In their weird solitude, Oblomov and Stepan Trofimovich are recognizably modern characters long before Modernism. Goncharov, Dostoevsky and the other Russians, in their divergent ways, were prescient about human character. They chronicled our boredom and our solitary natures, so when I was young and first reconnoitering literature I took to “The Russians” as though they were a trusted brand name. I sensed in them a lifelike image of us, something I never experienced when reading Hemingway or Dos Passos. They worked at a deeper level and made most other writers seem inadequate. How peculiar that we could find familiar a time and place so foreign.
The passage at the top is from “The Hypocrite” (The Living Novel, 1946), V.S. Pritchett’s essay on Mikhail Saltykov-Shchedrin’s novel The Golovlyov Family (1876). Pritchett devoted two books -- The Gentle Barbarian: the Life and Work of Turgenev (1977) and Chekhov: A Spirit Set Free (1988) – and twenty-six essays in his Complete Collected Essays (1991) to Russian writers. Since his death in 1997, we can acknowledge that he was the finest critic and among the finest essayists and short story writers of his age. His novel Mr. Beluncle (1951) is a joy.
Pritchett focuses on Saltykov-Shchedrin’s main character, Porfiry Vladimirovich Golovlyov, known as Iudushka. He sees more than satire at work:
“We can laugh (Shchedrin seems to say) at the obvious hypocrisies of Iudushka and, like his neighbours, we can grin at his eye-rolling, his genuflexions and his slimy whimsicalities; but there is something more serious. The real evil is the moral stagnation in Iudushka’s character. The real evil is the muddle, the tangle of evasions, words, intrigues by which he instinctively seeks to dodge reality. We forgive the sins; what eludes forgiveness is the fact that his nature has gone bad; so that he himself does not know the difference between good and evil. He is a ghastly example of self-preservation at any price.”
Perhaps there is something uniquely Russian about such a character, something too culturally exclusive to be fully understood by Western readers. But I don’t think so. Iudushka is a Russian model based on a familiar human template. We all recognize the type, in particular among politicians, but look further, at our families, co-workers, neighbors and in the mirror. Iudushka is an old acquaintance, which accounts for the sense of familiarity we experience when reading about Iudushka. Pritchett isn’t content to leave him pigeonholed as a cartoon:
“And the strange thing is that we begin to pity him at this point. He feels an agony and we wince with him. We share with him the agony of being driven back step by step against the wall and being brought face to face with an intolerable fact.”
Pritchett makes The Golovlyov Family (trans. Natalie Duddington) inviting to read again. He denies, as some critics have alleged, that it is “the gloomiest of Russian novels.” Rather, it is “powerful. It communicates power. It places an enormous experience in our hands.” He might be describing the experience of reading Sister Carrie. Saltykov-Shchedrin is “not looking for quick moral returns,” Pritchett tells us. “He is powerful because he is severe.” The best critics make us impatient to read the book they have just finished reading.