Monday, 27 February 2017

Twenty-Six Men and a Dinosaur

Last week I caught myself recommending a student to read "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl". 'Easy to find in translation,' I assured her, then I wondered: was it really? In a second-hand book-cave at the weekend, a shabby Heinemann school edition from 1992 fell into my hands: The New Windmill Book of Nineteenth Century Short Stories. A slightly chewed-looking cover with an out-of-focus print of Frith's The Railway Station; a short and almost exclusively Anglophone contents list, skewed aggressively in favour of female proto-modernists (Olive Schreiner, Kate Chopin, Charlotte Perkins Gilman and her eternally yellow wallpaper). This story by Gorky, with Maupassant's "Country Living", solitarily represented all literature by furriners throughout the 19th century. 

Today, twenty-five years later, Gorky's stories are no longer automatically anthologized: it's hard to imagine an anthology that would pick his fiction over Chekhov's or the revitalised translation of "The Queen of Spades". Socialist realism is no longer recent history; Gorky's importance as its gatekeeper has lapsed. Yet, in an excellent 1993 short book on Gorky's early writing, Andrew Barratt suggests that "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl" is 'arguably the best of his early stories', and still one of the best-known. 

Barratt's book is suffused with limpid wit that makes me regret the almost inevitably small circle of readers for such a finely focused academic study. The chapter on "Twenty-Six Men" is subtitled "Sex and the Russian Baker"; my other favourite section is called "Games Tramps Play". Beyond these jabs at the mystique of Gorky and Soviet gor'kovedy (Gorky scholars), Barratt makes a serious case for considering this story outside of its usual context as pathetic naturalism.

Gorky's insight into his subject matter - twenty-six men earning slave wages in a cellar, endlessly turning out pretzels that they can't bear to eat - comes from his own experience as an assistant baker, in the troubled period of his earliest revolutionary activity and teenage poverty leading up to his suicide attempt. The men are so enfeebled mentally and spiritually by their situation and the universal contempt in which they are held  ("we all had yellowish-grey faces, three of us had syphilis, some had skin disease [...] we wore filthy rags, with down-at-heel shoes or bast-sandals on our feet, and the police would not allow us in the park") that they greet the daily appearance of Tanya, a fresh-faced sixteen-year-old seamstress from upstairs, with anxious veneration. It doesn't matter, as Barratt points out, that Tanya is not actually very nice to them and possibly not very nice at all - she only visits them to collect their ritual offering of freshly baked pretzels, and scornfully laughs down one man with the temerity to ask her to stitch his torn shirt. Tanya becomes their goddess of chastity precisely because they are outcasts, because they need someone to admire and not least, as the narrator admits, because she is beautiful to look at (although the men strictly avoid sexualising her in any way, even in her absence). Hence the story is valuable both as a naturalistic account of poverty and as a study in human nature - even in extreme humiliation, Gorky shows us, we still glorify someone or something which we perceive to be better than ourselves. I was struck, re-reading "Twenty-Six Men", by an extra refinement of Gorky's naturalism: the detail that the windows of the bakery had been barred by the boss "with close-meshed grilles" not to prevent the bakers from climbing or seeing out, but to stop them from giving any bread through the windows "to the beggars and those comrades of ours who were unemployed and starving". This is interesting because of the assumption that the very poor, that is the bakers, will still give to those worse off than themselves; and because of the boss's cynical device to stymie any such philanthropy at his expense. One man's theft is another man's charity, but there are no Robin Hoods in Gorky's Russia.

Barratt departs from standard readings by arguing that the story is most significant when read as a psychodrama, a 'case study in perverse psychology' (124). The men's relationship with Tanya is perverse; it is not sentimental worship, but unhealthy abasement. The gifts of pretzels are ritual 'acts of idolatry' (128). When a handsome ex-soldier starts work as a higher-status bread-baker upstairs,  he threatens to depose Tanya as the men's ruling idol by offering a charismatic masculine alternative for adoration. It is thus inevitable that the men will test the new idol against the old by daring the soldier to seduce Tanya - even while they comfort themselves that Tanya is unapproachable. And it is equally inevitable that the soldier will ruin their illusions by deflowering Tanya. 

Barratt calls the scene of Tania's seduction the 'most memorable in all Gorky's writing' (129), primarily because it re-establishes Tanya's moral irreproachability in the face of her apparently very immoral behaviour. Crudely, cruelly, the twenty-six men reject Tanya, pouring on her the calumny and sexualised insults they had reserved for all other women (some of whom, the narrator comfortingly suggests, deserved it); and with unflinching dignity, Tanya rejects them right back. She walks out of their lives serenely, confirmed in her womanhood; they retreat to their cellar. Which underlines, as Barratt argues, one of many eloquent gaps in Gorky's narrative: the story describes an inescapable, dead-end situation for the men, yet one of them has clearly escaped to tell the tale. How can this be? Barratt probes further: Tanya's final attitude of righteous contempt is not just an expression of confident femininity, but an analogue to Gorky's own complex attitude to the very poor. He had lived among them, but like Tanya with her apron full of pretzels, he was able to withdraw and shut the door; his 'narrating consciousness' (134) (not just in this story but in much of his fiction) is a troubled combination of sympathy and contempt for his subjects. Gorky can empathize, but he is more inclined to judge. Ultimately, therefore, in Barratt's reading, this story is a window not just on 19th-century labour conditions, or on the construction of femininity, but on Gorky's contradictory relationship with the topic of poverty, on which his own success and reputation were built.

Despite my reservations about the "New Windmill" anthology, I was pleased to see that the editors picked the 1981 Penguin translation of "Twenty-Six Men and a Girl", which is by my "retired" colleague, the translator Roger Cockrell. The same translation has appeared in a Penguin anthology of short Russian fiction edited by another former colleague, David (D.J.) Richards, former Head of Russian at Exeter. The students' magazine from 1977 allude to both when describing David Richards as 'a prolific author and partial to a pint of a dinnertime, when he is to be seen sitting in the Ewe with another member of staff who shall remain nameless'. I like to think of my predecessors in Russian sitting together in a bar that no longer exists, discussing the complexities of Gorky's prose over pints, pies... and pretzels.

Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Opportunity, Glory, and Doom: Married to Tolstoy

A recent rummage through the remoter shelves of the Russian literature section of the University of Exeter caused me to acquire (as happens all too often) two obscure, charmingly crumbly volumes not on my list: Lady Cynthia Asquith's Married To Tolstoy (Hutchinson of London, 1960), and The Life of Tolstoy by "Paul Birukoff" (Pavel Biryukov), published in an anonymous translation in 1911. The temptation to read them in counterpoint was irresistible: to vicariously retrace the great conflict of Tolstoy's mature life, between the 'Dark Ones' (Countess Sofya Andreyevna's nickname for the Tolstoyan acolytes) and the Countess herself, or simply "Sonya", as Tolstoy always called her. In real life the Tolstoyans, or, in Gorky's words, 'the pestering parasites who fed on his mind' may have had the best of the struggle; but in the field of biography, Sonya wins hands down.
Asquith's light-touch literariness and deft style - she wrote fiction (I have long admired her ghost stories) besides biography - lend the Sonya camp a major advantage. "Marriage to a genius can seldom be easy; to be married to one as immense and self-contradictory as Tolstoy was proportionately difficult": Asquith's first sentence delicately echoes the famous opening line of Anna Karenina. She generally takes the side of Tolstoy's wife against the husband and media who jointly condemned her; citing, for instance, in Sonya's support the frequently ignored medical evidence that the Countess was ill with stress even before Tolstoy fled on his quixotic final journey in 1910. Asquith calls herself "a self-appointed Counsel for the Defence", relying on diaries by both spouses and other family members, as well as records left by other family friends (Urusov, Turgenev, Gorky) to vividly frame "the story of the woman whose opportunity, glory, and doom it was to be married to Tolstoy" (16). She coins regular well-cut phrases which demystify some of that portentous "glory and doom", referring to the younger Tolstoy's moral fixations accompanied by rather less than moral behaviour as "curdling themes". 

Like Rosamund Bartlett, whose Tolstoy biography I discussed in a previous post, Asquith brings the tensions and shenanigans of the Yasnaya Polyana household vividly to life: the hideous, uncomfortable and supposedly character-forming clothes which Tolstoy wanted his eldest children to wear became mockingly known in the house as the "philosophical garments", while these same children enjoyed traditional family games such as their father's impossible challenge to stand in a corner while not thinking of a white bear - or the much-loved chase known as the Charge of the Numidian Cavalry. One of Asquith's many astute psychological asides is her observation that Sonya, in late middle age, was tired of endlessly following Tolstoy's lead; she was worn out charging with the Numidian Cavalry. She intelligently assesses Tolstoy's existential 'Arzamas' crisis as physical and emotional reaction to finishing War and Peace, and in this context, her assertion that Tolstoy's passionately expressed aptitude for Ancient Greek (which Sonya fiercely opposed) was a form of psychological "dope", makes perfect sense. (Next time you want a re-up of Herodotus, call your local Loeb dealer). 

Two more Tolstoy insights are worth repeating here: "Tolstoy [unlike Dostoevsky] could not sin his way to God. Painfully, laboriously, he had to reason his way to him" (85). On Tolstoy's reaction to the 1891 famine in central Russia, and even earlier to urban poverty in Moscow, Asquith observes: "As a man he seemed less able than others to conceive of anything which he had not been an eyewitness. Not until he was shocked by the actual sight of some horror did the thought of it ever greatly concern him. Than his imagination would be so fired that all sense of proportion vanished" (100). The tellingly titled chapter "The Sky Darkens" indicate the marital crisis exacerbated by the Tolstoys' first extended move to Moscow, where his wife and daughter Tanya indulged a carefree materialism that now alienated him. After the birth of Sasha, whom Sonya had emphatically not wanted, her role as Tolstoy's literary agent adjusted from a source of pride and connubial partnership to a lonely, burdensome task. Tolstoy had made it too plain that he gave her the rights to market his work has a concession to her cupidity and pragmatism rather than as a gesture of respect and affection; now, partly in revenge for his contempt, Sonya's literary work became an explicit excuse not to feed the unwished-for baby (another weapon in their complicated strife). 

Biryukov's biography, which might (in contrast, and in view of his failed courtship of Masha Tolstaya) have been titled 'Not Married to Tolstoy's Daughter', simply cannot compete. It lacks personal detail; letters and diaries are cited only occasionally, and as extensions of the generally hagiographic approach to Tolstoy's personal life and public achievements. Sonya's dangerous enemy, the opportunistic Vladimir Chertkov, appears here only as 'Tolstoy's friend, V.G. Tchertkoff', [who] gave a great deal of moral and material assistance' to the Intermediary publishing project. As an unpaid assistant and later editor of Intermediary, the former naval cadet and ex-physicist Biryukov could have revealed much about the stress of everyday interaction with the ambitious and Machiavellian Chertkov; but his account is both vague and neutral. Asquith, on the contrary, suggests that Chertkov manipulated the Intermediary specifically to supplant Sonya as Tolstoy's publisher; and she regales us with this rather splendid anecdote: 

"It was a very hot night and [the Tolstoy family, with Chertkov] were having dinner on the verandah. [...] All were in a happy mood, joking, and laughing. The only drawback was the swirling haze of mosquitoes. After a quick amused glance at Chertkov's lofty head, Tolstoy, grinning like a boy, adroitly swatted its bald top. A smear of blood and the crushed remains of a huge mosquito showed how good his aim had been. Everyone roared with laughter, including the swatter, but Tolstoy's laughter abruptly died when gloomily affronted, without a flicker of a smile, Chertkov portentously said: 'Lev Nikolaevich, what have you done? You have taken the life of a fellow living creature. Are you not ashamed?' Stifled giggles continued to escape, but everyone felt uncomfortable" (139).

Asquith's clear-sightedness occasionally fails her: she has a (very English) mistrust of excessive emotional vulnerability, and draws attention to Sonya's self-pity and supposed lack of a sense of humour. On the short story "Whose Guilt Is It?" written by Sonya in reaction to her husband's radioactive The Kreutzer Sonata, Asquith feels it was "fortunate" that this "self-exonerating" response was never published (146). (It has since been both translated and published with Sonya's other short fiction in a new edition by Michael R. Katz). When, shortly after the birth in 1881 of Alyosha, her eleventh baby, Sonya writes despairingly to her sister that "bending over the flushed face of my new baby fourteen times a day, I almost faint from the pain in my breasts", Asquith ripostes unsympathetically, "Why, it may be asked, did she need to nurse her baby fourteen times a day [...]?" (113). Now I know the answer to that one, and I'm not even a mammal. The incident certainly explains why the breastfeeding of babies became a political football in the Tolstoy family long before the Daily Mail invented the Breastapo. Thankfully, Tolstoy never met Benjamin Spock (whose ideas about feeding infants at set intervals probably influenced Asquith); both men might have spontaneously combusted. All that Biryukov offers on the topic of familial discord at this period of the Tolstoys' lives is a cautious observation that "The strenuous activity of the seventies, his family cares and duties, the question of the education of the children, his successful literary career, his beneficent social work - all these did not fully satisfy Tolstoy" (87). Of course, as a long-time friend of the family, Biryukov would not have wished to embarrass any of them.

Biryukov's book necessarily closes with Tolstoy's death ("With contented, happy thoughts the great teacher of life had passed into eternity [...]. It is our duty to strive with all our strength to realise his ideal of Love and Reason" (155-6)). Asquith also gives surprisingly little space - just one brief chapter - to Sonya's last nine years. Her sources for this part of Sonya's life are limited, although she cites Tolstoy's daughter Sasha for a glimpse of Sonya at table in 1918, consuming a formal meal served by an elderly Yasnaya Polyana manservant with silver plate and a starched tablecloth, although the meal itself consists of boiled beetroot and black bread. Every day, she walked to Tolstoy's grave and she spoke constantly, if silently, with her departed "Leovochka" [sic]. Just before her death, she confessed to Sasha that she felt her bitterness in Tolstoy's final year had "killed" her husband (281). I like to think that this was just one last flicker of the melodramatic instinct that made Sonya such a successful actress at the early, happy Yasnaya Polyana family parties; and that v tom svete - in the other world - Sonya and Lev no longer glower out from plates fixed to opposite sides of a leaf, as they do in Asquith's biography. I hope that they finally fit on the same page, side by side.