different directions:
  • The argument for a utopian state, which is an argument against then-current socioeconomic conditions in Russia,
  • The surface structure of a romantic novel, the story of Vera and Dmitri who fall in love and marry and go on to attempt to live as utopians,
  • Chernyshevsky's postmodern assault on the form of the novel itself, presented under the guise of his being a novice novelist, and
  • [Bonus literary element] A possible response to Ivan Turgenev's portrayal of young intellectuals in the novel Fathers and Sons.
The argumentative essay is alleged to be the most important aspect of this book, so we'll dispense with that. I now elucidate for you the author's primary concerns during the first 150 or so pages: Money, especially the unequal distribution thereof. Middle-class values. Class awareness and the inherent hypocrisies arising therefrom. The acquisition of wealth via deceit and other inhumane behavior. The commodification of people, including one's children. Patriarchy. Chernyshevsky is wise enough to leave out a discussion of hereditary nobility and the right to rule, though kings (yes, French kings) are mocked and a strong vein of anarchism trots along with the story.

There are lectures from characters (and many directly from the constantly-intruding author) on human greed, history, materialism and utopian socialism, that last for pages and pages. I assume this sort of thing will only increase as the novel progresses, which might make for some heavy going. But at this point, as I say, I'm enjoying What is to be Done? The story of Vera and Dmitri is a pretty good story. Yes, there's actually a love story.

The romantic heroine is Vera Pavlova, daughter of a low-level government clerk/apartment manager named Pavel Rozalsky and his wife Marya. Vera has had "an ordinary upbringing," by which Chernyshevsky means that Vera has been surrounded by dishonest, greedy people her whole life so far (19 years). The foremost dishonest characters in Vera's life are of course her parents. Pavel and Marya have each managed to put by tens of thousands of rubles between them, some of Pavel's got by cheating the landlord for whom he works, but most of their savings were got by lending money at usurous rates or acting as pawnbrokers. These clever characters don't, however, limit their gainful activities to loansharking and pawnbrokering when they hear opportunity knocking. At one point Marya allows a woman to use a spare room for a few weeks, possibly during her final confinement and the birth of an illegitimate child. It's unclear, but something illegal, immoral, and probably downright evil was going on for a few days under Marya's direction.

Vera wishes to escape from the corrupt home of her parents. Her options are all pretty bleak. She can marry the landlord (a cad who falsely claimed to his pals that he'd already made Vera his mistress) although she's refused his offers many times already. She can become a governess, but certainly not in one of the better families if she's running away from an engagement. She can throw herself out the window and end it all. Or, she can marry romantic hero Dmitri Lopukhov, a medical student who tutors Vera's young brother Fedya once a week. Dmitri is in love with Vera, just as Vera is in love with Dmitri, this love springing suddenly forth when they talk briefly about egalitarian utopianism at a dance. Yes, you feel the heat pulsing on the page in that scene, Reader. Later there is a Socratic dialogue about materialism that made my palms quite damp. Needless to say, Vera accepts Dmitri's proposal and they run off to be secretly wed. Vera moves into an apartment with Dmitri and he gets a job as a translator while Vera starts a sewing collective. That's the first half of the novel, more or less. All of this is pretty fast-paced, and much of it is wildly funny in that typical 19th-century Russian ironical manner.

Chernyshevsky manages to maintain this ironical comic tone when he's not earnestly editorializing or lecturing the reader. So it's easy to read What is to be Done? as comedy, but certainly I'm laughing at a lot of sections the author intended as portrayals of idealistic utopians or condemnation of greed and inhumanity. My favorite scene so far is the one where Vera visits Julie (a fallen Frenchwoman with connections to Petersburg's young fashionable rich persons) to drum up business for the sewing collective Vera has started:
But soon Lopukhov arrived. Julie was instantly transformed into a respectable society lady, endowed with the sternest tact. She didn't maintain this pose for long, however. After congratulating Lopukhov on having so beautiful a wife, she became excited again. "Yes," she cried, "we must celebrate your marriage." She ordered an impromptu breakfast, complete with champagne. Verochka had to drink half a glass to toast her marriage, half a glass to her new establishment, and half a glass to Julie's health. Her head started spinning. Then she and Julie began to shout, yell, and raise a rumpus. Julie pinched Verochka, jumped up, and began to run around, chased by Verochka. They ran through all the rooms, bouncing on chairs. Lopukhov sat and laughed. It came to an end when Julie decided to boast about her strength. "I can lift you into the air with one hand." "Oh, no, you can't." They started to struggle, but fell onto the sofa; they no longer tried to stand up, but merely continued to shout and giggle; soon they both fell asleep.
What, no pillow fight? Oh, girls. You know how they are: you can lead them to socialism but you can't make them into men. Lopukhov sat and laughed. Chernyshevsky intends an egalitarian, feminist propaganda with this book, but he can't help seeing women as sort of cute and frivolous. Lopukhov, Vera's husband and savior (though he has only the most pure materialistic reasons for saving Vera, reasons so selfish she can't help but admire them), is not going to appear in a scene that shows him acting like a clown or giggling with his pals. Lopukhov and his friends tend to lecture one another, or give joint lectures to the reader.

Because--as he repeatedly tells us--he's not really writing a roman, Chernyshevsky plays with the form of the novel: he takes the typical 19th-century romance as his model, and shoves a political/social discourse just under the skin of that romance, and crams it so full that the romance skin splits open and the pure polemics come tumbling out. But that's easy, a low degree of difficulty. More entertaining is how he maintains that he's giving the reader a true story, and so the narrative can't follow the typical rules of a novel, because we are reading an account of what really happened and no, it is not a romance, you:
I'm recounting this affair the way it happened, rather than the way needed to establish my artistic reputation. As a novelist I very much regret that I wrote several pages in which I stooped to the level of vaudeville>
Nobody believes either of those claims. Chernyshevsky does some clever spoiling while making fun of the romantic novel ("Dear reader, you know of course, well in advance that there will be a conversation between Verochka and Lopukhov which will clear up the misunderstanding between them and that they will fall in love. That goes without saying.") and meanwhile he wants you to know that What is to be Done? is serious business:
I'm forewarning the reader about everything...I'm not the sort of author whose every word hides some kind of surprise. I describe what people thought and what they did, and that's all. If some action, conversation or internal monologue is needed to characterize a person or situation, then I'll relate it, even if it should prove to have no influence on the future course of my novel.
I don't know if that's intended to be funny (I expect it isn't), but I laugh whenever I run across these sorts of passages (which is often in this book). If someone had edited out all of the lecturing and the propagandist asides, this would've been a good, second-tier Russian novel. As it is, I don't know what it is. Neither fish nor fowl, and clearly (even at only halfway along), not a success as a hybrid form. Yet it was possibly the most influential late 19th-century novel in Russia. Possibly it earned that place by its role as bibliography; book titles and names of authors who treat the "modern problems" and offer up utopian solutions fly out of What is to be Done? in every chapter. I am surprised that so many of the utopian socialist ideas come not from Russia but from Western Europe, especially from France. The footnotes in this edition make pretty great reading.

[Bonus literary element] What is to be Done? is alleged to be a rebuttal, I guess, against claims made by Ivan Turgenev in his novel Fathers and Sons. The only possible reference I've seen to Turgenev comes on page 126:
...that was the way it used to be, gentlemen; not any more. That may be the way it still is, but not among the group of our young people who are now referred to as "modern youth." These young people, gentlemen, are somewhat strange.
It is evident from the context that "strange" here means "not corrupt like everyone else." I go out on a short limb here to say that maybe Chernyshevsky's argument contra nihilism might be the implication that the "new man" is not Turgenev's Bazarov; he is not actually a nihilist but is instead an anarchosocialist utopian, where Bazarov was more like the intellectual dilettante of every age who turns his back on all social customs, acting to no particular end, good or bad. Chernyshevsky's "modern youth" has a clear goal in mind, and is led there by "modern woman." Chernyshevsky might claim that Turgenev's characterization of young intellectuals is a false one, and that there are few if any true nihilists among the bright students/artists of the 1860s. Maybe.

There are some dream sequences coming up in the second half of the novel, I'm told, that smack of science fiction. So that'll be interesting. I have entirely failed to give you the feel of this book. It's preachy and digressive and the prose is not great, but the prose is not as bad as I'd heard it was. I'm actually having a pretty good time with it.

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