The Golovlevs by M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin

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Translated by I.P. Foote

Review by Karen Langley

The Golovlevs

Back in SNB #13 I reviewed “The History of a Town” by Saltykov-Shchedrin, one of the great Russian satirists of the 19th century. That book is regarded as a major work of the era; and now the Apollo imprint of House of Zeus (who issued “History…”) has followed the release with a lovely new edition of the author’s best known work, “The Golovlevs”.

Published some ten years later than “History…”, “The Golovlevs” is a long work which again has a fairly tight focus. Whereas the earlier book looked at the spurious history of a provincial town, the later work studies a family of country nobility and their gradual but inevitable decline. The family in question are of course the Golovlevs and as the book progresses their numbers do indeed decrease. The family fortunes have been built up by the matriarch Alina Petrovna who, ignoring her husband for most of their life together, has gradually gathered up the estates and souls (serfs) on which the family’s comforts are based. A mean, cold woman, her children have come out equally emotionally malformed; in particular, her son Porfiry, also known as Judas and Bloodsucker, who is the binding thread which runs through the story.

Some of Alina’s children have attempted to escape from the dreary country setting and make a life in cities. However, all attempts to leave seem cursed and as the book opens her eldest son Stepka is returning to the estate of Golovlevo in disgrace, having gambled away all of the money and property provided for him by his mother. This is absolutely not going to be the return of the prodigal son, and Saltykov-Shchedrin describes in stark terms the horror of returning to the family.

“He recalls his old life at Golovlevo and has the feeling that the doors of a dank cellar are opening up before him and that as soon as he crosses the threshold the doors will at once slam shut – and all will be over.”

Needless to say, Stepka’s return does not go well. In each of the following six long chapters a different member of the kinfolk does battle with the entropy attaching to the family and its country retreat – and fails. Alina’s daughter is already dead, and her twin daughters are wards of their grandmother. Alina’s third son Pavel is something of an unworldly recluse and no real match for his more tricksy sibling.

Ah yes – Porfiry the Bloodsucker… Judas, as he’s so often referred to throughout the book must be one of the most monstrous yet pitiable characters created in fiction. Cold and detached, he twists and turns and tricks and schemes, in the end alienating everyone. His sons’ lives are a misery because of this, with eventual destruction stalking them too, and a late liaison produces no more happiness than earlier in the story. He’s mean-spirited, cowardly, and his moral depravity knows no bounds (he even finds himself rather revoltingly attracted to his young niece at one point). Even his own mother distrusts him, although they do reach some kind of rapport towards the end of her story.

If this sounds like a dark and unremitting read – well, in some ways it is, but that doesn’t make it any less compelling or any easier to put down. Saltykov-Shchedrin’s bitingly satirical take on provincial death, decay and despair is matched by much pathos, and although most of the characters are flawed and ghastly, well, that’s the point! The humour is dark, focusing on the emptiness of the lives and minds of the Golovlevs, exemplified for example by the constant stream of meaningless prattle between Judas and his mother, in which they say nothing but simply use the endless talk to fill the void in their lives. 

“Porfiry Vladimirych lies in bed, but he cannot settle to sleep. He senses that his son’s arrival forebodes something out of the ordinary and even now all manner of vacuous homilies are forming in his mind. These homilies have the merit that they can serve for any occasion and contain no coherent train of thought. They accumulate in his mind as disjointed aphorisms and are delivered to the world simply as they come to his lips. Despite this, it needs only some unusual situation to arise for his head to be set in a turmoil by the flood of aphorisms which even sleep cannot still.”

And there are *some* characters whom you wish had drawn a better lot. Alina’s twin granddaughters, Anna and Lyubov, attempt to escape the country for a more glamorous life but simply end up being minor actresses in provincial towns, regarded as little better than prostitutes. To paraphrase the old saying, you can take the girl out of the provinces, but you can’t take the provinces out of the girl; and that applies not only to the granddaughters but to any of the family who attempt to escape from the clinging, cloying ties of home.

“Golovlevo – that was death itself, malign, empty-hearted; it was death, ever watchful for some fresh victim.”

“The Golovlevs” is a gripping, absorbing and eminently readable book. Saltykov-Shchedrin was very aware of the changes which had come over Russia following the emancipation of the serfs, and much of the decay of the titular family could be traced back to that. The ending of that kind of slavery also informed Saltykov-Shchedrin’s earlier book, but perhaps in a more slapstick way; here, there is no let up from the unremitting gloom and the sense that, as an old friend of mine once, said, “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.” 

“In short, however you looked at it, all scores with life were settled. Life was a torment and unneeded; the greatest need was to die; the trouble was that death would not come. There was something perfidiously mean about this wanton delay in the process of dying, when one’s whole soul cried out for death and all it did was lure and tease…”

So should you read this rather dark-sounding book? Yes; because despite the grimness, it’s never dull, the characters are alive and step off the page, the setting is wonderfully conjured, the writing is excellent and the story of the Golovlevs is a compelling study of how human beings can be warped and wronged and messed up and still keep on striving for escape or for something new. It’s also a stark reminder of how you *don’t* want to live your life…

(A little word on the translation: this version is by I.P. Foote, copyright 1986, the same translator who rendered “History…”. I’m not sure who published this version originally, but it’s a different one from that issued by NYRB and when I mentioned I was reviewing the book on social media, there was a little stir about it being a possible new version. It isn’t, but it reads remarkably well to me, so although I can’t comment on accuracy and the like, I don’t know that a new version is actually needed…)

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and prefers to split herself between country and town!

M.E. Saltykov-Shchedrin, The Golovlevs (Apollo, 2018). ISBN 9781786690050, 406pp, paperback.

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