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 …