Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Leonid Dobychin's The Town of N

While Leonid Dobychin is today a footnote in the book of Soviet literature, his short novel, The Town of N, is a wonderfully sensitive portrayal of pre-revolutionary life on the outskirts of the empire.  The novel tells the story of a child who grows up in the decade prior to the Bolshevik Revolution.  The Town of N is a bildungsroman:  the child narrator is coming to terms with sex, politics, religion, education, and culture. He's also coming to terms with European and Russian literature.  In the course of 100 odd pages, the narrator tackles almost canonical work of Russian prose, and many European classics as well. Although the child doesn't ordinarily understand what he's reading, he's moving through them, and wrestling with their meaning on some rudimentary level.  Whether or not he has understood them, the narrator is familiar with Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Gogol, Chekhov, Turgenev, Andreyev, Chukovsky, and other Russian writers, as well as Dickens, Nietzsche, Pinkerton novels, and a variety of other Western writers and artists.

As Dobychin's title is redolent of Gogol, so too are his cast of small-minded provincial characters.  Richard Borden's introduction to the European Classic edition of the book, argues that Dobychin's protagonist is beset by a veritable circus of venal, self-important, and grasping of Russian bourgeois.  Certainly the protagonist's family and immediate circle of acquaintances is bourgeois, anti-Semitic, and nationalist if not xenophobic.  The child has grown up in an atmosphere of deep suspicion.  As town-dwellers, the protagonist and his mother regard both workers and peasants--to say nothing of Japanese, Poles, and Jews--as dangerous elements which threaten to overturn the natural order of society.  Once, after the disturbances of 1905, the protagonist regurgitates his mother's disgust that the poor, who lived in dark and smelly basements, were beginning to feel that they had a right to open their windows for air once in a while.

Notwithstanding the protagonist's limited worldview, my own (admittedly first) reading of The Town of N suggests that Dobychin is mainly concerned with depicting his protagonist's world realistically; after all, from a youthful vantage point, adults almost always appear as inscrutable, mysterious, and vaguely threatening, beings. If his protagonist's mother doesn't trust her own maid, and blames Witte's for purposefully landing Russia in trouble with the Japanese in order to appease his Jewish wife, what middle class adult in later imperial Russia did not also harbor similar prejudices?

What's interesting about Dobychin's take on a classic coming-of-age story, is that his narrator is confronting modernity as well as adulthood.  In fact, the plot of The Town of N revolves around mico as well as macro-level events, which often intersect.  On the one hand, he's monitoring the progress of the construction of a local church or paying attention to the activities of his neighbors;  on the other hand, he's bearing witness to the introduction of new technologies, Eastern fashions, political trends, and even social facts, to borrow from Durkeim's terminology.  In the space of just a few years, the character observes the appearance of cinema and electricity and notes the arrival of a new level of political violence characterized by strikes and assassinations which culminate in the Russian-Japanese War and the failed revolution of 1905.

Richard Borden tells us that Dobychin was disgraced by the Soviet literary established and committed suicide shortly thereafter.  His work clearly did not conform to the conventions of socialist realism. Certainly it did not glorify Soviet workers or Soviet construction projects.  Whether or not The Town of N reflects badly on Bolshevik Russia is difficult to say.  Borden points out that comparing modern Russia to Gogol's Russia demonstrates that the Soviet regime would ultimately fail to transform or even improve the dismal circumstances of the Russian people.  The Russian people remained what they had been in Dead Souls. Russian lives remains short, nasty, and brutish.  Their society remained authoritarian, elitist, superstitious, and lubricated by patronage.  (In the Town of N, the police commissionar has his own designated box at the theatre!) But of course this novel isn't set in Soviet Russia.  It's failures are prevolutionary and as such they inherently testify to the Soviet Union's raison d'etre.  The Town of N is in fact a site of intense and rising political dissatisfaction, confusion, and conflict, symbolized by politicized funerals, strikes, terrorist bombings, police shootings, school closings, mobilized soldiers, anti-war literature (i.e., The Red Laugh), expressions of monarchical support, police-issued "certificates of political loyalty," and Black Hundreds marches. If anything, Dobychin's adolescent narrator is observing (or perhaps reflecting) a flawed, divided society in search of radical or event violent transformation.

Some quotes from The Town of N:

"One said he had not sorrrows and wept bitterly:  "God has forgotten me," he grieved."

"Maman told her about how the count had caught two peasant women mushroom picking in his forest and had beaten them up, and she was indignant."

"That fall Father was infected doing a postmortem and died."

"She died there.  She left me three hundred rubles, and maman told me not to spread this fact around."

"Have you read the book "Chekhov"?--she finally asked, reddening."

"Whenever it fell silent, the people near us would discuss England and condemn her. --A Christian nation--they would say--and she's helping the Japanese."

"He was a ragamuffin, and it occurred to me later that he might have a knife and that he could help me take revenge on my penmanship teacher."

"--You've got to eat more rice--maman now said at dinner--and then you'll be strong.  The Japanese eat only rice--and look how they're defeating us."

"Ladies, stopping by the cartloads of food, were sampling.  Peasants were saying foul things out loud.  I was seeing them up close for the first time.--They're like beasts--said Olov, and we had a chat about them."

"We asked Kanatchikov to keep an eye on Evgenia [the family servant]."

"Peasabnts were harrowing.  Ravens revolved around them.  I pictured to myself Chichikov's travels."

"The common people are rebelling--we said. --Measure that can be taken are few."

"I was forbidden to go beyond the gate, and I didn't aspire to.  It would have been terrifying suddenly to encounter peasants alone."

"Father Nikolay explained to us that all creeds had been granted freedom, but that didn't really have much significance and, as before, the principal religion would remain ours."

"I've noticed that I'm already becoming like a grown-up. Sometimes I'm already reminded of childhood."

"I was a bit surprised to hear peasants conversing, just like we did."

"In a cupboard I found a book called "The Life of Jesus."  It astonished me.  I didn't think it possible to doubt in the divinity of Jesus Christ...--Whatever, then--I said to myself--can you be sure of completely?"

"I noticed now that mamam has begun spying on me.  From that day on I tried to behave in such a way that it would be impossible for her to find out anything about me."

"After that they conversed about how sad it is when you suddenly learn that somebody is against the government..."

"--I recall--she said--the year '05.  It was terrible.  People were impertinent then, like wild beasts."

"A policeman came along and made everybody remove their caps."

"One hundred years had passed, it turned out, since the birth of Gogol."

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