Page images
PDF
EPUB
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

Demon,' are those inspired by Caucasian legends. H however, better known to English readers as the aut of a novel translated under the title A Hero of Times.' The scene is laid at Piatigorsk, a fashiona inland watering-place at the foot of the Caucas mountains, much frequented by Russians of the up class. The hero Petchorin is of the usual type. military dandy, well-born, intellectual, cynical, inconstant, his love-affairs end in satiety, and the st closes in the vein of melancholy characteristic of Russ novels.

After Pushkin and Lermontov, the whole range Russian literature widens out. Literary stars app . not singly but in groups and constellations, and th light penetrates to the lowest planes of the social sce The general tendency and character of Russian literatu in recent times may be defined as realistic, psychologi and pessimistic. The most uncompromising realism evident in the studies of actual life taken from all clas of people. Idealism, as we understand it, is practica absent; while the psychology of the Russian school fiction is carried far deeper than anywhere in Engli literature.

Turguenev, in his Sportsman's Tales,' which are p sented as light sketches of country life, incidenta exposes the cruelty and selfishness of the landlord cla: and the miseries of the serf. Gogol, his senior by ni years, had undermined the whole fabric of Russia society by attacking the serf-owner; and Tolstoy, aft apparently acquiescing in the status quo of rich and pa in War and Peace,' and 'Anna Karenina,' became t greatest iconoclast of these three. These great pillars the Temple of Russian literature undoubtedly prepar the way for a social revolution, by sweeping aside t glamour that surrounded an hereditary landed aristocra and, not satisfied with arraigning the ruling section the community, poured unmeasured scorn upon t idlers, the futile dreamers and ineffectual altruists who flow of talk achieved no tangible result whatever.

In Turguenev's principal novels we find a successic of Onéguines and Petchorins. Let us take Rudin in tl novel of that name. Rudin associates with the nobili on terms of equality, without having an assured positi

[ocr errors]

of his own. He is lazy, ill-educated, luxurious, and fond of displaying his gifts of eloquence and social charm. He goes from house to house, and finds enthusiastic listeners in every drawing-room he enters. He is incapable of any definite course of action and is lamentably lacking in will and character, yet he pleads the cause of patriotic endeavour with so much eloquence that he himself is woefully disappointed that nothing comes of it . Rudin is Turguenev's finest psychological study. Other personalities, less carefully drawn but true to type, are Daria Lasunsky, the lady with a country-place who entertains lavishly and is secretly detested by those of lesser position, who regard her as 'haughty, overbearing, and immoral'; Lejnev, also of the landlord class, honest-hearted, simple, and with a limited range of ideas; and Natalia, the embodiment of goodness, moral courage, and steadfastness. The plot of Dmitri Rudin,' like those of so many Russian novels, is little more than an essay in psychology, amplified by pictures of so-called good society. Rudin, the social favourite and to all appear. ance master of the situation, realises the falseness of his position the moment he aspires to marriage with Natalia, the daughter of his hostess. He has no means, no position, and the pride of the Russian aristocrat of fifty years ago rises in arms against such a mésalliance. Rudin, incapable of resistance to opposing forces, resigns his love without a struggle, but yet with a certain dignity which inspires respect. His weakness has been unsparingly exposed throughout; but, as age and misfortune close in upon him, the author sums him up in the words of his one loyal friend, with the sympathy that Russians invariably show towards failure and moral laxity.

'It is not the spirit of idle restlessness, it is the flame of the love of truth that burns in you, and clearly, in spite of your failings; it burns in you with greater fire than in many who do not consider themselves egoists, and dare to call you

humbug perhaps ... and you have not even been embittered, Dmitri. You are ready, I am sure, to-day, to set to some new work again like a boy.' Rudin is shot down at the barricades in Paris in 1848. He had long ceased to be an egoist and a parasite.

Again, in A House of Gentlefolk, Turguenev makes a study of the men and women of his own standing and

6

6

generation, and introduces us to Panshin, a smart your bureaucrat, bent on a career, and Lavretsky, the scio of a noble house who returns from his travels to liv among his peasants, seeking to gain their confidence an spread the democratic views he has acquired abroa But Turguenev, for all his sympathy with the oppresse moujik and serf, is not able to place himself on the level. He writes, glancing downwards from above, wit pity but hardly with complete understanding.

The same, at the outset of his career as a write might be said of Leo Tolstoy. War and Peace' is novel of high society. Levine, it is true, is a philan thropic landlord, who lives on his estate and seeks t help and benefit his peasants by every means in his power; but Levine is subsidiary to Pierre, the natura son of a nobleman, and Prince André, a young office whose fastidious and arrogant spirit reflects the disposi tion of Tolstoy himself in early manhood. 'Anna Kare

• nina' is similarly a novel devoted to the old exclusive aristocratic and official class which disdained to associate with the merchants or even with the Intellectuals-the Intelligentsia' as they are called in Russia. I need not describe the characters in Anna Karenina,' a novel almost as well known to English as to Russian readers. Suffice to say that it is an admirable and faithful picture of a régime that is past and gone, and which had even then reached the verge of its downfall.

Not only the unrest that lay below the surface was working towards revolution, but the modern development of a middle class was changing the whole aspect of Russian life. A great industrial advance manifested itself when Russia recovered from the shock and strain of the Napoleonic invasion. Factories rapidly increased in number; banks and commercial enterprises of all kinds multiplied. Merchants and tradesfolk grew rich, and could no longer be left out of the reckoning. Their sons thronged the gymnasiums and colleges, fired by the desire for culture and expansion, and swelled the ranks of the Intelligentsia, a term which includes without distinction all men who devote themselves to literary pursuits. The old noble families were beginning to disintegrate. In many cases their estates passed out of their hands, or were preserved by means of intermarriage

[graphic]
[ocr errors]

with the sons and daughters of self-made men. Fiction ceased to concern itself principally with the doings of a privileged few, and presented an entirely new gallery of portraits. The lower ranks of the bureaucracy, the professional men, the trading community, in fine the 'bourgeois,' occupy the first places in these novels of the transition period.

Tolstoy wrote a short, pathetic story of a poor little clerk, whose idea of happiness had been to possess a furcoat. He arrives at the moment when his savings suffice for the purchase, only to have it stolen from him, after which he loses heart for the struggle of life and dies for want of anything to live for. Later, Chekhov and Saltikov and Sologub, all masters of the art of the short story, devoted themselves almost exclusively to studies of intellectuals and bureaucratic underlings. Saltikov, during exile in Viatka, a remote provincial town, wrote the series of

of Provincial

• Sketches' which made his name famous throughout Russia. They constituted a formidable attack on the administration of local government, of which few men could be better judges, since he had occupied every official position in town-life, from clerk to governor. Saltikov had many imitators; and, step by step, the novel with a purpose came into being, as the sole outlet for the ventilation of grievances and for giving forth the aspirations of the progressive section of the

nation. Chekhov, a greater artist than Saltikov, is preeminently the novelist of the Intelligentsia. He views his own class as a weak minority, seeking a breathingspace between highly placed reactionaries and stagnating peasantry, and deplores their lack of energy and force of character. His novels are models of penetrating, incisive criticism in the guise of fiction, the best known among them being perhaps The Duel,' The Valet, and 'Room No. 6,' and the play entitled Uncle Vanya.'

The leading part in Uncle Vanya' is played by a learned professor named Serebriakov, who is worshipped by his whole family on account of his genius. His brother-in-law manages his estate for him and, like the rest, makes sacrifices to provide him with money. The professor spends his time in writing a book on the sacred mission of art, regardless of the wants and

[ocr errors]

6

[ocr errors]

pleasures of any one. His is the life of pure egotis given up to the phrasing of beautiful sentences. Finall he gets tired of living in the country, and proposes to g abroad. To accomplish this he wishes to sell the estat which in reality belongs to his daughter Sonia. ! communicates his intention to his family, whose eye are at last opened to the egoism of their idol, and a estrangement ensues. But shortly afterwards matter are adjusted and a reconciliation takes place. Sony who is the heroine of the drama, devotes herself to th village and its needs, while she shows herself willing an ready to face work. She is the one character in th drama who keeps firm hold of her father, in spite personal unhappiness and disappointed love, and prevent those around her from being overwhelmed by despair.

Thus it may be seen that idealism is not in realit: absent from the Russian novel, although it is of character totally different from what we understan by that word. The Russian writer's idealism show itself in a continual search for inner truth and for th highest pinnacle of justice. In Dostoevsky this search is everywhere evident; and he does not scruple to pu his best and most elevated thoughts into the mouths o the fallen and the wretched. But Dostoevsky, one feels great as he is, may be almost left out of the category He is a psycho-pathologist of universally acknowledge genius, who devotes himself to the abnormal. Healthy commonplace human nature is rare in his pages. Hi people are Russians, but Russians seen in a mirror which gives to those it reflects an appearance of malformation My concern here is chiefly to choose from the vast mas of Russian literature studies of national types fron highest to lowest, that are at once critical and just.

Such a writer is Ostrovsky, whose plays, few in number, must be numbered among the finest production of the 19th century. His characters are mainly drawn from the newly-enriched merchant class. The elders are harsh, domineering, and unscrupulous; the young o both sexes are weak and subservient or silently strong and inwardly rebellious. There is rarely a scene in which love triumphs over an evil destiny, except by escaping, like Catherine in The Storm,' by the gateway of death. The heroines are either, as she is, under the

.

[ocr errors]
« PreviousContinue »