Saturday, September 18, 2010

Comedy by Chernychevsky

Nabokov’s last Russian novel, The Gift, is often said to be one of the greatest twentieth century novels. For me, it’s been a long struggle to even complete the book. Nabokov, genius though he is, pains me with his lack of concert for plot or suspenseful pace. Indeed, I freely admit that I only kept reading to see what Nabokov’s protagonist would say about Russia’s famous nineteenth century radical and godfather of Bolshevism, Chernychevsky.

Chernychevsky was Lenin’s nineteenth century hero, a widely-read, hard-working man who wrote the influential if badly written novel, What is to be Done?, which first spelled out the ascetic path to revolutionary sainthood so many zealous, socialists would eventually follow. The first portion of the book takes place in Berlin and seems, at least in a general way, to be autobiography. The second portion purports to be prose from the author’s study of the famous editor of the liberal organ, The Contemporary. This, interestingly, is followed by a short series of post-modern rants against this same history.

Nabokov’s interest in Chernychevsky is not hard to understand. The utopian socialist’s theories, as well as his whole intellectual milieu, have everything to do with what came later, although it’s hard to tell whether Bolshevik communism was an extension of this milieu or a reaction to the fuzziness and innocence of it. Chernychevsky, the materialist philosopher who had been born the son of a priest, believed in peasant communalism. He was an important interlocutor of men such as Herzen (they lived together in London briefly), Belinsky, and others.

According to Nabokov’s book, which is written with such irony and perhaps subtlety that it’s hard to know precisely where he stands on the man’s legacy, Chernychevsky was extremely popular with liberal opponents of autocracy in the age of peasant emancipation, rampant conspiracies, censorship, and millennial aspiration. His famous novel (there was at least one more) was very well-received—more popular than anything Tolstoy or Dostoevsky wrote his protagonist claims--as the incarnation of everything chic at the time. What was this thinker like? Nabokov’s protagonist is condescending, saying that for all his magnetism and courage, he was awkward, badly dressed, and unsophisticated as a thinker. He critiques his poetry, understanding of the natural world, shallow esthetic philosophy (he believed that art should always serve life), and philosophical pretensions.

In the end, Chernychevsky suffered for his unrelenting radicalism. He was imprisoned in the Peter and Paul Fortress, exposed to a mock execution, and exiled to Siberia. While he was imprisoned, fellow radicals dreamed of freeing him. They didn’t understand that he couldn’t even ride a horse. His wife came to see him in Siberia, as so many Decembrist wives had done for their husbands, but apparently slept with somebody on the way. (Chernychevsky loved his wife deeply, perhaps more intensely as a result of his status as a cuckold).

Nabokov’s treatment of this phase of socialist activity is redolent of E.H. Carr’s treatment of another famous Russian radical, Bakhunin. In both instances, the radical hero appears sympathetically but ridiculously. It’s hard to know whether this understanding of the past is fair or not. Does an intellectual current that took itself so seriously—and had such a serious opponent—deserve to be laughed at? Perhaps the comedy of that gentler century only became emerges in relation to the decidedly “un-funny” legacy of its heir, the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917. In any event, the paraodox of a comic tragedy or a tragic commedy reminds me of Woody Allen's bad film, Melinda and Melinda, which had at least a wonderful premise: that any story can be told, or perhaps it's all in how the story is received, as a happy comedy or a depressing tragedy. That's how history works.

No comments:

Post a Comment