Russian Novelists (1887)/Preface
In offering this book to the constantly increas- ing class of persons interested in Russian litera- ture, I owe them a little explanation in regard to the unavoidable omissions in these essays, as well as to their object and aim. The region we are approaching is a vast, almost unexplored one ; we can only venture upon some of its highways, selecting certain provinces, while we neglect others.
This volume does not claim to give a complete history of Russian literature, or a didactic treatise upon it. Such a work does not yet exist in Russia, and would be premature even in France.
My aim is quite a different one. To do justice to both the dead and the living, in a history of the literature of only the past hundred years, I should but accumulate a quantity of names foreign to our ears, and a list of works which have never been translated. The entire political and social history of the three preceding reigns should be written, to properly explain the last. It appears to me better to proceed as a naturalist would do in his researches in a foreign country. He would collect specimens peculiarly characteristic of the climate and soil, and choose from among them a few individual types which are perfectly developed. He draws our attention to them, as best revealing to us the actual and peculiar conditions of life in this particular corner of the earth.
This is my plan. I shall briefly touch upon the earliest Russian literature, and show how it be- came subjected to foreign influences, from which it was finally emancipated in the present century. From this time, I am embarrassed in choosing from such a rich supply of material, but I shall confine myself to a few individual types. This method is, besides, even more legitimate in Russia than in more recently settled countries. If you go through one hundred different villages between St. Petersburg and Moscow, you will see that, in feature, bearing, and costume the people seem to be remarkably similar; so that a few portraits, chosen at random, will describe the whole race, both as to physical and moral traits.
This series of studies is principally devoted to the four distinguished contemporary writers, already well known in Europe by their translated works. I have tried to show the man as well as his work ; and both, as illustrating the Russian national character. Without paying much atten- tion to the rules of literary composition, I have been glad to make use of everything which would help me to carry out my design : of biographical details, personal recollections, digressions upon points of historical and political interest, without which the moral evolutions of a country so little known would be quite unintelligible. There is but one rule to be followed ; to use every means of illuminating the object you wish to exhibit, that it may be thoroughly understood in all its phases. To this end, I have used the method of comparison between the Russian authors and those of other countries more familiar to us, as the surest and most rapid one.
Some persons may express surprise that it is of her novelists that I demand the secret of Russia.
It is because poetry and romance, the modes of expression most natural to this people, are alone compatible with the exigencies of a press- censure which was formerly most severe, and is even now very suspicious. There is no medium for ideas save through the supple meshes of fic- tion ; so that the fiction which shields yet conveys these ideas assumes the importance of a doctrinal treatise.
Of these two leading forms of literature, the first, poetry, absorbed the early part of the present century; the other, the novel, has superseded poetry, and monopolized the attention of the whole nation for the last forty years.
With the great name of Pushkin at the head of the list, the Russians consider the romantic period as the crowning point of their intellectual glory. I once agreed with them, but have had two mo- tives for changing my opinion.
In the first place, it would be quite useless to discuss works which we could not quote from ; for the Russian poets have never been and never will be translated. The life and beauty of a lyric poem is in its arrangement of words and its rhythm ; this beauty cannot be transferred into a foreign form. I once read a very admirable and exact Russian translation of Alfred de Musset's " Nights " ; it produced the same sensation as when we look upon a beautiful corpse ; the soul had fled, like the divine essence which was the life of those charming verses.
The task is yet more difficult when you attempt to transfer an idea from the most poetical lan- guage in Europe into one which possesses the least of that quality. Certain verses of Pushkin and Lermontof are the finest I know in any language. But in the fragment of French prose they are transferred into, you glean but a com- monplace thought. Many have tried, and many more will continue to try to translate them, but the result is not worth the effort. Besides, it does not seem to me that this romantic poetry expresses what is most typical of the Russian spirit. By giving poetry the first rank in their literature, their critics are influenced by the prestige of the past and the enthu- siasm of youth ; for the passage of time adds lustre to what is past, to the detriment of the present.
A foreigner can perhaps judge more truly in this case ; for distance equalizes all remote objects on the same plane. I believe that the great nov- elists of the past forty years will be of more ser- vice to Russia than her poets. For the first time she is in advance of Western Europe through her writers, who have expressed aesthetic forms of thought which are peculiarly her own. This is why I choose these romances as illustrative of the national character. Ten years' study of these works has suggested to me many thoughts rela- tive to the character of this people, and the part it is destined to fill in the domain of intellect. As the novelist undertakes to bring up every problem of the national life, it will not be a matter of surprise if I make use of works of fic- tion in touching upon grave subjects and in the weaving together of some abstract thoughts. We shall see the Russians plead the cause of realism with new arguments, and better ones, in my opinion, than those of their rivals in the West. This work is an important one, and is the foun- dation of all the contests of ideas in the civilized world; revealing, moreover, the most character- istic conceptions of our contemporaries.
10 PREFACE. In all primitive literature, the classical hero was the only one considered worthy of attention, representing in action all ideas on religions, mon- archical, social, and moral subjects, existing from time immemorial. In exaggerating the qualities of his hero, either for good or evil, the classic poet took for his model what he deemed should or should not be expected of him, rather than what such a character would be in reality.
For the last century, other views have gradu- ally prevailed. Observation, rather than imagina- tion, has been employed. The writer constantly gives us a close analysis of actions and feelings, rather than the diversion and excitement of intrigues and the display of passions. Classic art was like a king who has the right to govern, punish, reward, and choose his favorites from an aristocracy, obliging them to adopt conven- tional rules as to manners, morals, and modes of speech. The new art tries to imitate nature in its unconsciousness, its moral indifference. It ex- presses the triumph of the masses over the indi- vidual, of the crowd over the solitary hero, of the relative over the absolute. It has been called natural, realistic; would the word democratic suffice to define it, or not? It would be short- sighted in us not to perceive that political changes are only episodes in the great and uni- versal change which is taking place.
Man has undertaken to explain the Universe, and perceives that the existence itself, the great- ness and the dangers of this Universe are the result of the incessant accumulation of infinitesimal atoms. While institutions put the ruling of states into the hands of the multitude, science gave up the Universe to the control of the atoms of which it is composed. In the analysis of all physical and moral phenomena, the ancient theories as to their origin are entirely displaced by the doctrine of the constant evolution of microscopic and invisible beings. The moral sciences feel the shock communicated by the discoveries in natural science. The psychologist, who studies the secrets of the soul, finds that the human being is the result of a long series of accumulated sensations and actions, always influenced by its surround- ings, as the sensitive strings of an instrument vary according to the surrounding temperature. Are not these tendencies affecting practical life as well, in the doctrines of equality of classes, division of property, universal suffrage, and all the other consequences of this principle, which are summed up in the word democracy, the watchword of our times? Sixty years ago, the tide of the stream of democracy ran high, but now the stream has become an ocean, which is seeking its level over the entire surface of Europe. Here and there, little islets remain, solid rocks upon which thrones still stand, occasional fragments of feudal governments, with a clinging remnant of caste privileges ; but the most far-seeing of these monarchs and of these castes know well that the sea is rising. Their only hope is that a dem- ocratic organization may not be incompatible with a monarchical form ; we shall find in Russia a patriarchal democracy growing up within the shadow of an absolute power. Literature, which always expresses the existing condition of society, could not escape this general change of base ; at first instinctively, then as a doctrine, it regulated its methods and its ideals according to the new spirit. Its first efforts at reformation were awkward and uncertain ; roman- ticism, as we know to-day, was but a bastard pro- duction. It was merely a reaction against the classic hero, but was still unconsciously permeated by the classic spirit. Men soon tired of this, and demanded of authors more sincerity, and repre- sentations of the world more conformable to the teachings of the positive sciences, which were gaining ground day by day. They demanded to know more of human life, of ideas, and the rela- tions of human beings to each other. Then it was that realism sprung into existence, and was adopted by all European literature, and is still reigning, with the various shades of difference that we shall allude to. A path was prepared for it by the universal revolution I have spoken of; but a realization of the general causes of this revolution could alone give to literature a philo- sophical turn. These great changes in men's ideas were thought to be due to the advancement in scientific knowledge, and the resulting freedom of thought, which for a time inaugurated the worship of rea- son. But beyond the circle of truth already con- quered appeared new and unknown abysses, and man found himself still a slave, oppressed by natural laws, in bondage to his passions. Then his presumption vanished. He fell back into uncertainty and doubt. Better armed and wiser, undoubtedly, but his necessities increased with the means of satisfying them. Disenchanted, his old instincts came back to him; he sought a higher Power, — but could find none. Every- thing conspired to break up the traditions of the past ; the pride of reason, fully persuaded of its own power, as well as the aggravating stubbornness of orthodoxy. By a strange con- tradiction, the pride of intelligence increased with universal doubt which shattered all opinions. All the Sages having declared that the new theories regarding the universe were contrary to religious explanations, pride refused to make fur- ther researches. The defenders of orthodoxy have done little to facilitate matters. They did not understand that their doctrine was the fountain- head of all progress, and that they turned that stream from its natural direction by opposing the discoveries of science and all political changes. The strongest proof of the truth of a doctrine is the faculty of accommodating itself to all human developments, without changing itself, because it contains the germ of all the developments. The remarkable power of religion over men arises from this faculty; when orthodoxy does not recognize this gift, it depreciates its own strength.
By reason of this misunderstanding, the responsibility of which should be shared by all parties, it has taken a long time to come to a perception of this simple truth. The world has been for eighteen centuries in a state of fermentation, through the gospel. Bossuet, one of those rare spirits which prophesy truly, realized this. He said:
"Jesus Christ came into the world to overthrow all that pride has established in it; thence it is that his policy is in direct opposition to that of the age."
But this constant, active work of the gospel, although formerly acknowledged, is now denied by many; this gives to realism the harshness of its methods. The realist should acknowledge the present, abiding influence of the spirit of the gospel in the world. He should, above all, possess the religious sentiment; it will give him the charity he needs. The spirit of charity loses its influence in literature the moment it withdraws from its true source.
To sum up what realism should be, I must seek a general formula, which will express both its method and the extent of its creative power. I can find but one, and it is a very old one; but I know of none better, more scientific, or which approaches nearer the secret of all creation:—"And the Lord formed man of the dust of the ground."—But, to complete the formula, and account for the dual nature of our humanity, we must add the text: "And breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and man became a living soul—"
This divine spark, derived from the source of universal life, is the spirit, the active and mysterious and incomprehensible element of our being, which baffles all our explanations, and without which we are nothing. At the point where life begins, there do we cease to comprehend.
The realist is groping his way, trying his experiments in the creations of his brain, which breathe the spirit of truth, and speak with at least the accent of sincerity and sympathy.