Sketches of Provincial Life
The Golovlyov Family, a novel from the late 1870s by the Russian writer M.E. Saltykov (pen name Shchedrin), is a curiosity of world literature in its relentless assault on the common sentiments of family life. The Golovlyovs, mother, father, three sons, and a daughter, live on their estate in the provinces. They are indeed a family, bound together by fierce competitiveness, suspicion of the motives of one another, and an alert concentration of the mind of each on money. Their world is a desert of greed, sloth, and drunkenness. They do not have visitors, give balls; the landscape, the seasons, the harvests that come to brilliant light in provincial scenes in Russian fiction are only competition for food among the Golovlyovs, who are more like petty accountants in the city than like landowners. The disrepute of the family is extreme and perhaps in that way it exceeds the bounds of realism. And perhaps not. The imag-ination is stirred by the aesthetic challenge of a story without a sympathetic character. How far will Saltykov go? Very far indeed. Without an undamaged, soulful, or generous character, he creates a vengeful fiction of unique savagery.
Perhaps the family suffers from a sort of hereditary, Mendelian blight, coming from the dominating gene of the interesting mother, Arina, a gifted businesswoman. Arina,”too much of a bachelor,” looks upon her children only as a burden. They
did not stir a single chord of her inner being…. Of her eldest son and of her daughter she did not even like to speak; she was more or less indifferent to her youngest son, and only for the second, Porphyry, she had some feeling, though it was more akin to fear than affection.
Her husband is an idle fellow, with pretensions as a versifier, some attention to vodka and the serving girls. He calls his wife of forty years a termagant and a devil; she ignores him as a hopeless appendage, and the old man sickens and dies. Arina, an unusual woman for her time, goes to auctions and by shrewd calculation and cunning buys houses and bankrupt estates, thereby increasing her holdings tenfold.
Arina is a miser by inclination and her accumulations do not bring to the fireside the usual comforts of money to spend. When the harvest from the fields is brought to the house, she has it stored in a huge basement where it piles up and rots. The peasants on the place are always spoken of as “stuffing” themselves, while receiving only leftovers from the table or from the smelly, rotten store. “Those cucumbers are still good, they only look a bit slimy at the top and smell a little; the servants may as well have a treat!”
The novel will follow each of the children in turn as they try to make a life. Porphyry, called “little Judas” and the “bloodsucker,” is the major portrait in the fiction and the triumph of Saltykov’s art. James Wood’s introduction offers a masterly contemplation of the chattering, conniving fictional character—a critical essay that enlivens and enriches the whole of the novel. The other young Golovlyovs and their vivid defeats might well be considered first before giving way to the dismaying triumph of Porphyry-Iudushka.
Stepan, the eldest, is known as Styopka the dolt and Styopka the rascal. He is mischievous and troublesome and his mother screams at him in full voice: “I’ll kill you and won’t have to answer for it! The Tsar wouldn’t punish me for it!” The homestead humiliation has turned the boy into a thoughtless buffoon. After high school, he enters the university in Moscow where he is given just enough money to keep him from starving. His mother is not impressed by his achievement of a diploma. In St. Petersburg he wanders from one post to another, but with his idle mind “such bureaucratic tasks as reports and résumés were too much for him.” Honoring the custom of giving grown children a “sop” or a “piece,” Arina gives the wayward Stepan a house in Moscow for which she paid twelve thousand rubles, the exact amount ever a part of her transactions.
Stepan has no gift for practical life and is indeed a drunkard. He sells the Moscow house for a low price, gambles away the money, and, starving, destitute, returns in a ragged condition to the family estate. Back to darkness and deprivation and the perfervid denunciations of his mother. He is exiled to a miserable room in an adjacent building, left without candles, and given spoiled food. The brothers, Pavel and Porphyry, are called home to discuss what to do with the reprobate Stepan. Pavel is not much interested, having a mountain of grievances of his own, but Porphyry will emerge in his verbose, smarmy shape. The mother takes the occasion to tell of her long struggle to accumulate wealth; tales of taking a cart rather than a coach to the auctions, staying at a third-class inn rather than a comfortable hotel. Pavel, having heard it all before, yawns, but the bloodsucker is moved to tears. They are to consider whether the wastrel should be got out of the way by a second chance, the gift of a small property on his father’s estate. Porphyry:
Mamma!…you are more than generous! You have been treated in…the vilest, meanest way imaginable…and suddenly you forgive and forget all! It’s magnificent! But excuse me…I am afraid for you, dear! I don’t know what you’ll think of me, but if I were you…I wouldn’t do it!… What if my brother with his natural depravity treats your second gift the same as the first?
Arina, in her astuteness, her stark awareness of self-interest, is not beguiled by the flattering son, even though he has his way and Stepan remains in his measly quarters on the estate; nevertheless, she wonders whether her son is so “heartless that he could turn his own brother out into the street.” She recognizes, in Porphyry, the presence of her own relentless calculations and knows that “a noose” is being prepared for herself.
Stepan, in his dirty room with peeling wallpaper, facing the long, dark, frightening nights and his “stifling cough, unendurable attacks of sudden breathlessness and continually increasing pains in the heart,” falls into a death-like state. Only one hope sustains him: “to get drunk and forget.” That he manages with a bit of money given him by the brothers at the family conference. The foreman is induced to fetch liquor and Saltykov describes the broken young man, with his precious bottle before him, in an acutely imaginative passage:
He did not begin on the vodka at once but gradually stole up to it as it were. Everything around him was dead asleep; only mice scratched behind the wall-paper that had become unstuck…. Taking off his dressing-gown, with nothing but his shirt on he scurried up and down the heated room; sometimes he stopped, came up to the table fumbling for the bottle, and then began walking again. He drank the first glasses making traditional drinker’s jokes and voluptuously sipping the burning liquid; but gradually his tongue began babbling something incoherent, his heart beat faster, and his head was on fire. His dulled mind struggled to create images, his deadened memory strove to break through into the realm of the past…. All there was before him was the present in the shape of a tightly locked prison in which the idea of space and time disappeared without a trace…. But as the contents of the bottle diminished…even his limited consciousness of the present became too much for him. His muttering, which at first had some semblance of rational speech, grew utterly meaningless…. It was a dead, endless void…without a single sound of life.
Arina’s thoughts about her son are wild imaginings of the way a drunkard might die: “He’d take a rope, catch it on a branch, twist it round his neck—and that’s the end of him!” Stepan, a weak, ruined carcass, will suffer in a dark, silent void powerfully imagined by Saltykov in pitiable detail: “It was as though a black cloud enveloped him from head to foot…. This mysterious cloud swallowed up the outer and the inner world for him.” In a letter his mother writes: “I am sorry for my son’s death, but I dare not repine, and I don’t advise you to either, my children. For who can tell? We may be repining while his soul is having an enjoyable time on high!” Thus, the first of the children to die, gone but not a tragic loss. A wastrel’s life of vice, foolishness puts him inevitably on the track of an oncoming train, or so the unsentimental Saltykov would seem to view it. The Golovlyovs are a tribe on their ordained reservation: a complex text of sociology.
Pavel, the youngest son: spiritual blankness animated only by his hatred for little Judas. He is apathetic, mutely sullen: “He may have been kind, but he showed no kindness to anyone; he may have had brains, but he never did anything intelligent.” He lives on his decrepit estate, part of his inheritance. There he will be joined by his mother, who has grown old and lost the management of her own acres to the canny manipulations of the greedy Porphyry. She is bereft in her demotion and occupied with the emancipation of the serfs taking place at the time. What could she call them? How could she rebuke free persons from eating one out of house and home? Pavel is much like his brother Stepan, incompetent, idle, shallow; he is preyed upon by a lazy, thieving servant and above all trapped in resentment that his mother allocated a greater part of her estate to his brother rather than to himself. Like Stepan, another drink and yet another bring him to his death. The visiting doctor announces: “This is what Pavel is dying of in the prime of life—this vodka!”—at which point the doctor pours himself another glass of the killer. Vodka and death: Saltykov’s way of removing characters from the plot, like a stage direction saying, exit right. Vodka and Russia bring to mind Comrade Yeltsin and thus we credit the author’s mise-en-scène.
The daughter, Anna, has run away and married without her mother’s consent; married “like dogs,” abandoned by her husband, she dies and leaves twin daughters to Arina’s care. The passage is announced with Grandmamma’s usual vehemence: “Your sister died as shamefully as she lived, throwing two brats on my shoulders.” The brats, Anninka and Lubinka, escape from the boredom of the estate and, with their pretty singing voices, and not much else in the way of talent, end up on the provincial theater circuit, a scene of vivid squalor and degradation. A letter from the girls:
Don’t send us any more fowls and turkeys, grandmamma. Don’t send us any money either…. We have gone on the stage, and in the summer will drive about the fairs…. The manager pays me a hundred rubles a month,…and Lubinka receives seventy-five…. Besides that, we get presents from officers and lawyers. Only, lawyers sometimes give one forged notes, so that one must be careful…. We go for drives, have meals in the best restaurants…. Don’t save up anything…and help yourself to all there is—bread, and chickens, and mushrooms….
Good-bye! Our friends have come—they want us to go for a drive again….