Bella Grigoryan. Noble Subjects: The Russian Novel and the Gentry, 1762-1861.
The cover of Noble Subjects features an image of Lev Tolstoy working his field with a wooden plow, just as his hero Konstantin Levin would famously do in the novel Anna Karenina. To an extent, this book, which begins and ends with Tolstoy, offers a deep history of this image, showing how the role of the noble landowner evolved after the 1762 abolition of Peter I's service requirement made full-time landownership as an occupation a possibility. In doing so, Grigoryan draws on an enormous range of material, including well-studied canonical authors (in addition to Tolstoy, we find Alexander Pushkin, Nikolai Gogol, and Ivan Goncharov), significant literary figures who have garnered less attention in Western Slavic studies (Nikolai Novikov, Andrei Bolotov, Nikolai Karamzin, Faddei Bulgarin, and Sergei Aksakov), and many additional materials, including farming manuals, advice literature, and incidental pieces of journalism. The result is a compelling history of the interrelationship between noble self-fashioning, the limits and successes of the imperial Russian public sphere, and the rise of the Russian novel.
In the eighteenth century, the Russian nobility gained more autonomy, including the right to live on their estates rather than serving at court. Yet the 1785 Charter of the Nobility, and its subsequent amendments by Catherine II's successors, left the real extent of these new freedoms ambiguous: Grigoryan emphasizes that "as they were expressed in the language of the Charter, noble rights and noble status were understood as fundamentally conditional" (12). Thus one of the great questions animating eighteenth-and nineteenth-century Russian literature, Grigoryan argues, was the changing role of the Russian landowner. On the one hand, his work in the countryside might serve the state just as well as Petrine administrative labor: agriculture was central to the economy, and landowners often understood themselves as responsible for stewarding the land and the peasants. On the other, estate life provided a degree of independence, reminding nobles that they might also serve as a check on imperial power. Thanks to this delicate balancing act, there arose a uniquely Russian form of civil society, "sites of sociability ranging from the press to the gentleman's club ... semiautonomous spheres of activity fostered by or working in concert with the state" (9).
Imperial Russia does not map cleanly onto the bourgeois-centered model of the public sphere proposed by Jiirgen Habermas, but Grigoryan shows that in an autocratic state without a significant middle class or even a fully independent nobility, a public sphere still exists: works of literature that may seem completely apolitical, focused on what seems to be a private, pastoral lifestyle, nevertheless contribute to an important conversation about the civic duties of landed gentry. Indeed, the author reveals an intimate connection between the Russian classics and nonliterary texts. After laying out her framework in the first chapter, Grigoryan uses the second to explore how the rise of journals and semipublic letters disseminated a specific ideal of noble manhood in the eighteenth century. Another chapter explores how Pushkin's unfinished prose works shed light on his concerns about decline in noble status. It is followed by an intriguing reading of Bulgarin's bestselling Ivan Vyzhigin as an extension of the noble ideal promoted by middlebrow advice literature (which Bulgarin himself sometimes wrote). In turn, Grigoryan shows how Bulgarin's noble ideal informs Gogol's Dead Souls and its unfinished sequel, also considering Gogol's writings about administering his own estate (which was actually managed by his mother). Next, she interprets Goncharov's celebrated trilogy of novels (A Common Story, Oblomov, and The Precipice) as a series of Bildungsromane that juxtapose the struggling Russian noble and his industrious Western bourgeois equivalent. Another chapter shows that such texts really did help formulate noble identity: Sergei Aksakov's thinly-disguised autobiographical novel Childhood Years of Bagrov the Grandson traces the development of the protagonist's self-consciousness precisely through reading. The conclusion returns to the broader matter of the nineteenth-century Russian novel by considering Tolstoy once more.
This journal's readers will be particularly interested in the chapters on Pushkin ("Pushkin's Unfinished Nobles," which takes up A Novel in Letters, "The History of the Village of Goriukhino," and Dubrovskii) and Bulgarin ("Bulgarin's Landowners and the Public," focused on Vyzhigin and Bulgarin's and Bolotov's advice literature). But Pushkin's notions about noble identity, especially his often-expressed resentment towards both the erosion of gentry privilege and the rise of the "service nobility," plays an important role throughout the century-long conversation that Grigoryan examines. Not only does his perspective become a reference point for other thinkers, the conclusion even considers Tolstoy's more extended intertextual dialogue with Pushkin's unfinished fragment "The Guests Were Arriving at the Dacha," which includes a brief meditation on the displaced ancient nobility that contributed to the genesis of Anna Karenina.
The slim volume can be read quickly, but specialists, taking advantage of an invaluable index, can also read selectively. A minor shortcoming is the fact that Noble Subjects often alludes to, but only touches on the gendered nature of the Russian noble landowner; while historians know that female landowners also existed, women landowners seem not to have penetrated the public sphere. (Ivan Turgenev's Anna Odintsova, not considered in this volume, may be an interesting exception. And future researchers may ask whether women landowners appear in the numerous noncanonical novels written by nineteenth-century Russian women authors.) Grigoryan suggests--correctly--that more work needs to be done to explore how gender shaped rural gentry culture in order to do this question justice (25). This is not the only avenue of future scholarship that this volume might inspire. Indeed, while Grigoryan presents her work from the perspective of literary history, public sphere history, and journalism studies, those interested in the environmental humanities (eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ideas about land stewardship as a public good) and Russian political history (the changing positions of the ancient nobility and the service nobility) will also find much food for thought.
University of Notre Dame
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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