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Posts Tagged ‘Anton Chekov’

THE RUSSIAN LITERATURE

Those Russians who could preserve their literary patriotism under the yoke of the school program, and those funny foreigners, who see the novels of Dostoevsky as the principal reason for the study of the Russian language, would scarcely like Wodehouse’s attitude towards Russian literature. The average, more light-hearted reader, however, will definitely approve.

The 1922 story The Clicking Of Cuthbert might be considered the real text-book on Russian literature, but I’ll comment on this further. First, I’ll consider three bearded Russian classics – Chekhov, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – who symbolise, I presume, the grandeur of the Russian literature in the opinion of the West, and begin with Chekhov, as both the most intently studied and the most frequently quoted by Wodehouse.

I will justify including Chekhov’s plays in a section on ‘Literature’ instead of attributing them to a separate part ‘Russian Theatre’ by pointing out that it was Chekhov’s texts, rather than the work of the directors or the performances of the actors that so depressed Wodehouse’s characters. From novel to novel Bertie Wooster recalled the agonizing experience when he was made by his Aunt Agatha to attend Russian plays at the Old Vic in order to improve the mind of her son Thos (for example, Jeeves in the Offing, ch4).

Admirers of the great Russian writer and dramatist would say that Bertie suffered torments rather because of Thos’s company, than because of Chekhov, but that is not quite right. Bertie had to see Chekhov not only with Thos, but also with Florence Craye at the time of their engagement – when on every Sunday night she took him to see Russian plays, amongst which we can recognize the themes of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard (see The Mating Season, ch22).

Another character who was not in raptures at the idea of attending a performance of Chekhov’s plays – Seagull, at least – was Roberta Wickham (Jeeves in the Offing, ch4) although not everybody will consider young Bobbie as a competent authority. Especially – as we deduce see from the book – as she herself, unlike Phyllis Mills, never actually saw the play. But we may recollect here the genuine horror of the sweet Lord Uffenham – absolutely not a red-haired girl – when he recalled how an aunt of his once made him take her to something similar (Something Fishy, ch23).

Wodehouse will frequently describe briefly the plots of Chekhov’s plays, and may even name some of the characters, though they are not always spelt correctly. We can thus suppose that Plum was very familiar with the dramatic works of Chekhov, or – to be correct – with those examples which made Wodehouse recall the Chekhov spirit when he put his characters in an atmosphere of distress and misfortune (see, e.g., Big Money, ch7, or The Mating Season, ch2).

Curiously, the first Chekhov appearance in the pages of Wodehouse was absolutely unconvincing. The authorship of the play named Six Corpses in Search of an Undertaker (‘Best Seller’, from Mulliner Nights) was imputed to him. We may suppose that in 1930s Wodehouse knew Chekhov’s works only by hearsay, and that may be why, writing ‘Best Seller’, he produced a title which was a sort of cross between the Pirandello play Six Characters in Search of an Author and the spirit of Chekhov’s. Only by the 1960s and 70s did this spirit, widely quoted in the first half of the century, take the form of real plays with titles and personages.

Moreover, we can see, that by then Russian plays had completely forced out mentions of the Russian novel from Wodehouse’s works, which had been dominant in 1920s and 30s. Even the story of a relation who hanged himself in the barn, which evidently made a deep impression, being referred to several times as emanating from a Russian novel (see, e.g., (Money For Nothing, ch7, 1928), was apparently also found in a Russian drama by 1949 (The Mating Season, ch2).

Wodehouse’s biographers – as well, as experts in Russian literature – probably know the causes of this substitution the Russian novels with plays, but we may suppose that by the 1960s, at the rate at which the inhabitants of Russia were murdering one another, the supply of Russian novelists must have eventually given out.

As for us, we have only to regret the sad tendency of Russian culture to export its most dark and indigestible species. Tolstoy might write joyful comedies, Chekhov humorrous stories and sweet vaudevilles, even Dostoevsky contributed pretty melodrama.

All for nothing! To the annals of the world literature the Russian classic authors are perceived as writers whose collective main character was Grandpapa, who had hanged himself in that barn.

As we turn to the Russian novel, you may recall my earlier comment that the 1922 story ‘The Clicking Of Cuthbert’ might be considered the real text-book on the subject of Russian literature. From this story we learn that by 1922 it was insufficient to be an ‘English’ writer to have real success in the literary walk of life in England. You needed to be Russian or Spanish or similar, and have the mantle of the great Russians descend on you. Undoubtedly, even a top-class golfer such as Cuthbert Banks would have hated to have such misfortune with the mantle happen to him, but in another other golf-story, ‘Rodney Fails to Qualify’ from The Heart of a Goof, the rumour of the period (1924) about the great Russian writers had reached the drawing-rooms of the English intelligentsia, where a discussion on the subject of the Russian thought intruded on the peace of the night.

Now, as we accompany Cuthbert to the Wood Hills Literary and Debating Society meeting dedicated to the famous Russian novelist Vladimir Brusiloff, we learn many interesting things about Russian novelists. Two other Russian writers, Sovietski and Nastikoff, who were mentioned by Raymond Parsloe Devine in his conversation with the famous visitor, did not belong to the generation of the bearded Russian classics. His mastership, however, unlike the false glamour of the two precedents and much more than Mr Devine’s work, might be approved of by competent critics, because Vladimir specialised in grey studies of hopeless misery, where nothing happened till page three hundred and eighty, when the moujik decided to commit suicide. And, as we know, the Russian novelists love to write about grim, ironical, hopeless, grey, despairful situations (‘Ukridge’s Accident Syndicate’, from Ukridge).

Undoubtedly, not all authors or raconteurs are competent to describe these situations. Mr Mulliner, for example, disliked to dwell on the spectacle of human being groaning under the iron heel of Fate (‘Monkey Business’, from Blandings Castle). Wodehouse confessed his own limitations as a writer when he tried to convey a vision of Freddie Rooke trying to obtain a cocktail in a strange club (Jill the Reckless, ch8). Conceding that French or Russian authors would have been more successful, he perhaps spoke modestly, for did not Vladimir Brusiloff assert that only two novelists, Tolstoy and P G Wodehouse might be considered not too bad by comparison with him. Surely the author who had to describe – from novel to novel – the sufferings of Lord Emsworth (see, for example Pigs Have Wings, ch1) merits a place on the same pedestal as such a Great Master of the Russian novel as Leo Tolstoy.

Nevertheless, some things are beyond even the power of the great Russian masters with all their atmosphere and depths of psychology, at least in Mr Mulliner’s (or, rather, his nephew Archibald’s) opinion (‘The Code of the Mulliners’, from Young Men in Spats). And this is a valid opinion which has the right to exist, because the task of the Russian novel is not to describe unhappy love, but the sort of abysmal soul-sadness which afflicts one of Russian peasants when, after putting in a heavy day’s work strangling his father, beating his wife, and dropping the baby into the city reservoir, he turns to the cupboard, only to find the vodka-bottle empty (Jill the Reckless, ch8).

It is no secret that amongst the numerous girls to whom Bertie Wooster was more or less engaged, those who intended to jack up his soul definitely sought assistance from Russian literature. Earlier I mentioned Bertie’s enforced visits to watch Chekhov. Bertie may have been lucky that Vanessa Cook didn’t make him start his reading with Turgenev and Dostoevsky (Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, ch15), but she, as Florence Craye before her (Jeeves and the Feudal Spirit, ch3) insisted on Tolstoy. Bertie doesn’t mention what particular reason Florence Craye had to select a ‘perfectly frightful thing by Tolstoy’ when she dashed the mystery thriller from his hand, but Vanessa Cook, inspired by his statement that twiddling the fingers was a good alternative to smoking (Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen, ch10), and having been trying to get Bertie to lose this bad habit, undoubtedly saw a way to kill two birds with one stone.

However, we must say, that the endeavours of Vanessa Cook weren’t entirely useless. While reading Tolstoy in the days of his engagement to Florence Craye had not furthered Bertie’s intellectual level (nor, it seemed, improved his memory), Bertie did learn during the course of an instructive conversation with Jeeves that Count Tolstoy – by then already the late Count Tolstoy – was a famous Russian novelist, not a bosom pal of Vanessa’s. And we can only regret that nobody told Bertie that Turgenev and Dostoevsky, who may have been a couple of Russian exiles who did a bit of writing on the side, had definitely never met Vanessa in London.

To summarise, then, we may affirm that if Wodehouse had to organise a gathering of Russian novelists (perhaps as envisaged in The Girl on the Boat, ch2), the first writers he would invite would be Chekhov and Tolstoy, followed, probably, by Dostoevsky and Turgenev. It is very interesting, that the first reference to Maxim Gorky (in Love Among the Chickens, ch10 (1906)) which envisaged his being invited to dinner with the Czar, was updated in the revised edition in 1920 so that now he was dining with Trotsky! But the suggestion that if he had been invited to lunch by Trotsky to meet Lenin, Gorky might sit down and dash off a trifle in the vein of Stephen Leacock seems unreasonable, when the presence even of Trotsky’s photograph can turn a drawing-room into the mise en scène of a Russian novel (‘The Purification of Rodney Spelvin’, from The Heart of a Goof).

As I finish the part of my researches devoted to Russian culture, I would like to invite real connoisseurs of Russian literature, to suggest which of Tolstoy’s novels Wodehouse was parodying in Jill the Reckless , ch9, with the sad story about the Russian peasant who found the vodka bottle empty after his hard, but tragic, day’s work. Or to identify the author and title of the Russian novel (or drama) where Grandpapa (or Ivan) hanged himself in the barn*, assuming that it is not in fact. Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths, which seems to be the only Russian classical play in which a character did actually hang himself.

Finally, I can only add, that the novel By Order Of The Czar, which Bertie Wooster selected as his preferred reading in Aunts Aren’t Gentlemen (ch14) was undoubtedly not written by Leo Tolstoy, even under another name. Jeeves said so, and that’s good enough for me, so I do not consider this reference (even with the Czar in its title) to be a valid Russian one.

* After the article was already published I found out that a mujik committing suicide appears in Leo Tolstoy story Polikushka – though it is a garret, not a barn, in which the title character hangs himself. Moreover, a movie based on this story was released in 1922, starring Ivan Moskvin and Vera Pashennaya, two great Russian actors of that time. It may be possible that Plum had seen this movie, more so that if he had read the story.

Masha Lebedeva

Masha Lebedeva infests the environs of Moscow and suffers from the delectable affliction of Wodesousitis since 1992 or so. She is a member of both the UK Wodehouse Society and The Wodehouse Society (USA). She has written essays on Wodehouse, undertaken themed tours and has even attended as many as 4 TWS Conventions so far, hobnobbing with Plum fans on both sides of the Atlantic. With the help of The Russian Wodehouse Society (TRWS), she has organized an Old Home Week in Moscow.

The excrept you read here is a part of her scholarly research on all things Russian in the Wodehouse canon, titled ‘The Russian Salad’. The series covers the following facets: Russian Culture, Russian History and Russian Spirit. Its Russian version of her work has earlier appeared on the TRWS website; the English version having been serialized in Wooster Sauce, with huge help of accomplished Wodehouseans from different parts of the world.

Her permission to reproduce her work here is gratefully acknowledged.

(Related Post: https://ashokbhatia.wordpress.com/2021/05/16/p-g-wodehouses-russian-salad-masha-lebedeva-part-1)

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