Irina Reyfman, How Russia Learned to Write: Literature and the Imperial Table of Ranks.
Irina Reyfman's How Russia Learned to Write: Literature and the Imperial Table of Ranks is more illuminating, lucid, and lively--even entertaining --than a detailed study of the Russian state service, and its complex interrelationship with issues of authorship, has any right to be. Reyfman's work situates over a century of Russian writers, from Sumarokov to Fet, within a context unfamiliar to most twenty-first-century readers: the service hierarchy, governed by the Table of Ranks. For two centuries, from its establishment under Peter I in 1722 until the revolution of 1917, the Table of Ranks organized the three spheres of state service (civil, military, and court) into fourteen classes. During that time, most literature in Russia was produced by members of the nobility who, until 1762, were legally required to serve the state; even after the abolition of compulsory service, most nobles continued to participate, in order to derive the social and financial status conferred by rank. Noble writers were not exempt from the system of state service--indeed, the competition between state and literary careers delayed the professionalization of letters in the Russian context until the 1830s, which in turn discouraged writers from abandoning the service in pursuit of their authorial ambitions. As a result, Russian authors of the 18th and 19th centuries developed a range of strategies--corresponding to their various means, circumstances, and temperaments--for balancing their obligations to state and muse.
Reyfman's work chronicles the endeavors of Russian writers to reconcile these two identities, addressing such questions as: how did service affect their self-image as writers, and how did their writing affect their position within the state hierarchy? How did they combine their public careers and literary activities, and how did this double life manifest in their literary works? Her study examines the lives and literary output of over twenty authors, focusing particular attention on Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky. Her method is to reconstruct the service biography of each author before turning attention to his literary works, in order to analyze the representation of service, rank, and status. Reyfman records the attitudes and output of these writers, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century with Sumarokov, considered by some to be Russia's first professional writer, and ending in the late-nineteenth century, by which time authors were largely free to fashion their identities and fictions independent of state service. Even then, however, the Table of Ranks continued to exert a powerful force over the lives and works of those writers who did serve. As Reyfman writes, "it begins with Sumarokov's anxiety over his service rank and ends with Fet's almost insane obsession with it" (187).
As the importance of a service career diminished over the course of the nineteenth century, the relationship between state obligations and literary aspirations evolved, along with textual representations of state service. Descriptions of service in literary works reflected the insecurities of individual writers as well as a more general progression: while eighteenth-century authors largely ignored the topic in their works, by the early decades of the following century writers were engaging with it enthusiastically and personally, developing it into an indispensable literary theme by mid-century: "from a fact of life state service changed into a topic of biographical significance and then into a literary topos" (17). Writers' efforts to negotiate the imperatives of their service career and literary ambitions were complicated by such phenomena as the patronage system, limited readership, and a cultural aversion to the notion of writing for profit. Reyfman provides a broad and thorough introduction to the development of the literary profession, with literacy rates, educational reforms, and the growth and commercialization of the book market emerging as major themes. Her study builds on the earlier work of scholars like William Mills Todd III and Yuri Lotman, marking a valuable contribution to the growing body of scholarship on Russian literary culture and professionalization in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
While three of the book's chapters are devoted to well-known individual authors (Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky), the other two take up related groups of writers. The first chapter discusses nine eighteenth-century writers (including Lomonosov, Derzhavin, and Karamzin), while the fourth treats three military poets (Davydov, Polezhaev, and Lermontov). In the eighteenth century, as literature transitioned from medieval to modern forms and a new concept of authorship emerged, writers of noble status first began to negotiate the complex, interdependent relationship between service and writing. Reyfman details various attempts to balance the two, uncovering a range of solutions between treating literary activity as service and finding the two entirely at odds. Aleksandr Sumarokov's successful literary career ran parallel to a long career in the military and civil service. He viewed his writing as a form of state service, comparable (or even superior) to those legitimized by Peter's Table of Ranks, and was frustrated when he failed to be promoted in a manner befitting his writerly achievements. He considered his literary activities central to his life, but his creative output was not enough on its own to define his identity--in Reyfman's words, he "needed a rank to confirm the significance of his writing activities, in both the eyes of the public and his own" (28). By contrast, Andrei Bolotov viewed the tedious necessities of state service as incompatible with his private literary pursuits, and he retired to his estate to write as soon as Peter III exempted the nobility from obligatory state service in 1762; conversely, Aleksei Rzhevsky ultimately abandoned poetry to smooth the path of his own career advancement. For the first generation of noble writers, descriptions of service did not find their way into literary productions. By the middle of the following century, however, state service had become a vital literary subject, and the next "group" chapter--devoted to three soldier-poets of the nineteenth century--examines both the effect that service had on their poetic self-perception and the military theme in their lyrics. The chapter chronicles different attitudes toward service (Denis Davydov served enthusiastically, Aleksandr Polezhaev against his will) and career trajectory (Davydov's successful, Polezhaev's disastrous), as well as poetic personae: Davydov cultivated a heroic image as an insouciant hussar, while Polezhaev's reluctance and self-destructive impulses found reflection in his lyrics. By comparison, Lermontov developed a poetic persona rooted in the military but detached from his biographical self, producing lyrics that engaged the military theme with more complexity and nuance than those of his fellow soldiers.
The chapter on Pushkin foregrounds his service career, which is generally eclipsed by his poetry, thereby closing some biographical gaps. Reyfman surveys the established interpretations of Pushkin's career (the unserious early years, the exile as punishment for antigovernment writings) and calls for a reevaluation, citing the accounts of contemporaries, as well as the poet's own indignation at receiving the court rank of kammerjunker. She builds on Mariia Maiofis's recent suggestion that Pushkin's service records were destroyed in connection with his participation in Count Kapodistria's failed reform project and the literary-political group Arzamas, deftly reconstruing the incomplete documentation to suggest that Pushkin served more seriously than traditionally understood (47) and that his apparent exile was merely a temporary reassignment (50). This new angle on Pushkin's biography enables fresh interpretations of his literary works; Reyfman herself undertakes a rereading of several prose pieces, including "The Shot," "The Stationmaster," and "A History of the Village of Goriukhino"--each of which, she demonstrates, betrays traces of their author's anxieties about status--and her study will surely animate original rereadings for years to come.
The ill-fated titular councilors and upstart majors that populate the pages of "The Nose," "Notes of a Madman," and "The Overcoat" have established Gogol as the writer most commonly associated with the Table of Ranks. Indeed, much of what twenty-first-century readers know--or rather, think they know--about the rank system is gleaned from the pages of his works. Reyfman reminds us, however, that readers should treat everything the unreliable Gogolian narrator reports with skepticism, including his account of the service hierarchy, for he "shamelessly replaces the hierarchy of ranks created by Peter the Great with his own" (86). Gogol was equally untrustworthy in documenting his own life, but Reyfman gamely attempts to reconstruct an outline of his limited service career, which she presents, entertainingly, alongside his own more grandiose accounts of his achievements. She then sets the record straight on his unstable, idiosyncratic (though entirely convincing) distortion of the Table of Ranks in an insightful discussion of Gogol's equivocal treatment of the service theme in works like the Petersburg tales and The Inspector General. Dostoevsky's service experience was as limited as Gogol's, but rather than fabricate a fanciful rank system of his own, the later author drew on the existing literary tradition to portray the Table of Ranks and its effect on state servitors. In works like Poor Folk and The Double, as well as his later novels, Dostoevsky makes explicit use of Gogolian source material, inviting readers to construe his clerks within that context. In characters like Devushkin and Goliadkin (and later, Marmeladov and Fedor Karamazov), Dostoevsky deconstructed, revised, and ultimately humanized the titular councilors first constructed as a literary type by Gogol. Ironically, it was through the elaboration of this state service theme that Dostoevsky achieved liberation from Gogol's legacy: by granting his own clerks interiority, giving readers access to their inner world, and ultimately creating characters more complex than their rank alone would suggest, he "was both announcing his artistic freedom from him and formulating his own stance as a writer" (158). Overall, Reyfman's work sharpens and enriches our perception of the literary dialogue taking place among Pushkin, Gogol, and Dostoevsky as state service and rank evolved as major literary themes over the course of the nineteenth century.
Although Pushkin and Gogol are now judged on their literary output, during their own lifetimes these members of the service elite--like many of their own literary creations--were defined, by themselves and others, in terms of rank. This less-examined aspect of Russian writers' lives--their promotions and successes, failures and petty humiliations--would have been keenly felt by the writers themselves, and frequently found reflection in their literary works. Reyfman's study provides clear, well-researched, and thought-provoking insights into the contest between service and literature--and how each influenced the other--during this critical period in the development of Russian literary culture and professionalization. Her authoritative grasp of each subject's biography and literary output is on full display as she emphasizes the diversity of writerly responses to the dual pressures of service and art; despite the variety of strategies she exposes, however, her work reveals a commonality in the enormous role of service culture in shaping both individual writers and the course of Russian literary history. Reyfman's book will prove an immensely rewarding resource for students, teachers, and scholars alike, shedding new light on an overlooked aspect of Russia's literary culture and illuminating the way for inventive new interpretations of these servitor-authors' literary creations.
University of Vermont
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|Date:||Jan 1, 2019|
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