‘What Is to Be Done’ is one of the books that I was least excited about reading for this project. I realise that this was an unhelpfully negative attitude, but all I knew about it was from Figes’ ‘A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution: 1891-1924’. It is true that it was Figes who set me off on this reading project, but learning that ‘Chernishevsky was his first and greatest love. It was through him that Lenin was converted into a revolutionary – long before he read any Marx‘ did not fill me with hope. Also, Chernishevsky only wrote the one novel, his other works are philosophical essays. I knew that this novel was going to be heavily political, but I was worried about how dry that might make it. People can be inspired by all kinds of things after all, and maybe Lenin loved political arguments disguised as characters. My other fear was aesthetic. I may be prejudiced against dictators and I know that Lenin wasn’t Stalin, but his response to the novel made me think of Auden’s ‘Epitaph on a Tyrant’:
Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after, And the poetry he invented was easy to understand; He knew human folly like the back of his hand, And was greatly interested in armies and fleets; When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter, And when he cried the little children died in the streets.
I was seriously concerned about what kind of book I was going to be reading.
As it happens, Auden was right. ‘What Is to Be Done’ is so ‘easy to understand’ it’s laughable, but I’ll take an easy novel over heavy philosophy any day. I have to confess that I didn’t do Chernishevsky the honor I awarded Goncharov of hunting out an outstanding translation. I just didn’t think it would be worth it. Be aware, therefore, that what follows is based on a possibly poor translation of a prose classic. I doubt it though, translation is about subtlety of style. One-dimensional characters, head-thumpingly obvious metaphorical dreams and an intrusive narrator that you want to slap are never the fault of the translator.
The story follows the beautiful, virtuous and intelligent Anna Pavlovna as she struggles to find fulfillment within her vulgar, social-climbing family. They want her to marry a profligate nobleman, she wants to be free from stifling convention. Fortunately for her, if you’re pure in heart it is actually very easy to run away from home and set up successful factories based on equality and workers’ unions. I do admire Chernyshevsky for his ideals of gender and class equality. I only wish he was a better novelist so that I could believe any of the characters or events that he crowbars into place in order to show how simple and pleasant a socialist utopia would be.
In terms of literary significance, ‘What Is to Be Done’ was written in response to ‘Fathers and Sons’, but then so were loads of other, better books. Still, it does have an interesting place in the canon in that ‘Notes from the Underground’ re-works several of Chernishevsky’s set pieces. It’s fun to compare how the two authors tackle ‘taking a prostitute home and telling her your revolutionary theories’ and ‘walking past a general in the street’, but I hope I’m not giving anything away when I say that Dostoyevsky wins. As for Chernishevsky’s own debt to other writers, he was clearly a fan of ‘Vanity Fair’ and loved Thackery’s use of an intrusive narrator and direct address to the reader. For all of his posturing, I can’t deny that reading ‘What Is to Be Done’ really made me want to re-read ‘Vanity Fair’ to see how these devices could be used well.
This is a book of historical interest, but it does not belong on a list of great Russian novels. If you’re reading it because you’ve heard (like me) of how important the character of Rakhmetov was in creating revolutionary ideal, you need to be aware that he only has a cameo appearance at the end of book 3. If you want to learn how to be a revolutionary fanatic, read those chapters, but you don’t need to read the rest of the book. The good news is that the next writer on my list is Tolstoy and then I know I’ll be safely back in the hands of a Russian great.