Essays on Russian Novelists/Kuprin

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As Tolstoi, Garshin, and Andreev have shown the horrors of war, so Kuprin[1] has shown the utter degradation and sordid misery of garrison life. If Russian army posts in time of peace bear even a remote resemblance to the picture given in Kuprin's powerful novel In Honour's Name,[2] one would think that the soldiers there entombed would heartily rejoice at the outbreak of war would indeed welcome any catastrophe, provided it released them from such an Inferno. It is interesting to compare stories of American garrisons, or such clever novels as Mrs. Diver's trilogy of British army posts in India, with the awful revelations made by Kuprin. Among these Russian officers and soldiers there is not one gleam of patriotism to glorify the drudgery; there is positively no ideal, even dim-descried. The officers are a collection of hideously selfish, brutal, drunken, licentious beasts; their mental horizon is almost inconceivably narrow, far narrower than that of mediaeval monks in a monastery. The soldiers are in worse plight than prisoners, being absolutely at the mercy of the alcoholic caprices of their superiors. A favourite device of the officer is to jam the trumpet against the trumpeter's mouth, when he is trying to obey orders by sounding the call; then they laugh at him derisively as he spits out blood and broken teeth. The common soldiers are beaten and hammered unmercifully in the daily drill, so that they are all bewildered, being in such a state of terror that it is impossible for them to perform correctly even the simplest manoeuvres. The only officer in this story who treats his men with any consideration is a libertine, who seduces the peasants' daughters in the neighbourhood, and sends them back to their parents with cash payments for their services.

If Kuprin's story be true, one does not need to look far for the utter failure of the Russian troops in the Japanese war; the soldiers are here represented as densely ignorant, drilling in abject terror of their officers' fists and boots, and knowing nothing whatever of true formations in attack or defence. As for the officers, they are much worse than the soldiers: their mess is nothing but an indescribably foul alcoholic den, where sodden drunkenness and filthy talk are the steady routine. They are all gamblers and debauchees; as soon as a sum of money can be raised among them, they visit the brothel. The explanation of the beastly habits of these representatives of the Tsar is given in the novel in this wise: "Yes, they are all alike, even the best and most tender-hearted among them. At home they are splendid fathers of families and excellent husbands; but as soon as they approach the barracks they become low-minded, cowardly, and idiotic barbarians. You ask me why this is, and I answer: Because nobody can find a grain of sense in what is called military service. You know how all children like to play at war. Well, the human race has had its childhood—a time of incessant and bloody war; but war was not then one of the scourges of mankind, but a continued, savage, exultant national feast to which daring bands of youths marched forth, meeting victory or death with joy and pleasure. . . . Mankind, however, grew in age and wisdom; people got weary of the former rowdy, bloody games, and became more serious, thoughtful, and cautious. The old Vikings of song and saga were designated and treated as pirates. The soldier no longer regarded war as a bloody but enjoyable occupation, and had often to be dragged to the enemy with a noose round his neck. The former terrifying, ruthless, adored atamens[3] have been changed into cowardly, cautious tschinovnih, [4] who get along painfully enough on never adequate pay. Their courage is of a new and quite moist kind, for it is invariably derived from the glass. Military discipline still exists, but it is based on threats and dread, and undermined by a dull, mutual hatred. . . . And all this abomination is carefully hidden under a close veil of tinsel and finery, and foolish, empty ceremonies, in all ages the charlatan's conditio sine quâ non. Is not this comparison of mine between the priesthood and the military caste interesting and logical? Here the riassa and the censer; there the gold-laced uniform and the clank of arms. Here bigotry, hypocritical humility, sighs and sugary, sanctimonious, unmeaning phrases; there the same odious grimaces, although its method and means are of another kind—swaggering manners, bold and scornful looks—'God help the man who dares to insult me!'—padded shoulders, cock-a-hoop defiance. Both the former and the latter class live like parasites on society, and are profoundly conscious of that fact, but fear—especially for their bellies' sake—to publish it. And both remind one of certain little blood-sucking animals which eat their way most obstinately into the surface of a foreign body in proportion as it is slippery and steep."

Apart from the terrible indictment of army life and military organisation that Kuprin has given, the novel In Honour's Name is an interesting story with living characters. There is not a single good woman in the book: the officers' wives are licentious, unprincipled, and eaten up with social ambition. The chief female character is a subtle, clever, heartless, diabolical person, who plays on her lover's devotion in the most sinister manner, and eventually brings him to the grave by a device that startles the reader by its cold-blooded, calculating cruelty. Surely no novelists outside of Russia have drawn such evil women. The hero, Romashov, is once more the typical Russian whom we have met in every Russian novelist, a talker, a dreamer, with high ideals, harmlessly sympathetic, and without one grain of resolution or will-power. He spends all his time in aspirations, sighs, and tears—and never by any chance accomplishes anything. The author's mouthpiece in the story is the drunkard Nasanski, who prophesies of the good time of the brotherhood of man far in the future. This is to be brought about, not by the teachings of Tolstoi, which he ridicules, but by self-assertion. This self-assertion points the way to Artsybashev's Sanin, although in Kuprin it does not take on the form of absolute selfishness. One of Nasanski's alcoholic speeches seems to contain the doctrine of the whole book: "Yes, a new, glorious, and wonderful time is at hand. I venture to say this, for I myself have lived a good deal in the world, read, seen, experienced, and suffered much. When I was a schoolboy, the old crows and jackdaws croaked into our ears: 'Love your neighbour as yourself, and know that gentleness, obedience, and the fear of God are man's fairest adornments.' Then came certain strong, honest, fanatical men who said: 'Come and join us, and we'll throw ourselves into the abyss so that the coming race shall live in light and freedom.' But I never understood a word of this. Who do you suppose is going to show me, in a convincing way, in what manner I am linked to this 'neighbour' of mine—damn him! who, you know, may be a miserable slave, a Hottentot, a leper, or an idiot? . . . Can any reasonable being tell me why I should crush my head so that the generation in the year 3200 may attain a higher standard of happiness? . . . Love of humanity is burnt out and has vanished from the heart of man. In its stead shall come a new creed, a new view of life that shall last to the world's end; and this view of life consists in the individual's love for himself, for his own powerful intelligence, and the infinite riches of his feelings and perceptions. . . . Ah, a time will come when the fixed belief in one's own Ego will cast its blessed beams over mankind as did once the fiery tongues of the Holy Ghost over the Apostles' heads. Then there shall be no longer slaves and masters; no maimed or cripples; no malice, no vices, no pity, no hate. Men shall be gods. How shall I dare to deceive, insult, or illtreat another man, in whom I see and feel my fellow, who, like myself, is a god? Then, and then only, shall life be rich and beautiful. . . . Our daily life shall be a pleasurable toil, an enfranchised science, a wonderful music, an everlasting merrymaking. Love, free and sovereign, shall become the world's religion."

In considering Russian novelists of to-day, and the promise for the future, Andreev seems to be the man best worth watching—he is the most gifted artist of them all. But it is clear that no new writer has appeared in Russia since the death of Dostoevski in 1881 who can compare for an instant with the author of Anna Karenina, and that the great names in Russian fiction are now, as they were forty years ago, Gogol, Turgenev, Tolstoi, and Dostoevski. Very few long novels have been published in Russia since Resurrection that, so far as we can judge, have permanent value. Gorki's novels are worthless; his power, like that of Chekhov and Andreev, is seen to best advantage in the short story. Perhaps the younger school have made a mistake in studying so exclusively the abnormal.

  1. Kuprin was born in 1870, and was for a time an officer in the Russian army.
  2. Translated by W. F. Harvey: the French translation is called Une Petite Garnison Russe; the German, Das Duell, after the original title.
  3. Officers.
  4. Officials.