The Russian Review/Volume 1/May 1916/Literary Notes

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Literary Notes  (1916) 

Literary Notes.

THE RIVER OF LIFE, AND OTHER STORIES, by Alexander Kuprin.—Boston: John W. Luce and Company. $1.25.

This book is one of the most important of the Russian works that have been made accessible to English readers in some years. The significance of Alexander Kuprin in modern Russian literature cannot easily be overrated. The only work by him that appeared in English previous to the issuing of this volume, is the "Duel," a long tale describing the cheerless life of an officer in a remote provincial town. The present volume contains four of Kuprin's best stories: The River of Life, Captain Ribnikov, The Outrage, and The Witch (Olyessia.)

In the first of these tales Kuprin describes for us in the manner of subtle realism, ugly bits of life in a hotel of the cheapest kind. There are vividly drawn sketches of the vulgar proprietress, who makes you think of Chaucer's easy-mannered Wife of Bath; the former Lieutenant, whom drink and opium have ruined; the dirty, neglected children of the "lady" of the house. The vile, carefree, carnal life of these people, in their third-class hotel, is set forth with masterly realism. But there is much more in this story than mere realistic description. One night there comes to the inn a quiet, well-mannered student, no longer young, and takes a room. Left alone, the student sits down to write his last letter. Simply, without pose or affectation, he writes out the sorrowful tale of his life: the sufferings of his childhood, the hardship of later years, the fervent hopes for the betterment of mankind that fired his breast, and his vain sacrifices for his fellowmen. And now, his faith gone, his own weakness made manifest, the thoughtful scholar, in whom had lived a great pity for humanity, shoots himself. The hotel his aroused. The police come. But after the customary legal formalities, the degrading revelry of the "hotel" begins once more: vodka flows freely, and the proprietress and the police-inspector dance in great abandon to the strains that come from a music-box. Meanwhile, "what was once a student now lay in the cold cellar of an anatomical theatre, in a zinc box on ice... Oil his bare right leg above the knee in gross ink-figures was written '14'. That was his number in the anatomical theatre."

The story leaves an impression of grim power, and a quiet, but bitter irony. In writing it, Kuprin has used his favorite method, that of subtle and inevitable contrast,—the method he used in the short tale, Anathema, translated in the April number of the Russian Review.

Captain Ribnikov is a rattling story of a Japanese spy, whose complete command of himself, and of the Russian language, and whose consummate histrionic power, easily permit him to pass as a Russian officer. How a woman, as may be expected, is the means of his undoing, is the plot of a very gripping story. The Outrage is a satiric bit which tels how the representatives of a society of amalgamated and very superior thieves appear before the committee which is investigating the Jewish massacres. They ask to be freed of all suspicion of being implicated in the pogroms, claiming that their profession is honorable, and that they would scorn to be concerned in the killing of helpless and defenseless people. It is, their spokesman says, an "outrage" that the accusation should have been made. This is the outrage.

The Witch is the longest of the four stories in the volume. It is a tragic tale of love and superstition and fate, in an out-of-the-way little village in Volhymnia, on the border of Polyessie.

Kuprin is, next to Gorky, the greatest of the living Russian writers of fiction. He is a realist, but his realism bears the unmistakable stamp of an idealistic aim. Kuprin's best stories deal with army life, for he is himself a retired army-officer. But, above all, Kuprin is a born story-teller, who ranks with the best of the short-story writers. Some think he is their superior in a realism that is pregnant with implications of higher things.

DOSTOIEVSKY, HIS LIFE AND LITERARY ACTIVITY, by Evgenii Soloviev.—New York: The Macmillan Company: $1.75.

This study of Dostoyevsky is translated from the Russian by C. J. Hogarth, who has already put many of Dostoievsky's books into English. Throughout Soloviev's work, the interest is centered upon the man, rather than the writer. Interesting accounts are given, of Dostoyevsky's boyhood, his youth, the arrest and imprisonment, and finally the return and the later hardships and literary strivings.

The book is not written from the standpoint of an unreasoningly ardent worshipper of Dostoyevsky. It is a sane and balanced study of the incidents of the great novelist's life, the peculiarities of his physical and psychological self, and the determining relation these bear to the character of his work. Soloviev does well to point out that Dostoyevsky saw life chiefly as a moral and religious problem, whose solution is the principal task of man on earth.

Perhaps the most interesting chapter in the book is the last, in which the Russian critic puts himself the question: "What has Dostoyevsky given us?" and proceeds to answer it. It is the type of the "repentant intellectual" that Dostoyevsky most frequently studies,—the intellectual who renounces the pride and aloofness of intellect, and seeks the strength and faith that come from a reunion with the people. For Dostoyevsky held to the belief that the people had a spiritual message to give, for more powerful than the reasoned formulas of the thinkers. Without this element of the spiritual, this great intangible force, the intellectual ideas were but as so much chaff.

Soloviev's book is far from a complete study of the Russian novelist. But it serves to call attention to several fundamental tenets of Dostoyevsky's teaching.

ABUSED RUSSIA, by Dr. C. C. Young.—New York: The Devin-Adair Company.

"The truth of the situation was well expressed by the English girl who said she greatly preferred English stories of Russia to Russian stories, because the Russian stories lacked local color, while the English tales of Russia were 'so much Russian.'"

This amazing statement made by Dr. Young in his book may serve as a key to that ungrateful task which he has undertaken, viz., to justify Russian absolutism and to whitewash the reactionary tendencies existing in Russia. Dr. Young went even further than the English girl: he not only ignored entirely the Russian sources concerning the social, political, and economic history of the country, but he has chosen to look at Russia through the eyes of the most reactionary prophets of Darkest Russia, which is very outspoken in its utter contempt for civilization and democracy.

Thus, Dr. Young's attempt to extend a hand of friendly protection to "Abused Russia" becomes an outpouring of abuse upon real Russia, greater, perhaps, than that country has ever suffered at the hands of any writer. Even from the point of view of those whom Dr. Young is trying to defend, the book is disappointing. It contains a mass of contradictory statements, most of them even unsubstantiated, while the concluding chapter really negatives and condemns everything that was extolled and glorified at the beginning of the volume. This last fact would seem to show that Dr. Young wrote his book before the War broke out, but did not publish it until after the beginning of the War. But, in the meantime, conditions have changed. Some of those dignitaries of whom Dr. Young thinks so highly, among them the ex-War Minister, General Soukhomlinov, and General Tolmachev, often referred to in Russia as "the wrecker of Odessa" because of his activities in that most beautiful of Russian cities during the post-revolutionary period, are already fallen idols in the eyes of the Russian bureaucracy. Unmistakable changes are being wrought by the War, and the whole social, political, and economic outlook of the country is undergoing a transformation.

Dr. Young evidently thought it incumbent upon him to put "liberal" finishing touches to his book, but they do not change the abusive attitude that he has displayed towards the Russian people, the real "Russia of the Russian." Without anything like a shadow of substantiation, he accuses the Douma, that bright spring-flower of constitutionalism in Russia, of intentions to "disintegrate Russia. Summarily brushing aside the strivings and aspirations of the growing spirit of social and political democracy in Russia, he prescribes for the country an iron Diaz, an institution that even turbulent Mexico could not endure.

After wading through streams of misstatements that Dr. Young has managed to bring together within the bounds of a small book, one is not at all astonished to find him siding with the Russian bureaucracy in the Russian-American dispute concerning passport regulations, and repeating General Tolmachev's stories about the "Hebrew conspiracies," which reflect upon the personal integrity of many prominent and respectable American philanthropists.

The literary qualities of Dr. Young's study of Russia are on a par with its authoritativenss and its factual content. The volume is a striking example of how books about foreign countries should not be written.

M. V.

THE BET, and OTHER TALES, by Anton Tchekhov, translated by Koteliansky and J. M. Murry.—Boston: John W. Luce and Company. $1.25.

In most of the stories in the present volume, Chekhov has chosen for his theme the hopeless contrast between the ideal and the real. A great hope awakens in the heart of some man or woman, only to be dashed against some grim reality. These inner sorrows, disappoint- of the soul, non-fulfillment of the heart's best wishes,—the things that seem so commonplace, even threadbare,—these are the incidents that Chekhov loves to narrate. His are tales of Life's Little Ironies, as Thomas Hardy calls them, and he tells them with a subtle detachment, and the height of delicate artistry. Chekhov's short stories may be thought of as a series of etchings of men and women and little children,—and such is the supreme delicacy with which the great etcher handles his needle, that he evokes for us something of the inner soul of his sitters.

WITH THE RUSSIAN ARMY, being the experience of a National Guardsman, by Robert R. McCormick.—New York: The Macmillan Company. $2.00.

Mr. McCormick's account of his experiences with the Russian army, and his observations along a wide battle-front, form a highly interesting and instructive volume. The work will be of especial value to those concerned in military affairs, for Mr. McCormick is always awake to the significance for our own country of the military devices, plans, armament, and accoutrement now being tested on the battlefields of Europe.

The book contains an account of an interview with the Emperor of Russia, and with the Grand Duke Nicholas Nicolayevich; it gives us war-time descriptions of Warsaw, the Rawka battle-line, and a trip through Galicia. Much valuable information is given, always in clear narrative style, on the Russian army, the Cossacks, and modern fortifications in Russia.

The book contains two appendixes; one, History of the events leading to Great War; the other, Lessons for America from Great Britain's Shortcomings in this War.

Mr. McCormick's frankness, his fine powers of observation, and his interest in the human side of things, make his book, With the Russian Army, of more than temporary importance.

The increasing interest of Americans in the Russian language is strikingly shown in the Russian class introduced recently at the West Side Y. M. C. A., 318 West 57th Street, New York.

Here numerous professions are represented. Business men, engineers, literary men meet two evenings a week, and although Russian is ordinarily a difficult language to acquire, they are mastering it rapidly.

Their progress is due in great part to the instructor, Elias Dourmashkin. By birth and training he is exactly suited for this task. He is a native Russian, a graduate of Moscow University, Assistant Editor of the "Russkoye Slovo" a leading Russian daily published in New York, and a special correspondent of Petrograd and Moscow papers.

Not only is Mr. Dourmashkin giving his students a practical grasp of Russian, but he also will impart to them valuable information concerning Russian geography, business customs, and the life of the people. The aid this will be to Americans about to go to Russia, cannot be overestimated.

This class is an indication, a forerunner, of the widespread popularity that the Russian language is destined to attain in America.