Tuesday, July 31, 2018

'Infantile Wide-Eyed Slavs'

Some of us grew up smitten with Mother Russia and her literary offspring. Our swoon had nothing to do with the Bolshevik betrayal of that heritage. We fell hard for Gogol, Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov. We wanted to be Russian. They were deeper and more anguished, with an unimpeded pipeline to the soul. We got carried away.

In “Kolniyatsch”(And Even Now, 1920), written in 1913, Max Beerbohm was already dealing with our sort. He wrote during the years when Aylmer and Louise Maude, and especially Constance Garnett, were translating the great Russians of the nineteenth century for readers of English. They became quite fashionable, a trend Beerbohm finds amusing:  

“But where, for the genuine thrill, would England be but for her good fortune in being able to draw on a seemingly inexhaustible supply of anguished souls from the Continent—infantile wide-eyed Slavs, Titan Teutons, greatly blighted Scandinavians, all of them different, but all of them raving in one common darkness and with one common gesture plucking out their vitals for exportation?”

Beerbohm gives as Kolniyatsch’s first name “Luntic,” one vowel away from “lunatic.” S.N. Behrman in Conversation with Max (Hamish Hamilton, 1960) reports that in “Kolniyatsch” Beerbohm “lampooned the vogue for the Russian novelists among the British intelligentsia. Kolniyatsch (the word is a Russification of Colney Hatch, which was once London’s most famous lunatic asylum) is a Russian writer—a composite of Dostoevski and Gorki.” He is a parody of a stock character, the “Mad Russian.”  Kolniyatsch, says Max, developed slowly: “It was not before his eighteenth birthday that he murdered his grandmother and was sent to that asylum in which he wrote the poems and plays belonging to what we now call his earlier manner.” Beerbohm’s mimicry of literary doubletalk, saying nothing at great incoherent length, is pitch-perfect:

“Was he a realist or a romantic? He was neither, and he was both. By more than one critic he has been called a pessimist, and it is true that a part of his achievement may be gauged by the lengths to which he carried pessimism—railing and raging, not, in the manner of his tame forerunners, merely at things in general, or at women, or at himself, but lavishing an equally fierce scorn and hatred on children, on trees and flowers and the moon, and indeed on everything that the sentimentalists have endeavored to force into favor. On the other hand, his burning faith in a personal devil, his frank delight in earthquakes and pestilences, and his belief that every one but himself will be brought back to life in time to be frozen to death in the next glacial epoch, seem rather to stamp him as an optimist.”

Beerbohm goes on to subvert the cliché of the author profile and the profiler hoping to cash in on his victim: “There was a touch of old-world courtesy in the repression of the evident impulse to spring at one’s throat. . . . I remember that he always spoke with the greatest contempt of Mr. and Mrs. Pegaway’s translations. He likened them to—but enough! His boom is not yet at the full. A few weeks hence I shall be able to command an even higher price than I could now for my ‘Talks with Kolniyatsch.’”

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