OK, so I bought this edition because it was the only translation I could find, but I do rather love it because the people in the picture look like they’re straight out of Gormenghast. This book was ranked number 10 in pre-1917 Greatest Hits at the invaluable Lizok’s books blog where it is described as ‘one of the most supremely painful and masterfully claustrophobic books about family I’ve ever read. It was almost physically difficult to read.’ Fresh from the Russian Gothic of Leskov, I was absolutely ready for more grotesque family madness.
Just to continue my Russian Gothic argument (if you haven’t read the Leskov post, the argument is basically that ‘Russian Gothic’ should be a acknowledged genre, just like ‘Southern Gothic’). I’d like to point out that this novel covers the end of serfdom and the emotionally strongest character goes insane with the onset of the emancipation. Also, it’s claustrophobicly set in one family’s increasingly dilapidated, isolated estate, and pretty much everyone ends up a combination of mad, drunk and dead. Faulkner could have written it if he hadn’t been born 17 years too late and on the wrong continent.
Actually, even though content-wise it reminded me of Faulker, stylistically it was reminiscent of Victorian British novels. When reading the family interactions I kept thinking back to the Stanhope family in Trollope’s Barchester Towers, of whom it is said ‘It is astonishing how much each of the family was able to do, and how much each did, to prevent the well-being of the other four.’ The Stanhopes are British realist creations though, and they don’t actually hound each other to death. The Golovlyovs on the other hand are concerned with life and death struggles for each other’s money and their callousness has very real consequences.
Up until this moment, my favourite villain in Russian Literature was Dostoyevsky’s Pyotr Stepanovich Verkhovensky. In fact, my favourite bit in ‘The Devils’ is his introduction ‘His articulation was amazingly clear; his words fell from his lips like large smooth grains, always carefully chosen and always at your service. At first you could not help liking it, but later on you hated it, and just because of his too clear enunciation, of this string of ever-ready words. You somehow could not help feeling that he must have a sort of peculiarly shaped tongue in his head, a sort of unusually long and thin one, very red and with an exceedingly sharp and incessantly and uncontrollably active tip.’ Pyotr is vile, but I think he’s at least equalled by Porfiry Golovlyov, ‘little Judas’ to his friends (not really – he doesn’t have any friends, but that’s what the narrator calls him).
To put it into context. Porfiry stands out as loathsome even in comparison with the other members of his family. This includes his mother who ‘for reasons of economy, kept the children half starved‘. We’re told her eldest son would share his food with his brothers; when she finds out she is typically unrestrained: “‘You ought to be killed! Arina Petrovna constantly repeated to him, “I’ll kill you and not have to answer for it! Even the Tzar wouldn’t punish me for doing it!”‘ It’s a hideous set-up, but it’s hard to maintain sympathy for the boy. As an adult the eldest son is a gambler and a drunkard, borrowing and scrounging from former serfs, whose main hobby is putting flies into sleeping peasants’ mouths.
Little Judas is probably the most poisonous hypocrite in literature, and I’m saying that as a fan of Dickens’ Pecksniff. Personally, I think his greatest moment of selfishness comes when his housekeeper is giving birth to his illegitimate child and the midwife wants him to care. First he pretends to be praying while she tries to attract his attention:
‘His face was so calm, so pious, just as though he had but put aside all his earthly cares in the contemplation of the divine and could not even comprehend on what pretext he could be disturbed.
“Even though it’s a sin to speak abuse when someone is praying, still as a person I can’t complain. How many times have I requested not to be interrupted when I am praying,” he said in a voice befitting his prayerful mood, yet allowing himself to shake his head as a sign of Christian reproach, “now what is going on over there?”
“What do you expect? Yevprakseyushka is suffering birth pains, she can’t give birth! As though it’s the first time you’ve heard of it…ah, you! You ought to at least take a look!”
“What’s there to look at! Am I a doctor or something? Can I give advice? And I know nothing, I know nothing about your affairs! I know that there’s a sick person in the house, but why she’s sick and what her sickness is – I must confess that I was not curious enough to find out!”
This is just one moment of many. If you like your villains unctuous and sly and malicious Little Judas will be a great addition to your literary hall of villains, in Saltykov’s words ‘a foul canker which constantly oozed putrefaction.’
Like many great realist Russian characters, the Golovlyovs have rich fantasy lives, but, as I was secretly hoping, their fantasies soon becomes grotesque parodies, if not not down-right disturbing delusions. At the start of the novel, the day-dreams focus around members of the family taking pity on the day-dreamer and so not allowing him to, for example, starve to death. Towards the end things start to get into Gormenghast territory, with characters having full blown rants at their hallucinations and desperately trying to change the past to their advantage. None of this is a symptom of a healthy imagination, but I actually laughed out loud when we find the petty and obsessive Porfiry ‘sitting in his study covering sheets of paper with numerical calculations. This time he was engrossed in the question: how much money would he have had now if his mama, Arina Petrovna, had not taken for herself the hundred paper rubles presented to him as a christening present by his uncle Pyotr Ivanych, but had invested it at the bank in the name of the minor Porfiry.’
I don’t want to sound heartless myself; I found a lot in this book very funny, but the humour is pitch black. When you laugh, it’s at people who will willingly see their family die around them rather than giving up their surplus wealth, it’s at land owners who take joy in discovering new ways to oppress their peasants. It’s a masterful novel and goes yet further to show how limited my previous experiences of Russian Literature were. I heartily recommend it for reading on a miserable winter’s day – you won’t be disappointed.