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….
Anninka, prim and cautious, wants to hold on to her “treasure” and manages to do so for a time. Lubinka understands what her treasure is worth, also understands the intentions of the slobbering men hanging about the stage. She leaves the theater and takes up with Lyulkin, a member of the local Rural Board so infatuated with her charms that he is tempted by the possibilities of the public money at hand. Lubinka is installed in a flat, soon the scene of champagne parties from midnight to morning. Her foolish lover will raid the public treasury to buy dresses, jewelry, and lottery tickets. When the deficit is discovered, “Lyulkin went to a window, pulled a revolver out of his pocket and shot himself in the temple.”
Anninka, her provinciality a drag on glamorous hopes, will perform in La Fille de Madame Angot, and “in trying to warm up the audience overacted to such an extent that even the uncritical provincial public was repelled by the indecency of the performance.” Her appearance in Perichole went somewhat better and, back in her room, she found an envelope with a hundred rubles and a note saying: “And in case of anything, as much again. Fancy-draper Kukishev.” The money is returned but the fancy-draper persists; when Anninka, desperate, moves in with her sister, Kukishev, a member of the “salon,” will seduce the nice girl into drinking her first vodka. The successful swain buys the dresses and jewels with public funds, is arrested and sent to Siberia. The country girls are now common prostitutes, their fall melodramatic and perhaps inevitable, given Saltykov’s knowing way about the shabby, second-rate world of the theater. And Anninka is now a Golovlyov, that is, a drunkard.
Lubinka, cold by nature, realistic about the calamitous crash of their lives, decides there is no point in living:
That very day Lubinka broke off the heads of some sulphur matches and prepared two glassfuls of the solution. She drank one and gave the other to her sister. But Anninka instantly lost courage and refused to drink…. That same evening Lubinka’s body was carted out into the fields and buried by the roadside. Anninka remained alive.
Saltykov-Shchedrin (1826–1889) was born in the province of Tula. His family was moderately well-to-do, could claim Peter the Great as a forebear, and left a reputation as a quarrelsome, disagreeable lot, particularly in the matter of the dominating mother. Carl R. Proffer, in his introduction to a previous translation of The Golovlyov Family,1 sees the mother as the prototype of Arina and an elder brother as the model for Iudushka. Saltykov early began to write, publishing translations of Byron and Heine, satires, and preparing for his career in various positions in post-tsarist Russia.
As a radical socialist, Saltykov’s publications sent him into exile, owing to the Tsar’s obsessive belief in the power of the printed word. Dostoevsky, in his youth also a radical, was famously sentenced to be executed and was reprieved at the last moment. Both writers spent years in Siberia. Freed, both were to become members of the incendiary literary landscape in St. Petersburg as writers and editors; Dostoevsky and his brother brought out a magazine called Time, and Saltykov was for a period the editor of the important publication The Contemporary. They became bitter enemies, attacking each other in print, directly and by way of disguised but recognizable fictional characters.
The incompatibility of the two writers seems preordained at every point, beyond the great distance separating their talents. Saltykov thought Notes from the Underground “a sick joke” and Dostoevsky retaliated with “Mr. Shchedrin, or, Schism among the Nihilists” and digs in his novels. However, the principal conflict may rest upon the battle between the Russophiles and the Westerners. Saltykov:
Everybody knows that in 1840 Russian literature, and with it all youth, divided into two camps, the Westerners and the Slavophiles…. My spirit was formed in the school of Belinsky, and quite naturally I enrolled in the Westerners’ camp…. I entered a little circle…which turned its glance instinctively toward France…the France of George Sand! Russia, in our eyes, represented a land plunged in a dense fog…. Our enthusiasm was at its height in 1848…. Not one among us exhibited that bovine indifference which had become, under a repressive regime, the distinctive sign of the cultivated class in Russia.
Dostoevsky (here in an assault on Turgenev):
All those trashy little liberals and progressives primarily still of the Belinsky school, who find their greatest pleasure and satisfaction in criticizing Russia…. These people, Belinsky’s offspring, add that they love Russia. But meanwhile not only is everything of the slightest originality in Russia hateful to them, so that they deny it and immediately take enjoyment in turning it to a caricature, but if one really were to present them with a fact that they could not overturn or ruin in a caricature…I think they would be unhappy to the point of torture, to the point of pain, to the point of despair.
Proffer’s introduction also relates Saltykov’s unpleasant encounter in Paris with Turgenev, who was luxuriously established with his fame and family money, which had been an irritant to Dostoevsky, a man of poor roots, as told in Joseph Frank’s prodigious biography of the writer.2 Turgenev introduced Saltykov to “Flaubert, Zola and the rest of French literary society” and offered to help him in various literary matters. However, Saltykov in his letters goes from restrained gratitude to outright “hostility.” He calls Turgenev a liar and a hypocrite, but later, at his own request, “would be buried beside Turgenev in St. Petersburg.”
Porphyry-Iudushka, the “bloodsucker,” is the reigning character in The Golovlyov Family and indeed he dominates the scene by his incessant chatter, at once gay, often affectionate, but invariably underlined by a serious intent to secure himself the legacy of his mother and that of the children, all of which he succeeds in accomplishing. His portrait is that of a hypocrite in what may be called the grand style, to which he adds the cadences of religion or religiosity.
A few examples of the chatter: this to his mother before going to the bedside of his dying brother:
As it’s Friday to-day, will you order a Lenten dinner for me…a little salt fish and a few mushrooms and a bit of cabbage. I don’t want much, you know. And meanwhile I’ll do my duty as a brother and go upstairs to the invalid. Who knows …I may do something for his soul if not for his body. The body can be mended with tonics and compresses, mamma, but the soul needs a more serious remedy.
God is everything to us, mamma, he gives us firewood for warmth and lovely provisions for food—it’s all His doing…I should love to have an orange now… eat one myself and treat dear friend mamma to one, and give one to everybody… But God says, “Whoa!”
The Golovlyov estate is a scrappy domain and the family does not appear rich enough for the pleasures of rural life, and yet, not poor enough to forget the possibility of rescue when in need of a bailout. The children of the family are linked by competition for the family acres and for money, getting it and withholding it. Nature: it rains or it doesn’t. That’s it for the house-bound little group in the vast skies and fields of Russia. Porphyry astonishes even his parsimonious mother when, going over the accounts of the estate, he includes the amount of berries collected from the bushes, those used for jam, “sold to the peasants as a treat, or rotted for lack of customers.” The daily routine of the somnolent estate is thus enlivened by attention to numbers like that of a bank teller at the end of the day. Numbers, rubles, infect the challenge of human beings. Porphyry has two sons by a dead wife: Volodya and Petenka. Volodya marries without his father’s consent and finds himself destitute when his father promptly cuts off his allowance, thereby leading to his suicide. Gone—as if a spell of drought had thinned the wheat crop.
In the second generation, the household worship of money does not lead to a like stinginess, but to disastrous extravagance. Petenka, the youngest son, has stolen his regiment’s money and gambled it away. Desperate, facing Siberia, Petenka visits his father and asks for help, saying he will repay it with interest and so on. Porphyry’s answer about the stolen money is: “Well, send it back!” and more words as ever. When Petenka reminds his father that he is the only son left, there is the expected wind of chatter. The miserable son will at last face his father and say, “Murderer!” referring to his brother’s suicide.
Little Judas debates the accusation, but soon survives his distress. Arina, the mother, has heard all that passed:
And suddenly, at the very moment when Petenka broke into hysterical sobs, she rose heavily from her easy chair, stretched out her arm towards Iudushka, and a loud cry broke from her: “I cu-u-r-rse you!”
Fresh horses and a nice lunch basket for Petenka’s journey back to the city—and that’s it with murders and curses. Petenka sickens and dies on the way to Siberia.
Porphyry, hypocrite and miser, is also an indifferent and rather mechanical seducer. His housekeeper becomes pregnant, refuses to “do something,” has the baby, who, to her grief, is sent off to an orphanage, a place of raging deprivation at the time. Porphyry can always call upon his imperviousness, the guardian of his contentment as he goes about from breakfast to dinner, hours in his study with his infernal bookkeeping. Saltykov, perhaps mindful of the unrelieved selfishness of his cast, offers a brief reshuffling of the black deck at the end. Iudushka, going to mass every day and ever praying before the icon, has the consolation of the communicant, however perfunctory the obeisance to what he calls God’s will may be. As he grows old, and with the example of Anninka, who has returned to the estate, he will find further consolation in the bottle.
In the dark nights, the past casts its shadows and brings thoughts of Christ’s forgiveness of those who gave him vinegar and gall to drink. Somehow Porphyry believes he must go to mamma’s grave and ask her forgiveness. His larceny, arctic maneuvers, have not been events so much as manifestations of character, being, and thus he is haunted at last by himself:
A wind was howling outside and a March snow-storm blinded the eyes with whirling masses of sleet. But Porphyry Vladimiritch walked along the road, stepping in the puddles, noticing neither the wind nor the snow…. Early next morning a messenger on horseback galloped up from the village…and said that Porphyry Vladimiritch’s frozen corpse had been found within a few steps of the road. They rushed to Anninka, but she lay in bed unconscious, with all the symptoms of a brain-fever.
James Wood, in his complex and original introduction to the present translation of the novel, writes of Porphyry as a hypocrite:
His vivacity as a character proceeds, in part, from a paradox, which is that he is interesting in proportion to his banality. Traditionally, the great fictional hypocrites are generally interesting as liars are interesting. But Porphyry does not really lie to himself, since the truth is nowhere to be found in his world… Porphyry uses religious platitudes to protect himself from anything that would threaten his survival; religious hypocrisy is his moral camouflage…. Porphyry is a modernist prototype, the character who lacks an audience, an alienated actor.
The daunting figure of the blood-sucker inhabits the novel like an infectious disease in the air which kills off the family one by one. Saltykov gives his characters a trait or two and that is it; they are what they are without much fictional complication. His mastery is to place the fixed characters in vivid incidents where they react against each other, since they have no larger world in which to reveal themselves. The author finds a rich variety in a single dilemma: the need at the moment for money. Money is the universality in this back-country Russian landscape. The reader will, from his own experience, validate the reality of this family story.
The Golovlyov Family is Saltykov’s dour masterpiece, but his slashing fury at the miseries of his native sod, the holy fatherland, seemed to have come to him, as it were, with his mother’s sour milk. His first important novel, Sketches of Provincial Life, published in the 1850s, offered as reflections issuing from a retired member of the civil service some years back, is a wild assault on the petty official’s talent for bribery by way of tips. In his fictions, Saltykov proceeds like a journalist investigating a “problem” in the manner of what we would call a muckraker. But his great talent is to personalize his themes in individual portraits, novelettes rich in the details of public and private life, and status, since the bureaucrats, the “tchinovnicks,” have ratings that go up and down.
There they are, these rogues and villains who appear like wasps in the summer air when one’s passport is to be examined, when a shipment of oysters arrives that would lie about and spoil were they not to alert one of their arrival. A certain “enlightened” member of the group strolls the Nevsky Prospekt in “prodigious galoshes” and applauds “violently” at the opera; he decorates his conversation with bits of French, such as: “If you think that we have anything to do with this dirt, avec cette canaille, you are very much mistaken.” And the Princess Anna Lovana, over thirty and not pretty, who falls for a bureaucrat whose interest in her is a recommendation for “a vacant place” she might know about. And there is a modest clerk’s “dinner for Your Honor” which might, in its homely way, bring to mind the longings in a fiction by Booth Tarkington of Indiana.
The History of a Town, which Saltykov began publishing in 1869, is said to be still popular in Russia, part of the education of a literate person. Susan Brownsberger, the translator and editor, gives the town the name of Foolov, although Samuel Cioran speaks of it as “Stupidville.” The novel is a mock history supposedly based upon an old chronicle: the follies and injustices of the past are to remind of the conditions of the present. Turgenev admired the fiction, but thought it could not be translated for readers without a rich knowledge of Russian history. In English, the work is easy enough to read, but the splendid background notes by Susan Brownsberger indicate that a good deal of the satire may have been missed.
For instance, the portrait of a tonsorial artist is based upon the barber of Paul I, “a captive Turkish boy who eventually became a count, while continuing to shave the czar.” Saltykov’s orderly who died of a “surfeit” is actually Potemkin, who died of eating a whole goose. Iraida in the novel, “a widow of inflexible character and masculine build,” resembles the Empress Anne. Stockfisch, a stout blond German, resembles the dumpy Catherine the Great. The caricatures of real persons are perhaps most outrageous when we know that the imaginary du Chariot would, to the cultivated, remind them of a certain French vicomte who “liked to dress up in women’s clothes and treat himself to frogs. Upon inspection he proved to be a girl.” The History of a Town, in its willful, learned obscurity, will remain a treat for the Russians and something of a chore for the rest of the world.
The Pompadours: A Satire on the Art of Government, published in the 1870s, tells of provincial governors serving by appointment, but subject to arbitrary dismissal at any time. “Here today and gone tomorrow was the motto engraved on the pompadour’s crest”—words from David Magarshack’s superbly knowing introduction to the translation. We meet the officeholders strutting about in self-satisfaction and then again downcast about the fragility of their claim to a favorable position in society. We are told that the word “pompadour” is still used in Russia for vainglorious, absurd persons. The petty grandees are happiest when condescending to an inferior, the unfortunate result sadly creating a terrible obsequiousness in the snubbed object. Among the scenes is a dinner for an old, retiring governor. The speeches of unforgiving length will begin: “I’m not a public speaker, but I feel impelled to say a few words….” A councilor of the treasury will spill red wine on the tablecloth, pour salt over it to make it “easy for a laundry woman to take out the stains.” Magarshack writes:
What mattered to Saltykov was not what the rulers of different provinces did or did not do, but what a man with certain individual characteristics would do if he were given certain powers over his fellow-men. His satire is therefore a satire on humanity at large, or rather on that section of it which is obsessed by the lust for power.
Saltykov himself had been a vice-governor and held high public office for a number of years. From his vigorous and greatly gifted writings we can say: unlucky the fellow who occupied a desk next to his. He may find his feathers plucked like a squab on its way to the roasting pit.
Saltykov, The Golovlyov Family, translated by Samuel Cioran, with an introduction by Carl R. Proffer (Ardis, 1977).↩
Joseph Frank, Dostoevsky: The Miraculous Years: 1865–1871 (Princeton University Press, 1995).↩