Noble Subjects: The Russian Novel and the Gentry, 1762-1861.
"Nobility" is a notoriously slippery concept in the Imperial Russian context. Noble status could be inherited or could be earned through service, raising questions about what it actually meant to be a Russian nobleman. As Grigoryan's new study shows, these questions were central to the Russian literary tradition in the nineteenth century. Combining detailed historical research with close readings of literary works, Noble Subjects brings little-studied agricultural texts and advice literature into dialogue with canonical literature, revealing the close interrelationship between the two. Breaking free of the tendency to focus on a very limited range of Russia's "literary giants" and to assume their uniqueness, Grigoryan instead places the subjects of her study in their historical and literary context, offering balanced explanations that "historicize various aspects of Tolstoy's work," for example, and explain them "as not just 'Tolstoyan' (read: protean, strange), but also as all but determined by Russian imperial culture and political history" (8). In so doing, the book provides a timely reminder of the dangers of myopic study of single "geniuses."
The first chapter takes up the eighteenth-century ideal of the noble farmer who serves the Tsar by being a good estate manager and "picking up the plow." Grigoryan traces how this figure of the gentleman farmer was cultivated in the burgeoning new journals that appeared during Catherine the Great's reign, focusing particularly on the creation of the Free Economic Society and its quarterly periodical, Transactions, along with the writings of Nikolai Novikov, Andrei Bolotov, and Nikolai Karamzin. Chapter Two then traces the noble estate owner through the notes, unfinished literary writings, and published prose of Alexander Pushkin, beginning from Pushkin's 1830 question: "The Russian nobility--what does it mean now?" (47). The question will stay relevant for the next half century. At issue, ultimately, is the "inherited character of noble identity" versus nobility as "the product chiefly of practice and cultivation" (55, 61).
To my mind, Grigoryan's book fully comes into its own in the middle chapters on Faddei Bulgarin and Nikolai Gogol. Here, Noble Subjects delves into the polemics in the periodical press about estate management and agriculture. Writing in his Northern Bee and Ekonom, a Universally Useful Domestic Library, Bulgarin cultivated "the persona of an exemplary pomeshchik and an authoritative voice in the growing market of how-to literature about home life" (73). His rivals, too, took up the personae of "everyman" landowners, their articles and reviews aimed at the "middling" public (srednee sostoianie), not just the nobility. Together, they facilitated the rise of what Grigoryan calls "middlebrow institutions of Russian print culture" (69). In the journals as well as in Bulgarin's novel Ivan Vyzhigin (1829) we see again and again "a cliche of Nikolaevan agricultural literature: that the nobleman may serve the state in his capacity as a good steward of property" (71). Yet, as Grigoryan will show in the Conclusion on Anna Karenina, this idea is also vulnerable, and Konstantin Levin, for one, feels insecure about his choice to work only on his estate.
Continuing to look at the influence of middlebrow agricultural and domestic writing, Chapter Four illuminates the relationship between Dead Souls (especially the unfinished Part Two) and its media environment. Through close readings, Grigoryan reveals the ways Gogol polemicized against and parodied Bulgarin, while similarly positioning himself as a writer of advice literature. She makes the bold--but well justified--claim that "the expanded Bulgarin intertext of [the unfinished] volume two may be emblematic of a veritable vocational shift in Gogol's work" (91). Having read her meticulously researched argument, it would be difficult not to agree. Gogol's famous (and bizarre) invitation to readers in the preface to the 1846 republication of Dead Souls to send him suggestions on how to improve the novel suddenly makes new sense as Grigoryan reminds us that "[f]or authors of advice literature, the invitation that readers aid them in the enterprise is so common it is possible to call it a feature of the genre" (92). This chapter offers a deeply persuasive new reading of one of Russian literature's most famous texts.
The final two chapters shift their focus more towards depictions of reading and writing in literary works as they approach Goncharov's trilogy of novels--A Common Story, Oblomov, and The Precipice--and Aksakov's Childhood Years of Bagrov the Grandson. Analyzing Goncharov's trilogy, Grigoryan argues for "a long series of encounters with advice literature both in its compositional history and narrative texture" (120). Relying on a pattern of details many readers would overlook, she demonstrates the parallelism in A Common Story between the young Aduev's Bildung and his literary output. From poet, to translator of articles like "About Fertilizer" and "About Potato Syrup," to author of his own agricultural tracts, Aduev's development makes a statement about the shifting role of the nobleman. In Oblomov Goncharov engaged with more domestically-oriented advice literature, borrowing bits of text from a domestic manual he censored. Agafya Matveevna--who wins her way to Oblomov's heart through his stomach--is the model khoziaka from such publications. In The Precipice, Grigoryan highlights the contrast between the model landowner, Tushin, who "speaks in prose" and the protagonist, Raisky, with his "passion for artistic projects" (117). As in Oblomov, we see two registers at play: domestic advice literature and belle lettres, both of which shape Goncharov's prose style.
Aksakov's semi-autobiographical Childhood Years tell the story of the writer's coming of age, "punctuated, to a significant extent, by milestones in his reading habits" (124). The hero's sense of self and his understanding of what it means to be a young nobleman are formed through the texts he obsessively reads and rereads. Like Goncharov, Aksakov is known for his lengthy descriptions of quotidian life, an "encyclopedic treatment of the everyday that, with its emphasis on simple, narrative sustenance, paid homage to a long tradition of Russian writing about gentry private life" that Grigoryan's study has helped the reader to trace (133). As in the Goncharov chapter, her detailed knowledge of the material the characters are reading allows her to highlight the way their noble identity is formed through interaction with their media environment.
The Conclusion takes us beyond Grigoryan's stated endpoint of the study to show where this tradition of novelizing the nobleman has led: Tolstoy's Levin, who struggles with his identity in Anna Karenina as he busily attempts to write a treatise on fanning. In the context of Noble Subjects, "the strangeness of Tolstoy's decision to devote so much of his novel to ideas about agriculture" (in Gary Saul Morson's words) takes on a new kind of sense (qtd. on 138). Noble Subjects illustrates "the extent to which writing about agriculture and understanding estate administration may be potentially constitutive of male noble selfhood," making these amongst the most pressing issues of the day... and of the nineteenth-century Russian novel (139). Grigoryan's book is beautifully written, free of jargon, and full of deep insights. While filling in valuable context and situating its subject texts in their media landscape, it will alter how even an expert reads some of Russia's most canonical works.
ANNA A. BERMAN, McGill University
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|Author:||Berman, Anna A.|
|Publication:||Studies in the Novel|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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