A joy of working for a London university is that I have access to the wonderful Senate House Library. This library is not only massive, but it arranges its literature geographically and has a delightful nook which houses the Russian literature. This may sound odd given the traumatic and depressing topics so often associated with such writings, but this small corner of the 5th floor is my happy place, filled with so many old friends. It’s probably a good thing I didn’t have access to these shelves when I was working through my epic Russian reading challenge a couple of years ago. It would have destroyed all the thrill of hunting down obscure authors and would have probably overwhelmed me before I got sucked in. Now it’s perfect; I can approach with the shelves with the confidence of recognising many names, but also with the hope of discovering new and unexpected gems.
I know I’ll be relying on the Senate House Library catalogue heavily when I finally free up enough reading time to move into more Soviet-era literature, but I hadn’t really expected many new writers from the 19th century. Imagine my delight when I came across Sergei Aksakov, an author who didn’t even show up in my 2015 research, but whose novel ‘A Russian Gentleman’ was awaiting my discovery.
According Edward Crankshaw’s introduction, ‘‘A Russian Gentleman‘ is a classic example of that essentially Russian genre, a factual record faintly disguised as fiction, or a fiction so actual , so apparently inconsequent and uncontrived, that it reads like fact. The first master of this style however, was not Gogol but Pushkin, with his wonderfully matter-of-fact treatment of everyday affairs just as they come, without heroics and with perfect simplicity.’ It just goes to show how little I still know of Russian literature. Not only was I completely unaware of this essential genre, I’ve always found Pushkin and Gogol gloriously over-the-top in their different ways. ‘Heroic’ feels like the perfect adjective to describe many of Pushkin’s stories and my favourite works by Gogol combine the tragic, the sublime, the supernatural and the insane with a lot of brilliance but with little simplicity. I clearly need to do a fair bit of re-reading and possibly hunt out some new translations …
Crankshaw is right in highlighting the ‘inconsequent’ ‘matter-of-fact’ tone of the book. Aksakov engages with wider themes about the Russian character and unique attributes, but his narrative is personal to the extent of feeling naive. The sections about the different generations of his family are called ‘fragments’ rather than chapters and his portraits, especially of his neurotic and beloved mother, can be so uncritical as to take you out of the story.
That’s not to say there are no points of interest. It’s been a bit of jump back in time to read a novel published in 1846, 15 years before the emancipation of the serfs. The book begins with the eponymous hero, our narrator’s grandfather, transplanting his peasants so they can cultivate a new and previously uninhabited estate he has purchased. ‘The carts were packed with the women and children and old people, and awnings of bast bent over them to protect them from the sun and rain … the poor settlers shed bitter tears as they parted for ever with their past life, with the church in which they had been christened and married, and with the graves of their fathers and grandfathers.’ Fortunately things all go splendidly. ‘With unremitting care and attention my grandfather watched the labour of the people on their own land and on his; the hay was mown, the winter rye and spring corn were cut down and carried, and the right moments was chosen for each operation. The yield of the crops was fabulous. The peasants thought things were not so bad after all.’
Reading books from the past is a chance to see with world and its inhabitants through new eyes. I don’t know how fair it is to be angry at Aksakov for his acceptance of the status quo and his family’s place therein. I must confess however, that the novel did not contain enough insights to balance the unquestioning recording of his family’s thinly disguised history. Still, with such a well-stocked library I’ve no reason to be downhearted if I don’t love every pick. It’s always exciting to learn about new Russian authors (and whole genres!) at least this way I can try to avoid complacency of my own when I think about what I’ve read and what I think I know.