Wednesday, 24 January 2018

Russian literature, Chernyshevsky, and The Gift

1/ Look at this chain of novels:
In 1862, Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons was published, sparking a debate in Russia.
In response to Fathers and Sons, Nikolai Chernyshevsky wrote a novel called What Is To Be Done? whilst in prison, which was published in 1863 (What To Do? in Nabokov’s translation). 
Chernyshevsky’s ideas, utilitarianism, utopianism and stuff, were attacked by Dostoyevsky in his 1864 novel Notes from Underground.
Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment (1866) may not be seen as part of the chain of novels, but in my opinion, in Crime and Punishment he was expanding on, and developing, his ideas from Notes from Underground and arguments against utilitarianism. Dostoyevsky also pursued his ideas in other novels, especially Demons (1872).
Unlike normal people, the Russians were debating through novels.
The debate didn’t stop there.
Vladimir Nabokov’s The Gift, which he wrote between 1935 and 1937 in Berlin, was an ode to Russian literature and also an attack on Chernyshevsky’s ideas.
I’m sure there are lots of other works in the debate that have sunk into oblivion or that I simply don’t know about.

2/ In 1886, Tolstoy wrote a book called What Is To Be Done?. I don’t know if it had any relation to Chernyshevsky’s book, it could be about something else—I haven’t read it.
In 1902, Lenin published a political pamphlet called What Is To Be Done? Burning Questions of Our Movement. He liked the man’s ideas, I’ve heard. “Chernyshevsky's novel, far more than Marx's Capital, supplied the emotional dynamic that eventually went to make the Russian Revolution.” (source)

3/ I’m too busy (I have a film to make!) to read What Is To Be Done?, so I’m taking the easy way of reading about it.
Here are the posts from Tom at Wuthering Expectations about the book:
He discusses Chernyshevsky’s book and Notes from Underground here:
This is the kind of reader and book blogger we need, who suffers so that others don’t have to.
Scott G. F. Bailey has a list of bits from the book that are parodied in Notes from Underground:

4/ This is a very useful essay, by Sergei Davydov, about The Gift and Chernyshevsky:,%20in%20Canadian-American%20Slavic%20Studies,%20vol.%2019,%20No.%203%20(1985),%20357-374.pdf

5/ Davydov also notes:


6/ However, note this paragraph in chapter 3: 
“Fyodor tried to sort out the mishmash of philosophical ideas of the time, and it seemed to him that in the very roll call of names, in their burlesque consonance, there was manifested a kind of sin against thought, a mockery of it, a blemish of the age, when some extravagantly praised Kant, others Kont (Comte), others again Hegel or Schlegel. And on the other hand he began to comprehend by degrees that such uncompromising radicals as Chernyshevski, with all their ludicrous and ghastly blunders, were, no matter how you looked at it, real heroes in their struggle with the governmental order of things (which was even more noxious and more vulgar than was their own fatuity in the realm of literary criticism) and that other oppositionists, the liberals or the Slavophiles, who risked less, were by the same token worth less than these iron squabblers.”

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