Translated by Nora Seligman Favorov
Reviewed by Karen Langley
If asked to name any of the great Russian writers of the 19th century, most Anglophone readers would probably come up with Dostoevsky or Gogol or Turgenev or Tolstoy – all men. However, as is becoming increasing clear, the male gender did not have the monopoly on best-selling and popular writing during that century, and this new book helps the move to redress that imbalance by bringing to the English-speaking reader a wonderful satirical work by Sofia Khvoshchinskaya.
Fascinatingly, as the introduction by Hilde Hoogenboom makes clear, Sofia could be regarded as the Russian equivalent of one of the Brontes; in particular, she and her sister Nadezhda supported their family of impoverished nobles with their writing and as well as spending much time in their native countryside, they also mixed with Russian intellectuals in the big cities. And there is the sense of Sofia drawing on this background to produce this novel, now brought to us as part of the excellent Russian Library from Columbia University Press.
City Folk… tells of the widowed Nastasya Ivanova Chulkova and her seventeen-year-old daughter Olga Nikolayevna (Olenka). The women live on their small estate in the country and muddle along quite nicely. However, their lives have already been disrupted by the arrival of a spinster cousin, Anna Ilinishna; sour-faced and religious, she mostly confines herself to her room, connives with the servants and constantly upsets Nastasya. A further complication occurs with the return of Erast Sergeyevich Ovcharov, an absent neighbouring landowner whose estate has gone to pot while he swans around Europe mixing with society and intellectuals as well as scribbling pieces for magazines. Somehow, Ovcharov ends up lodging in the Chulkovs’ bathhouse and his presence is a disturbing one…
He took advantage of anything that met the tourist’s needs, and this fleeting visitor to his native land, knowing what life in Rus is like, had brought along valuable resources. While he may not have possessed a coat that could be transformed, at its owner’s command, into a rowboat, a mattress, a pillow, an umbrella, or perhaps even a hat, he certainly came close.
What follows is something of a comedy of errors and misunderstandings. Ovcharov, a self-absorbed and pompous ‘superfluous man’, is vaguely attracted by Olenka and irritated by her mother. Anna Ilinishna refuses to come out of her room or eat, foments discontent amongst the estate’s serfs and generally disrupts the household. Olenka, for her part, is amused and cynical about everything, and a wonderfully unconventional young woman to meet in a book of the time. As you would expect from someone of her age, she’s happy enough flirting with, or dreaming about, handsome local soldiers, and tends to see through all the nonsense surrounding her.
Things become more complex with the involvement of Katerina Petrovna, a noblewoman from Moscow who also has an estate nearby. She is something of a matchmaker, is also known to Anna Ilinishna and Ovcharov, and attempts to meddle and set up a marriage between Olenka and her own (younger) protégé Simon. The fact that she and Simon seem to be having an affair is rather brushed under the carpet… Matters come to a head and are resolved rather wonderfully, but not before there are a number of dramatic (and often comic) situations and denouements.
Like the Brontes, the Khvoshchinskayas wrote under male pseudonyms and shunned publicity in their lifetime; however, unlike the English sisters, their work has been lost over the years owing to selective translation, and that’s a huge shame. This is an excellent novel which, while entertaining us, is not afraid to address the big issues of the time: the emancipation of the serfs, the pros and cons of country and city, the mismanagement of estates by landowners, the position of women in the marriage market, and so much more. The characters are beautifully drawn and great fun, and I particularly loved the refreshingly feisty heroine Olenka and her mother; the latter, in fact, was much less feeble than so many similar characters in books of the period and despite her occasional lapses into spinelessness, soon regained her resolve and her common sense.
The dynamic between the genders was subtly portrayed, and also the different attitudes displayed by country or city folk. Olenka, for example, is aware that there is a line drawn whereby she shouldn’t enter the bathhouse with Ovcharov unsupervised; nevertheless, she goes for walks with him and they even travel in a carriage together to visit Katerina Petrovna, actions which earn her the condemnation of the latter.
In fact, the position of women generally was explored in this novel much more than I think it possibly would be in a male-written novel of the time. Anna Ilinishna could in many ways be described as the superfluous woman; single, obsessed by religion, the eternal companion to a series of society woman who hate her but find her useful, a sudden infatuation she develops has a damaging effect on the household she’s lodging with; she really is a nasty piece of work.
And Katerina Petrovna is equally unpleasant; having finally found her society niche after years of being ignored, she’s happy to organise hapless women into unwanted marriages while her own personal situation is far from spotless. It’s made clear from the narrative that she and her protégé are an item, and she’s obviously trying to arrange a marriage she can control so as to keep her lover close at hand but safely married off to Olga to ensure respectability. The horror of this is revealed to Olenka through bits of an overheard conversation, and I was on tenterhooks towards the end of the book, hoping and praying the marriage would not go ahead.
City Folk and Country Folk was an absolutely marvellous read; entertaining, funny, thought-provoking and criminally overlooked until now. I’m not sure why there has been this gender imbalance by selective translation, and certainly it can’t be argued that the book is superficial, because it tackles head-on the big subjects of the time. In particular, the difficult situation of the emancipation of the serfs is never glossed over (the introduction spells out starkly what a dreadful type of slavery this was) and Khvoshchinskaya is not afraid to deal with major issues.
The 21st century trend of rediscovering lost Russian authors has tended to focus on those missing from the 20th century canon, often ones who were buried during the Soviet era. However, it’s clear that we are also missing out on major talents from the century before, particularly women authors, and so Columbia University Press deserve major kudos for bringing this book to Anglophone readers. And even if you know little about Russia, you’ll enjoy this one for its sparkling satire, its sharp and feisty heroine and its wonderful comedy of manners – highly recommended!
Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and often dreams of the country.
Sofia Khvoshchinskaya, City Folk and Country Folk (Columbia University Press, 2017). 9780231183031, 234pp, paperback.
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